Interview with Jon Teckman Author of Ordinary Joe

Ordinary Joe

I am delighted to be featuring Jon Teckman on Linda’s Book Bag today as I thought his debut novel ‘Ordinary Joe’ was brilliant. Available in both paperback and ebook, it is currently on offer on Kindle at just £1.49 and can be bought here.

Jon kindly agreed to answering some questions about his writing so let’s see what he said.

Jon Teckman

Hi Jon. I so enjoyed reading your debut novel ‘ Ordinary Joe’ . Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your book and your writing.

Firstly, would you like tell readers a little about yourself and how you came to write ‘Ordinary Joe’?

Gosh, where to begin?  I am 52 years old, married with two teenage boys (actually one of them is only 12 but he acts more like a teenager than his 14 year old brother).  I was born and grew up in Northampton then, after graduating from university, lived in London for 20 years before moving to Aylesbury.  After leaving university, I worked as a civil servant in various Government departments, ending up at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) where I advised Government Ministers on film policy (yes, they have one).  This led to me joining the British Film Institute (BFI) and I eventually became Chief Executive of that august institution.  And that, really, was the starting point for writing Ordinary Joe which draws on my experiences working on the fringes of the film industry.  I had wanted to write a novel for some time and on one trip to Los Angeles got the idea for a story about an Englishman working in Hollywood but I didn’t do much with it until a few years later when I went on an Arvon Foundation novel writing course (a 10th Wedding Anniversary present from my wife) and developed the idea there.  I completed a first draft of Ordinary Joe in just over a year – towards the end of 2008 – but then it took me six more years of re-working it, submitting it to various people and dealing with their rejections before I eventually landed my publishing deal with The Borough Press.

Other than writing, do you have other interests and creative outlets?

Like many blokes, I am very interested in sport, particularly rugby union and cricket. I used to play quite a bit of cricket and was a decent wicketkeeper but packed up when I found I was moving towards the ball several seconds after it had gone past me.  I am also still very interested in the cinema and maintain a professional interest in that as a member of the Council of Management of the British Board of Film Classification and a voting member of BAFTA.  But apart from being able to write a sentence and tell a joke, I am spectacularly uncreative.  I can’t draw or paint to save my life and don’t have a musical bone in my body (apart from being able to knock out a passable rendition of Delilah after a few drinks!)

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

In terms of the technical aspects of writing, I think I am good on dialogue, probably as a result of watching films written by the likes of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen who are so good at capturing natural speech patterns. I am less good on long descriptive passages or passages of purple prose so you won’t find many of those in Ordinary Joe!  On the CurtisBrown Creative novel writing course I attended in the first half of 2013, we were told that authors tend to be either “writers” or “storytellers” – I am definitely more “storyteller” than “writer”.

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

When I was writing the first draft of Ordinary Joe I was very disciplined and used to take myself off to my writing room almost every evening after dinner and work for a couple of hours.  But, as the children got older, my writing room became Matthew’s bedroom and dinner got later and that space – both physically and temporally – got taken away from me.  As a result (he says, blaming everyone but himself!) I am now less disciplined, snatching writing opportunities whenever and wherever I can.  I generally write longhand first and then type up my notes periodically making a few changes as I do so, so that my first typewritten draft is (or should be) slightly better than a typical first draft.  This means that my writing is very portable – just a pencil and a notebook – so I write a lot in cafes and, sometimes, pubs.  Most writers I know like to write in almost total peace and quiet – I quite like having a bit of noise and distraction around me.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I have very varied taste.  Many of my favourite novels come from the post-war American ‘school’ of Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and John Updike etc but I also like some more modern writers such as John Irving, Stephen King and Ben Elton.  One of the unforeseen benefits of being published at my advanced age is that I have joined a group of similarly mature authors called The Prime Writers and have enjoyed many of their works, including Ridley Road by Jo Bloom, Galina Petrovna’s Three Legged Dog Story by Andrea Bennett and You, Me and Other People by Fionnuala Kearney, which are all excellent.  I also like to keep up with the classics from time to time – I am currently fighting my way through War and Peace – 750 pages in and the end is still nowhere in sight!

I couldn’t agree more about the Prime Writers – and I loved You, Me and Other People by Fionnuala Kearney too!

Why did you choose to set ‘Ordinary Joe’ in the world of film?

I spent almost 8 years working on the fringes of the film industry at the DCMS and BFI and the whole crazy business fascinated me.  I am also really interested by the whole idea of “talent” and how being famous affects people and the way they are treated by others.  This is what gave me the idea of dropping a very ordinary Joe Schmo into the middle of this strange world and seeing what would happen.  Several of the scenes are based on things that actually happened to me – for example, the opening film studio scene was inspired by meeting Martin Scorsese on the set of Gangs of New York.  Rather than continue to annoy my friends and family with my stories and name dropping, I thought it might be better to put them into a story – and attempt to entertain a wider audience!

You live in England. How did you go about researching detail to ensure your Hollywood setting was realistic?

Sadly, as a first time novelist, there was nobody waving an Amex card and saying you must fly to Hollywood to make sure you get all these details right!  All the scenes set in Los Angeles, New York and Cannes are based on real places that I visited, but all of them were more than ten years ago, so I had to draw deep on my memory banks to recreate them.  The post-premiere party in New York near the beginning of the book, for example, was based on a party I went to at The Inn on the Green in Central Park in around 2000.  Originally, I named this as the location in the novel but then discovered that it had closed down in about 2007 so I had to anonymise it instead.  One of the nicest compliments I received after Ordinary Joe was published was from a former colleague who had been with me on one trip to LA and recognised Buddy Guttenberg’s apartment as being based on a studio executive’s apartment that we had visited more than 15 years ago.

I think ‘Ordinary Joe’ would make a great TV, film or stage show. Does script writing appeal to you and do you write in other forms such as poetry?

Ordinary Joe has been optioned for a movie and is currently in development.  The producers allowed me to have a first go at adapting the novel for the screen but, although it was a pretty good script, it didn’t work well enough cinematically for them (basically I had stuck too closely to the novel without really re-imagining it for the big screen) so they are not taking that screenplay forward.  I really enjoyed working on it though and would like to have another go at screenwriting at some point especially as, I believe, dialogue is a strong element of my writing.

Oh. Congratulations. That all sounds very exciting.

How difficult is it to write comic scenes and how can you tell they are successful as you write?

I am either blessed or cursed with a ‘comic gene’. Pretty well all of my family are funny – my dad was a very fine amateur comic actor (he performed alongside people like Alfie Bass and Bill Owen in his youth) and my brother is a semi-professional stand-up comedian.  The blessing of this is that I don’t find it at all difficult to write comic scenes; the curse can be knowing when to stop.  There is quite a lot of pathos in Ordinary Joe so there has to be that light and shade to ensure that the more comic elements don’t crowd out the other emotions that I am hoping to inspire in the reader.  One of the obvious ways I could tell whether or not the comic scenes were working as I was writing them is whether they made me laugh.  This might sound a bit odd – like laughing at one’s own jokes – but when a scene is really flowing, comic elements emerge that I hadn’t planned or anticipated.  For example, in the scene where Joe West and his wife Natasha are arguing over a note he has received from Olivia Finch, one of the key lines came to me from completely out of the blue and still makes me laugh now.  Another important factor in determining whether or not they are successful is that they still work when you re-read them during the many editing stages – Ordinary Joe went through more than twenty drafts and I reckon that most of the deletions were to get rid of ‘jokes’ that either didn’t work or didn’t fit in with the developing characterisation of the main characters.  Some of my most interesting discussions with the Borough Press editorial team involved convincing them that a certain word or formulation of words was necessary in order to retain the humour of a particular sentence or passage.

‘Ordinary Joe’ has different covers for the UK and overseas audiences. Why is this and how did the covers come about?

I had very little input into the cover design which was the work of the design team at HarperCollins UK.  Fortunately I think it is brilliant – very eye-catching and bringing the themes of Joe West’s domestic life and the glamour of Hollywood together.  My editor at The Borough Press, Katie Espiner, wanted the domestic drama at the centre of the novel to be the key element and this is reflected in the UK cover. The cover design for the edition that will be published in Scandinavia next May focusses on the bright lights of a Hollywood premiere but then adds the incongruity of a man with a brief case stepping onto the read carpet.  It looks quite dark – more like a thriller than a comedy – but is still very effective and I hope it will do well.

I’m sure it will.

How far do you think Joe is a victim of his own actions and how far a victim of circumstances (but don’t give away the plot here please!)?

Joe is primarily a victim of his own inactions.  For me (and others may well disagree with me on this) Joe’s worst fault is that he is a coward – he dare not take the actions that might extricate him from the dreadful situation he has created because he is too scared of hurting people and dropping himself further in it.  Once he sets off on this track, like a skier on a black run, events take their own momentum and he becomes increasingly powerless to stop them.

Should ‘Ordinary Joe’ be made into a film, who would you cast as Joe and Natasha?

I really struggle with this question (and, thankfully, should the film be made this is not a decision that I will have any part in!)  I watched Tom Hardy’s extraordinary performance as both Kray twins in the film Legend the other day and decided that he could play ALL the main characters, including Natasha and Olivia!  Ideally Joe West would be played by a middle-aged, Jewish English actor but we don’t have many of those.  The bullying boss Joseph Bennett is easier to cast, I think. Several people have suggested that Benedict Cumberbatch could be perfect in the role, in which case, perhaps Martin Freeman could play Joe West and they could reprise the dynamic they have established in Sherlock?  Another interesting combination would be Hugh Bonneville as West and James Purefoy as Bennett – made more interesting by the fact that they were in the same year at school together.  Casting Hollywood superstar Olivia Finch is also very difficult as I have always imagined her being very young – certainly no more than 25 – which rules out many well established actresses.

You recently penned a short follow up to ‘Ordinary Joe’. How difficult is it to leave behind the characters you’ve created?

It is surprisingly hard.  I have been working with Joe West and the rest of them for more than eight years now and I know them all very well.  Starting to write new characters without simply making them new versions of the old ones is more difficult than I imagined.  The novel I have been working on featured a character who was a bit like Joe West as an 18 year old (he was also too close to the Will character in The Inbetweeners for comfort!) but I have put that one on the backburner now and have just started on something which I hope is very different and based around very different characters.  I did enjoy writing the short story following up on what happened to Joe West some months after the action in Ordinary Joe finished as it helped me to tie up a few ends that I’d left loose at the end of the novel.

I was delighted to read it too. 

The media is a strong iterative theme in your book. How important are various forms of media and social networking to new authors?

I think they are incredibly important. Facebook provides a very good opportunity to meet readers and potential readers – for example, thanks to Facebook I was able to offer the follow up short story as a sort of Christmas present to my loyal readers – and Twitter brings the possibility of engaging with a very wide audience.  One thing that has surprised me since Ordinary Joe was published in July is how hard I have had to work to promote the novel to potential audiences to augment the work that my publishers are also doing.  Much of it is good fun and I do enjoy engaging with audiences, but it can also be a distraction away from getting on with the new writing that I should be doing.

Blog readers can follow Jon on Twitter and on his Facebook page.

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that ‘Ordinary Joe’ should be their next read, what would you say?

“Please, please, please buy my book – my children are starving!”

Or I would quote from your own lovely review of my book, Linda, and tell them that Ordinary Joe:

“will appeal to anyone who wants a well plotted, well written and highly entertaining read.”

And indeed it will, Jon! Blog readers can see my review of Ordinary Joe here

What can we expect next from Jon Teckman, and when?

I have had a couple of false starts on novel number 2 but I do now have a plan and a story and some interesting characters so my aim is to have a draft finished within the next three months. I only have a one book deal with The Borough Press so there is no guarantee that they will publish it – I just have to make it too good for them to turn down.  Given the long lead times involved in publishing, however, even if they love it, it is unlikely now that it would be published before the end of 2016. So, apologies, but you will just have to wait a little longer for the next Jon Teckman masterpiece!

I’m not sure I want to wait that long – get writing! I’d like to thank you so much for your time in answering my questions, Jon. I’ve found the answers fascinating.


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