John King interview

Book and Magazine Collector, November 2006

John King is one of a select group of serious British novelists who have achieved both critical and commercial success. Unlike Martin Amis, his fellow luminary on the Jonathan Cape fiction list, he has, however, never played the role of celebrity author. As a result, I had only the haziest idea of what he looks like. When we arranged to meet outside Charing Cross Station, he supplied a description so cursory that I ended up approaching the wrong man, who must have mistaken my opening gambit of “Are you John?” for a feeble chat-up line. My attempt to extricate myself from this embarrassing situation must have sounded hopelessly implausible. The poor man had long since fled towards the safety of the station buffet by the time my interviewee ambled over and identified himself. We then walked round to a busy pub just off St Martin’s Lane where we ordered a couple of beers. I kicked off the interview by asking whether his parents shared his passion for books. 

Mum reads much more now that her children and grandchildren are older and she has the time. She has a good insight into a wide range of fiction. Dad was more interested in factual books, though he liked P.G. Wodehouse. I wouldn’t say they were bookish, but we did have books around. That said, I wasn’t a big reader when I was young.

Do you still own many of your childhood books?

I have a few of Enid Blyton’s Mystery books. I also have Winnie The Pooh and Brer Rabbit, and some William books that a neighbour gave me when we lived with my grandmother. I still have a brilliant book that I bought in a primary-school jumble sale. It had a cartoon of a soldier in a gas mask crawling on the ground while a passing camel relieves itself. I must’ve bought it when I was six or seven. It’s a fantastic book, one of the funniest I’ve ever read. It’s called Fiddle Me Free and is by a Northern author called Hubert Sutherland. He’s a very good writer. I’ve since read two other novels of his, which are much more serious – A Case Of Knives and Marnie. I’ve tried to find out more about him, but with no luck.

What sort of things did you read as a teenager? 

My early teenage reading consisted of pulp novels by Richard Allen and the Confessions series by Timothy Lea. These books were huge among kids in the early 1970s. Everyone I knew read them. The highlights of the Allen series were Skinhead, Suedehead and Boot Boys. These were the subjects that interested me and my friends. I was compared to Richard Allen once, which was a cheap comment by a reviewer. 

The Confessions series were funny. Postcard humour. Harmless fun. I also enjoyed Agatha Christie. I still have some of these on my shelves. I was a big fan. 

When I was young I was more interested in music, football and going out, to be honest. I suppose I was eighteen or nineteen before I started reading a different type of book. Always fiction — Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, On The Road, The Dharma Bums, Factotum, Post Office and Fahrenheit 451. In my early twenties I moved on to Hubert Selby Jr, Albert Camus, and Hunter S. Thompson. I don’t know why I started reading seriously. It just happened.

Was there a specific book that made you want to become a writer? 

If any one person made me wish I could write, it was George Orwell. He was an honest man who wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. He saw the world very clearly. He’s England’s greatest author in my opinion.

I gather you were immersed in the punk scene in 1970s London. Did the punk aesthetic influence your approach to writing? 

I didn’t dress as a punk — not many people did — but I loved the music. It gave me the confidence to have a go at writing. Punk arrived when I was at school. I loved the sound, the lyrics, the fact that these people sang in everyday English accents. Bowie was the same. The lyrics made me think about politics and the wider world. I loved The Clash and The Sex Pistols and those great groups with female lead singers such as Penetration and X-Ray Spex. Joe Strummer was saying many of the same things as George Orwell. 

The do-it-yourself punk attitude gave me confidence and when I started reading more serious books, I thought, well, if I want to write something, why shouldn’t I? Anything was possible. You just had to fight the uncertainty forced on us by the controllers, battle that lack of confidence, though it was a long time before I really got started. Again, punk influenced me, told me I should write fast, get things down, then rewrite.

I know that your late father was a musician. Is music something you enjoy reading about and, if so, what are the music books that your rate most highly? 

Dad learnt to play the piano by ear, and could never read music, but he loved boogie-woogie and used to play in pubs and halls when he was a boy, wherever there was a piano. It was his hobby, and he made a couple of solo LPs, and one with The Dharma Blues Band. 

I’m interested in people’s love of music, its development, the social element. Very few books capture this, as they’re generally based on famous figures and/or written by people in the business. The human element is too often missing. My novel, Human Punk, deals with this.

You made your name with your first book, The Football Factory. 

Tell me something about the background to its writing and publication. “First of all I wrote the sections dealing with the character, ‘Tommy Johnson’. These were rejected, but Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape was very encouraging, said he liked the way I wrote, and that if I had anything else in future to bear him in mind. I later sent him a collection of short stories. He suggested blending the two. This made sense, so I went back to work and The Football Factory evolved from there. Before the novel was released, the only thing I’d published was a short version of the ‘Millwall Away” chapter, produced by Rebel Inc, which was edited by Kevin Williamson and also featured the likes of Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner.

Novelists whose debut books have made a big commercial and critical splash can often grow slightly resentful of that particular book. D’you feel that way about The Football Factory

The book sold right away and it set me up, meant I could write full-time, so I don’t resent The Football Factory at all. I just think some people miss the point of the novel, which is a shame. The factory of the title represents society. One of the major themes of the novel comes from 1984 — the power the Proles could have if they united instead of spending their time fighting each other.

Did you have any involvement in the film adaptation of the book? 

I was involved in the film for a while, meeting producers and companies. Then I wrote a couple of drafts of the screenplay. I didn’t want to do it, but there was no money available so I gave it a go, just to move the thing on. To be honest, I found screenwriting a bit boring. There came a point when I stepped aside, and the screenplay was rewritten by a new director. It was an interesting experience. I can’t say I always enjoyed the process, but the film was good. That’s the important thing. 

Film-making is a funny business. There are a lot of egos involved, a lot of chancers and bullshitters. You also come across some great people, though, people who really love film, but the money floating around and the so-called glamour confuses things. Having said that, I’ll have another go one day. I’ve had offers for options, but hate it when authors sign away their rights for a payday, then moan about the film being rubbish. If you believe in your ideas, you need to fight your corner for as long as you can. I did that last time, and I’ll do it again. It’s important for an author to make sure those they are involved with respect their work.

Have the images from the movie displaced the images you had in your head when you were writing the book? 

That’s a very good question. I wish I could say no, but in some ways they have. Mind you, a film can only capture part of a novel. With The Football Factory there are plenty of images that remain untouched and if I was to re-read the book now I think the old images would return.

Your writing usually feels effortless. For most writers, that apparent effortlessness is the product of numerous drafts. Is that the case with you? 

I find it easy to write and have lots of books I want to write in the future, with titles and themes and vague storylines. I write fast, but of course the most important thing is the editing and the development of ideas. I go over things again and again, and find connections evolving as the story grows and the characters develop. Writing a novel takes a lot of hard work and concentration. The rewrites and editing are vital aspects. I enjoy that as much as getting the first draft down, maybe even more so.

With your most recent novel, The Prison House, you’ve changed direction. How did that come about, and did you do much research for it? 

I don’t feel that I have changed direction really. I feel that The Prison House is a progression of my ideas, though the location is very different and everything is coming from inside the narrator’s mind. But I feel I have, to an extent, always written like this, with lots of opinion and internal dialogue. This time it’s more intense, more extreme. “I never do research. I just try to write about things I feel I know something about, and The Prison House is about fear and confusion, the sadness of life, the joy of being alive. It was a challenge to write, but I got there in the end.

Both in your life and your work, you could be described as a London writer. Of course it’s a city that’s been portrayed extensively in fiction. Who are the London novelists you most admire? 

I like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home and Arthur Morrison. There’s a fair bit of London fiction around, though I think there is a need to write something about London that’s fresh and coming from a different angle. This’s something I hope to do. I’ve started researching my family history and this has led me to Whitechapel in the nineteenth-century, places such as St. Pancras, Hackney, West Ham, Kennington, Hammersmith. It’s stirred up a lot of ideas. And, of course, I’m very interested in authors such as Patrick Hamilton, Gerald Kersh, James Curtis, Frank Norman, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Mark Benney. I’ve just finished a brilliant book — Robert Westerby’s Wide Boys Never Work. It’s dedicated to ‘J.A.S., narrowest of the wide boys’. Classic. 

You have two Londons today. There is the London of gentrification, and then you have Outer London and the suburbs, the new estates and towns of the Thames Valley. In some ways these places are more Old London, as the people have a longer connection with the place, even if their houses are newer and less glamorous.

En route to the pub, we were talking about the pre-war London underworld. Are you interested in crime fiction? 

It depends on the book, the approach of the author. I enjoy crime novels if they give me an uncensored glimpse of a vanished world, if they use the language of the day in an honest way, if they show me a culture that I can’t read about elsewhere. I enjoy the psychology of the best examples. Books such as James Curtis’s The Gilt Kid offer a picture of working-class London, one that isn’t really detailed in other genres, and I think it’s a case of fiction presenting life in a more honest way than non-fiction.

A characteristic of your writing is that it feels close to spoken English. D’you see yourself as being part of a tradition of vernacular writers? 

Yes. I’m interested in language, the use of words and slang, the weight of meaning. This is what punk was about, what hip-hop took on and developed. But I also write from inside people’s minds, and try to blend the two aspects. That’s one of the funny things about film — the silence. It’s never quiet inside my head.

Since we’re talking about literary tradition, d’you feel a kinship with the left-wing, urban writers of the 1930s? 

I like writers such as those I mentioned. They give an insight into a time and place. I find it comforting that so much stays the same. I’ve been drinking around Soho and the West End for going on thirty years now, and I suppose the attraction of some of the novels by people such as Kersh connects with that. Reading Maclaren-Ross was interesting, as I’ve been in The Fitzroy Tavern a few times over the decades, and learning about him added another dimension to the place.  

I wouldn’t mark myself politically. I prefer to remain open-minded. That’s what I learnt from Orwell, from Joe Strummer and punk rock — to distrust party politics and political machines.

When you discover an author whose work you like, are you one of those people who proceeds to read all that writer’s work? 

I’ll look at the different titles, but if I start reading something and I don’t like it, I won’t force myself to finish it. I used to make myself read the whole book just because I’d started it, but now I reason that it’s wasting time that could be spent on something better.

D’you devote lots of time to combing secondhand bookshops in search of rare titles? 

I’ve become hooked over the last four or five years, and look through the racks outside secondhand bookshops much more than I used to do. I feel I’ve missed out on a strange and hidden world. I respect and love books — especially novels — but I’m relatively new to the gems than can be found, these hidden treasures from the past.

Is there a book that you’re always trying to find but has, so far, eluded you? 

Fiddle Me Free. I’d love another copy. Mine is falling apart.

What’s the most treasured item in your collection? 

This may sound self-obsessed, but my own novels. I look at them on the shelf and it motivates me to write. I love looking at the spines and covers, though I’m always too scared to open and read them in case they’re no good. It’s all about motivation, keeping up morale.

I hear that you’ve just set up your own publishing company. What sort of thing will you be producing, and what made you want to try your hand at that side of the business? 

I’ve set up London Books with the writer Martin Knight, and it’s something we’ve talked about for a few years now. Many of the authors we enjoy have been out of print for a long time and we think they deserve to be reprinted, that they represent a tradition of free-thinking, exciting literature. 

Martin and I have become very friendly with Alan Sillitoe over the last seven years. A while back we started The Flag Club with him. It’s a regular author’s meet-up. We’re going to bring some of Alan’s novels back into print. His most recent novel, A Man Of His Time, was maybe the best book he’s ever written. It should have picked up all the awards going. It’s strange sometimes, sitting with him in The Lamb And Flag, thinking that I used to read his books when I was a youth. He’s a lovely man and a great writer. 

We’re going to have fun with London Books. I’ve learnt a lot since we started and it’s been a laugh. We’ve met some proper book-lovers — decent, thoughtful people. As well as the out-of-print fiction, we’ve a couple of new writers we’re considering. We’ll also publish non-fiction, ideas that take our fancy. Our first book is The Special Ones: Chelsea By The Fans, which came out earlier this year and is a collection of interviews, articles and memories going back to the ’30s and ’40s. It is literally ‘by the fans’. It’s been very well received.

What did you think of Fever Pitch and the ensuing wave of literary offerings about football? 

I read Fever Pitch, but never followed up that strand. I think a lot of people tried to mimic it, and didn’t have enough of a feel for the subject. I enjoyed the likes of Hoolifan and Guvnors much more, though there are so many football books around now it’s impossible to keep up. 

Success has destroyed the flavour of clubs such as Chelsea. Success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even in the tough times I never got too upset when things went badly. I enjoyed the day out, the atmosphere and spectacle. It really is the taking part that matters. I feel the same way about my writing, about London Books. It’s important to do what you believe in rather than think about money and so-called success.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

Using Format