Thursday 8 December 2011

JOHN O'FARRELL - Writer Interview

I first discovered John O'Farrell in an airport. Well, I discovered one of his books. I genuinely did not want the flight to end because I was more engrossed in his writing than I had ever been before in pretty much anything.

From there on, I read everything of his I could get my hands on. Luckily, there was a lot of it out there, including his weekly Guardian column (which stopped in mid 2005). His books This Is Your Lifeand The Best A Man Can Get are two of the funniest books I've ever read. Period. 

I've just discovered, through my remarkable research, and by that I mean Wikipedia, that you started out doing stand-up comedy. How was that experience, and what made you realise that it wasn't for you after-all?

I started at University where it wasn’t hard to stand out, and so moved to London with a sub-Young Ones type character that I did a few times. I won a talent competition at Jongleurs but then made the mistake of doing an entirely new set in front of 400 pissed estate agents and some embarrassed friends of mine who had come along to support me. I thought I’d take a short break from stand up and it’s now been 26 years.

Who are your biggest influences?

My influences are many and varied and probably range from my parents to the last person I was talking to. I was very struck by Jonathan Swift and George Orwell as a teenager and I suppose I should talk about great authors. But the truth is I was more obsessed with sitcoms and sketch shows as I was developing as a wannabee comedy writer, so Monty Python and Clement and La Frenais and Galton and Simpson were bigger influences than Dostoyevsky.

You have, in the past, written weekly columns for The Independent and The Guardian - and I always found them hilarious, but thinking as a writer - I imagine it to be a huge pressure to be entertaining and funny, week in, week out. Did you feel that pressure?

More so at the beginning of my stint - I remember thinking ‘Wow – this is like doing the topicals for Spitting Image; I am under orders to be funny within the next few hours.’ In fact I was writing a comment piece, and the greater pressure was deciding what I thought about a particular subject. Does religious freedom extend to ritual slaughter of animals for example – I dunno.

My experience with writing comedy is that there are some things I do that people really like, and respond to -- but when I become too aware of them they become a kind of schtick, they're cheating. Do you know what I mean? Even when I read some of the great comedy writers like Woody Allen -- sometimes I find the writing hysterical, other times I think "No, he's just playing with words and being lazy" - do you ever have this problem?

I know what you mean, but the important thing is to surprise your audience by taking an unexpected turn. If your audience start to see the clockwork then you have been telling jokes in the same way for too long.

Are you a good judge of your own material?

It’s not really for me to say, but I generally agree with the verdicts on Amazon about which are my best books and which are not so strong.

I first read 'The Best A Man Can Get' on a flight to America, I guess this was like eight years ago. For the entire flight I could not stop laughing, to the point where it looked like I was having some kind of seizure. I bring this up now because, to be honest, it was a humiliating experience, especially for someone like me who is quite shy and likes to stay away from attention. My point is; you are responsible, and I am wondering if you can compensate me in some way or perhaps, at the very least, issue an apology?

If you had been on a train people might have seen what you were laughing at and might have at least bought a copy. I won’t apologise because the alternative was looking at all the crap in the duty free brochure and that’s even more hilarious.

I've always wanted to see your books as movies, because they are so funny, but I guess that -- so much of what is humorous is what you're doing with the words. Do you find that difficult to translate to the screen? I'm thinking back to some of the situations in the books, and of course -- the situations would be funny on screen, but you'd lose some of the inner thoughts of the characters.

I did actually write a screenplay for The Best a Man Can Get for Paramount, but the credit crunch came along at the same time that the studio head changed and they needed my script to put under his wobbly desk. I did the Robert McKee course in my twenties, so perhaps that gave me a screenwriter’s approach to story structure.

I never saw it, but I see that 'May Contain Nuts' was made into a TV movie. Were you happy with it?

It was adapted by my old writing partner Mark Burton who I think did a good job – although it did have to fit the shape of an ITV two parter.

How does the writing experience differ between fiction and non-fiction?

Fiction is harder but more satisfying. Plus my non-fiction has tended to be very ‘British’, so you don’t get the bonus of gaining new readers abroad.

What is your writing habit? Do you have a schedule? A particular place you like to write?

I keep office hours and like to work in the London Library in St James Sq if I can. When I work at home I always walk the dog first. I do my best stuff in the mornings, so if there are meetings or bits of filming being arranged I try to make sure they are towards the end of the day.

Do you suffer from writers block? And if so, how do you kick it?

I wrote my first history book because I didn’t have the right idea for a novel. But I am never unable to write anything. Just lower your standards and continue. You can always come back later and cut it all out.

One of the things I talk about a lot on the site, is that to be a writer, or musician, or actor -- basically, any kind of artist, is that it's a long journey. That you don't start out great, and that talent is not enough. You have to put the hours in. I am a big believer in the 10,000 hours theory. Looking back at your career - I see a real sense of growth -- starting out with stand up, a few bits of radio and article writing; and then onwards to television, novels, and your political work. It looks to me like you got better and better, year by year, and I'm wondering if you see it in the same way?

I’m not sure I got better and better but you do get more confident you can complete the task. I would never have imagined I could have finished a whole book, and yet now that bit doesn’t worry me. I do deliberately set myself new challenges though, writing a history book, or setting up a new comedy website or in the case of my new novel, writing a first person narrative in which the protagonist knows absolutely nothing about himself.

You are very politically active. I myself tend to hide away from anything that smacks of politics. Luckily, I can read you, because comedy is pretty much the only way I can stomach politics. Am I the kind of person you are writing for?

Actually I’m the kind of person I’m writing for – and then I just hope there are enough people who feel the same way.

Have you had a lot of rejection as a writer?

I had lots of stuff sent back from publishers or the BBC in my early 20s, but then when it took off, I went quite a long way fairly quickly, so I haven’t had to be too resilient. As a comedy writer doing lines for performers, most of the stuff wouldn’t make the final edit – but that was always part of the deal. So no, the rejection will come later, when people stop wanting to read the stuff…

What else do you want to achieve in your career?

I just want to keep writing funny books with something to say. Oh and maybe a play, and have a film, and bring down the government with one well-aimed joke – so nothing particularly ambitious.

John's new novel 'The Man Who Forgot His Wife' will be released released in March 2012.

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