Today’s interviewee is a very dear friend of mine from Hull University (where we undertook our English with Creative Writing undergraduate degrees together). Brian is such an inspiring. friendly, and talented man. As he explains in this interview, he’s been such a success in a number of areas. He is a truly skilled writer. Tonight, I will be attending the launch for his book The Headscarf Revolutionaries (published by Barbican Press, a publisher for which I once interned) at the Maritime Museum in Hull. Take a read of this interview with the writer in anticipation of my book review and blog post covering the event itself!
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your background and your career.
My name is Brian Lavery and I am a writer, journalist and late-comer to academia. When I write creative nonfiction I am Brian W. Lavery, so as not to be confused with another Scot with the same name as me, who also happens to be a world authority on maritime history. So, just my luck that the first book I get published has a maritime theme. Perhaps that is why the phrase “lucky as a Brian” does not exist.
The other Brian, however, is far more encumbered by success than I – and very well known too – so I was advised to give myself a middle initial to prevent confusion. However, I do not have a middle name, (I joke with my publisher that when I was a kid we could not afford it!) So I use my father’s initial. It’s a nice wee tribute too. He was he best-read man I knew, that did not teach or write, at least not professionally.
I was born in Glasgow’s East End in 1959 and I am told I am apparently from a disadvantaged background, although I must say I did not notice this as my mother and father did a great job of disguising it. I am the fourth of six sons. My father was a sheet metal worker and my mother a shop assistant. I have been writing since ever I can remember. My father always encouraged me and was a big fan of education in general. He worked in shipyards and factories and was keen I should not do similar. ‘The heaviest thing a smart man will lift is a steel rule,’ he said. His advice stuck. I even used it as a piece of dialogue recently in a short story.
I have been a regional and national print and broadcast journalist and now latterly an academic and writer. I have edited two weekly newspapers; news edited two regional dailies, and held various roles on national and foreign papers and magazines. I have also worked as a reporter, features writer, sub-editor, publisher, PR and media consultant, speechwriter and contract publisher. I returned to higher education in 2008 and recently completed a PhD with the University of Hull’s English Department. My new book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple Trawler Disaster) (Barbican Press) resulted from the research for that doctorate.
Having already been very successful in the writing industry and working in journalism for 25 years, what drove you to go to university and then later to do a PhD?
Shakespeare tells us the world’s a stage and we are players etc., well, this is the third act to my play. When I did my undergraduate degree I loved it. I was still working. I had to, to pay the fees etc., But I realised I had found something new. I am not a religious man, but going back to university, for me was how I imagine it must be for some folk “finding God.” When the University of Hull offered me a PhD place (and paid the fees and gave me a tutoring post too) I did not hesitate. At 52, I was Hull’s oldest scholarship boy. I also had two years of teaching that I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to continue. I also owe a vast debt to my wife and my two daughters for their support in helping to make my third act a reality.
Of journalism, writing for radio, creative non-fiction and short fiction, which do you find the most challenging and why? Which do you find the most rewarding?
If you are doing them correctly, i.e. to the very best of your ability, each time, every time, then they should all be equally challenging and rewarding. The challenge being getting the story, script, poem or whatever out there and the reward being in knowing that you did your best in so doing. That said, I couldn’t remember a time I did not write. And when the chance came to get into newspapers I jumped at it. I dropped out of university and set off to college in Sheffield from Glasgow, with dreams of being a latter-day Damon Runyan or Raymond Chandler.
I became fascinated with every aspect of newspapers, their production and processes and as a result managed to get into senior positions relatively early. Aged 24, I was the country’s youngest editor when I took over the Humberside Weekly News in 1983. My other writing took a back seat as I married, had a family, and moved onto to national print and broadcast work and so on. Most of the time I was based in Hull and later a lot of my work was freelance. I also worked as a “UK” correspondent for foreign titles. Journalism brought me a degree of success and travel, but most of all I loved doing it and swore that if that feeling left, I would quickly follow. I still wrote poems, prose etc., but did little with them. As John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.’
What advice would you give for anyone starting out in the journalism industry?
If you want to be a journalist, don’t do it. If you NEED to be a journalist, then well done, because you are half way there. Folk always make way for somebody that knows where they are going. I am not big on advice. I did not follow it as a young man and rarely give it as an older one.
Print journalism – which was my principal practice – is vastly different from when I started.
What was the biggest change you saw in journalism within your time in the industry?
When people ask me why I left mainstream journalism, I tell them I didn’t. It left me. Print journalism – which was my principal practice – is vastly different from when I started. There was no Internet, computers etc., just paper, ink and typewriters. But it is not just the vast technological change, which is welcome, but it is more that the fact that the actual print model is now, in the main, a dead man walking. I no longer felt at home there. As I said earlier the “feeling” of loving doing it left me and I decided to do something new. I hung on only to help support my family.
Many papers and their attendant websites are simple click-bait hubs and because the big corporate publishers missed the bus by not taking new technologies as seriously as they should have, print media, especially local papers, are struggling. Sadly the knee-jerk reaction to that decline was to throw the baby out with the bath water and as result mature, experienced journalists like those who taught me, are a rare sight indeed. I still feel there will be a place good news outlets, whether online or in print. But it can’t all be about money. The old Press barons like Beaverbrook, knew this and often made losses while making great newspapers. But I will halt with my philosophy of news, lest I bore your readers to death.
You are about to publish The Headscarf Revolutionaries with Barbican Press, an independent publisher based in Hull and London. How did this come about?
I had a quite bit of interest in my book before it was finished. But I simply felt no-one would give me the dedication and support that I knew I would get from Barbican. I knew some of their writers and their works. I liked what they did – and how they did it. I was in good company, so when Barbican offered to publish my book, I agreed. But it was year before I signed a contract. As a young man, I would have jumped at the first offer from the first publisher. As an older man, I am not as ready to jump and not as easily impressed. That’s great thing about being “an overnight success” after just 30 years. I put a lot of store in trust and integrity and Barbican excels in both those departments. They also are gifted editors. But most importantly – they actually care.
What do you feel are the advantages of publishing with an independent publisher?
Input. You are much more part of the process in a smaller indie firm. I am presently ten per cent of their writing stable, as opposed to just another assignment for an appointed editor in a big publishing house.
What ways do you find are most effective in marketing yourself and your books?
Having a background in public relations and journalism, gives me the advantage of knowing what to do. Knowing folk in the media helps too. But like selling anything, if the product is dodgy it will come back to bite you. The most effective way to market a book is to write it well, to the best of your abilities. The rest is in the lap of the gods. As for marketing yourself, I find being a shameless self-publicist is a positive boon. It is also hard work. Go to the readings, the signings and do the interviews. Work at it. After all, the readers are not going to come round to your house.
Like selling anything, if the product is dodgy it will come back to bite you. The most effective way to market a book is to write it well, to the best of your abilities.
What fuelled your interest in Lillian Bilocca’s story and in the maritime/trawler history of Hull?
It was the story of Lillian Bilocca and the Hessle Road women that captivated me, more than an interest in the trawling industry or maritime history per se. In 1988, I wrote Mrs Bilocca’s obituary for The Times. They used just five paragraphs. I always thought she deserved so much more. A mere 30 years or so later, I got round to writing it. The story of these brave women and their fight to improve safety at sea is one of great courage. It is the story of this city in the 20th century.
How do you feel being named the City of Culture for 2017 will help boost Hull’s literary scene?
Make no mistake, Hull richly deserves to be recognised as a city of culture, for that is what it is – and has long been. It was so when I arrived here more than 30 years ago – and certainly long before. It is not as if the city suddenly became more cultured on the day of the announcement. When that announcement was made I was dragged in as a ‘talking head’ for a local radio interview and told them that I was obviously pleased, but wary. Pleased that my great adopted home city was getting the recognition it deserved, but wary that we might be overwhelmed by swarms of outsiders, ‘consultants’ and folk from “That London” telling us how cultured we are. We in Hull already know how cultured we are. Without sounding too cynical, my main fear is that local writers, artists, playwrights, poets, painters etc., who have been – and still are on a daily basis – the mainstay of our cultural capital, may be overlooked or under appreciated or worse still, subsumed. I do not want a “W1A” scenario where the “Perfect Curve” brigade come in, steal our metaphorical watch, tell us the time, and sell us the watch back. I am also worried that the future of the arts in our city may fall prey to a “sub-committee” culture. After all, when did you last see a statue built to a great sub-committee? My bitter and twisted sarcasm aside, I am confident the arts community of our city will not allow that sort of thing to happen. It is too great a community. If you throw a penny at a crowd in Hull you will hit a poet, writer, musician or other artist with it. Our literary scene will grow and enjoy many boosts with or without assistance, whatever the year.
You can find out more about Brian and his work here.
Brian is also very active on Twitter here.
You can read more about Barbican Press and the publisher Martin Goodman here.
Do you have any questions for Brian? Please include them in the comments below and I will get them answered!