x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The bloke grows up

The writer Tony Parsons explains how the various stages of his life can be traced through his books.

Tony Parsons winces slightly when reminded that he once answered an advertisement for "hip young gunslingers" to work on the music magazine New Musical Express. These days, he says, at the age of 56 he's more like an "old man with rheumatoid arthritis". Actually he looks pretty fit in all senses of the word, does a bit of sparring at the gym, still kicks the occasional football, eats healthily and is altogether a different creature from the pale, wan and underfed young man who used to hang out with punk bands and made a name for himself as part of a cool young set of writers and journalists epitomising the Groucho Club urban intellectual chic of Eighties London.

"You couldn't pay me to go to the Groucho Club these days," he says, although he admits he never quite shook off the gunslinger tag. "I don't know if you do ever shake it off." The other person who answered the same advertisement was Parsons's first wife, the controversial columnist and author Julie Burchill, who seems to have carved out a second career pouring verbal vitriol over her ex. Parsons just shrugs, clearly unbothered: "It was all such a long time ago. Julie and I were best friends once, we answered the same ad and started work as journalists together, living in unbelievable squalor to begin with. I had no previous experience as a journalist but I had written this book called The Kids and just sent it to the editor. I don't think he ever read it but it impressed him enough to give me a job.

"I think people have forgotten all that now and I certainly don't think I'm still linked in people's minds with Julie. There was an entire magazine spread the other day without a single mention of her. I really don't think about any of it now. I live a very quiet life these days." Twenty years ago he met his Japanase second wife, Yuriko, at Heriot University where she was doing a post-graduate degree. They married in 1992 and have a seven-year-old daughter called Jasmine. "I was with a girlfriend but I just fell for her."

It was, however, the collapse of his fiery first marriage and his experiences as a single parent caring for his four-year-old son Robert and struggling to make a living as a journalist, that provided him with the rich vein of material that has allowed him to corner the market in contemporary male emotion and relationships, with novels such as his multi-million selling Man and Boy, which has been published in 41 languages. Since then there have been One for My Baby, Man and Wife, The Family Way, Stories We Could Tell and My Favourite Wife.

The latest, which was published this summer, is Starting Over, the story of a man who gets a second chance to get his life right. Parsons is currently doing the rounds of literary festivals including book signings as far afield as Belgrade and Hong Kong. "I sell incredible numbers of books in Serbia and Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. It really depends upon how good the translation is. You give the manuscript to one translator and he will work very hard to get it right because he likes the book. And you give it to another and he won't do it well because he is only being paid a couple of hundred euros. When the translation is good and someone has taken great care to get it as close to the original as possible I do feel I have an obligation to him to go out there and help publicise it," he says.

"I try to be a bit selective about where I go. The publicity trips could easily take over your life if you let it but I won't let it. If you aren't sitting alone in your room writing or thinking about writing, then you aren't doing what you are supposed to be doing. They are very much working trips so I don't take the family with me. "They're all very similar. The only place that it is different is in the US. You are rather abandoned to your fate there having been given a cheap air ticket to 20 cities. I did one tour of China and discovered that the Chinese are better at capitalism than the Americans are. They pay a lot of money for books."

We meet in the very English riverside town of Henley-on-Thames at the annual literary festival where patient queues of attractive young women stretch into the street at Parsons's book signings. He scribbles good wishes in book after book, politely engaging in conversation and showing none of the spiky arrogance of his younger days. "I know people used to think I was an arrogant so-and-so. People see you on a television show like the BBC arts show I used to do and it's easy for them to form that sort of impression. I'm really not like that at all.

"I think I'm quite soft really and I've always been that way. I love my children and love to spend time with them, but I still do the blokeish things, too. I like a good football match and I love to travel but I also like being at home with my family. Maybe that's just growing up. I think you can see the various stages of my life in my books, getting more grown-up all the time." Even the musical tastes of the writer who made his name chronicling the successes and disasters of punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Stranglers as well as Bruce Springsteen, the Stones and Blondie have broadened, and he can sometimes be found listening to the country singers Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and the Dixie Chicks, although, he says, "I still like the other stuff too".

Next year he will publish Men From Boys, the third book in the Harry Silver trilogy and there may be a future novel set in Dubai. "The new book is set in Shanghai. I like the process of learning about another place and I spend about a third of my time abroad. My publisher is very keen that I set one in Dubai because it's such an international hub and all types of people pass through the area. I don't know if that will happen, although I like foreign territory and expat societies, which I think are hotbeds of intrigue, but it's certainly something I'm considering."

Starting Over is the story of George Bailey, a 47-year-old policeman, husband and father, a little set in his ways, who has a hereditary heart condition that has relegated him to a desk job. His old partner tempts him out on a patrol that ends up with a bit too much excitement and the inevitable heart attack. When he wakes up in hospital he has been given the heart of a 19-year-old wild boy and his whole life changes, not always for the best.

As always Parsons weaves his own experiences with parents, wives, girlfriends and bringing up his son as a single man into the tale. His hero, George, is transformed from a strict father who breathalyses his son after nights out into a ripped-jeans-wearing free spirit who wants to change the world. Very soon his wife, son and daughter have had enough of a husband and father who's behaving like a teenager. They want the old George back.

Says Parsons: "It's a fantasy that many people dream about, going back and starting again only they get it right second time, but life isn't like that. Everybody else has grown up around George and that's what he has to come to terms with." He too had to do some pretty quick growing up when Burchill left him to bring up their son Robert. "It was unusual at the time but we just had to get on with it. It was hard suddenly to become the parent but we sort of grew up together. My parents helped a lot; in fact I wouldn't have been able to do it without them. In many ways they brought up both of us."

Robert has now moved into his own flat and Parsons admits he had a tricky few years raising a teenager. "The trouble is we were mates all those years and suddenly I was saying you can't do this and you can't do that. We're fine now though." Fatherhood the second time around is very different. Happily settled with Yuriko and without financial worries, Parsons clearly dotes on their daughter and walks her to school every day. "No question, daughters are different," he says. "I don't know if I'm a better or worse father but I'm lucky enough to be able to spend more time with Jasmine. She's a total joy and a mystery to me.

"In my father's day, men went out to work and women brought up the children. Actually, men didn't really know their kids very well. Men these days are thinking more about what it means to be a husband and father and about relationships." The main difference between his parents' generation and his own, he says, is that people don't feel they have to stay together in the same way. "I grew up in a stable home and I believe that two good parents are better than one although there are a lot of good single parents out there and we all do our best muddling through the best we can."

Like the main character of his latest novel, Parsons's father was a former Royal Navy commando, decorated in the war, and not given to public shows of emotion. "My father was a bit like George's father, not given to overt displays of affection. There's a moment when George wakes up in hospital and his dad is sitting there holding his hand. It's the sort of thing that might have happened once and that would be enough," he says. "He might have said 'I love you' once but there would have been none of this sort of saying it every day thing."

Parsons was born in London and spent the first five years of his life living with his parents in a rented flat above a shop in Romford before the family moved out to Billericay in Essex. His father worked as a lorry driver and greengrocer after he left the Marines and his mother was a school dinner lady. Parsons dropped out of grammar school at 16 and got a job at a factory making Gordon's Gin, working at nights on his first novel, which he describes as "adolescent rubbish". The book earned him £700, however, and got him the job on NME.

Ten years later when he started writing fiction seriously, Parsons thought he was writing for men and admits he was surprised and delighted to discover that his perspective on relationships has won him a devoted female readership. Man and Boy sold 250,000 copies in two months and continues to be a bestseller. "It was a bit of a slow burn and I was amazed when it took off the way it did," he says. "I had no idea that it was going to appeal to women and really only discovered it when they all turned up at book fairs and literary festivals in droves."

Financial success as a novelist and newspaper columnist has allowed him to indulge himself occasionally and attempt projects that interest him, such as a screenplay he is currently working on based on his book Stories We Could Tell about the night Elvis Presley died. "I just decided to do it on spec and I think it's good, but then I had a good teacher," he says, leaving an obvious question hanging in the air. It turns out that the teacher was the actress Julia Roberts, who bought the screen rights to another of his novels, Family Way, although the film was never made.

"I never actually met her," he adds, "but we talked on the phone. Her advice to me was simple. She said just punch three holes in the book. Don't try to be too visual or too self-conscious and stick to the essence of the book and don't lose the spirit of it." Tony Parsons has come a long way from the factory in Essex but you get the impression that he still has a long way to go.