Ian Ayris: Part Two
Filed: Saturday, 16th June 2012
By: Staff Writer
Ian Ayris is the author of 'Abide With Me', a recently-released novel that centres around a young West Ham United supporter, John Sissons, growing up in London's East End during the 1970s. We recently met up with Ian for a chat about what is also his first full-length book; firing the questions on behalf of KUMB.com was Graeme Howlett...
KUMB: And like Lock, Stock..., Abide With Me would make a great film?
IA: Almost everyone who has read it has told me that! Because I write visually it's come across that way. A lot of people have said it's almost a script in itself because it's in the first person, there's no exposition of any sort to speak of.
KUMB: Would that be something you'd be interested in doing if approached?
IA: Absolutely. Because there's so much of me in it I wouldn't want to be a primadonna of any sort - and if anyone mentioned Danny Dyer I'd just run! To me, in my head it was like a Mike Leigh-type film where it's about the details that show you the character. It's not necessarily the character and what they say and do it's the little things they say and do. A few people have mentioned Alan Sillitoe, people like that. So to me I'm much more at that end of stuff where it has to be done real and it has to be done right.
Obviously it's something I wouldn't knock back at all because this is my first book and it's all new to me. Just doing this [interview] is a million miles [away from anything I've done before]. The last thing I remember is having A4 sheets of typed paper crossed out and the wife having a go at me because it's got swearing in it and the kids might pick it up! Now I'm sitting here and to me it's the maddest thing.
KUMB: Is that something that concerns you? As you said the vernacular is that of the real East End, there's no-holds-barred in terms of the language.
IA: At a lot of the book signings, kids were picking it up and I was like "No, sorry mate, it's not for kids". We had a couple of West Ham balloons up and a couple of women said "Would my boy like this?" and I said "No, not really"! I had another woman who said "I'm going to let my son read it next." No, please don't! I don't want to corrupt them! But the language... Initially it was a consideration but as I started writing it I thought I don't care if this is published or not, I just need to get this out. To me this is not perhaps a book that I wanted other people to read.
When I finished writing Abide With Me, I showed a couple of chapters to a mate called Nick Quantrill who's a writer with the same publishers [Caffeine Nights], he writes PI crime books. I didn't realise but he was showing them to his publisher. I also showed a few people some chapters and they said "you've got to send it off". I thought of all the rigmarole of the submission guidelines and all that and thought I'll do a few.
I got a few knockbacks, then got an agent in New York and another in London that were interested but it didn't fit their specifications because to me it's quite a difficult one to pin down; it's not a crime book, it's not a sport or football book, perhaps it's not even general fiction. It's part of all those things but all agents and publishers want to know is where they can put it. They want to know how much money they can make from it and they want a target audience - and to me, it doesn't deliver any of that.
But the two agents loved it and I think the London one described the 1980 Cup Final chapter as "masterful" - and I thought "oh alright, blimey"! To me it was just something I wrote so it was a big boost. When a London agent reads a 'sweary' book about football and stuff and it's about too many genres to not make sense of but says that, perhaps there's something in it. So I sent it off to a couple more. Then, after my friend had been showing it to his publishers without me realising, I received an email from Caffeine Nights asking me to send them the first three chapters. I thought "oh, it's worth a go", sent it to them, thought nothing of it, carried on with the short stories so they were getting published.
Then I got an email three months later saying, "can you send me the whole lot". Again I thought nothing of it then at midnight, four months later I got an email saying "I'd like to offer you a contract for 'Abide With Me' as it resonated on so many levels". He was absolutely bowled over by it. I was sitting upstairs on the laptop - and I know it sounds a bit mad - but with tears in my eyes. Because it's not a book in third person and there's not a lot of exposition in it to me this is my soul laid bare, so when someone accepts that, if you like, it's not them saying they accept the book it's like I've been accepted. My deepest fears, all my fears are John's fears. All of it. So at 42 as I was, for someone to say "you're okay" it was a really emotional moment. It just ripped me in half.
KUMB: A big buzz?
IA: Yeah. I've still got no words for it!
KUMB: Are you pleased with the general response to Abide With Me so far?
IA: It's just gone brilliantly. Because it's being marketed almost exclusively to West Ham supporters I've been talking to lots of fans as there's a target market there that is huge. It's now in the sports section of all the Waterstones that I've done and it's selling really well. There's not a big market for sports fiction, so you get the autobiographies and the history books but from what I've seen West Ham-wise, there's no fiction books. So it's got quite a unique selling point. I know my publishers are looking at things like Father's Day and if you've got a football-related crime book, that covers most blokes' reading! We're also hoping that the shelf life of it sales-wise is quite long because it's talking about a historical period and people like to reminisce.
I've had a couple of bad reviews because of the language, but that's alright because I was expecting them. I had one person from America say they couldn't get past page two because they were too disgusted and I thought "fantastic"! Because it's made them angry, it's made them feel something, it's evoked emotions.
KUMB: The book was launched initially back in March?
IA: Yes. It's available online at Amazon and all the other major online outlets. It's available in both paperback and in Kindle format. It's also available at the Waterstones I've done book signings at - Basildon, Walthamstow, Romford and Lakeside plus the Newham Book Shop just around the corner from Green Street on Barking Road.
KUMB: And it's published by Caffeine Nights?
IA: Yeah. One of their authors, Nick Triplow, described being with Caffeine Nights as like being with Rough Trade in the 1980s. It's got that mentality that you just push it, you just do what you can because they believe in everything and Abide With Me couldn't have ended up with anyone better. But luck is a huge slice of all of this.
KUMB: You're not an author by trade; how did that come about, how did you first begin writing?
IA: I used to love English at school but the stuff I used to write didn't fit the curriculum and I found it really hard to tow the line, as it were. If I'm passionate about something I can't see any reason not to do it. So I got moved from the O Level class to the CSE class so I spent pretty much the last two years of my life at school in a CSE class whilst reading Charles Dickens at home. I remember looking out of the window thinking "what have I done?"! There's other stuff - I'm a younger twin so there's being second best and that almost confirmed it.
I got a series of low-paying jobs and thought that's all I'm fit for in life. I still loved reading, but never thought of writing. But when I started training to be a counsellor and seeing clients, what started to fascinate me is what makes people tick. That's not far away from a lot of writing, it's quite an inspiration. I wrote a couple of short stories and put them on the internet but they were written in the [East End] vernacular and I thought nobody was going to want that. Then a publisher from Byker Books in Newcastle asked me send him a story and three months later it was in a book. He asked me if I had any more and I didnít, I'd only written this one story. So I wrote another one and he had that - then another one and I thought, "This is easy!"
KUMB: So at what point did you realise that you had a real talent for writing?
IA: When you say that there's still part of me thinking there's someone next to me you're talking to! I've done 37 short stories now and every one of them has been published, but I think it's only the response to Abide With Me where people have actually been in tears and said it's made them look at their life differently.
KUMB: That must be a wonderful thing for a writer to hear?
IA: It's incredible, and I've had the same doing the counselling. Doing that, nothing is textbook - I'm just me! I'm joking, swearing, laughing and it's just me being me. Because I write like that as well I'm thinking, "Well if me being me works, then I'll do that". That has changed my life at home, at work, everything - it's changed my life completely. Not in a monetary way; I'm not going to make any money out of writing, no-one does unless you're Steven King or whatever. But for me this book has changed my life because I now believe that being me is enough - and what I tried to do with the book is have John realise that just being him is enough, because Kenny was just himself and that was enough.
KUMB: It's a positive message, because many of us struggle with our own identity at times?
IA: It is and perhaps being a twin is what drove the whole thing. What's mad is that just being you is enough. But then I'm saying this to a group of hard-drinking football supporters - and that isn't what they want to hear!
KUMB: But there's a lot of them trying to be something they're not.
IA: Exactly, yeah. The East End culture says there's a model you've got to fit, you've got to be this or that. That's what I've put at the start of the book - that unless you're John H Stracey or Ronnie or Reggie [Kray] then you're not getting anywhere. So everyone tries to be that but I'm thinking, "Well, what if you're not?" There's a paragraph in there that says if you're no good at football or if you're not clever, you don't get anywhere. So the whole message - if there is a message, because I didn't write it to have a message - is that if you are yourself, that is always enough.
As I continued to write the book, it became clear that family is everything. To me, the message of the book is 'family'. I've been a house husband for 12 years now so kids, family is everything. As long as you've got people around you, you don't need to struggle at all.
KUMB: Isn't there's an element of that that still rings true today? Without getting political, if you're working-class there's an argument that says if you're no good at sport or, say, if you can't sing, you're going to face a struggle in life.
IA: Definitely, yeah. Look at the amount of contestants from Essex on stuff like X Factor or reality TV. I still can't watch it though and I've banned the kids from it! The Only Way Is Essex? Don't start me on that! But I think there's a need for people from this part of the country to be someone, to be something other than who they are.
The kids have taught me all this. My kids have taught me that I'm the last person who should be a dad! I'm forgetful, clumsy, undependable; I lock myself out most days, I'm just horrendous! But I've learnt that that's ok; I wouldn't have it any other way and I'm sure they wouldn't either. But writing the book has, if you like, solidified it for me that I will always be like this - but it's alright. That's why I wanted that bit in the book and to me it's the most important bit - where John tries to save Kenny - and that's enough.
KUMB: What advice would you give to people who are in the situation you were in and would like to have something published?
IA: I would say don't write with the aim of being published, because that's your barrier and that separates you from what you need to write. If you write because you need to - and you write because it doesn't make any sense not to - then it'll happen. What's the word... Serendipity. That is everything in writing. If you write because you want to make money, you won't make money. If you write because there's something in you, a passion - and it doesn't have to be a conscious passion - and you write because it's the only way you can get this stuff out, then it'll happen.
The whole thing is cathartic. To me, if Abide With Me was never published, that's fine. It's changed my life. The fact it's affected other people is a bonus. The first person I showed the whole lot to was my wife who's got no time for it. Fair enough, I won't go into that! But there's a woman whose kids go to the same school as mine do and she saw me reading some of it in the playground and said "what's that?" I said "I'm writing a book", and she said "Can you show me?" I gave her three chapters at a time and when she'd finished it she came up to me, tears in her eyes, and put her arms around me - she couldn't even talk. And to me, that was enough.
All this other stuff, book signings at Waterstones, interviews - that's all bunce. That woman putting her arms around me with tears in her eyes was enough. So I'd just say write because it makes sense to; don't write for any other reason other than what is inside.
KUMB: So what next? Where do you go from here? Any plans for Abide With Me II?
IA: It's funny; I had it in me that I wouldn't write another one. It's doing really well by all accounts; it was number one in Sports Fiction on Amazon for a while and has been in the top ten for the last two-and-a-half months. People are loving it, it's affecting people and I've had a load of people asking "when's the next one?" because John's 24 when it finishes, Becky's growing up, mum and Tommy - there's a lot there to be worked on. But I was determined not to write a follow-up unless there was one there.
I love Bruce Springsteen and he never does anything unless he needs to, so every album's different if you like. And I thought "I'm not having it, I'm not doing it"! A publisher, if you've got a sequel or a trilogy would love it because if someone buys the third one they'll buy the first two. I've got a novella that's being published by Byker Books out at the end of this year - but there will be another Abide With Me.
KUMB: Is this an exclusive we've got here!?
IA: Well, it could be! I've written the first page. Again, don't think me mental but I was coming back from the supermarket the other day and John's voice came into my head and he started telling me about Ronnie Swordfish and the trial, and Ronnie Swordfish's real name. And I'm thinking "I've got to write something, there's more there". So yeah, there will be another one.
KUMB: Fantastic. Any plans for where it's going to go - or anything you can reveal?
IA: I've had things come into my head. I don't know what order they go in or where they end but I know there's stuff and I know there's enough there for a book. There might even be enough for two books but I'm just going to write the whole thing and if it has to be split in two then fair enough. The difference is, this time I know what the ending is going to be! I've got a beginning and I've got an ending. Where the 1980 FA Cup Final is a pivotal point in Abide With Me there's one West Ham game that a friend of mine, who's absolutely obsessed by West Ham, can't talk about. I don't know if you can guess it?
KUMB: It's got to be 2006. The FA Cup Final against Liverpool?
IA: Yeah, that's the one - so that's going to be the ending! From what I can make out at the moment it'll be written the same as the 1980 Cup Final with John being there. But he won't be on his own. I know that because it's all about family when John's growing up and to me, what's blatantly missing from Abide With Me is relationships - so that will form a part of the next book because it makes sense. It may not be a book about a more mature John, but there'll be more mature elements in it and it will be more about friendship than anything else because he's got two friends that are loose ends at the moment.
KUMB: Well if it's anything like as good as Abide With Me it should do really well and I can't wait to have a look. Thanks for talking to us Ian.
IA: That's brilliant, thanks.