Denis Lipman is the author of the travel memoir A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns. This is a charming book that was reviewed last week on BlogCritics and it will certainly appeal to anglophiles. Denis has agreed to take some time out today to tell us about his book and how he came to write a book after working as a playwright.
Can you tell us a little about A Yank Back To England?
First, thank you for having me, I really appreciate it. Now, to answer your question, I come from Dagenham, in the far East End of London. It’s by the River Thames, but it’s not the bucolic part immortalized by Kenneth Graham or even Inspector Morse. My end was industrial, more carbolic than bucolic. I was happy to leave and, once I moved to the States, I only returned to England for duty visits. I loved to see my folks and friends, but I was ambivalent about going back to the green and occasionally pleasant land of my birth.
Then I fell in love and married an American. My wife, Frances, was happy to come to England, spend time with my family, but she also wants to see sights and tour. Tour? That was the last thing I wanted to do! And she wanted to see the countryside. As a townie that really freaked me out!
But Frances was insistent, and so I became a reluctant tourist in my old home. We rented cottages in various country or seaside spots, and we made my ancient, cantankerous, and funny parents tag along. And what I discovered was quite a revelation. I not only fell in love with my country but reconnected with my family in a very special way. And that is what “A Yank Back To England” is all about. I hope readers will find it amusing, and perhaps see something of themselves as well their own parents and family.
This is your first book. How long did it take you to write?
The book took about five years to write. I was just writing in the evenings and at weekends, so it took awhile.
As someone who is living in England, I can say that England is such a peculiar little country at times with bad service, impossible weather and dodgy restaurants. Tell us a bit more about that.
Yes, England can be a funny place in more ways than one. The weather, seems to turn on a dime, going from good to bad to bleak to beautiful, all within the course of a day! As for the food. Well. We cooked a lot in our cottages, and that was fun and sometimes fraught with near disaster. But of course we did go out on occasion, to savor that cornerstone of British cuisine — Indian food!
What was your favorite location?
As an arrogant townie without much interest in places without a metro system, street lights, theatres, movies, restaurants, and wine bars, no one was more surprised than I was to discover how much I enjoyed the English countryside. Press me further and I would say Broadstairs, Rye, and Sandwich were my most favorite places to visit. In terms of cottages, Frances really loved the Carriage house, the home of Baroness Orczy. The Carriage House was a treasure, but for me, I must say Madrigal cottage was my favorite. This was like living in storybook England: we had a beautiful location, gorgeous weather and, best of all, we were within easy distance of some of our favorite locales.
Have any of the family that you featured in the book read it?
Some of my cousins in England and Canada are currently reading the book, including Kevin “the repairman” we meet up with in Year 5. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years, but we’ve stayed in touch and quite like each other! My brother has read the bits with him in it, and he thinks it’s “on the money” and somewhat hilarious.
In the time of your book, your daughter Kate was a baby first and then a toddler. Does she remember any of the trips?
Kate has fuzzy memories of my folks as she was very young at the time. She does remember our recent trips but not the ones in the book. I hope A Yank Back to England will keep my parents, her grandparents, alive for her when she’s an adult.
Now a bit about the author, how did you come to write the book?
One year we were looking at some holiday snaps and remembering some of our madcap, even bizarre adventures. Frances said I should write it up. So I wrote a few chapters and she gave me the thumbs up. As I pressed on, the story evolved and what had started as a typical travel book became more of a memoir as my family took center stage.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I’d never written prose before, so it was a bit of a challenge but I got into it. My first efforts had a lot more dialog and not much prose, so I learned to adjust. One thing that might be interesting in terms of process — I had originally meant to start the year with the first cottage (in Rattlesden), but I found I kept having to “explain” things about my family and about Dagenham, so I ended up going back and separating what I’d written into two parts, with the time before Kate was born becoming Year One and Rattlesden becoming Year Two.
All writers have strange habits and things they do when they are writing. What are yours?
Strange writing habits? Well, I try and do anything I can to avoid writing. I suppose that’s not a strange habit, but it is a bit perverse. I do research, that’s a good time filler. Making tea is another. Then I scribble endlessly in notebooks, which invariably proves to be a futile exercise because my handwriting is so atrocious even I can’t read what I’ve written. In short, I try and do anything to avoid sitting down and actually doing the work. When I do finally get down to writing, I listen to classical music, or jazz, or sometimes nothing at all. But I do tend to write behind closed doors, so I can nap out and no one knows. And if I’m writing dialog, I tend to speak it out loud, so it’s better to be out of earshot.
You had a fascinating career before you became a writer, can you tell us a bit about that?
Before I became a writer, I was a magician and a magic dealer selling special effects to professional entertainers and serious amateurs. I actually published a book on conjuring! I also published reprints of old magical theatrical posters. When I was 20 I toured around the States performing magic, making gobs of money and discovering the sinful delights of the hot fudge sundae!
I also wrote song lyrics, even lived on one song for a couple of years! I also co-managed and produced a boy band, wrote plays and the odd film script, produced a spoken word album for kids, and was a member of the RSC writers workshop. Generally I was having a jolly good time gadding about London, spending the odd weekend in Paris, and being wonderfully irresponsible.
Before all that, I was a kid in a deadbeat school destined for the printing trade. I would have spent five years learning to be a typesetter, which would have been akin to learning to put struts into a Zeppelin! Fortunately, I quit my apprenticeship after three days and went back to work at the magic shop. Much more fun. I was fifteen at the time.
Can you tell us about your time as a playwright?
I got into theatre after several heartbreaking experiences in the movie business. The film world is a nefarious one, at best. Naively I thought I’d fare better in theater. After all, theatres existed, with buildings and four walls. So I wrote a play, A Moment of Life, and sent it along to the Royal Shakespeare Company. They liked it, and it was showcased at The Other Place theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. I thought it would always be that easy!
After that I was invited to join the RSC’s writers workshop. I developed a good relationship with the Royal Court, which was interested in a play I was writing. I was on the cusp as they say but, sadly, it transpired I was on the cusp of nothing! Besides, I was getting dangerously low on funds and the need to find a real job was really pressing. After I moved to the States, I developed a great relationship with a fringe-type theatre in Washington DC, which produced a number of my plays in its summer festivals. Never made any money, but I got to see my stuff done and even won an award or two.
Always loved the process of seeing a play come to life and then re-writing the thing! I also liked working with actors, we have some great ones in Washington.
Are you still writing plays?
Funny you should ask that! I’m actually dramatizing certain scenes from A Yank Back To England for a theatrical presentation, with actors playing various parts. Don’t know how it will work out but we’ll be performing the piece at the Arts Club of Washington and at Barnes & Noble in New York, on Broadway, no less! So we’ll see how that goes… (if anyone is interested, dates and times can be found on our website, http://ayankbacktoengland.com/prodigaltourist).
How did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Never imagined myself as a writer. It all happened by chance. I actually wanted to work in movies! Not as an actor or anything like that, but behind the scenes. I met Cy Endfield, a film director and a keen amateur magician, an American living very nicely in England, having made a number of British films, then a break-out movie called Zulu. He would come around on occasion to the magic shop where I worked. On one such visit I plucked up courage and asked him for a job, I said I’d be a tea boy, errand boy, anything!
Cynically, he told me that was impossible because the unions had every job sewn up and I would not be able to break in. He suggested, rather flippantly, that I write a screenplay and build a picture around that. I was around 18, 19 at the time, and quite naïve, so I wrote a screenplay and sent it to him. A month later, he called me up, said there was a lot wrong with the script, but it had promise and I had an “ear” for dialog. I was amazed! So I wrote more, quit the magic game, and went to work for Cy full time,
At first I was just a general dogs-body but eventually we ended up collaborating on scripts together. He was a harsh critic but I learnt a lot from him. And he had a mine of Hollywood stories from the Forties which I loved to hear. And of course, by this time, I never wanted to do anything other than write.
Who or what has been your main inspiration?
My main inspiration was Cy, I suppose, but I greatly admired the writing and direction of Billy Wilder, Joe Mankiewicz, and Orson Welles.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a young adult adventure thriller. Very different. And I rather like it, because I can invent freely as I go along. Very different from writing a memoir but a lot of fun. With luck I may finish it by this time next year. I’m a slow writer.
Who are your favorite authors?
So many. My top faves? if cast on a desert island I would want books by Lawrence Durrell, Somerset Maugham, Gore Vidal, Arthur Koestler, Erich Maria Remarque, Scott Fitzgerald, E.F. Benson, Oscar Wilde, and Beryl Bainbridge.
What are you reading currently?
For a few years now, I’ve been listening to a composer of serious music called Bruce Montgomery. I recently discovered he also wrote mysteries under the name of Edmund Crispin. And he’s awfully good. I’m rather enjoying The Case of The Gilded Fly. He wrote three other mysteries and can’t wait to read those, too.
Can you tell us about the promotional stuff you’ve done for the book?
We’ve done several events at bookstores, which were very successful — at one, they ran out my book! That was exciting. We’ve also approached several groups we thought might be interested in hosting an event, like the English Speaking Union and the Arts Club of Washington. On the internet, Frances started a blog with deleted scenes from the book, recipes, pictures, etc. It’s called England Rents, Rants, & Raves. After the book came out, we set up a website, and I also have a recipe column on Anglotopia.net and we both maintain a fairly active presence on Shelfari/Goodreads.
Frances has been doing the bulk of the marketing, as well as editing all my stuff. She’s phenomenal. Meanwhile, I’m trying to write a new book. And during the day we try to earn a living running our advertising agency, The Creative Shop.
In arketing terms, what is working, and what is not?
In terms of instant impact, traditional outlets probably still work the best, but they are very difficult to get — I did an interview on BBC America, for example, and reached such a huge audience in minutes! We saw immediate impact on the Amazon ranking. Obviously, we are trying to get the word out about the book in any way we can — traditional and new media, YouTube, blogs, websites, book events, or just talking to people we meet and handing out business cards — it all helps and it all counts. It all gets down to word of mouth, and getting the word out is quite a challenge. Trying to figure out what is working and what is not working is hard to say, especially in the ether world. Yet, even so, I think the blog worked very well, we discovered a lot of readers and we’ve even made some good and caring friends via the blogs and sites we visit. And despite the work and time involved it’s all been a lot of fun.
Actor Michael York read and reviewed the book, and he is quoted on the cover. How did you get the quote from Michael York?
A good friend of ours, a very talented actor and producer, had helmed a wonderful audio production of Enoch Arden with Michael York. Our friend, Kryztov, read and loved the “Yank” manuscript and made the introduction to Michael York for us. Michael really enjoyed it and, as an expat himself, he saw many similarities and points of reference. Getting a quote from him was very exciting, and flattering of course, as he has a hectic schedule. We felt very fortunate he took the time to read the book and give us such a lovely quote—he said my characters had a “Dickensian vivacity,” what more could a writer ask for than to be compared to Dickens?
How can people contact you?
Our website is http://ayankbacktoengland.com. It has a wealth of information on it, including links to the blog, many of the places we visited, and our contact info. And, a real-life fan actually started a Denis Lipman Fan Page on Facebook! How great is that — like I said, we’ve met some great people this past year, and we’re looking forward to meeting more. Maybe even in England.