It’s a great pleasure to welcome author Jeff Connor to my website today. Jeff is an experienced national newspaper journalist and non-fiction author with a sackful of sports books in his back catalogue. He’s also an old friend and colleague of mine from my newspaper days and, when I found Jeff had written his first novel, I was intrigued to find out more.
Tell me a little bit about yourself as a person and your background as a journalist?
I am from a North Manchester lower class family so naturally I was born with the curse of candor which has caused me a few problems down the years. I must hold a world record in company sackings!
I went straight into newspapers at 17 (from Bury Grammar School) and after that it was the regular routine in the ‘60s: local paper, regionals and then nationals. I think when I met you (Chris) for the first time, you were on your way up and there were plenty of people in the North West Evening Mail on the way down!
I was lucky because newspapers were changing, for the worst, when I had to finish. Suddenly, page design was more important than subbing and writing and back benches were manned by people who knew little about the protocol of the newspaper business. I am not sure, but I would guess that The Sun, when I worked there, was the only national in which Subs were Kings. Any reporter hoping for a job there had to be prepared to have their golden prose totally re-written! After Wapping in the ‘80s, unions lost their powers and management could virtually do what they liked: wage freezes, staff cuts, 12-hour days, ‘evening’ newspapers coming out at noon and dailies published at tea time. I despise Murdoch, but unions, particularly the print unions, were just as much to blame for all this.
Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed? I know you are already established as a non-fiction author.
I wrote my first book in 1988. I was a sub on the embryonic Daily Star at the time, but as the only person in the building reasonably sporty (fell-running mountaineering etc) they wanted me to ride a stage of the Tour de France. I was lucky. I traveled with a British team (ANC Halfords) and stayed with them for the full three weeks. It was fly-on-the-wall, first person stuff, a bit like George Plimpton’s Paper Lion book transposed from the NFL to the TdF. It was a tabloid writer’s dream, a story of drama, disaster and near-death and I rode a stage, too! It soon became a book (Wide Eyed and Legless) and that was when I got the taste for writing non-fiction. All my other books, until last month, were sporting non-fiction, some of which (11 in all) did well and two or three that didn’t. I have never written a book I have been remotely satisfied with and I never read them again.
I understand in recent times you had a serious illness, how did that affect you, has it made you think differently about things and has it had an impact on your writing?
The first thing I found out when I left hospital in 2008 was that there are different types of strokes. I see Andrew Marr on TV now and the only sign of a severe stroke is the stick he is holding. I have met people at the Stroke Association who spend their lives on a wheelchair or in bed so I must have been chosen for the version that leaves one physically undamaged but takes away all the other abilities such as reading, writing and even talking. I woke up with the same body but with the mind of a four-year-old. So if we were to draw a timeline of the last seven years it would begin with the only two words I had (‘ludicrous’ and ‘tabloid’ apparently) the inability to read or write or remember the names of friend and family. I remember the speech therapist at Furness General Hospital asking me to name the pictures of animals and I scored 1 out of 10, the one being Dog. After that, the only way was up, as they say.
Writing, as you can imagine, was difficult, infuriating and took a long time. I learned to carry around a dictionary and a Thesaurus and a pen and paper, knowing that anything not written down within 10 seconds would vanish into the ether. Thinking of one word to use I had to move from A to Z until one sounded familiar and then on to the second letter and onward. If I was looking for, say, Audrey Hepburn and I could not remember the name, I started with a film she might possibly have appeared in and would google something like: actress with pixie hair or actress on scooter in Rome.
Most bizarre of all, I discovered that while I had lost most of my English, I still had French and German. As some of my novel takes place in Stuttgart, all my English sentences were formulated as if it was German: It like this was as I here write!
Some days I managed two pars and on others two words, all of which were pure gobbledygook when it came to check them next day.
But something in the fantasy section of the mind was working and the bones of a plot and the characters began to unravel. I wasn’t going to do non-fiction again because that would have involved interviews which would have been too embarrassing for interviewer and interviewee. Any fiction writer knows you can do all your background and research without leaving your computer.
How would you describe your work – it‘s themes and the important things about it?
I stuck to things I had knowledge of, in this case, West Germany pre the fall of The Wall and a Glasgow newspaper office in the 80s.
As for the characters, many of them were modelled on people I knew or had met. The dysfunctional journalist (McKenna) could be one of a dozen journalists I came across down the years. The retired soldier McKenna pays for tip-offs (we have all done that, admit it!) is modelled on a retired SAS sergeant I interviewed in Glasgow in 1996 (Chris Ryan who was flogging his first book, The One That Got Away). The strongest character, in the sense that she easily runs rings round the men, is an amalgam of several Secretaries to the Editor I have worked with. Anyone who has spent time in a newsroom knows that the operation is run, not by an editor, but by his secretary who knows exactly where all the bodies are buried! Lulu herself could have been any one several of the incredibly brave Special Operation Executive girls who never came home after 1945 but I based Lulu on the Virginia McKenna character (real name Violette Szabo) in Carve Her Name with Pride. Movies, their plots and characters, are invariably taken from real-life and are a great source for any writer.
I had help with background from a retired Company Sergeant in 2 Rifles who also happens to be my hairdresser and a lady from Hamburg, now living in St Annes who looked after the German spellings. Surprising how often a writer is lucky with things like that.
I tried to be as factual as possible (hence the cover). I think the most important thing about Looking for Lulu is its story about the impact of loss, the desire for revenge from contradictory quarters and that most things – from solving a crime to writing a newspaper story about the crime – depend to a large degree on good fortune. I like to think that the book keeps readers guessing to the end. That would be enough for me because whether it sells or not is irrelevant. I think people who manage to get this far here will know it has never been about the book.
Tell me about your journey to publication, who is your publisher or did you decide to self-publish and why?
I had an agent and some publishers have done well out of my books in the past, but we all know that agents and publishers will unfollow you quicker than a Twitter account as soon as they decide you are no longer any use. It is quite a shock to the system when people stop answering phone calls or answering your emails. So it did not take long to decide on self-publishing. I found a small publishing company in Settle (2QT) and they have been excellent and obviously people who care about their authors. I found a German museum who charged me a nominal fee for the cover.
Finally, people often ask why use a real-life picture on the cover when Looking for Lulu is fictional? The answer is obvious: many of the events in the book are factual and the picture of a beautiful young women with three Wehrmacht soldiers in a Paris café during the war tells me, at least, more about the book than any words.
Where can I find you and your book?