Last week I posted a review of Dangerous, the latest book by mutli-genre author Ian Probert, concluding, “The result is a unique combination of themes and insights that does not attempt to reach any pat solution or heart-warming resolution. Instead, we leave the author and the boxers he has profiled the way we found them – damaged by their life experiences and making the best of the hard-won lessons they have learned along the way, but still entranced by the sport that has by turns served them so well and so dangerously.” This week, I’m following with an interview with the author, in which he tells us how and why the book came about.
Q: You have a wonderfully fluid and easy to read writing style. Does that come to you naturally, or does it take you a lot of revising to achieve that result?
A: Thank you. That’s a very nice complement. Does it come naturally? Partly, but also there is a lot of work involved. I don’t really like writing. I have to drag words out of me. Without wishing to sound pretentious I liken how I work to making a piece of sculpture. It’s a case of bashing out some basic phrases then looking at them over and over again, refining them, tweaking them, chipping away at them until they start to make sense and hopefully embody a certain elegance. I’m governed by simplicity and surprise. To my mind, the moment when somebody becomes aware that they are reading something I’ve lost. My aim is for people to forget they are reading and become involved in and engaged with the content.
Q: In your last book, Johnny Nothing, you portray the experience of a young boy with a horrid home life who succeeds in coming out on top over his cartoonishly horrible parents. Do you think you would have written this book had it not been for your own childhood experiences at the hands (sometimes literally) of your father?
A: Well, I’ve thought about this a lot and I’d have to say yes. I had a pretty miserable childhood and it only dawned on me a few years ago that I’ve only ever written about my father. My first published book ‘Internet Spy’ was about an unhappy loner; despite the humour, ‘Johnny Nothing‘ also fits into that category; my unpublished ‘Shrink’ is about a boy who kidnaps his estranged father and tortures him; ‘How to lose 40lbs’ is about a man whose estranged father is dying and refuses to see him – this actually happened to me ten years after I’d written it.
So yes. I can’t disagree. I must write about something else and maybe I will because of ‘Dangerous’.
Q: ‘Dangerous’ is obviously an intensely personal book. Did you have any qualms about sharing so much about your personal experiences and insecurities?
A: Yes, I did. In fact I almost pulled the book right at the last minute. I was worried that I was simply being too honest; concerned that people would think they were dealing with a complete prat. I still am actually.
Q: I read your very moving blog entry about your father’s passing some time ago. Did you decide to omit it for personal reasons, or because if fell somewhat outside the arc of your overall presentation of your troubled experience with your father?
A: This is going to sound really bad but I don’t remember writing a blog about my father. I’m sure you’re right but I somehow must have decided to exorcise it from my memory. So in answer to your question I guess my subconscious must have taken control over that one.
Q: You state in your book that its writing was in part for therapeutic reasons. Did it achieve any positive effects, and if so, were they as anticipated or different?
A: Well, conventional therapy wasn’t working for me so I took things into my own hands. And yes, there have been significant improvements to my life. I’d go as far as to say that the 8-month period I spent writing the book represents the best and worst time of my life. Even though I almost lost my daughter I believe my self-imposed therapy has enabled me to grow as a person. I’m much more friendly than I used to be, consequently I’m less of a loner and suddenly have friends coming out of my ears. I’m freer with my emotions and I’ve laid to rest a lot of ghosts from my past. It’s been an incredible experience for me.
Q: How differently did you write and feel about boxing in this book as compared to Rope Burns, your previous book on the same sport? If you were to rewrite that book today, would you change it, and if so, how?
A: Well, I still have ambiguous feelings about the sport. And even though I was meeting a lot of boxers from my past and re-incorporating the culture back into my life I still haven’t physically attended a fight. I’ve had a few invites from boxers and promoters but somehow managed to make myself unavailable. To attend a fight would be a very big step for me.
If I were to rewrite ‘Rope Burns’ today I think I’d go a little less easy on my father. He gets off too lightly. In ‘Rope Burns’ there is a chapter about some shoes he gave to me. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time I think it was a sugar-coated allegory for what he put me through as a child.
Q: Journalists are often spoken of as sparring with their interview subjects. Do you in fact see any similarities, and if so, did this in any way increase the appeal of journalism over other forms of writing to you (noting that in your book you cite the connection it provided to your father as the primary driver of the decision)?
A: Others might see it as sparring but I don’t. When I sit down with someone my aim is to establish an empathy and a kinship with the other person. I’m not there to exploit them or make them say things that they will later regret. I try to be some sort of conduit for their emotions and truth.
Q: While you were finishing this book, a fighter died as a result of a fight with Nigel Benn, a fighter you wrote quite a bit about in your book, and just a few weeks ago a young and upcoming Scots fighter named Mike Towell died the day after his fight was halted in the fifth round. Do you expect that these two events will have any effect on boxing rules in the UK.?
A: I doubt it. Nobody, of course, wants to see a boxer get hurt but in the same way that racing drivers occasionally crash it is inevitable that there will be tragedies from time to time. The loss of human life is indefensible of course. But like many I’ve come to realise that boxing is here to stay. It would simply be impossible to ban the sport as it would immediately go underground and become even more dangerous. It’s a clichéd response but it’s true. The best you can do is to keep on working at the safety aspects.
Q: Do you think the sport of boxing would survive if blows to the head were forbidden? Would you personally find it sufficiently interesting to follow and worth the tradeoff to protect the health of boxers?
A: No. It simply wouldn’t work.
Q: In preparing to write this book, you focused almost exclusively on interviewing retired fighters and fighters trying to make a comeback that you had actively reported on during your previous journalistic career. Do you expect to resume actively covering boxing as a journalist, or continue to write about boxing in some other way, or have you accomplished what you set out to do and are ready to move on?
A: I don’t know. I’ll probably end up somewhere halfway. The British trade magazine Boxing News are interested in me contributing an ongoing series. There’s no money in it but I think I will do it. At 54 I’ve finally realised that I actually like writing about boxing, that it’s not a crime to do so.
Q: You’ve written in many genres, from young adult to fantasy/science fiction to autobiographical. What do you expect to turn your hand to next?
A: I’m working on a new kids book which is for the hospital that saved my daughter’s life, The Whittington. It’s a humorous rewrite of ‘Dick Whittington’, probably in the anarchic style of ‘Johnny Nothing’. I toyed with the idea of calling the book ‘Dick’ but decided that this might not be the most appropriate of titles for a kids book. It might attract the wrong demographic. That will be finished by the end of the year hopefully.
Q: What haven’t I asked that you would want a reader to know about Dangerous and/or your experience in writing it?
A: Well, I think you’ve been pretty comprehensive. All I would like to get across is: don’t assume that ‘Dangerous’ is simply a book about people who hit each other. I’m hoping that I’m dealing with universal themes of family and regret and secrets. Boxing is purely the mechanism that I’ve used to approach these themes. I’m not sure if I’ve been successful.
Time will tell.
The author and boxer Michael Watson