I would like to welcome author Simon Lipson to Jera’s Jamboree today.
Simon Lipson was born in London and took a law degree at the LSE. After a spell as a lawyer, he co-founded legal recruitment company Lipson Lloyd-Jones in 1987. In 1993, Simon took his first tentative steps onto the comedy circuit and has since become an in-demand stand-up across the UK, as well as a regular TV and radio performer/writer. His first novel, Losing It, a thriller, was published by Matador in 2008.
Simon is a columnist for Gridlock Magazine (www.gridlockmagazine.com).
As part of the blog tour for Song in the Wrong Key, I have been fortunate to catch up with Simon and interview him … but first I’ll share the blurb:
Michael Kenton is a middle-aged man living in middle-class comfort with wife Lisa and daughters Millie and Katia. Drifting complacently towards retirement, Mike’s world is turned upside-down when he is thrown unexpectedly onto the career scrapheap.
While Lisa’s career sky-rockets, Mike slobs around in his track suit playing guitar, rekindling his teenage love affair with pop music. Knowing Lisa wouldn’t approve, he plots a secret ‘comeback’ at a grimy Crouch End bistro where music executive Ben, desperate and out of time, asks if he can enter one of Mike’s songs into the Eurovision Song Contest.
With nothing to lose, Mike focuses on Eurovision but quickly finds himself staring down the barrel of low level fame. His crumbling marriage now page five news, he must choose between his musical dream and mending his broken family, a task complicated by the re-appearance of ex-love of his life Faye.
A laugh-out-loud comedy about love, family, friendship and Euro- tack by acclaimed stand-up and comedy writer Simon Lipson.
Welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.
“A laugh-out-loud comedy …” you’ve obviously used your skill and experience in this media to write Song in the Wrong Key. Would you share with readers the inspiration behind the plot?
Like me, Mike Kenton is a thwarted musician, a wannabe pop star who reluctantly accepted that life was about making sensible choices, not pursuing fantasies. I became a solicitor – don’t hate me – while Mike opted for a middling, plodding career in IT. I was running my legal recruitment business when I decided to have a crack at stand-up comedy. It was whimsical, the sort of thing I’d do once and tell the unimpressed grandchildren about, but suddenly found myself performing all over the country, appearing on TV and radio and voicing commercials. How did that happen? I’ve never been less than starry-eyed about this – it still strikes me as incongruous and delightful that a serious professional type like me has worked within such a frivolous industry for 20 years alongside all sorts of famous people – and maybe it’s this experience that attracted me to the idea of an Ordinary Joe suddenly rising to national prominence through the creative arts. I never quite hit the heights (because I couldn’t ever commit to a full time career in comedy, I like to delude myself) but Mike gets a once in a lifetime opportunity to make his dream come true with the chance that it might lead to personal redemption.
Did you have a fixed idea of the characters at the start of the story? Did they change during your edits? How did they become real to you?
I had a pretty clear idea of the dramatis personae and their personalities at the outset, but things change as you write and, for me at least, it’s important to follow the muse! Mike is, I suppose, a version of me. His attitudes, voice, sense of humour, impatience and grudging soft-heartedness (hidden beneath the sarcasm) are all similar to my own. When he talks about people who smile on trains or nouveau cuisine, that’s me talking. But he’s unlike me in other ways, particularly as he’s a man who has settled for a dull career and put all his dreams to bed. I’m still dreaming! I think the hoops and hurdles you invent as you go along inform character development. In Mike’s case, his attitude to life’s possibilities change quite markedly as the story unfolds. Mike’s wife Lisa is a fiction, but the kids, Millie and Katia, are certainly based on mine at that age. Chaz, Mike’s best friend, is not wholly unlike my best friend, albeit he’s a lot shorter and less hirsute. The idea of Faye – rather than Faye herself – is something drawn from my own life as well. Because so many of the characters were familiar to me before I started, they were already real in my mind and didn’t require any major leaps of the imagination to flesh them out into fully formed characters.
How much of your own family experience is reflected in Song in the Wrong Key?
The basic family unit at the centre of the story is the same as my own. My daughters are now 16 and 18 (Millie and Katia are 7 and 8) but they were incredibly sassy and knowing when they were younger, and not averse to the odd swear word! When I was a kid back in the Dark Ages, we were innocent, respectful of our parents and knew nothing about anything important. Lisa – as I’ve suggested above – bears no resemblance to my wife (apart from being beautiful – Mrs L might be reading this!). She’s tough and career-minded and, despite her obvious qualities as a mother, I suppose she is a little unsympathetic, especially as she also emerges as the main reason Mike gave up music. That said, Mike gives her every reason to be weary of his lack of ambition. My wife is warm and supportive, whatever stupid venture I might undertake. And we’ve never had marital problems in the 22 years we’ve been together (though one should never be too smug!). So, yes, elements of my own family experience are in there, but their story is mostly imagined.
I’ve seen your novel tagged as ‘contemporary romance’. Is the romance from the perspective of Michael Kenton or does Lisa also have a ‘voice’?
I think Mike is the romantic core of the book. It’s up to the readers to decide if he really loves Lisa or has simply become too comfortable in a relationship that hints at problems just below the surface. Does he need – rather than love – her because without her, his precious family unit might disintegrate? Likewise, whether Lisa genuinely loves Mike is something I have left hanging in the air. My previous book, Losing It, was a psychological thriller written entirely in the voice of a female protagonist, so I like to think I can write from a female perspective. Song In The Wrong Key, I think, explores the way an essentially good and faithful husband deals with matters of the heart, especially when suddenly faced with choices at a stage in his life when he believed he’d already made all his romantic decisions.
How does the ‘technical’ side of writing a novel differ from scriptwriting?
That’s a great question. Most of my script writing has been for radio and live work, and has focused on sketches. These require instant set-ups, characters we can identify from the off and a solid tag. I have written a feature film script and have also developed my next book, Standing Up, as a sitcom. Scriptwriting is largely dialogue-driven with a huge dollop of ‘show, don’t tell’. We can see what’s happening on the screen/stage, and all sorts of visual and narrative short cuts can be used – a look, an expression, a sign, an action – to convey ideas and propel the story. Exposition is the scriptwriter’s last resort! Novel writing allows the author room to breathe, to let ideas and characters develop, to create images and ideas in the minds of the readers. While ‘show, don’t tell’ also applies to this form, the novelist can’t rely on great actors to convey character and evoke the subtleties of human expression and communication; nor do they have the luxury of scenery to create a sense of place. It’s all in the prose.
… and how easy is it to adapt from one media to the other?
Before I started writing the Standing Up sitcom, I thought I’d spend hours poring through my novel and lifting dialogue and ideas verbatim. In fact, I hardly looked at it. Obviously, I knew the story beats intimately, as I did the characters, so I simply started again. I love writing dialogue, so the difficulty for me was using the conventions of script writing (alluded to above) in an effective way. I worked with a brilliant script doctor who showed me what I needed to do. My agent has already had some interest in the script from a couple of independent production companies.
Are you a panster or a plotter?
On balance, a panster. I need some basic plot beats and characters before I can get going, but prefer to extemporise and go where the mood takes me. The untidy bits of plotting and sloppy chronology of a first draft can always be repaired at a later stage.
What authors or books have influenced you?
My favourite book is Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. I can only dream of writing like him. It’s so rich, so complex, so funny, so true. I love witty American authors like Jonathan Tropper, Steve Hely and Rob Long, as well as the funnier stuff by David Nicholls and Nick Hornby. I wouldn’t say any one author has particularly influenced me, but people like Hornby make it ok for men to write contemporary humorous fiction with a romantic heart, so hats off to him!
Your next novel, Standing Up, is due to be published in the Autumn. You’re still doing stand-up, involved with radio and writing sitcom … where do you find the time to fit everything in? Do you have a writing schedule?
I don’t have a schedule, but when I’m in ‘book’ mode, I usually cycle into London, settle myself in a café and write for about three or four hours per day. I like having hubbub around me. It seems to energise me in a way writing from home in a silent room never does. I also need the distraction of the odd celeb wandering in or some nutter shouting at his coffee; I can’t just put my head down and write unremittingly. Once I’m inspired by a story and characters, I find it a thrilling process and don’t ever feel like I’m fitting it in around my other pursuits. I also love editing, finding new things to add, new jokes. It generally doesn’t take me long to rattle out 80,000 words. That’s not a boast by the way; sometimes 79,000 of them can be rubbish! But once I’m flowing, in the zone, I can get things done quickly.
And finally, what can we expect from you next?
Well, I’m performing a one man show at the Camden Fringe on 20 – 23 August, so you and all your followers are very welcome to come along. The show is called The Accidental Impressionist which, as the title suggests, is about how I became known – and pigeonholed – for my impersonations, when I really wanted to tell jokes. It’s at the Camden Head and tickets are available here: http://bit.ly/KYM0Bx. I’m also hoping to publish my next novel, Standing Up, later this year. Beyond that, hopefully someone will get their head around making my sitcom!
Thank you for being such an entertaining guest! I’m sure my readers join in wishing you well with all your creative projects!
Buy links – paperback and Kindle:
My show, The Accidental Impressionist, is on at the Camden Fringe 20 – 23 August @ 8pm. Everyone welcome! Details and tickets here: http://j.mp/JDPBnu