Author Tony Parsons shot to fame in 1999 when his breakout novel ‘Man and Boy’ became a runaway bestseller, and he went on to write two further books featuring the same protagonist Harry Silver.
In 2014, he published the first of his 6 ‘DC Max Wolfe’ detective novels. His latest novel, ‘Your Neighbour’s Wife’ is his first psychological thriller. Gillian caught up with him to talk about the enduring appeal of his original series, and how he managed to adapt to the demands of different genres.
Many readers will be familiar with your ‘Man and Boy’ series. Why do you think it has such enduring appeal?
I think Man and Boy did so well, and readers still think of it fondly, because it has such universal appeal. At heart it is a very simple story but it touches on themes that almost anyone can identify with – watching your parents getting older and die, seeing your children growing up, struggling to keep a relationship together – it is stuff that we all go through, and even if you haven’t experienced some of it – if you have never seen a parent die, if you have never had your marriage fall apart – you can probably imagine what it will feel like.
Also, Man and Boy was published very well – and these things matter when you are getting a book out to the public. It had a beautiful iconic cover, it got great publicity – really, the publishers did everything right – because they loved the book too. And you do need a book published well if you are going to reach millions. And Man and Boy sold millions – to me, it felt like everyone in the country who reads books bought it and read it.
And Man and Boy had the thing that every runaway bestseller needs – it had great word of mouth. And great word of mouth – people recommending the book to their friends and family and colleagues – is better than all the marketing and publicity and advertising in the world.
I think Man and Boy also has a secret magic ingredient – I was emotionally very raw when I wrote it. I started writing it on the day I learned that my mum had lung cancer, and I was writing it throughout her fight with cancer – my mum died in 23rd April 1999 and the book came out in hardback in July of that year. So I was in a very emotionally raw place throughout the writing of the book and I believe that gives it a lot of the emotional impact that people respond to. I have read from the book all over the world and it is really common to look up and see people crying – but they are not crying about my parents, they are crying about their own parents. So it has that quality of a great song that anyone can identify with.
Having become well known as a writer of humorous contemporary fiction, you went on to publish your first crime book in 2015. Your latest book ‘Your Neighbour’s Wife’ is a standalone psychological thriller. What do you enjoy about writing in different genres?
To me they are all stories, and I don’t really think of them as wildly different. The Max Wolfe series of crime novels doesn’t really feel that different to a book like Man and Boy or Man and Wife. I do like thrillers so Max Wolfe felt like a good fit for me, but really it is all about stories. I was reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier when I was writing Your Neighbour’s Wife and it became a model of what I was trying to do – because Rebecca is a love story, and it is a murder story but more than anything it is a book about self-esteem – the new young wife feeling that she can never replace the dead and beloved first wife. I quite like writing within the genre form – if you are a British crime writer, you are part of a long and noble tradition, and you need to honour and respect it. But mostly I think that genres are there to be smashed. Your Neighbour’s Wife is as much a portrait of a marriage as it is a murder story or mystery, hopefully.
What, if anything, do all your books have in common in terms of style or content?
I think what my books have in common is family is at the heart of them. Max Wolfe my detective, is a single father with a very young daughter called Scout, and I think that anyone who has read my stuff will recognize the way I write about parents and children. Relationships are really what they all share – Your Neighbour’s Wife is the story of a husband and wife who love each other but suddenly find their marriage under unbearable stress and pressure.
You’ve said that in your DC Max Wolfe series you try to avoid cliched characters or plot-lines. Why do you think this is so important?
I think that books are competing with so many other forms of entertainment these days that you there is no time or place for the second-rate, the mediocre, the cliched. I think all great writing shares the same quality – what happens is unexpected. And all bad writing shares the same quality – you can guess what is going to happen. I just try to keep it as interesting as possible for readers that have got a thousand things to do apart from read a Tony Parsons book!
One of the voices in your latest novel is female. What were the challenges of writing a story from a woman’s perspective?
The challenge of writing a woman is that you have to convince women that this is a credible voice – that this is a real woman, and not a man talking in a woman’s voice. Your Neighbour’s Wolfe is told from two perspectives – the husband and the wife – and the thing that my (female) editor and I worked on hardest was making the two voices sound totally believable. So I can’t pretend it is an easy thing for a man to write in a woman’s voice – or the other way around – but publishing is mostly full of women and they are never shy to tell me if I have something wrong!
Will we be seeing more from DC Max Wolfe in the future? Or should we be looking forward to more psychological thrillers?
My next book is another psychological thriller – I am not sure if I will go back to max Wolfe. It really depends on demand being there, from the industry and the readers. I do miss him, and I miss his world – I did six full-length Max Wolfe novels – really that is what I have been doing for the last ten years – and six is a nice number. I never felt trapped by Max Wolfe, and I am proud of all the books – I think I kept the standard up. If I go back to Max then it will be after a few years have gone by and now he is dealing with a daughter who is a teenager. I think that would be interesting!