A handful of years ago Ian Plenderleith wrote a bagful of football fiction short stories. Some of them are very, very good, but the exquisitely titled For Whom The Balls Rolls will be reviewed soon enough.
Plenderleith clearly knows something about writing football. Mind you, he's been doing it for years, in places like The Guardian and When Saturday Comes and more recently in the US where he now resides. He was happy to answer a couple of questions for us. Happy enough that he may even answer a few more, so eh, like they say, watch this space.
thesimplestgame: we’ve read you made a calculated move to write about football because that’s what your publisher was looking for, but there must be something beyond that (you’ve written about football as a journalist for years). What is it about football that appeals to you as an author?
Ian Plenderleith: It wasn’t quite as calculated as that. I wrote to a publisher that had put out a compilation volume of short stories (‘A Game Of Two Halves’), which I thought were pretty average bar one or two. So I sent them three stories on the off-chance they were planning a second volume.
It was calculating in the sense that I thought, as an unknown writer, there would be no chance of having a volume of short stories published without a theme running through them. And as football books were extremely popular with most publishers in the late 90s, I thought football was as good a theme as any, given that it was an area I knew well. Also, somewhat naively, I thought that the shortage of good football fiction meant there was a literary gap in the market waiting to be filled.
But once I started thinking about football as theme for fiction, the ideas came. Almost every time I went to a game, or played in game, I had a basic idea I thought could be turned into a story. It could be something as fleeting as the expression on a player’s face, and my interpretation of that expression, that would lead to a story. Or a quip or a heckle from a fan.
tsg: Did you think then (or do you still think) there’s a defined market for football fiction?
IP: At the time the book was published I idealistically hoped, as all first-time authors do, that my book would define a new market! Now I think that if there is a market for adult football fiction (there’s always been a market for Boy’s Own football fiction aimed at the under 12s), it’s a very small one. Part of the problem for my book was that the publisher put virtually no resources nothing into marketing it. I was told that marketing budgets were only for already established authors. It’s apparently too big a risk to market a new writer, because they might not sell, but market an already famous name, and you’re guaranteed a certain number of sales. Cold hard business practice! Which needless to say quickly shattered my illusion that publishing houses are stacked with people who love and care about good literature (my editor is one of a number of editors, I should add, who nobly fight their corner for good writing).
tsg: Your fictional work is very engaging and the 'lonely luckless' characters are so well drawn, you put the reader right beside or inside them. How do you think you are able to do this?
IP:I didn’t really notice that a lot of my characters come across as lonely until a friend pointed it out. It wasn’t something I consciously set out to do. It helps, of course, if you’ve had phases of your life when you’ve been lonely, and can empathise with the world view that for the majority of people, bad luck outweighs the good, and that a stoical acceptance of that fact will help you endure and even thrive. I don’t think loneliness is any kind of affliction, just a state that of mind can hit us all at any time, like any other mood.
I’m flattered that you think the characters are well drawn, and I’m not sure how I’ve achieved that. Years of reading fiction, perhaps, and an awareness that all people are multi-dimensional characters. Even the ones we think we despise.
tsg: There seems to be a general belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction -- it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the dearth of football fiction. Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen, why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport which is so popular?
IP: I think that belief is put out by publishers’ marketing departments. I wrote a (non-football) novel set here in the U.S. that was about a (non-sexual) male friendship, and my agent was told repeatedly by publishers that it was well written but wouldn’t sell “because there’s no market for male fiction.” That’s a crudely ignorant and insulting assessment to any male who reads fiction (not to mention a blow for my chances of ever getting a book published again), and an example of the narrow, myopic attitude that aims the majority of fiction at middle-aged women readers in the Book Club Belt (who might themselves not be averse to reading “male fiction.” Whatever that is).
As for the lack of football fiction in general, I think that’s partly down to the way that sport is used in fiction, either in books or films. The majority of it follows the formula that works towards a final scene where the hero scores the winning goal in the cup final, having no doubt overcome a number of standard obstacles on the way. So it’s a lack of imagination on the part of writers and the publishers who think that’s what the reader wants. But then again, maybe that is what the readers wants. It’s hardly as though the sales of my book suggest otherwise!
I do think, however, that good writing about sport avoids action on the field of play as much as possible.
This avoidance of the sports action on the pitch is worth a blog on its own. Its also one of the things thesimplestgame wants to discuss a little further with Ian Plenderleith. In the meantime, we'd like to thank him for his time, his help, his epic answers and for patience he will have to show in our future pestering of him.
Buy the book at Ian's site. It's definitely worth a look.