Today we welcome Douglas McPherson.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Douglas McPherson: I live in the countryside in Norfolk, England, in a former village hall that was founded by a Victorian writer called Augustus Jessopp. He was a vicar but also a keen historian and wrote a number of books including one that I have, called Tales of a Recluse, which is a humorous account of his dealings with his parishioners. I’m a full time writer and when I’m not at my keyboard I enjoy doing practical open-air things like cutting and trimming trees on my property (I have an awful lot of apple trees!), but that’s all part of the writing process, really. I find some of my best ideas come to me while I’m away from the screen doing something else.
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written? What are they about and why did you choose to write them? Do your books have a message? Are they fiction or nonfiction?
Douglas McPherson: My current book is a new updated edition of Circus Mania, a non-fiction account of my journey behind the scenes of the circus world that includes interviews with clowns, acrobats, sword-swallowers and animal trainers. I wrote it after interviewing aerialist Eva Garcia just days before she fell and died during her act. The tragedy made me want to find out why performers like her risk their lives for our entertainment. The book was first published by Peter Owen in 2010 and we’ve just brought out a 2nd edition to mark next year’s 250th anniversary of the first circus. The new edition has a new cover and an extra chapter that brings all the stories in the book up to date. I’ve also written four romance novels under the pen name Julia Douglas, which are available in libraries and also as ebooks through my blog http://www.juliadouglasromance.blogspot.co.uk .
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress?
Douglas McPherson: Most of my day-to-day writing is journalism. I write features for a wide range of newspapers and magazines from the Daily Telegraph to Classic Pop. I also write short stories and serials for women’s magazines including My Weekly and the People’s Friend.
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Douglas McPherson: Oh, they’ve all got difficult sections – bits you have to batter and batter against until you get them right. It’s a mixture of trying to figure out what you really want to say and the most precise way of saying it. It’s always a challenge, but it’s an enjoyable challenge in the way that playing chess is a challenge.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Douglas McPherson: My biggest research always comes from interviewing people. If you want to know about lion taming, talk to a lion tamer. You’ll get much more insight and understanding of a subject from talking to an expert for half an hour than you will get from days of reading up on it.
Book ‘Em: Which books and authors do you read for pleasure? Is there an author that inspires you?
Douglas McPherson: Nick Tosches was the biggest influence on me as a non-fiction writer. His book Hellfire – The Jerry Lee Lewis Story is a biography written with the verve of a novel – it’s as colourful and passionate as its subject and, to me, sets the bar for music journalism. As a storyteller I was very inspired by Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, but also by the lyrics of Chris Difford (Squeeze). His song Up The Junction has an economy of storytelling that I’ve always striven to emulate.
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
Douglas McPherson: The first piece of writing I ever sold was a review in Country Music People and its editor was a big part of my learning process as a writer during my many years of writing for him. He didn’t tell me much in the way of advice, but he gave me tremendous freedom, which I think a writer needs to find to their feet.
Book ‘Em: What would you say are your strengths as an author?
Douglas McPherson: A magazine editor told me that what he liked about my work was that I always told a story. So that’s what I always focus on. Whether it’s an article or a book, always be telling a story.
Book ‘Em: How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?
Douglas McPherson: I write every day. I’m not an early riser, but I like to get to my laptop by mid-morning and get stuck into whatever needs writing that day and get a good chunk done before I check emails or think about any domestic chores that need doing. Get the writing done first is my motto. Distractions can come later.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Douglas McPherson: My favourite quote comes from the country singer Willie Nelson. Early in his career, his drummer asked him, “How long do you think we’ll have to keep playing these little clubs?” Willie replied, “For the rest of our lives, if we’re lucky.” That’s how I see writing. It’s not about where you’re going to get, it’s about doing it because it’s what you enjoy. As long as I’m still writing and people are still paying me for it, I’ll be happy, whether it’s five, ten or twenty years from now.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Douglas McPherson: Pick the subject that you’re most interested in and write the book, short story or article that you’d most like to read about that subject if only someone else had written it.
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Douglas McPherson: That they couldn’t put it down.
Book ‘Em: Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.
Douglas McPherson: This is an extract from Circus Mania:
I look around and realise that the rows of tiered seats behind me are going to remain empty. Mr and Mrs Wood and the whole Wood family, as circus folk describe a tent with more empty furniture than patrons. But as the lights go down it ceases to matter. In a theatre, you would feel the emptiness of a poorly attended house, sapping the atmosphere. The big top, by contrast, seems to close snugly around us, emphasising only our proximity to the ring and the impending action. The sense of anticipation is palpable. I can feel the excitement not just in myself but those around me, especially the little kids, who are standing in front of their seats in expectation. I can see it in those opposite me, on the far side of the ring.
The spotlights converge on the closed dark red velvet curtains – the ring doors. Behind a desk off to the side, Lacey puts the music on – and that’s when something extraordinary happens.
The music is Entrance of the Gladiators, the 100-year-old circus theme tune that, next to Happy Birthday To You, must be a contender for the most recognisable piece of music on the planet. Few might know it by title or be able to name its composer, the unfortunately surnamed Julius Fucík, but say “circus music” to anybody and they’ll dum-dum-dummy-dummy-dum-dum-da-da it to you with a smile on their face.
It’s a piece of music so predictable that a modern, cirque-style show wouldn’t play it in a million years. I should find it unspeakably naff – or, at the very least, ironic and amusing. But within the big top, with the trampled mud, the sawdust and the whiff of horses and camels, it hits me harder than any piece of music I have ever heard. 250 years of tradition, the circus magic, call it what you will – it hits me like a train.
Even typing this a month later, just remembering that moment brings a lump the size of a tennis ball to my throat and I feel the tears welling up behind my eyes.
This is the real deal, that simple little piece of music says to me. This is circus, undiluted and unashamed. It’s down, it’s marginalised and there’s not much of it left… but it’s alive, it’s powerful and it will live on.
The new edition of Circus Mania can be ordered from: http://www.peterowen.com/shop/circus-mania