King of the Wild Frontier
Interview by Andrew Stevens.
3:AM: Care to talk us through your short story ‘Willy Wanker’s Trip to the Seaside’?
DK: I wrote it when I was 12 or 13. I’d been writing little stories since I was about five, but this was the first (and some might argue, last) thing I wrote that made people laugh. It was crass, crude, rude and so unbelievably offensive that I could probably be arrested for it these days, but this was 1981, before Political Correctness even existed and that’s the sort of thing 12-year-olds laugh at. At least, it was what 12-year-olds at my school in 1981 laughed at. Most of the gags revolved around my sketchy understanding of sex and physiology. Here’s an extract:
Once they got to the seaside, Willy had a sandwich on the beach. Timmy and Billy didn’t want to get sand in theirs so they had a roll on the grass. Then Timmy shouted, “Who wants to see my conkers?” so they gathered around excitedly as he got them out… etc
Clever, clever stuff there, I think you’ll agree. It’s quite embarrassingly painful reading it back, but at the time the lads in my class went mad for it. It was passed around, read and re-read and even read out to the whole class by the teacher who confiscated it. Everyone loved it – even the teacher if I remember rightly. Anyway, this all obviously went to my head in the worst possible way because I wrote a further 20 stories trying to recapture the moment and continue to do so 27 years later. It’s a bit sad when you think about it.
3:AM: At what point did you realise that you could write professionally, rather than just for fun?
DK: It was never a conscious realisation. Or at least, I haven’t had it yet. I always wanted to write for a living, but there’s never been any point at which I thought I could do it. I’m still hoping and aspiring, but I’m not there yet. I just about scrape by, with books and screenplays and an occasion morning of shoplifting, but my career feels more like a controlled fall into poverty than a professional occupation. Every now and again a cheque will drop through my door allowing me to stay at home and continue writing for a bit longer, but at any given time I’m never more than six months away from having to get a proper job and that’s always on my mind.
Then again, I am a terrible pessimist and probably don’t truly appreciate how lucky I am. Or maybe I do, and just fear it ending one day. Either way, I’m careful with the money I get and drink in Wetherspoon’s whenever possible – with special offer vouchers.
At the end of the day, I don’t think I’ll ever consider I’ve truly made it until I can scribble a few words and a signature on a napkin and hand that over to restaurant owners or Wetherspoon’s bar staff instead of money when the bill comes. Wouldn’t that be sweet?
3:AM: For those not familiar with your books, how did your various post-school life experiences feed into them?
DK: I think all experiences feed into whatever you write. Some instances are more obvious than others, such as The Pornographer Diaries, which was about a guy who worked for a top shelf magazine, when I myself have worked for top shelf magazines, or The Burglar Diaries, which was loosely based on my own experiences from a dim and distance past (emphasis on the dim). If you’re a writer, you suck all this stuff up and regurgitate it onto the page sooner or later. Even stuff that’s not that obvious; relationships, frustrations, anecdotes and dreams. I’ll use anything if it fits into something I’m writing or helps me decorate a story, and a lot of my friends recognise incidents from real life – or at least, exaggerated, poorly punctuated versions of incidents from real life. Half the job (as far as I can make out) is training your brain to recognise all the stuff there is to write about. And obviously, constructing winning sentences like that one. But life’s all around us and it’s the place I get my best ideas from. When I start to run out, that’s how I know I’ve been stuck in too long writing about life instead of living it. And that’s when I dig out my Wetherspoon’s vouchers.
3:AM: How did you end up having “worked for top shelf magazines”?
DK: There’s no great story to it. I saw an advert in The Guardian for a staff writer “for a market leading magazine” and saw that Paul Raymond was the publisher. I knew who Paul Raymond was, as most people my age do and sent off my CV. To be perfectly honest, I never expected to get the job. I just thought it would be a laugh to have an interview at a porn magazine and something I could tell my mates in years to come. But then I guess I was just better suited to the industry than I realised. They gave me some stuff to write, a few stories to sub and a list of ideas to submit, then asked me in for the day to see how I got on with the rest of the staff. The secretary pulled me aside at the start of my trial day and told me not to worry so much about the work, just prove to everybody that I was a good laugh and not some embittered weirdo and they’d probably give me the job. I didn’t manage it but they gave me the job anyway and I went on to work there for the next six years, as staff writer, assistant editor of Club International and finally editor of Mayfair. Then they gave me the boot for falling circulation, but kept me on as a freelance writer for a few years. I don’t do it anymore, but I’m still in touch with all the boys and often see them for a drink or bottle of poppers.
3:AM: You must have some amusing stories from then?
DK: I have, lots of them. Which is why The Pornographer Diaries is such a corking read, priced just £5.99 on amazon.co.uk and not to be missed. Seamless.
3:AM: Bah. The diary format’s been tried and tested, particularly by British humourists, over the past few decades. Did you find that lent itself towards bashing out the first book?
DK: To be honest, my “Diaries” aren’t actually diaries. They don’t have dates and times and chronological entries and so on, they’re simply a collection of first person anecdotes that build into larger stories. A more accurate title for them would’ve probably been The Burglar Memoirs, or The Hitman Chronicles or something, but neither of these sounded as good as Diaries so Diaries was what I went with. My first book, The Burglar Diaries, helped me find a style that worked for me. I’d written books and script and stories before but had never got anywhere with them with publishers because they were always poor imitations of other books. eg. ‘Private Eye Chuck Strangler fingered his .45 as he thought about his divorce. It had been hard on him, hard on his kids and hard on his liver. He took a belt of scotch as he watched the rain run in rivers down the window then lit another cigarette.’ That sort of nonsense. But when I started writing The Burglar Diaries, I’d never read any books like it. I’m sure there are plenty out there, but I’d just never read them, so I had no point of reference for how they should be written which forced me to find a style of my own. I hope that doesn’t sound too poncy or technical but that’s about the strength of it. I just wrote how I spoke, thought and acted during my divvy housebreaking years, poor grammar and all, and intended it to be more a conversation with the reader than work of literature. It seemed to work too because it got published and went on to do well, and I’ve not looked back since, except to count my lucky stars and look over my shoulder for angry homeowners who still want their stuff back twenty years on.
3:AM: Do you see yourself as a humourist or is there some commentary of sorts there? You said earlier that your teenage efforts were motivated by making people laugh.
DK: A humourist or story teller, I guess. If I ever put any commentary into my books, it’s not because I’m trying to make a point or get my ideas across, it’s just because the more that people can identify with your characters, the funnier they come across, that’s all. I know some authors think of themselves as colossally important people who’ve been blessed with the wisdom of Solomon, but these are generally dreadful people to get stuck in a corner at parties with. No one appointed me commissar of common sense so I try to resist lecturing the rest of humanity on what’s right and wrong with the world. I leave that to people who get bigger advances than me. No, my books are simply meant to be a bit of a chuckle, some easy reading that you can enjoy around the pool or on your way to work. They’re not meant to change anyone’s life. Except possibly mine.
3:AM: Have the books ever generated an unfavourable reaction on that score i.e. that they’re glamorising crime etc?
DK: The books haven’t, but the sitcom did. Thieves Like Us was based on The Burglar Diaries and I guess a couple of newspapers mentioned that I had a criminal record because shortly after the first episode I received an email from someone who’d gone to the same school as me [apparently]. I couldn’t remember him, but he told me he’d spent ten years as barrister “defending the good people of south London” before seeing the light and turning CPS prosecutor. In a fit of moral indignation, he asked me how I could justify growing rich and famous from boasting about my crimes. Rich and famous? Doesn’t he know where I drink? So I pointed out that while it was true, I had committed a few silly and stupid indiscretions as young man, he himself had spent the best part of his professional life billing the taxpayer £150 an hour working to help burglars, murderers, rapists and kiddy-fiddlers escape justice. What colour was that kettle now? Also The Burglar Diaries was a work of fiction, not my autobiography, and I’d never claimed it as such. There’s something of a clue to this in the legal disclaimer on page 3. And lastly, if this was the best case a CPS barrister with ten years of experience could put together against me, no wonder the country was in such a state.
Moral indignation? Why’s it always the ones who shout and scream the loudest who end up standing in their front gardens with their wife and kids for the cameras after being caught banging their secretary, fiddling their expenses or downloading Filipino Teletubbies.
3:AM: Can I ask what influences you had before and during those first books?
DK: Probably the main one was Papillon by Henri Charrière. He was a prisoner at the French penal colony of Devil’s Island in the 1930s and he made about three or four epic attempts to escape. In the late 60s he wrote of his experiences and it became a world wide best seller and eventually a movie starring Steve McQueen. The reason the book left a such a big impact on me was because Henri Charrière was no writer, at least not in the traditional sense. He didn’t lavish the reader with great descriptions or fill the page with wordy prose, he simply told the story how he saw it, mostly through anecdotes. Everything and everyone had an anecdote to them, and while you wouldn’t know what colour hat they were wearing, you did know what they were doing on Devil’s Island, who’d sent them there, who’d profited, and how they were coping with it. This book opened my eyes to the fact that there wasn’t just one way to write a book and I started The Burglar Diaries shortly after.
3:AM: You’ve knocked out the books at a steady rate. Were there any writing projects you had to abandon?
DK: No, I don’t give up on projects. Not because I’m dedicated or anything, but because I’m a bit OCD in that once I start something, whether it be a book, a film or peeling a tiny square of wallpaper off my living room wall, I have to finish the job. That said, I’ve written plenty of things that have never seen the light of day. After Thieves Like Us, I novelised the series to add a narrative to it and put back in all the stuff that hit the cutting room floor, including a whole extra episode and short story, but it was turned down by my publishers and everyone I’ve approached so far. I ended up publishing it myself through an online publisher, but it works out so expensive to buy the book (£8 + £4 P&P) that hardly anyone’s bought it and I don’t blame them. I still hope to get it out somehow but it’ll sit on my hard drive along with another novel, four screenplays and five sitcom pilots until I can find a good home for it. You don’t want to publish it do you? Or make five sitcoms?
3:AM: Your books have been translated quite widely. How do you think they’re received abroad?
DK: I have no idea how they translate. There are some amusing explanatory footnotes in the French and Spanish translations explaining who Michael Barrymore and Grange Hill are, which must baffle our European cousins. A theatre company in Latvia (The Leipaja Theatre Company) produced a stage version of The Hitman Diaries and performed it in Leipaja and Riga. I was never able to see it but they sent me some photos and it looks barmy, in the nicest possible way (see attached). I took that as a huge compliment. Also a Russian filmmaker’s approached a couple of times about making a Moscow version of The Hitman Diaries, but alas a UK producer’s always had the rights so I’ve never been able to accommodate him. And an Italian filmmaker approached me about School for Scumbags this year, but an American producer’s already got that one, so once again I wasn’t able to help them. So I guess my books have been received quite well abroad, which makes my penny pinching poverty even more of a puzzler. Overall I think my stuff’s very British, but British in an everyday pie and pint sort of way, rather than anything too Cockney or Madchester iconic, and everyone knows a pie and a pint for what it is, no matter what part of the world they live in. If that makes sense.
3:AM: How was it to see your work adapted for stage and screen? Were you involved in that side of that process?
DK: It can be a sweet and sour experience. It’s actually a lot easier when someone comes in for your rights, pays you for them and takes them away to do with them what they will. This has happened with School for Scumbags. I wrote a screenplay for the producer who’d bought the rights, but he said he’d rather have his own LA screenwriters look at it, which is fair enough and I wish them the best of luck. They’ll probably change it quite a bit to suit the market, but he took me for a very nice lunch and gave me an even nicer cheque, so I have absolutely no complaints. The difficulties begin when the producer who buys your rights wants you to write the script, because they will be coming at the project with their own ideas, not all of which are strokes of genius, but they’ll want these incorporated anyway because it’s now their film, so the whole thing becomes a compromise or an intellectual struggle (and I’m ill equipped for those). And different contributors want different things. Former film graduates tend to want subtext, arks and narratives on every page in order to look like Kurasawa, producers want hip young and funky actors with attitude doing cool things to appeal to today’s kids, cinematographers want your characters to go wandering off through art galleries and other colourful places that look fun to film, while actors generally want to either play James Bond or werewolves and often improvise lines once the cameras are rolling in order to underline the fact that they are artists, not pampered and overpaid labotomised clothes horses. All of these things encroach on a writer’s territory and can have you scouring the situations vacant board in B&Q at weekends, but generally we’re not allowed to moan about it because writing for film or television can be an exciting and enviable job and something plenty of people would give their right arm to do. Occasionally, everything clicks into place and it’s great. I adapted The Pornographer Diaries into a 70 minute stage show and a theatre producer took it to the Edinburgh Festival. It looked exactly how I’d imagined it and the actors and director were all excellent. I went up for a week of the festival and went to see it every night, though this was more to make up the numbers in the audience because no one else did.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Danny King is author of The Burglar Diaries and all the books mentioned above, as well as some others. He was born in Slough and now lives in Stoke Newington with wife Jeannie and son Charlie.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 15th, 2008.