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Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Author Tony Parsons quizzed
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Rock journalist turned cultural pundit Tony Parsons has now carved out another career for himself - as a best-selling novelist.

Man and Boy was a major hit on its release in 1999, and still hangs around the top 20 lists. Parsons has now published the follow-up, One For My Baby.

From a working-class London family, Parsons joined the New Musical Express as a journalist in the late 1970s, later becoming a roving reporter for magazines such as GQ and Elle.

In the following decade he became well-known as a regular guest on BBC Two's Late Review; Parsons is also a Mirror columnist.

Many see Parsons as a voice for modern men, men who enjoy the possibilities of contemporary society but are bewildered by the loss of the old certainties.

What is his greatest achievement? What does he prefer - music journalism or writing novels?

Tony Parsons joined us for a live forum on Tuesday. He answered a selection of your questions.

Highlights of interview:


Jane, Kent, UK asks: In One For My Baby you write of the death of the protagonist's grandmother. Was that drawn from your own experiences of your own mother dying?

Tony Parsons:

Yeah, very much so. My mum died about a month before Man and Boy was published so the book was written without either of my parents in the world which is a huge emotional and psychological step for me and a huge point in my life to pass.

To be without anybody standing between you and the stars I think is an incredible life-changing moment. That was a couple of years ago and I am still dealing with that now. I think one of the reasons a writer does what he does, or what she does, is to work out his life - just to get their head around their life and to make sense of it. Certainly the bereavement theme in One For My Baby is directly related to my mum's death and going through that - not just her death but the illness that preceded the death.


Marcus in Glasgow asks: With both books, how much is autobiography and how much is pure fiction?

Tony Parsons:

They are both autobiographical novels but there is a lot that is completely made up. I think when you turn your life into fiction it is transformed and you reach for a greater truth than mere facts.

There is an emotional truth that goes beyond what actually happened. There is a scene in Man and Boy where the father of Harry overpowers two burglars and ties them up with two silk ties that his son bought him for Christmas and a lot of people who knew my father have said that is typical of your dad. But it is completely invented and yet it really sums up my feelings about my father and how I see my father - he was a very physically capable man, he was a tough man and there was something a bit reckless and wild about him - even when he was in his sixties. So that anecdote, although it is purely invented, has got a greater truth than just a mere story that I could tell you about my dad. One For My Baby feels as close to home and as close to the bone as Man and Boy does perhaps in a less obvious sense.


John in Cardiff asks: You have written five novels in total but it is the last two that have had the attention. Why do you think that is?

Tony Parsons:

Because there are good books and the others weren't. I just think the others were quite feeble early efforts and I think it takes a while to get good at these things. I think it takes a while to get good at anything.

It is difficult to get good at something in the public forum because there is so much attention and there is so much focus. A lot of people will crawl away, licking their wounds, with their tail between their legs if they don't get something right. But I think all the books have got the attention and had the success they deserve. I don't regret any of them. The first one was written when I was a teenager and it wasn't a very good book but it got me my first job in journalism. So it got me through the door. I dropped out of school when I was sixteen, didn't go to university, had no formal training as a journalist so I wrote a novel when I was working in a gin distillery and it got me a job. So I can never look at that book with anything other than affection but it doesn't mean it is any good at all.


Jill in London asks: Having sold a book like Man and Boy which sold over 1 million copies, does that change you and change the way you write future books?

Tony Parsons:

Yeah, I think it is impossible to not to be affected by the success of a book like that - not so much in a cold-hearted way that you want that success to continue but that you don't want to disappoint people.

A lot of people loved Man and Boy. I know that a lot of people loved Man and Boy because if you sell a million copies of a book and someone comes up to you everyday of your life - in an airport, in a restaurant, in a shop, in the street and says I enjoyed your book - you don't want to let those people down, you don't want to disappoint those people. So yes, you can't help but be writing in the shadow of the book that has had the incredible success. But the shadow builds - you don't sell a million overnight or even in one or two months - you sell a million over a course of years.

If you think of other big titles like Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Angela's Ashes or Bridget Jones's Diary, Man and Boy - they have all been around for years - the success builds. These books start selling and then they don't stop and that is what a bestseller is - a book that just doesn't stop selling.

But you are affected by it in ways that are both healthy and unhealthy. A certain confidence comes with that success that you know you can write something - you can look inside yourself, you can look inside your heart and you can come up with a story that will be of interest to a million people all around the world - that gives you a certain confidence. At the same time it can be intimidating because you think this could be it for me - this could be the high point of my career, there is a strong possibility that I might never top this book. That is a real possibility and it would be unrealistic to think I am going to improve on Man and Boy - it sold over a million copies, 25 countries, film rights sold. How do you top that? You can't really top it, you just have to try and come up with a book that is a worthy successor. I hope that when people read One For My Baby, they will say - yeah it is as good.


Do you think it is as good?

Tony Parsons:

I think it is a better book. I think it is not necessarily as lovable as Man and Boy. I think there is a quality - maybe because there is a very small child in Man and Boy and maybe because that draws directly on my experience as a young father with a very small son. I think people responded to that - I think a lot of women especially responded to that. I think One For My Baby is a darker book although I think it is also a funnier book too. I think it is a more ambitious book. I think it is the better book - it doesn't necessarily mean it will be as successful or more successful.


In the 1980s you were responsible for charting the rise of the new man phenomenon and the new lad in men's fashion magazines. Do you think Man and Boy and One For My Baby is part of that project where men are getting all sensitive and getting in touch with their feelings?

Tony Parsons:

I think the reason that Man and Boy worked is that it felt both old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time - I think it is a gauge of how men have changed but also how they haven't changed. The whole kick-off point for Man and Boy is that the guy has a one-night-stand with a colleague from work - a very casual sexual encounter. Although he is a good father and he becomes a caring single parent, he is still quite capable of jumping into bed with the first pretty girl in a mini-skirt that will let him.

So I think it is interesting the way men have changed but it is equally interesting to see how unreconstructed we are and what hasn't changed. I told my dad that I loved him when he was on his deathbed when he was dying of cancer. Now a lot of people would think that was too late and we should say those things 10 or 20 years earlier but my dad wouldn't have been up for hearing it. I think there is a lot to be said, even now, for manly restraint.


What do you think the Tony Parsons of the NME era would make of the Tony Parsons of today?

Tony Parsons:

I think he would be quite pleased the way things have worked out because that Tony Parsons always wanted to write for a living. So I think he would be quite pleased with the way it has turned out. He would probably be disappointed that I am not going out to see bands every night of the week and not taking lots of mind-altering drugs. But I would have to try to explain to him that you can only do that for a few years.


Andy, London: Do you feel comfortable being regarded as "middlebrow"?

Tony Parsons:

Yeah, I think of myself as "no-brow" really. It doesn't bother me. I have been called worst things than "middlebrow". I am certainly not "highbrow". I am not one of these sensitive Oxbridge graduates that nobody reads and who has to work for the Guardian or the Independent to pay their mortgage - that is not me. Yet at the same I am not writing for the lowest common denominator either. So I guess by default, I am "middlebrow" but I don't think of myself in those terms. Everybody should think of themselves as "no-brow" - not just novelists but everybody in the world - we should aspire to be "no-brow".


Were you nervous, having been a critic on BBC's Late Review for a long time, having your own book dissected and criticised?

Tony Parsons:

Not really nervous. I expected a few kickings and I got a few kickings. In fact the reception was a lot warmer and a lot more generous than I had anticipated. Not everybody universally loved Man and Boy just as they haven't universally loved One For My Baby.

But the reviews have been largely positive for both books and people are a lot more generous than I would have expected. But it didn't really make me nervous - I have been doing this for a long time now and I have developed quite a thick skin. I also believe that if you dish it out then you have also have to take it. For six years I sat on Late Review rubbishing work that people had spent years of their lives putting together so if I get a few knocks then that is quite right - that is my karma - I probably deserve them.


You have written five novels, I presume you are going to be writing a sixth. If you were a musician would you be entering your experimental phase now?

Tony Parsons:

I think I would be in my third come-back phase if I was a musician! I think I have passed through the experimental stage. I would like to write a third in this series then take a break and then maybe do something a little bit different. But I have always been a mainstream writer, even when I was a punk writer and taking drugs with the Sex Pistols - I was working at the time for a big publication company. So I have always felt I was part of the mainstream and I am always happy to be in the mainstream. I am not really interested in writing just for a few clever people in London - I want to be embraced by at least the country, at the very least.

See also:

29 Jun 01 | Reviews
Parsons' Baby blues
02 Jul 01 | Reviews
One For My Baby: Press views
23 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Lawson beats Potter magic
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