BookBlast interviews Gerald Jacobs, Literary Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, whose books include Judi Dench: A Great Deal of Laughter, A Question of Football, The Sacred Games, Nine Love Letters & a novel, Pomeranski.
Gerald Jacobs, you were born in post-war Brixton? What sorts of books were in your family home?
I was actually born in Cheltenham, where my parents happened to be at the time but never lived there. I was brought up in the family home in Brixton. (I first made a conscious visit to Cheltenham when I was about thirty, and was very taken with it.)
We had a limited but varied amount of books on our two or three bookshelves. We made full, regular use of the local Carnegie Library. My father was not a great reader beyond books about the Second World War. There were a few, infrequently consulted religious prayer books and a Bible. My mother read novels and poetry. I loved reading a comic series called Classics Illustrated — picture-frame versions of Dickens, Dumas, Walter Scott etc. I also borrowed my mother’s Agatha Christie novels and read the wonderful comics consisting of pages of words without pictures: Wizard; Hotspur; Rover; and Adventure.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
In no particular order, across a wide age range and varying kinds of impact: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe; Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift; The Splendid Savage by Conrad Sayce; Black Beauty by Anna Sewell; the Just William books by Richmal Crompton; Silas Marner by George Eliot; Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner; Dracula by Bram Stoker; the Greyfriars School/Billy Bunter series; Biggles by W. E. Johns, and too many others to remember and doubtless quite a few that, if I was shown them now wouldn’t recall at all.
Tell us about how you kickstarted your career as a journalist, literary critic and writer?
I suppose it goes back to my involvement in student journalism at Cambridge. Then, after a postgraduate course — during which time I reviewed books for the Jewish Chronicle when the great Tosco Fyvel was the literary editor — I did some teaching before being employed by IPC and working on Woman’s Own magazine, principally in the Agony Aunt/Problem department.
At the same time, I did quite a bit of freelance work for the JC and others, left Woman’s Own and went full-time freelance, part of which still involved reviewing books but also theatre, until the editor of the JC, Geoffrey Paul, called me in and —in a warm and decidedly unmafiosa way — made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I became employed on the news desk with freedom also to write for other papers.
For a period, during a long career with the JC, I was its deputy theatre critic and this led to my first book, when Weidenfeld & Nicolson commissioned me to write Judi Dench’s first authorised biography — if she agreed, which fortunately she did.
Over the years, I wrote articles — book reviews, interviews and opinion pieces — for a range of publications including the Independent, New Statesman, Spectator, Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Times Literary Supplement and so on.
To what extent is being a critic essential training for a would-be writer?
If you mean a professional critic, then it isn’t at all essential. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anybody becoming, or even just wanting to become, a writer without having confidence in his or her own critical faculties, developed through reading, whether inside or outside the educational system. Or without enthusiasm for books, for stories, for language. Or without making choices and comparisons between different kinds of writing. As T. S. Eliot, said, “Criticism is as inevitable as breathing.”
Tell us about your latest novel, Pomeranski, and what inspired you to write it.
The principal characters and their actions are invented, so Pomeranski is not an autobiographical novel. However the atmosphere is not invented. The book is set in an actual place and time: Brixton in the 1950s and ’60s.
I was prompted to write it by a fascination with the idea and apparent compulsiveness of revenge, and also with the concept of autodidacticism, educating oneself to a high level outside the system.
But these are underlying themes. More explicitly, there is a passionate love affair, at least one murder and a sub-plot set in Jamaica.
How closely do the characters in Pomeranski resemble those you knew in real life when you were growing up?
Some do, and there are one or two real-life characters, but none among the central cast, which contains a considerable number of individuals, is based on a real person.
The women are good looking, resilient and funny about men’s inadequacies, while the men are operators and sexual beings and oddly hopeless as companions. This informs much of the banter and sharp repartee in the novel. Is a novelist’s mastery of dialogue the same as that of a playwright?
Your question begs a few others, about the nature of dialogue, the respective structures of novels and plays etc.
Dialogue is the bloodstream of a play whereas it is entirely possible for a novel, or, more realistically, a novella or short story, to be written without dialogue. And what about first-person narrative — is that dialogue?
My own feeling is that dialogue is an important element of novel-writing but it is not the be-all and end-all. Many publishers and even agents have an unexamined mantra these days — “more show, less tell” — by which they mean that dialogue is far more important than description or exposition. I fear that they are often led by sales directors into a somewhat negative view of potential and actual readers: that they have short attention spans and want to get on with the action and forget the thought.
This is very sad because it indicates that many of the greatest novelists, from George Eliot to Thomas Mann, would have little or no chance of being published were they writing today.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I mentioned in an earlier answer the importance of having confidence in your relationship with words, and if it is strong enough it will drive you forward.
Don’t be afraid, plunge right in and start writing. Don’t worry about how good it is or how good other people would think it is, or whether or not the story or idea you have in your head is of interest to others. If it interests you enough to put pen to paper, then there will be others who share your interest.
But always take time to stop and take stock, and carefully read through the passage of prose you have created. Does it always make sense? Is it too rushed? If you have written something for the first time and, when you read it back, you don’t think it needs any correction or honing (sometimes over and over again), I suggest you get up from your desk, go away and make a cup of coffee and look again, with new eyes, at your effort.
And never be afraid to show it to someone else whose opinion you trust and respect. Feedback can be the gateway to improvement. The recent emergence of new, smaller independent publishers is heartening for hopefuls.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they?
There are only three I know anything about. Two are good and have produced some capable graduates. The third was appalling. Useless.
None of them, however good, can make tea from a leaky kettle. If there is a complete lack of talent, it is probably impossible to instil any.
Your views about the internet, social media and technology?
The internet is an example of humanity’s astonishing capacity for discovery, invention and growth. Social media largely displays humanity’s propensity for malice and small-mindedness. Technology is a necessary factor in humanity’s ways of living and developing. Stone-age tools and the wheel are examples of technology as well as present-day research in neuronal mechanics
Literary journals: do you have favourites?
I only have time for the TLS and the LRB, but even then not always. Although the recent arrival, The Critic, is a cultural, rather than literary magazine, it’s worth giving it a mention.
Five favourite feature films?
Casablanca. Once Upon a Time in the West. Guys and Dolls. Shakespeare in Love, Radio Days.
That’s today’s answer. If you were to come back and ask me again tomorrow, I’d doubtless give you a different answer (though I’d always include Casablanca. Oh, and I forgot to mention Goodfellas).
Five favourite musicians or bands?
Max Tundra (my son Ben’s alter ego), Tunng (my daughter is the band’s girl singer), Luciano Pavarotti, Erroll Garner, Sarah Vaughan. Again, come back again tomorrow and my answer will change.
Your bedside reading?
Proust : Swann in Love
Your chief fault?
Keeping too many balls in the air at the same time, which renders me indecisive. Or does it?
Your chief characteristic?
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