Jon Rance chats to Lindsey Philipson about The Summer Holidays Survival Guide and his writing process.
1. Your new novel, The Summer Holidays Survival Guide, deals with every parents’ fear: the six-week holiday. Can you tell us where you got your inspiration from?
The initial idea came from a magazine article I read about two years ago. The article was titled, The Summer Holidays Survival Guide. As soon as I read the title, I wrote it down because I thought it was an amazing title for a novel. That was two years ago, and I had the idea and occasionally added bits and pieces to it until the idea was full formed. That’s usually how things work. It evolved over time, matured in my mind until it was ready to be written. I do, of course, have two kids myself and I know that the school summer holidays can be a difficult time and I thought this would be the great basis for a story.
2. Who inspired you to become an author?
I think on some level I knew I wanted to be an author long before I was. I’ve always loved reading, from the Adrian Mole series as a boy through my degree in English Literature to adulthood where I read a lot. For me being a writer is something that’s just in me, I have to do it, and I have been inspired by lots of authors but probably most by Mike Gayle. I think before I read my first Mike Gayle novel, I wasn’t sure what sort of book I wanted to write. Then I read, My Legendary Girlfriend, and I remember thinking, this is what I want to write. A few years later, I wrote, This Thirtysomething Life, which earned me my first publishing deal.
3. Was it a full-time process initially or did you transition over?
It was definitely a transition. My biggest break as a writer was becoming a father. When we had kids, we decided that I would stay at home and my wife would keep working. She’s an amazing teacher and loves her job, and I was working in a job I didn’t love and knew I wanted to write. Being a stay-at-home dad really gave me the freedom to write. It gave me time, experience, perspective, and if I hadn’t done it, I might not be writing full-time now.
4. Who are your favourite writers and what genre particularly appeals to you?
As mentioned before, Mike Gayle was an influence on my early work. I also loved Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons, Lisa Jewell, Sue Townsend, David Nicholls, and Matt Dunn. Matt and I have become friends, which is amazing because I loved his work first. He’s a very supportive and kind fellow author. I really love David Nicholls, and One Day is one of my favourite books. Recently I’ve been reading some darker, edgier drama, and it’s something I’m becoming interested in writing. I think genres are becoming more fluid and I think I can definitely blend a lot of my skills into something more dramatic and plot driven.
5. Some readers would call your work male chick-lit. Do you like that people segregate your work into a particular genre? How would you categorise, if at all, your own work?
Honestly I don’t really think about what genre I’m writing. I never set out to conform to one genre because I think it’s irrelevant to authors. We try to write great stories and whatever genre that happens to fall into it doesn’t really matter to us. I know publishers love to fit books into genres for marketability, but it isn’t something I think about. I write commercial fiction and that’s it. It isn’t aimed at men or women, but people who want a usually funny, heart-warming, dramatic story about love, relationships, and all the bits in-between.
6. Do you find it hard writing characters of the opposite sex?
I actually love writing female characters. It’s definitely more of a challenge, but if you’ve read my previous book, About Us, which is written entirely from a female first person perspective, you know it isn’t something I’m afraid to do.
7. One of the qualities I love about your work is your sense of realism. Your characters deal with pressures and challenges which modern-day society can inflict on us. Is this a deliberate quality of your work or does it just happen organically when you write?
Firstly, thank you for that. Secondly, I think it’s something that all writers on some level aspire to do. Our job is to create a world, populate it with characters, and give them challenges to overcome. That’s pretty much all writing is. Saying that, it’s one of the hardest things because if the world or the characters we create don’t work or feel real, we’ve failed. I’m lucky in the sense that all of my novels so far have been set in modern times, usually in London, so it’s easier for me to imagine that and create the world you read. It is definitely a skill, which I hope I’m getting better at. For me the key is in the details. If you’re going to create characters, you need to give them small things, whether it’s a character trait, physical things, or a flaw, they need little things to make the bigger picture work. It’s like a room in a house. The room is just a box, but when you start to fill it full of decorations, furniture, ornaments, it suddenly has a feeling and becomes something. It’s the same with creating characters. You start with an empty box and slowly fill it up.
8. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Again, I’m lucky in that my books are contemporary, usually in London, or somewhere else I’ve been. So my research usually only goes as far as using Google maps or remembering a certain place or experience. For The Summer Holidays Survival Guide, the family end up going to Scotland for a holiday and it’s a huge part of the book. Last summer my family and I went to Scotland, and I used the same places in the book!
9. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
On average from the first word to completion is about 8-9 months of actual writing and editing. However, as I said, most books are in my head for months or sometimes years before I start writing them. I have pages and pages of notes for each book, and so really a book can take years if you include all of the preparation.
10. As a writer, how do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
That’s a great question. I think I try in all of my books to give the reader an experience. Usually an emotional one. Every book, even comedies, need to have a journey for the reader, and as the author, we’re in charge of taking them on that journey. I take this job very responsibly because I want my readers to enjoy themselves, hopefully learn something or feel something, but I also hope that when they’re done, it leaves them satisfied and with a warm glow. I don’t take endings lightly, and in fact, my last book, About Us, had a difficult ending and I wrote about three different endings to get it right. Some people still didn’t like the ending, but I felt it was right for the story. At the end of the day, we have to create work that we’re proud of and we think is right for us. I do deal with difficult issues in all of my books. In The Summer Holidays Survival Guide, there’s first love heartbreak, marriage problems, getting old, death, losing parents and children growing up too fast. These are all issues we all deal with, and I hope people can relate to it and maybe it might even help someone.
11. Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to form a body of work with links between each book?
Another great question. For me it’s important to build a body of work that I’m really proud of, which is why every book takes so long because I’m a diligent editor. My edits go on and on until the book is down to its bones. I think there are definitely familiar themes running through my work. The main one, of course, being love. I think, or at least hope, that my readers feel a familiarity when they read my work. Each book is different, but I think there’s definitely reoccurring themes and stories that link them together. I hope that makes sense.
12. Can you describe to us your writing process?
As I said, my books are usually in my mind for a while before I start writing them. I have an idea now for my next novel, and it’s on my mind all the time. I have ideas for settings, characters, plot, and my job is to connect all the dots. This can take months or years, but usually when I start writing a book, I’m ready. I tend to write the first draft as quickly as I can. It takes on average about three months to complete a first draft of about 100,000 words. From them it’s just a matter of editing until it’s perfect – the hard bit. Editing is usually about five months, and it goes off to my editor twice in the process, who helps me with plot holes, character problems etc. For me writing a novel is just a huge puzzle. I normally have an ending in mind, a start, and some idea where the middle is going, but once I start the puzzle, it’s a question of figuring it all out. Some novels are easier than others, some more or less complex, but the process is the same. My next novel is going to be quite different than my others in that it’s a lot more plot driven, so I need to spend more time up front planning the story before I start.
13. Was it always your dream to be a full-time writer?
Yes. And now I am, I can’t believe how lucky I am.
14. Do you ever get writer’s block?
Not really. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think sometimes it’s easy and the words flow and at other times it’s hard and every word requires a huge effort and it’s painful. But it’s never blocked, just harder to find.
15. Have you any tips for aspiring writers?
Write. A lot. And don’t stop.
16. Have you any ideas or thoughts for your next book?
Yes. As mentioned above, I have an idea for a big, plot driven story. It’s dramatic and tense and full of mystery, intrigue, love, relationships, death, and it’s going to be amazing! At least it is in my head.
Two parents. Three children. One senile grandad. Six weeks. How bad could it possibly be?
For teacher, Ben Robinson, the school summer holidays mean one thing – spending six weeks with his kids. This year, however, he also has his father and one very angry wife to contend with. The name of the game is simple: survive.
Ben embarks on a summer of self-discovery that includes, amongst other things, becoming besotted by a beautiful Australian backpacker, an accidental Brexit march and a road rage attack. There’s also the matter of saving his marriage, which is proving harder than he imagined, mainly due to an unfortunate pyramid scheme and one quite large bottom.
But when Ben learn his father has a secret, it takes the whole family on a trip to Scotland that will make or break their summer – and perhaps Ben’s life.
Jon Rance is the author of seven novels: the Kindle top ten bestseller, This Thirtysomething Life, Happy Endings (both published by Hodder and Stoughton), This Family Life, Sunday Dinners, Dan And Nat Got Married, About Us, and his latest, The Summer Holidays Survival Guide. He’s also the author of the Christmas novella, A Notting Hill Christmas. Jon studied English Literature at Middlesex University, London, before going travelling and meeting his American wife in Australia. Jon loves comedy (especially sitcoms), the films of Richard Curtis, travelling and tea.