A little while ago, way back in December, I posted about a new book, Imagine, by Lesley-Ann Jones. (Click here to read.) She kindly agreed to talk to us about Imagine; here is what she has to say:
Hello Lesley-Ann, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Since we last spoke, you’ve released a book, called ‘Imagine’. How did you come up with the idea of writing a novel, rather than a biography?
Thank you for asking me, Lydia. In fact, IMAGINE is not my first novel. I must have written at least ten, previously. Most of them are languishing in drawers and trunks and boxes around the house. Two of them were published – one during my twenties, the second during my thirties. I never had time to devote to fiction, and I got sidetracked. This novel has been on the back burner for a few years. it was a story that I needed to tell.
I think every writer-be it fiction or not-is kind of like that. How did you prepare to write the manuscript?
I had the core idea – about a young journalist who just happens to witness the murder of John Lennon, and how that experience redirects and shapes her whole life – a few years ago. When eventually I decided to try writing it, I went to New York. I borrowed a friend’s apartment in the East Village, and made the journey to Central Park West every day. I’d stand outside John Lennon’s old apartment building, the Dakota, and see what I could see. I made sketches and notes. I watched people come and go. I observed tourists posing for photographs on the exact spot where John was gunned down – lone people, couples, entire families, with little children, who could have had no idea who John Lennon even was. I watched the security guards as they changed shifts in the bronze sentry box. I stood across the street from the building at different times of day and night, and watched how the landscape changed. No two days were the same, and it fascinated me. I really started to get a feel for what it must have been like that night, when John and Yoko returned from the recording studio in their limo, only for John to meet his violent end.
Initially, what did you set out to explore?
Very simply, how a young, inexperienced journalist, Nina Vincent, confronted with a major moral issue, has a choice. The biggest story of her fledgling career drops right into her lap. She can exploit that opportunity, and make her name, or she can walk away and forget about it. Obviously, she grabs the opportunity, and runs with it. But as we get to know the middle-aged Nina, who is now a highly successful Fleet Street columnist, we witness her realization that what she did compromised her personal integrity and soul. There is also a great back story, her own tragic personal life, which unfolds in parallel.
I’d have to agree. Why did you decide to open the book with the assassination of John Lennon?
Because the experience of having witnessed that tragedy was the reason for what Nina became.
Is Nina based on you?
Not at all! Although she IS a composite of a number of legendary female columnists I worked with during my tenure on Fleet St. Lynda Lee-Potter, Jean Rook, Sue Carroll, specifically. They were ball-breakers with heart. Real, human women who lived larger-than lives. With whom millions of readers, men as well as women, identified. To the outside world, they appeared to have all the answers, and to be terrifying control freaks. But they all had their Achilles heel. I got to know all of the aforementioned, very well – and many others like them. They fascinated me. I was never that kind of columnist – I wrote about Showbiz! I crashed around the world interviewing celebrities – which we did in those heady pre-internet days. It is invariably the case that the fiercest figures in the media are the most fragile, with the most to hide.
(Thinks to self: it’s almost like in Rock, where people such as Bowie and Mercury made a huge character, to hide their vulnerabilities.) Nearing the end of the book, there’s a shock twist. Have you met anyone with characteristics of the villain in the industry?
I have met many like the villain in this piece! Again, that character is a composite, upon whom I have bestowed the best of the worst that I have ever come across!
Is anything from the book lifted from your life?
Obviously there are influences. I have experienced divorce, for example – although not at the same level. I understand the heartbreak that a family goes through when a marriage breaks up, and I wanted to explore the emotions experienced by all involved in that scenario – not just the wife’s tale, but the husband’s and the child’s, too. The newspaper industry scenes are inspired by my own experiences in that world. And I toured with rock bands for many years. I still have friends who are rock stars. I know first-and what makes them tick. They are all here, on the page. The amazing Jackie Collins, whom I met many times, once said to me, ‘The first rule of writing is to write about what you know, not what you think you know. So, think about what you’ve done in your life, and write about that.’ So I did.
Will there be a sequel?
I’m toying with one. There are two characters whose stories are open-ended. I’d like to go a little further with them. But there’s another novel on my drawing board which I am planning at the moment, so perhaps it will be a complete departure. You’ll be the second to know!
*Prays for a part two* What do you think about ‘imagination’ in the industry?
Imagination is a vital to the whole of human existence. That’s what John Lennon was writing about in the song ‘Imagine’. He was inviting us to consider a world in which there was no religion. Without fear of repercussion in the afterlife, we might make different choices about how we live now. Without the constraints of territorial borders – imagine no countries – we would all be citizens of the world, and would probably treat each other with more respect. As for ‘no possessions’ – how much better a world in which we all did that simple thing that we were taught to do as children, and simply shared. I believe that John’s message in this song was, if you can imagine it, then you can do it. Imagination is something we are all blessed with. And it’s free.
Often, the characters present rather skeptical views about the world around them. Was this deliberate?
Yes! they are quite cynical and world-weary souls, aren’t they. There’s a lot of smoke-and-mirrors on Fleet St. and in the rock industry. But there is hope and redemption too.
What do you think about the indirect theme-particularly in the last chapter-of heroism? Was it written that way deliberately?
It was deliberate – but I don’t want to spoil the story by revealing too much …
For anyone wishing to write fiction, do you have any advice?
Just do it! There is no way round writing but to actually sit down and write. Write every day, until you fall off your chair. Set yourself a specific time each day, and a word count. You will usually fail to meet it, or wind up deleting what you have done. IMAGINE, for example, went through six painful drafts. At the third draft, it dawned on me that a specific character was in the wrong novel, and he had to go. He dominated ten chapters. Cutting him out meant losing a third of the novel I had written. His deletion also had an impact on the rest of the story. I had to go right back to the beginning, and re-craft the whole thing. Writing is a slog. It’s not glamorous. You can put red lipstick on, as I do sometimes, but I’m still sitting there in my pyjamas with bird’s nest hair. The postman is terrified of me – imagine that answering the door to you. There’s nothing remotely chic about the lifestyle. Most people who say they would like to be writers actually mean that they would enjoy having written. They say that they would love the writer’s lifestyle. But the reality of that is being holed up at a desk or a kitchen table, with a computer, notebooks, red pens running dry and no time to get to Mr. Green’s in the village to buy replacements, let alone new printer cartridges … your kids hate you because in the thick of a manuscript, you fling ready meals at them. You are too distracted to make them dinner from scratch – which means shopping for ingredients, and hours of preparation. Hours that you simply don’t have when you are consumed by characters whom you have made up, out of your head. There are suddenly a lot of individuals competing for your time, and it’s the real-life one’s who tend to suffer. Fact – fiction-writing is not journalism. It uses an entirely different part of your brain. Getting it out takes a long time. You have to spend it.
Random: If you could have any ten guests at a dinner party, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Oh goodness, I knew you were going to ask me that. All writers/artists/musicbiz people, probably. T.S. Eliot, because I studied him at school, and great tranches of his poetry still occupy my brain. Stephen King, because I don’t do horror, I don’t like being scared. I would love to know what makes him weird. John Lennon – the only Beatle I never met. He was dead at 40, with so much still to say. The aforementioned Jackie Collins, God rest her soul, who always chintzed up any dinner party. Mark Lewisohn, author of the incredible Beatles biography ‘Tune In’ – still with two more volumes to come. Marc Bolan – who was only 29 when he was killed in a car crash. There is much mythology attached to the circumstancesof his death. I’d like to hear from him what really happened. Freddie Mercury, for all the obvious. The classic tearful clown. I’d have Simon Napier-Bell, the legendary manager of the Yardbirds, Wham! George Michael etc- because he’s wicked, and always has exquisite gossip. Ed Bicknell, the former manager of Dire Straits, who really should write a book about his wild experiences in the music industry, but who never, ever will. One for luck? Princess Diana. Because I miss her. I so miss her. She did so much to rehabilitate the Royal Family, and now look. Her Majesty the Queen had better live forever, because the bunch we have now are just plain boring. Diana had her faults – don’t we all – but there was never a dull day. RIP.
Thank you very much to Lesley-Ann for answering my questions. Don’t forget to buy your copy of Imagine-click here.