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Sunday 6 February 2011

Interview With Weblog Award Nominee MR LONDON STREET

The great thing about blogging, is that anyone can do it. The bad thing about blogging is, also, that anyone can do it. That's precisely why it's such a great thing when you find someone whose writing resonates with you. Mr London Street is one of those bloggers.

What I like about Mr London Street, is that he just writes. He takes the things in his head and puts them down on the page. We all do this, but very few of us make an art of it. Mr London Street has a singular voice, yet is consistently able to write with uniqueness and originality. I was immensely happy to hear that his blog has been nominated in the 'Best European Blog' category at the 2011 Weblog Awards. You can vote for him here

As we are both nominees, and big fans of each others writing, we thought it'd be fun to interview each other, to learn a little bit more about what makes the other one tick. 

I've been reading your blog for a couple of years now, and I love it, but -- I still feel like I don't really know what it is. What is it? What are you writing about?

If I was in the mood to answer a question with a question I'd probably say: why does it matter? This strikes me as the sort of question they used to warn me would be on the paper of the entrance exam for Oxford University - there was such a paper, believe it or not, and some of the most infamous questions included Is this a question? (apparently the answers "No", "Yes", "No, therefore yes" were all considered to be frivolous) and Examine the idea that the history of a mouse is more worthwhile than the history of a mountain.

The honest answer to your question is that I don't know. I think my blog is about me, and that me has changed since I started writing nearly two years ago. At first, it was just a place to write funny stories from my past, or bits and pieces from my day at work or with my friends. Gradually, since then, the way I write and the sort of writer I am has changed. Now there are more ambitious ideas, longer pieces or things that open up a bit more from the specific to the general. And in the process I suppose what I write has become more relatable.

I am very loath to say more than that, and I worry that trying to talk about what writing is about starts to creep into the pretension where you stop talking about plots and start talking about themes. I suppose if I had to try to sum it up - and I'm surprised by how uncomfortable I feel trying to do this - I would say that if my writing is about anything it is about the beauty and universality of a lot of things that usually get the undeserved tag of 'mundane', and about how wonderful it is to have a sense of home and of feeling at home in your life - whether that's in a community, in the comfort of quotidian routines or in marriage.

How do you get ideas for your posts? I'd love to hear about the process; from a seed of an idea through to the posting on your site.

They vary very widely, and I find that interesting in itself. Some experiences, even as I'm having them, I know I am going to write about and those pieces tend to come out very quickly from a single image or a single idea in one go. A good example of that would be something like The couple in the mall or Immediacy. Both of those were written pretty much on the spot on my phone, there and then, because I had the idea and I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I would say quite a few of the shorter posts are at least a little bit like that.

Longer, more complicated posts are different. The experience has more time to percolate and I give them more thought, often writing the post in several attempts or across several different forms. So there may be a bunch of bullet points hastily jotted down on my phone so I don't forget, or a series of notes scribbled in a notepad, or a few paragraphs or sentences here and there that I know I want to use. These pieces are the harder ones to write. When they are written in several different goes I always worry that people can tell - that they look like one of those Frankenstein cars made of two cars welded together and that everybody can clearly see the join in the middle, that one half is red and the other half is gold, different makes, different models. Of course, they don't notice, or in any case if they do they are very kind and don't tell me. A good example of this would be Life on other planets which was made out of lots of different things - a series of notes on my phone made at the time when I was out in Istanbul, the first third of the post written out about a week later and then the rest written a couple of days after that. If it looks like it flows coherently than that in itself is a minor miracle.

Someone asked me once in the comments whether my blog posts are a stream of consciousness written quickly in one go and published or carefully worked on. She then said "actually, don't tell me". She might want to look away now, but I put an element of care into all of them. Whenever I've written something I go through and check it again before I hit publish. I check whether it makes sense. I check for spelling mistakes. I check for empty phrases I repeat throughout the post, or words I use again and again, and I get rid of or change them. I think about whether I've said things how I want to say them. I think however good a piece is when you write it, a little bit of attention before you hit the publish button can make it even better. And I almost regret telling you this because it sort of sounds sad, but I take what I write seriously. You'd be surprised, too, by how many I change one or two words on after I've hit that button.

I'm not sure if I've completely answered your question so to give you one more example - my most recent post is called Chemistry and is a portrait of a man I work with. When I went down to meet him, I kind of had a feeling as the day unfolded that I found him and our relationship interesting, and I thought I would write about it. There were little details - the conversation I had with him about him feeling ill, the rosary beads hanging from the corner of his monitor - that made me think about our complicated relationship and my compassion for him despite our turbulent working interactions. I think I made the decision at that point that there was something there worth writing about.

On the train home I made some mental notes and jotted down some bullet points (rosary beads/indigestion/conference calls - "let me finish") so I wouldn't forget the sort of things I wanted to mention. Then I had a crack at writing some of it longhand - which doesn't always happen - and sat on it for about another day. Then all the other parts came together when I sat down at my laptop and tried to make it into a single piece capturing everything I wanted to say about him, whether it was things that had happened that day or stuff I remembered from two years of working with him. The image which kind of sits over and wraps up the post, of us being molecules, came right at the end and felt like solving a puzzle because that was exactly how I wanted to describe what happens between him and I. Last of all, I showed it to my wife before hitting the publish button. That's something which happens quite often these days; a baffled look from her means I probably need to make some changes.

There is a real feeling of community with your blog. Every post has an abundance of comments and conversations going on. Was this something you planned, or is it just how it's happened?

It's happened without me planning it at all and it takes me quite by surprise because I still don't really think of myself as a community-spirited type. In particular, I'm a shocking citizen of the blogosphere - I'm not good at joining clubs or cliques and nowhere near as good at dropping by other people's blogs and commenting as I should be.

I've also never been one of those bloggers who finishes a post with a question in italics saying What do you think? or Have you ever had an experience like this? That strikes me as like getting to the end of a television show and hearing the voiceover man give you a premium rate number to ring if you've been affected by any of the issues featured in the episode. I try to make the pieces I publish stand alone, in the hope that you can read one or a dozen and understand what they're about without having had to read for months. In a way, that's inclusive because it means anyone can start anywhere, but I also thought it might create less of a community spirit in that there are less running jokes, less of a feeling like you're a member of a club.

So I have to say I'm amazed, despite all of that preamble, that I'm so lucky to have a lot of people who read, and come back, and comment letting me know that they have. And you're right that they are all incredibly supportive - I feel like they care about what I write, and feel like they are rooting for me, and that they feel like they know me and that, if they lived nearby, we might be friends. I don't understand people who would find that odd - of course I want people who read my blog to feel as if they know me, because my blog is about me. I suppose if I'm aiming for anything it's twofold - I want never to put anything up on my blog that I'm not happy with and I want to be the blog in everybody's blogroll that they most look forward to seeing a new post from.

That said, I have got a lot more community spirited in the two years since I started. I try and reply to all my comments (even if the only thing you can think to say is "thanks!"), I always thank people who are commenting for the first time and I genuinely like and try to remember the fact that all these people not only spent time in their lives reading something I created but also took the extra time to tell me they read it. Or - and this always moves me more than I'd necessarily tell them - that they read it more than once.

You once told me that you're not interested in writing novels. Is this still the case? What is the ideal goal with your writing?

I get nagged by friends about writing fiction quite a lot, but I still don't have any interest in it. I'd feel silly making things up. I know that I could probably make more headway if I wrote fiction, and that there are more places that I could try to have my work published, but I can't be something I'm not. Maybe when I run out of things I want to say about my life I'll start writing about other people, or me disguised as other people, but I can't see when that point will come. I'm certainly not there yet.

I suppose it will be a big leap if it happens; I remember the first time I wrote something on my blog that was a departure from the fairly superficial tone I started out with (a piece called Opening the time capsule). I had a nasty feeling that I was taking an incredible risk and that everybody would laugh. Writing fiction would feel an awful lot like that to me.

I don't know what the ideal goal with my writing is. I will say this though, as time goes by I am increasingly struck by how important it is to me and how seriously I take it. For years the only thing I was proud about and passionate about in my life was my marriage - if you'd asked me, I would have unquestionably have said that it was my finest achievement. And it still is, but it's nice to have something in second place on the podium (however far behind) because for many years there was nothing at all.

One of my problems is that I don't think there is a market for the sort of writing I do and there's still a huge amount of snobbery about writing in the blogosphere as if writing in a blog by definition can't be real writing, it's just something you do when you're not doing proper writing (something not helped by the fact that "real" writers, when they do have blogs, generally make such a bad job of them). So I suppose the ideal goal is that one day somebody with some influence in publishing takes an interest in my writing and decides there is a niche in the market for someone who's not as funny as David Sedaris, doesn't write as long pieces as Augusten Burroughs, is a lot more male than Sloane Crosley and is considerably less American than all three.

Maybe one day. But until then I love doing what I do, and even if I never get paid for it I wouldn't stop. No offence to you, because your question is a very interesting one, but I do get a bit tired with "when are you going to write a novel?" as if that was the only kind of writing that has any validity.

I feel like you really put yourself on the line with your writing. Your writing is you, and you are your writing. Especially as, these aren't works of complete fiction-- they come from your life. So it must be hurtful when people don't get it, or when the comments aren't as favourable as you'd hoped. Does criticism trouble you? And also, I guess an extra question is -- do you KNOW when your writing is ON, and when you're having an OFF day?

It was the first time, the first time hurt. I wrote a piece, it must have been this time last year, about how soul-destroying it could be working on an industrial estate when you spend all your school days being told you could do anything you wanted. And nearly everyone was so lovely - they either said they thought I could do anything (which shows they've never seen me dance, if nothing else), or they said "me too! this isn't fair", or some mixture of the two. One person though commented anonymously (they are nearly always anonymous, aren't they?) saying - and I'm paraphrasing here - that it was ridiculous of me to say so, as if I thought I was better than everyone else. I found that very difficult.

Since then, it's got a lot easier. First of all, my writing is a big part of my life and I put a lot of myself into my writing, but it isn't all of me. If people don't like it they may think they don't like me, but they don't know me. It helps that the criticism I have had in blog posts since then is from people who clearly haven't read my writing but are just having a go because I have fallen out with their friends in the past. Two years of writing, and knowing that I am getting better, and getting the sort of comments you want to print out, frame and put on your wall makes this sort of thing far more comfortable to bear.

Harder are the times when people don't get it or when you really feel like you nailed it and everybody else seems less convinced. That is difficult, yes. But the first law of blogging is that the ones you love are never the ones that get the most comments. The second law of blogging is that you never get as many comments as you think you should. The third law is that when you get enough comments, you'll always think they are the wrong kind. People will say "I liked that, me too" (which, when it boils down to it, are the two sentiments most likely to make anybody put a comment on) and any blogger will look at that and think: Is that IT? Why didn't they comment about how beautifully I put this, or quote their favourite sentence back at me? We are an ungrateful breed. So I always try to bear in mind that nobody has forced anyone to read my stuff - especially the longer stuff, which I know is quite big by blog standards - or indeed to take the time to say that they liked it, and I remember all those equally excellent writers who don't get anywhere near as many comments as me, or got discouraged and gave up. And I count my blessings and try and do better next time.

Your last question is in some ways the easiest one. I know when I'm having an off day because I can't write, or can't finish what I've started. When that happens I walk away from the page and do something else. I try never to put anything up on my blog that I'm not proud of in some way or another and, although I have my favourites, I am happy that I've done that - however much that makes me sound like a wanker.

You can read Mr London Street's interview with me by clicking here.


  1. MLS -

    You were right - I got quite a bit out of that and enjoyed it immensely. I'm going to attempt your note taking method, as my biggest issue seems to be bridging the gaps in posts that span several days.

    I especially loved your laws of blogging, which are dead on, and the observation that we are an ungrateful breed. Made me smile because it's so true.

    And great questions from Kid. Well done.

  2. Thanks - I also find that some experiences make a great first half of a blog post and then sit around on my computer for weeks waiting to be finished. I always have at least a couple of those.

    Thanks to The Kid for having me. Interview posts are always tricky as for some reason they don't seem to get tons of comments, so I hope people do at least check out the rest of this excellent blog.

  3. Kid - Brilliant interview.
    And to MLS- I never did check your response to my query as to your writing process. I'm glad I didn't "look away" here. Now I know you are flesh and bone, and that I am not all neuroses - that is, with respect to editing. (But fear not, you are still pure magic to me.)

  4. You guys have both been disarmingly honest with each other, and that's refreshing. I did wonder if these interviews would be a bit self congratulatory, but they've had some interesting thoughts on the creative/writing process.

  5. A great dual interview which has opened up a new blogger for me to follow, and I am a bit of a film buff (although very amateur). So thank you MLS, your answers gave me new insight into your writing, which I always enjoy, and a new and very different blog to read - Kid In The Front Row.

  6. First of all I have to tell you that this is a brilliant idea and that I loved reading both interviews. You both gave me much to think about and I'm grateful for this.

    @MLS - Thanks for telling us (me) the blogging laws :) It's all truth what you wrote. I really liked your answers.

    @The Kid - I really liked your questions.
    I'm a new follower (found you via MLS) and I'm looking forward to reading your future (and previous) posts.

  7. I really do enjoy interview posts, especially this one. There is so much I wanted to know and you answered them in such detail that I do feel like I begin to know you a bit, and that's pretty cool.

    I wanted to thank "Kid" for his excellent questions too.

  8. Both these interviews have been refreshing - in that they are without artifice.

    MLS is my favourite writer; a day when his name pops up in my sidebar is always a joy.
    And here he has been as honest as ever.

  9. I'm really glad I read these posts, I've found both of the interviews immensely interesting and enjoyable. You both write with such honesty about your process and as someone who is only tentatively starting to declare himself a writer I find it reassuring to read that other much better writers are juggling with the same thoughts and issues.

  10. Very interesting. Posts like this make me excited about writing a blog again.

  11. Great questions Kid especially the last one.

    MLS - fascinating answers which helped me to get to know you a bit more. I'm in total agreement with "even if I never get paid for it I wouldn't stop."

  12. I am really impressed by both of the interviews. I just feel you really brought out the best in each other. I have enjoyed following Mr London Street and am now looking forward to following this blog also.

  13. MLS,
    I don't think it's sad at all that you edit your posts or recheck things before clicking Publish. I also change one word after publishing (more than once sometimes) and Update posts after having published. I find that to be a refreshing and perfectionist tendency--a good thing. Not something to apologize for. More people should do it, IMHO.

    You're a cream-of-the-crop writer, MLS, and wish all the best for you in your writing career however you choose to proceed.

    Great interview, Kid, and best wishes for a happy and bright future.

  14. OWO - Thank you. I wouldn’t prescribe a method for anyone - we all have to use what works for us - but I’ll be interested to see if this one works for you.

    Jayne - I think editing is underrated in blogging. There seems to be a conspiracy that it’s just not done, which helps to promote - wrongly - the view that it’s a throwaway medium. I read some brilliant writing in blogs and some terrible writing in novels. I really hope one day the view of what valuable writing is changes, and we could help to make that happen.

    Manda - Fortunately I don’t think it was self-congratulatory at all, at least I hope not.

    Jen - Glad you liked it, and I hope you stick around and look at the Kid’s blog in more detail.

  15. Starlight - You definitely need to bear those blogging laws in mind when you’re just starting out. It’s easy to get discouraged if you don’t.

    Shopgirl - Thank you. It’s a lot cooler than knowing me in real life, believe me.

    Moannie - That is a wonderful thing to read. That’s the kind of comment I want to cut out and frame.

    The Gentleman Administrator - Lovely to see you commenting! I think you are a little hard on yourself, but the Kid makes that point in his interview at my blog, that the first step is calling yourself a writer.

  16. CDR - That’s a lovely comment, I thought The Kid was the motivational expert rather than me.

    Jane - Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. I agree, The Kid asked some great questions.

    HF&I - It helps that they were really interesting questions, at least they were to me so I’m glad they were interesting to read too.

    Jeannie - Thank you, I’m glad it’s not just me who has that attitude to posts. I’m not sure how I want to proceed, but your kind words mean a lot.

  17. Enjoyed reading every word of Mr. London Street's thoughts on blogging. Thanks for asking questions that allowed for honest sharing. I like truth. I like you.