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Author Spotlight: Interview with Tony Judge

We touched base with Tony, author of Sirocco Express, to find out a bit more about his life, writing, and canoeing.

Hi Tony.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Preston in Lancashire. Until I was eight, we lived in one of those back-to-back terraced houses you see on Coronation Street. When I first saw this on the telly I thought it was a documentary. Since then I've lived in York, London, Scotland and various points in between.

I live in a village in Worcestershire now, with my partner and our son. I grew up in a large town, but we were never far from the countryside. When we lived in London I enjoyed many aspects of the life there, but I was always conscious of the distance to any real greenery. I get twitchy if I'm around too much concrete for a long time.

Are you a dog or a cat person? Do you have any pets?

I'm definitely a dog person, although we have had cats in the past. We have two dogs at home. I walk them every day, sometimes twice; it's a contractual commitment.

Do you have any interesting hobbies?

I like to paddle a canoe down a river while reciting Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon. OK, I lied about the second part to make canoeing sound more interesting.

What was the last song you listened to?

Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' In The Wind', just after I'd heard about his Nobel Prize. I don't know if he's a poet or if his songs qualify as literature, but he had a huge influence on me when I was a teenager.

Do you know any good jokes?

They laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now. That one's from Bob Monkhouse.

That's good! If you had to live on one meal for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

Yugoslav-style beans: with loads of vegetables, smoked pork and paprika, baked slowly in the oven.

Great choice. Where is your dream holiday destination?

Anywhere with hills or mountains. We went to Norway recently; I loved it there.

Tell us something most people don't know about you.

My mum is one of fourteen siblings and I have over fifty first cousins - Catholic family. Family gatherings can be a bit of a challenge, trying to get all the names right.

Who wouldn't be happy in these stunning Norwegian mountains?

Who wouldn't be happy in these stunning Norwegian mountains?

Wow! Have you always been an avid reader? What is your history with the written word?

I started reading independently when I was about six or seven. I used to max out my library card when I was a bit older. These days I have less time to read purely for pleasure, as I read and edit lots of manuscripts, but it's always a joy to discover a new author. I started writing non-fiction about thirty years ago. My first substantial written work was my doctoral thesis – it's a dire piece of writing but everyone has to start somewhere. I've had non-fiction books published relating to my former career as a telecoms consultant. I started writing fiction about fifteen years ago. I kept having ideas for stories and eventually I thought someone ought to write them down.

Who is your favourite author right now?

I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead a while back. Every sentence she writes is something to savour.

What is your all-time favourite book that you keep returning to, or that inspires you to write?

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. It's the only great book he wrote, but what an achievement. It has so much to say about war, big organisations and they way they warp people's values. And it's funny.

What is next on your 'must-read' list?

That's a long list, but if I had to choose one it would be Ardennes 1944 by Antony Beevor. I love his novelistic way of tackling big historical events combined with his painstaking research.

Tony's hottest picks.

Tony's hottest picks.

How much of an impact does the work of others have on your writing?

I suppose I'm influenced by everything I've ever read. I make a conscious effort not to be derivative. I try to emulate general qualities of writers I admire: economy and directness, for example.

What does your writing routine look like?

When I was writing the first draft of Sirocco Express I worked on it for about five hours a day. These days I tend to fit my writing in around other aspects of my daily routine. Once I start writing it tends to flow fairly quickly. I'm a dreadful procrastinator and I have to stop myself from searching out distractions.

I tend to edit as I'm going along. When I've finished a draft I usually leave it alone for a while. It's amazing how something you thought was a masterly bit of prose screams out for an edit once you have distance from it. I'm more productive when I write in the evening; that's definitely my time.

Do you have any strange habits or tactics to get the creativity flowing?

I sometimes try out an idea by writing a flash fiction around it; perhaps as few as 300 words. If the story wants to grow beyond that, I let it.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

It depends how well it's going. When I'm happy with something I've written, I get a sense of physical wellbeing from it. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true; I can be edgy and frustrated if a piece hasn't worked out the way I wanted.

Do you believe in writer's block?

I don't believe in it being equivalent to a disorder like depression or alcoholism. Writers stop writing for any number of reasons. The term 'writer's block' just describes the behaviour not the cause.

What does your family think of your writing?

My partner encouraged me to write my first novel, Sirocco Express. I think she wanted me to stop talking about writing it and, er, write. My son is just coming to terms with the fact that it's not easy to describe what I do when someone asks him.

I've written most of a children's book and he likes the bits he's read; he obviously has great literary taste.

If you were forced to conceal your identity, what would your pseudonym be?

It would have to be some kind of naff, non-threatening superhero name - probably The Scrabbler.

A fan of Siroccos.

A fan of Siroccos.

What was your inspiration for Sirocco Express? How did it come about?

I was moved by stories of people trying to cross the Med in small boats, from Morocco to Spain. This was about fourteen years ago. There were occasional news reports and photographs about migration. In those days a lot of it was from West Africa and to a lesser extent the Middle East. It wasn't the all-consuming, daily preoccupation of the news media that it is today. I also read news reports about riots and breakouts from UK detention centres. I wondered how the people who were involved had made their way from their homelands to some bleak detention centre in the UK. That's when I decided to write a novel about it.

Tell me about the process of researching Sirocco. How long did you prepare before beginning writing?

I spent several months reading around the subject: news reports, travel books, etc. The idea became more clear once I'd decided on an itinerary for my main character. It was easy to produce a rough plot based on a simple timeline of his travels. It was my first novel, so I didn't want to play around with anything too technically difficult in terms of the structure. I've travelled in North Africa and Spain quite a bit and I adapted some personal experiences. Once when I was on a walking trip through the Atlas Mountains I became so ill with a stomach bug I had to ride on a mule for a day because I could hardly walk. I've also stayed at mountain farms in Morocco and Spain and I drew on those experiences for similar scenes in the book.

Was Sirocco Express inspired by any other books?

My main character, Adebayo, is a Nigerian student who is obsessed by classic works of literature. His travels across Africa, headed for Europe, make several references to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In Adebayo's case this is a reverse image of Conrad's book. Europe is his dark territory.

Does Sirocco Express have a political message?

I made a conscious effort not to take a pro or anti stance. The complexities of migration policy are beyond me. I did want to make readers think about the choices they might make in similar circumstances. It depresses me when migrants are viewed simply as either threats to the established order or as passive victims.

Sum up what you would want a reader to take away from Sirocco in one sentence.

That foreign-looking street hawker you just walked past probably has a more interesting back story than you.

This is an old book.

This is an old book.

What does literary success look like to you? Is there any one author you see as embodying that ideal?

I'm happy if someone can read my book and, part-way through, forget that it was laboriously written by a paunchy middle-aged bloke sitting at a desk. It's nice if they can reach the end without throwing the book at the wall (especially if they're reading it on an expensive device). I admire writers like Martin Amis who write what they have to write and then move on, wherever it takes them.

What cultural value do you see in reading, writing and storytelling, if any?

Stories are fundamental to our development. The stories we hear and read when young wire our brains to make us think the way we do as adults. We can't live without them.

What are your plans for the near or far future? Is there another book in the pipeline?

I have a novel about the Russian Front during WWII which I self-published. I plan to revise it, fix some of its flaws and flesh it out a bit. I hope Wet Zebra will be interested in it.

I also have a children's book that is 90% complete. Don Quixote and Joan of Arc both feature in it: don't ask.

There are vague plans for a third novel, which should become more concrete once I've cleared my current projects.

What is the craziest thing you've ever done?

Hang gliding. When I was learning I crashed a glider but escaped unhurt. My instructor told me I'd better go straight back out on a different glider otherwise I might start to brood about the crash and not want to try again. So I did…and crashed again, nearly breaking my arm and definitely breaking the glider. We agreed that maybe it wasn't my sport after all. I think he was worried about the repair bills.


Thank you very much for your time and thoughtful, honest answers, Tony.


Sirocco Express is available to purchase in ebook form right here, and there are physical copies that we will be selling at all our events. The next one will be our Southend-on-Sea #BookSlam at Mawsons Micro Pub on 1st February 2017 - stay tuned for more details and to find out who will be reading.

Tony slamming at Chipping Norton.

Tony slamming at Chipping Norton.