John King – Author Of Football Factory & Much More
John King is famous for his first novel, Football Factory being made into a successful British film. Since then he has released many well received books. In this interview we discuss his work, influences and the issue of E-readers coming in and print dying out. This is one of my favourite interviews so far as you can carefully see the precise amount of detail John puts into his work, which is a fantastic parrallel on society and the issues that get passed down from generation to generation. Many thanks to my friend Hazel for getting me in contact with John.
Interview is as follows:
1.) Your books have touched on the topic of football culture and youths in Britain, why do you feel this is an important topic to write about?
I see it as an interesting part of our culture, a focus for the wider society, and of course they are things I know and can write about. The original skinheads are in their sixties, punks in their fifties, Teds in their seventies. Teenagers today listen to ska and punk and all sorts of rock n roll. Likewise, the challenges facing different generations don’t really change. I see a lot of repetition, a carrying on of traditio ns. We are all the result of those who went before us, and I’m interested the continuation and expansion of our culture.
2.) After The Football Factory being adapted into a successful movie, does that raise the bar of success that other novels are compared against?
Not for me, though maybe for others. The novels came out 15 years ago and sold 200,000 copies before the film was released, so it was already established, but success is relative really, and I judge it more on how I’m doing as a writer than sales. There are better writers than me around who have only sold a handful of novels.
3.) You claim authors such as George Orwell as influences on your work, how do you find that novels written decades ago influence your work?
I remember picking up and reading one of Alan Sillitoe’s novels in WHSmith’s in Uxbridge when I was in my late teens and it immediately struck a chord, because while he was writing about Nottingham twenty years earlier, with a localised sort of language, there was a familiarity about the characters, their lives and situations, a relevance that knocked me back. I wasn’t a big reader then, but finding something I could identify with made me buy the book and others afterwards. Books can be timeless. It is the ideas that are important, the connection the writing makes.
Orwell was a big influence on me and The Football Factory is driven by Nineteen Eighty-Four’s idea of the common people / ‘proles’ fighting among themselves. There is an honesty in his writing that goes beyond party politics and makes sense to me. Orwell and Aldous Huxley reflected the times in which they lived – two World Wars, totalitarianism, the Great Depression – and when I was younger Orwell was more widely regarded than perhaps he is now. The war and its aftermath was a big part of everyone’s life. It was a very volatile time. And yet the likes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are as relevant now as they ever were. In the case of Brave New World, the book could have been written today.
4.) You have started an imprint, London Books, re-releasing literary classics. How do you choose which books to re-release and why did you feel it was important to do so?
The books we’ve been republishing have been out of print for years, the authors forgotten or marginalised, and we basically choose the ones we like. I set London Books up with an author friend, Martin Knight, because we had read this fiction and were impressed with the prose which is vibrant and imaginative, and also the way the novels are uncensored and cut through time, present a picture of a London that has been lost. We both love London and its history, the wider culture, but the rough edges and excitement has near enough been gentrified out of existence. We saw a missing part of our own tradition as well, as these books link into what we are trying to do as writers. The novels we’ve published so far are mainly from the 1930s, and they are socially-aware and deal with ordinary people, though often in extraordinary circumstances. They are outside the official canon and our aim is to bring them to the attention of a new audience.
5.) From creating the idea of the book to finishing it, how do you find the writing process?
I enjoy every element. Coming up with ideas is exciting, writing them down fills you with satisfaction, while the editing and rewriting adds levels and sees all these new threads coming out of nowhere. Every part of the process has its own magic, though it is an endurance test as well, a lot of hard work. A book grows and can end up very different to how it started out. It dominates your life. And an author needs to be thick-skinned, to not worry what anyone else thinks. It can be a bit unhealthy at times, spending too much time inside your own head, but I wouldn’t change what I do for anything. I think authors switch between hopelessness and elation – I do anyway, several times a day – but while it’s not all perfect I love losing myself in my writing.
6.) Do you ever feel that your books get labelled as being just for football fans, when actually the themes run much deeper than that?
Yes, that can be true, due to the profile of The Football Factory, though mainly with people who may just have read the novel or seen the film, maybe read the others in the trilogy. Since then I’ve written Human Punk, White Trash, Skinheads and The Prison House, so I’ve covered a lot of other areas, but really The Football Factory isn’t about football as such, and the main character is Bill Farrell rather than Tommy Johnson. But I think it’s true of anyone who has a novel that has become well known, so it doesn’t bother me really, as I’m in another place, thinking about current work, books I want to write in the future. In the end people take different things from novels, and that really is the beauty of literature, the way it can stimulate every reader’s imagination in a different way.
7.) Other than George Orwell, who do you consider influences on your work?
I’ve mentioned Alan Sillitoe and Aldous Huxley, and along with the Orwell those are three very English influences, but I also love American literature for its imagination and freedom. I read Jack Kerouac when I was younger – On The Road, but also the likes of Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveller – and while these books can seem a bit naive now there is an incredible energy there. This led to William Burroughs who is totally different, and at times hard to read, but he is experimental, brave, unique. Hubert Selby Jr, John Fante, Charles Bukowski – they are all fine writers who I admire. Albert Camus and Emile Zola are two non-English-language writers I like. But I think I was more influenced by music to be honest. In the early 1970s David Bowie released a series of albums – Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, Ziggy Stardust – that even as an eleven- or twelve-year-old I admired for the sound and odd wordplay but also his use of an ordinary English accent. This was followed by the arrival of punk, which blew me away as a fifteen-year-old. Johnny Rotten called his lyrics ‘literature’, and I could see this in the songs of The Clash, Pistols, X-Ray Spex, The Ruts. Music got me going until I discovered the novels of Orwell and Sillitoe, and they in turn started me reading other authors.
8.) What novel(s) are you currently writing at the moment, and what can you tell us about them?
I’ve just finished a book about a vegan who’s had enough of the meat/dairy industry and lost his belief in peaceful protest. He decides to take some direct, violent action to end the terror being inflicted on the meekest of creatures. It’s about the foundations of human society, propaganda and corruption, the ability of people to lie to themselves, the War On Terror, the Terror Next Door. I’m also halfway through a collection of short stories, which is fun to write, and needs a different, more snappy approach.
9.) Where do you get inspiration from for your work?
The world around me really, just living and thinking and seeing what’s going on. Most authors trawl their own lives I think, or at least their feelings and beliefs. Everything a writer needs is there in their own life, in their experiences, though it’s handy to be open-minded, to avoid dogmatism and have a level of empathy. Sadness, elation, extremes of emotion – it all helps I think.
10.) Some of your novels are available on the Amazon store for Kindle, do you think that one day E-Readers will overtake printed books?
I didn’t know that – I will have to have at look at what’s happening there. I hope E-books don’t take over from printed books, and I think it will level out eventually, that the two will operate side-by-side, but there are dangers with E-Readers. We have to remember who makes and sells these machines, who it is trying to exploit literature, the threats to copyright. Big business manipulates everything, so we’re not talking about book-lovers. It is all driven by profit.
A printed novel is cheap – £8 or £9 for something that will last many hours and the book will be there for a lifetime – and I can see these E-Readers costing people a lot more in the long run. Look at all the gadgets of the last fifteen years, the huge debts they’ve created.
I can see that E-Readers are good for people going on holiday, travelling on trains, but printed books will last longer than files that can be destroyed or lost when the companies inflict a format change. Another danger is piracy. While it can be great for people to get something for nothing, it drives those creating these things out of business. If publishers fail, then the editorial process will follow, and this is my biggest fear. Working with an editor is important to an author. While the internet and its democracy is fantastic, a revolution for the sharing of information and the breaking down of social controls, for the promotion of literature and the writing of reviews and articles, the spread of uncensored journalism, novels will be hit if publishers are destroyed by a collapse in prices. I could be wrong of course. These dangers may well be dealt with, and I hope that will be the case. But I feel very positive about the future, about the writers to come, and I think once the novelty wears off E-Readers and printed books will exist together and help each other out.