REVIEW and INTERVIEW
by John Simmons
John Simmons stops by today for an interview about his debut novel, Leaves. You can also read my review.
A literary debut about a 1970s community and all its contradictions.
"A yell became an intrusion of privacy. Was this a clamouring for entry into houses or lives? Looking on then, looking back now, I wish I could have been more definite. It might have made me a different, better person, a player not a spectator."
Ophelia Street, 1970. A street like any other, a community that lives and breathes together as people struggle with their commitments and pursue their dreams. It is a world we recognise, a world where class and gender divide, where set roles are acknowledged. But what happens when individuals step outside those roles, when they secretly covet, express desire, pursue ambitions even harm and destroy? An observer in the midst of Ophelia Street watches, writes, imagines, remembers, charting the lives and loves of his neighbours over the course of four seasons. And we see the flimsily disguised underbelly of urban life revealed in all its challenging glory. As the leaves turn from vibrant green to vivid gold, so lives turn and change too, laying bare the truth of the community. Perhaps, ultimately, we all exist on Ophelia Street.
Click below to read an excerpt.
Praise for the Book
"John's writing is both precise and lyrical - and he takes us on a compelling journey with the deceptive skill of a master storyteller." ~ Rob Williams, screenwriter
"John Simmons is a wordsmith. In Leaves he casts a forensic eye on a small corner of north London and on the lives that were lived there. It is a memory novel, an excavation of time, place and people that draws the reader irresistibly into the 1970s world of Ophelia Street. His skill is to make the local feel universal in a novel that resonates far beyond the confines of its setting." ~ Gary McKeone, former Literature Director, Arts Council England; Chair, Poetry Archive
"The phrase 'a writer's writer' is overused but in John Simmons' case it is spot on: his sentences gleam and compel you to follow them." ~ John Mitchinson, co-founder QI and Unbound
"John Simmons is the best writer you think you haven't read. In fact he's one of the architects of the language of our daily lives. With his novel Leaves the secret is now out." ~ Caroline McCormick, former Director, PEN International
By Lynda Dickson
Full of beautiful writing and imaginative metaphors, Leaves captures the reader's attention from the very first sentence: "Ophelia Street was." Originally written in 1970, but not published until recently, the author has revisited the text and narrates it from a position of thirty years' hindsight.
Leaves examines the lives of the residents of Ophelia Street, London, over the course of one year, 1970, told through the eyes of our narrator Michael, a budding reporter new to London, who hones his writing craft by weaving tales around the lives of his neighbors. On his first day in Ophelia Street, he uncovers his role: "the possibility of discovering some things I had not known about myself and other people." Their stories are by no means important in the grand scheme of things, but as our narrator later states, "Every event has the potential to become a news story, every person is in some sense newsworthy, there are no people who should be deprived of the dignity of attention." Later in the book, the ordinary goings-on turn into extraordinary events, demonstrating that you never really know what goes on behind closed doors.
The residents of Ophelia Street include: school teacher Keith Russell, his wife Brenda, and son David; Joe and Edie Wheatley, his aging mother Ginny, and their children; factory owner Gerald Fermin and his sister Selene, whose parents died when they were young ("... they were known to no one. No one knew what they were really like and, over the years, they had become mysteries to each other."); Robert Johnson, who lives with his mother Clara; Derek and Elaine Card and their eight-year-old daughter Elaine; Ernie Jack and the other residents of the newly-established hostel for ex-convicts. This is 1970, a time when the women stay home alone while the men work and the children go to school, when the men go the pub every night, the children play in the street, and the only things neighbors know about each other is what they hear and observe, sometimes by peeking from behind a closed curtain.
The story is split into five sections, one for each season of the year, and the last section for the beginning of the new year. In each section, the author conveys the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the passing seasons, focusing on the condition of the street's solitary tree, located in the front yard of the Fermins' property. The lives of the residents of Ophelia Street also change with the seasons. In Winter, we are introduced to the residents of Ophelia Street, a fairly ordinary and dormant place. Spring is the time of new beginnings and revelations. Summer brings us to a boiling point, when tragedy befalls the small community. In Autumn, "The leaves, like restless souls, wander the earth until swept away to be burnt or else are trampled into the soil, sodden with rain." We witness the fall and decay of not only the street, but the lives of the residents. The New Year brings about new beginnings and renewed hope. Although I was disappointed that the tragedy was never resolved, the ending brings the story to a satisfying and circular conclusion.
This book is truly an elegy to the passing of Ophelia Street and its residents.
Interview With the Author
Hi John, thanks for joining me today to discuss your debut novel, Leaves.
For what age group do you recommend your book?
Anyone from young adult to 100.
What sparked the idea for this book?
Growing up in north London at the time when the book is set. I think going away to university where everything was divided into "years" brought about the idea of following the seasons and writing the book in those four parts. In a way the seasonal structure was the original idea for the book.
So, which comes first? The character's story or the idea for the novel?
The first sentence came to me first – "Ophelia Street is." (In the published version, "Ophelia Street was.") So it suggested a community of people living in one place, and the interwoven lives of these different people became the novel. So I guess the characters were the important thing in shaping the story which became not just about a community but the decay of community.
What was the hardest part to write in this book?
The final version, revisiting what I had originally written in a creative rush some decades earlier. It was a more painstaking task, confronting my younger self, retaining much but also creating much that was new.
How do you hope this book affects its readers?
I think it’s a reflective book, sad at times but in the end, I hope, optimistic and life-affirming. I would like readers to be moved by the wonder of life despite some of the terrible things that life can hold.
It certainly did that for me. How long did it take you to write this book?
About 45 years – which is not a joke but the truth. I wrote the first version as a 21-year-old at the time (1970) when the book is set. I then set is aside until a few years ago when I brought it out of the drawer and wrote the version that is now published, with the addition of a new character, the narrator/observer who looks back on that time.
What is your writing routine?
I work as a writer in the business world, as a copywriter and trainer, helping people at work to write more creatively. Business writing needs more humanity and I’ve written many books on that, and trained hundreds of people through my Dark Angels courses. All this means a "routine" is not really possible, though I have reserved Friday evenings/nights as sacrosanct writing time for 30 years.
How did you get your book published?
The editor of a book to which I was a contributor (The Definitive Book of Branding) suggested I should meet Matthew Smith. So I did and I liked Matthew. He agreed to publish a business book that I was ghostwriting, then I mentioned I had written a novel. He asked to see it, loved it and said, "We’ll make it happen."
Fantastic! What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a published writer?
Only persist. You have to keep at it, and write because you love writing, because writing is part of your identity.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I love my family. I now have two granddaughters – I’m extremely fond and proud of them.
And I’ve always been a football fan supporting Arsenal, my local team. Spectating, not playing, but I do go out every day for a run.
What does your family think of your writing?
They’re very supportive. My wife read Leaves in the early 1970s and has always believed in my writing. I now love writing stories for and with my grandchildren.
Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Somers Town, King’s Cross, on a council estate in central London. So I was from a very ordinary family. My dad was a printer, a machine minder on newspapers, and my mum was news desk secretary on national papers – so words were always there as an important part of life. I went to local schools then to Wadham College, Oxford, where I read English. So my love of writing has always been there as something natural.
Did you like reading when you were a child?
Yes, but I was a late reader. My most treasured book is The Wind in the Willows, given to me by my mum for my ninth birthday. The teacher had been reading it to class at the end of the school day, I told my mum I loved it, so she gave me the book and wrote inside it. From a position of reading nothing but comics I read this book straight through then never stopped reading.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I guess soon after that is when I realized I would like to be a writer. Reading and writing are closely linked.
Did your childhood experiences influence your writing?
Of course. Your childhood shapes you as a person. So there’s no escaping it, and it’s best to draw on it creatively, to explore that borderline between memory and imagination.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
So many. I think Dickens initially as a novelist, I still love his sheer energy. As a book The Great Gatsby is a book I always return to – it’s as close to perfection as you can find in a novel. And as a modern writer, the Australian novelist and Nobel prize winner Patrick White – sadly not that well-known, but his writing is extraordinary.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I’m always happy to hear from readers. Luckily, as I run the training courses, I have a lot of direct contact with other writers and would-be writers. The whole spirit of Dark Angels is to be supportive of each other – so they generally say nice things ...
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
I've finished a second novel, Spanish Crossings, that will published by Urbane in April. It's in three parts - before, during and after the Spanish Civil War. Family stories inspired it, particularly those about the Basque refugee children who came to this country in 1937 after the German bombing of Guernica. It's much larger in scale and ambition than Leaves.And after that? Something I haven't shared publicly with anyone before. I am writing another novel called The Good Messenger. This one will be set in the periods before and after the first world war. I'm already 50,000 words into it and it seems to be flowing.
Sounds great! Thank you for taking the time to stop by today, John. Best of luck with your upcoming projects.
Thank you, Lynda.
About the Author
John Simmons is an independent writer and consultant. He’s a founder director of 26, the not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better language in business, and has been writer-in-residence for Unilever and King’s Cross tube station. In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Falmouth in recognition of "outstanding contribution to the creative sector".
His most recent books are 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry, about the creative power of constraints, and Room 121: a masterclass in business writing, co-written with Jamie Jauncey as an exchange over 52 weeks. In June 2011 John’s first work of fiction, The Angel of the Stories, was published by Dark Angels Press, with illustrations by the artist Anita Klein.
He recently initiated and participated in the writing of a Dark Angels collective novel Keeping Mum with fifteen writers – the novel was published by Unbound in 2014. John is on the Campaign Council for Writers’ Centre Norwich as Norwich becomes the first English City of Literature.