James McConnachie: Writing to Order and When to Strain Against the Leash

Report written by Gill Hollands.

The evening began with three announcements. Barbara Large invited Nita Saini to talk about her pocket book which she has self-published after eight dark years of depression. She had discovered that current books on the subject were thick tomes offering no help. She felt that people who were depressed needed help to get themselves out of their situation and off drugs. While she was researching, her notes lived in her back pocket and determined the size for her new user-friendly book. She feels that her tips on de-stressing, happiness, relaxation and reducing anxiety will be relevant to every reader. The book has been endorsed by Stephen Fry, The Barefoot Doctor, Lorraine Kelly and MIND, who have recommended it to GPs. Nita said she wants to light up people’s lives. We are sure this will be a success and hope to hear more in the future. Check out the website on www.movingonupthebook.com.

Alice Young’s new book, was recently published on Amazon. They provide an e-book, ISBN and allow you to set your price. It can then be turned into hardback if required. Alice belongs to a group of supportive undergraduate writers who gather frequently to help each other with various projects. This motivates them all to keep going. Congratulations to Alice.

Joan McGavin, Faculty of Arts, announced a summer poetry course in Normandy on 24-28 June.

Barbara Large gave the dates for the 33rd Winchester Writer’s Conference Festival and Bookfair, 21-23 June 2013 when Lord Julian Fellowes, author and script writer and renowned for the television series Downton Abbey, will give the Plenary Address. In-depth Writing Workshops are planned for Monday and Tuesday, 24 and 25 June, following the conference. Details will be available online soon.

James McConnachie, professional reviewer, traveller, part time historian, 2008 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, writer for The Author, the quarterly journal of The Society of Authors and currently their temporary editor, gave an outstanding talk punctuated by many questions from the audience. He said that he felt honoured and delighted, yet daunted to be speaking to peers and fellow writers in his home town.

Writing to Order and When To Strain Against the Leash

He began by discussing his latest book, The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories. He has been a major contributor to Rough Guides since they began and believes deeply in their value to travellers. He often has to return to various countries to update the details in new editions. He stressed the importance of providing information which give access for the disabled. He felt that the books were very good value considering the time and energy he had committed to them. The books are aimed at an intelligent readership.

He admitted that most of the conspiracy theories in his latest book attracted even the most sceptical writer. As a writer he strived to keep focussed on the topic. Most of the theories continue to be battlefields long after the event. His friend, Robin, who is a ‘rabid conspiracist’ helped him come up with the initial idea. He felt it was important to introduce humour and scepticism into dry facts, especially with tiptoe-ing into legal minefield. The risk of libel and defamation lost him many nights’ sleep; the potential for suing a constant nightmare. He explained in some length that the UK libel laws are an antiquated and complex maze which is under review currently. Even with proof of the facts, a court case could not be ruled out and reporting any facts from other sources is no defence. As a result, there were many decisions to be made when choosing which subjects could safely be covered in the book. He still feels some topics are on shaky ground. The agreed disclaimer at the beginning of the book ‘almost turns the whole thing into fiction’; that everything should be viewed with ‘complete disbelief’. In fact, he had wanted Terry Jones to write the introduction but he declined when he realised the potential risks.

How long did it take to write the book? The first edition took 1½ years of solid work. The 2nd edition was more of an update and therefore only took months. The books cover 97 different subjects: the research was extensive.

Do you shred everything? Every note and piece of paper used in his research is kept in case it is needed for defence. One possible claim involving the DEA and CIA came at the end of the first print run. Changes were to have been made before the next printing. Thankfully the threat came to nothing and the first run did not have to be withdrawn.

Do the libel laws limit what and where you can publish? They do. He hates the restrictions.

Could the problem not be shipped out to avoid UK law? The laws are about to change ‘libel tourism’. The law is currently ‘rotten’. A proper effort needs to be made to change it.

Does this apply only to the written word? The law to prevent injustice is effective but writers should be able to speak the truth without being sued.

What about the Official Secrets Act? He has not needed to sign this document. It does not apply to authors. It does apply to government workers in MI6: for example, in the case of Kelly’s death. The case is still open. James felt that he might come under pressure, but his book may sell 10-20,000 copies whereas newspapers sell millions.

What about publishing on a foreign server? Could you still be sued under UK law? James was not certain.

James said that he prefered non-fiction to fiction. He found the boundaries of being a guide book writer comforting, even liberating. He is humbly proud of being useful; being able to make a reader turn down a certain street; to change their experience of a place.

He enjoys helping people, even being an ‘agony uncle’ for the Metro, the free London daily newspaper. When he responds to problems, he hopes that it will help other people with similar problems.

James also reviews books for The Sunday Times. He is given the unusual books, those that don’t fit into a particular category or popular science, which he prefers. He admires the editor, also believing that book reviews should be simple, useful, fulfilling their duty to the reader. He read an excerpt that showed how he carefully balances his prose, reflecting and shaping matching words, a satisfying experience. He said writing is like boxing, use small punches and big swipes. He felt creativity has to be squeezed out in different ways. Even a book review gives the opportunity to write creatively. Non-fiction is becoming more interesting now; more creativity generates more energy.

James referred to his book, The Rough Guide to Sex. He wanted to address all types of relationships, young, old, straight, gay; not assume the age-old stereotypes, which had limited other volumes.

He struggled at first with the process, even thinking of basing it on a Rough Guide with a map. Eventually he began with attraction; love, desire, hormones, culture, beauty, sexuality, science and legality. These aspects reflect in many areas. He covered contraception, health and religion. He went on to bodies, including minds. Of course there is a chapter called ‘How to do it’. He addressed sex though life, through disability,(although he admitted that there were many aspects of this topic that require more thought), The book even discusses early changes in a young child’s brain toward love and affection. He mentioned that he also wrote about the dark side of sex and violence and its effects. Abuse is widespread and occurs in every culture. He feels very strongly against pornography.

He also wrote about gay sex: no-one has covered this subject. To some it would seem shocking: in some societies, it would be illegal. Views vary with different cultures.

Would this question even arise in 50 years? The norm varies widely in many cultures but society is constantly changing.

James discussed TheBook of Love: the Story of the Kamasutra.

His research into this topic began when James was given a special edition of The Kamasutra as a gift. He realised it was rather more like a book of conduct, a guide to Indian sexual relationships. He became obsessed by the attitudes to sex in the east and west and fascinated by the story of the original book which had to be translated by a friend.

Finally James talked about The Society of Authors, a trade union for members who are very helpful to all writers. He works with no agent or accountant. Instead The Society of Authors have guided him. He has written various articles for their issues of The Author and he has been offered the post of temporary editor.To be on the other side of the fence was a new experience; accepting articles rather than pitching them. He welcomed letters to the editor.

James does not used social media although he is on Twitter. While he feels it can be entertaining and the internet has its place, he feels that we should turn off the screen and read a book. His favourite authors are Rebecca Smith, a lecturer at the University of Southampton, Mick Jackson, Jonathan Buckley and Robert McFarlane. He admires his metaphors and ingenuity and the creative use of language.

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