Sultans of Swing

Desert Island Discs – 23rd June 2024

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Kirsty Young: Hello, I’m Kirsty Young. Today’s castaway is a writer. He was a late starter: his first taste of publishing success was in 2015, when he was 45. But since then he has been a powerhouse in the world of fiction, seemingly just as comfortable writing Young Adult novels as he is creating comedies for the screen. When asked about how it felt to get his first novel published, he said: “It’s taken fifteen years to get to this point, now I can have a rest…” He is Simon Yates.

KY: But, Simon, you didn’t have a rest at all did you?

Simon Yates: [chuckles nervously] No, Kirsty. I guess that first taste of success was addictive. I’d completed four novels at that point which had taken my whole life, but a lot of my time had been taken up by sending out queries and manuscripts to agents and publishers, attending my place of work all week, and long bouts of procrastination…. All that practice gave me momentum when I began writing full-time. It gets harder to write with every rejection letter you receive, but after publication all my previous disappointments fuelled my drive to continue.

KY: If that’s what made you write then, what motivated you before that?

SY: Well, I’d always wanted to be a writer. I got a typewriter and some carbon paper for Christmas when I was in my early teens, which I remember asking for. It wasn’t a random present. And it wasn’t a career pointer from my parents either. My dad was far too sensible for that.

KY: So your father would have disapproved of you being a writer then?

SY: When I was in my twenties I was a complete wastrel anyway so I suppose he’d have been pleased to see me doing anything even vaguely constructive. But when I was growing up he’d have very much wanted me to pick a solid profession with prospects and a pension and things like that.

KY: Why do you say you were a wastrel?

SY: [laughs] Because I was! After I finished University I worked in a pub, then graduated to getting drunk in the pub. And then finally, to save time, I started living in a pub!

KY: Living there?

SY: Yes. The landlady of the pub is now my wife.

KY: Really?

SY: Yes. That was the turning point actually.

KY: So you stopped being a wastrel then?

SY: Not immediately. It was more of a gradual process. I did start to write a novel… [snorts] but I was still not prepared to put in the work. I had an idea in my head of what a writer should be: flamboyant, artistic, prone to fits of depression… I rather thought if I lived my life to those principles I was bound to be a success.

KY: And did that work for you?

SY: No. I wrote about 10,000 words in six months. And every one of them was rubbish.

KY: Time for your first disc.

SY: It’s a poem. I remember it from my childhood because my mum knows it off by heart. I love the way it tells a whole story in so few words, from zero to hero and back again, and I like to think that it stirred an early appreciation of how words, if they’re chosen perfectly, can summon up images that go far beyond the mundane definitions. It’s “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash.

Reading of The Tale of Custard the Dragon

KY: So, was your mum a big influence on you? Creatively?

SY: Oh, yes. She told me when I was about thirteen and really leaning towards maths and computer programming, that she thought I’d end up with a career which involved writing. And I’ve never forgotten that. I have no idea what she based her theory on, because all the evidence at the time was pointing towards me being a real science nerd, but… well, I guess she knew me better than I knew myself at the time.

KY: Were you a nerd?

SY: Absolutely. Massively. I had two very close friends (we used to play D&D together) and one of our greatest pleasures was disassembling the machine code of games I had on my BBC Micro computer. We had to do it by hand looking up the number of each opcode… I’m sorry I can see I might be boring you.

KY: [yawns] No. No. But I think it might be time for some more music.

SY: I remember seeing this band on the telly in 1977. The lead singer was dressed in a black and white motley leotard, and he strutted around the stage like a peacock on steroids. No man should be able to get away with behaving like that but Freddie Mercury absolutely rocked it. They weren’t performing the song I’ve chosen, but this was my introduction to them and I’ve spent the last fifty years in awe of Queen’s, and especially Freddie’s, entertainment factor. The song I’ve chosen is “The March of the Black Queen”

The March of the Black Queen” by Queen from the album “Queen II”

KY: The listeners couldn’t see how much you seemed to be enjoying that…

SY: Thankfully. I’ve always felt faintly embarrassed by how much I loved Queen’s music. My best friends at school were all into The Smiths or Joy Division or whoever, but there was something so unashamedly entertaining about Queen that made more “serious” music seem a bit drab. And I want to write like that. To me, the most important thing is to entertain.

KY: You’ve said you had a comfortable, happy childhood. Your mother was a teacher and your father a company director. Were there any tensions growing up?

SY: No. No. None. I moved schools when I was fourteen, which was about the only difficulty I had. And that only lasted for few weeks, when I started to hang out with some cool kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.

KY: [snorts] Dungeons and Dragons? Really?

SY: Yes! While other adolescents were out trying to score 2 litre bottles of Woodpecker from the off licence,  I was roleplaying my level 7 female magic-user through the Forgotten Realms with my buddies. I think I learned a lot more about people that way than actually talking to real ones.

KY: Your, erm, understanding of women and more particularly feminism got you into a bit of hot water early on in your writing career didn’t it?

SY: Yes. “The Rise and Fall of Ultra-Knitting”  That was very confusing. I’d had some success with my young adult fiction and I’d had an idea for a short story pointing out the unfair tactics employed by men in the battle of the sexes. So I entered “The Rise and Fall of Ultra-Knitting” into the Bridport Short Story Competition where it came 2nd. Everyone at that point seemed to understand what I was trying to say. The top 13 entries are also entered into the BBC National Short Story Award, and I suppose because of the wider audience some people started to complain that it was sexist.

KY: Well isn’t it?

SY: Yes. Sort of. But it’s supposed to be a damning, but probably fictional, indictment of men and their methods. A vocal minority, or perhaps the clandestine group of men portrayed in the story, caused such a fuss that my story was disqualified from the competition. And I was almost blacklisted from the industry.

KY: So how did you manage to turn that around?

SY: Well, I didn’t do anything. The more I tried to explain the worse I seemed to be making things. I think I’ve got the Daily Mail to thank really, although it certainly wasn’t their intention to help. I seemed to be top of their hit list at the time, hated more than all the murderers and terrorists and foreigners. But, as you know Kirsty, most right thinking people generally believe the opposite of what the Daily Mail says and so gradually people started to actually read the story properly.

KY: There was one particular celebrity on your side though, wasn’t there?

SY: Ahhh, very clever! I can see why you’ve been doing this for so long.

KY: Thank you.

SY: Yes. Jessie J was particularly vocal about it. She’d written a song a couple of years before called, “Do It Like a Dude” which carried a similar message, and was equally misunderstood by the hard of thinking. So, with the aid of your clever steering, that brings me to my third choice, which is by Jessie J and was also the first song that my youngest daughter brought to my attention. It’s:

“Who’s Laughing Now?” by Jessie J

KY: That song is about bullying isn’t it? And that’s something you’ve explored in more than one of your books.

SY: Well I don’t know if “explored” is the right word. Some of my books have got bullies in them. Charlie’s Worries and Entering the Weave certainly, but they’re just characters used to further the plot or introduce some threat.

KY: You always seem to take quite a sympathetic view of them though. Is there a reason for that?

SY: [pauses] I don’t know. I was bullied slightly at school. When I was 14 I moved schools. From a fairly posh, private, all boys school to a mixed comprehensive. I had a few problems adjusting, but I think I was at fault just as much as the bullies were.

KY: That sounds like you’re making excuses for them. Are you saying you asked them for it?

SY: I suppose I am. I didn’t ask for them to put my finger in the woodwork vice or any of the other minor acts of violence they performed. But I can see how I wound them up. I was very sarcastic and horribly confident of my intellectual superiority.

KY: They put your finger in a vice? That sounds pretty brutal.

SY: Yes. It was. But they weren’t serious about it. They forced my finger in to the vice and started to tighten it. I remained completely silent and didn’t offer any resistance. Eventually, and fortunately before they broke my finger, they let me go. They obviously just wanted me to struggle or cry, but their fear of punishment kept them from doing any real damage. So they weren’t that bad.

KY: That still sounds charitable.

SY: Yes. Possibly. I just don’t really blame them. I can imagine I was insufferable.

KY: You’ve had three very different choices so far.

SY: Yeah, in a way I suppose. But I think they all tell a story. When I was really young I used to listen to Benny Hill’s “Ernie – The Fastest Milkman in the West” and my dad had a song about a bubble car that chased him in his sports car and it didn’t matter how fast he went, but the bubble car kept up…  I’ve never been able to remember what that was about exactly, but I loved the fact that I was being told a story in a song.

KY: You said earlier that your father wouldn’t have approved of your artistic endeavours, but it sounds like he was more encouraging than you give him credit for.

SY: In many ways he was arty, but he valued pragmatic abilities higher than aesthetic. He was a really talented painter and could play the piano and guitar by ear. But learning properly, I think, would have seemed like a frivolous waste of time. But he was a big influence over me when it comes to music. He considered the vocals of a song to be no more or less important than any other instrument and made me listen to various tracks where he’d pick out a sound that was almost subliminal to me, and then wax lyrical about why he thought it was so good that it was there.

KY: And does that lead us onto your fourth title?

SY: Yes indeed. This is a classic case of that. We were driving somewhere, just me and him in the car. I think we were going on holiday and we were listening to Alchemy by Dire Straits. There’s a bit in Private Investigations where a sound from the audience actually changes the tune slightly. Every time it came on he’d tell me to listen carefully, and then say “There! Did you hear it?” Eventually he started to rewind the cassette because I was totally incapable of hearing what he meant. So we listened to the same ten seconds about fifty times before I finally fibbed and pretended to hear it. It was good fun in a weird way, although I think he thought I was being dense just for the sake of it. It also made me realise how much depth there can be to music, and sometimes you can listen to a piece a thousand times and still not wring every bit out of it. Much like a great novel. So my next track is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits because it’s brilliant and it will always remind me of my dad.

“Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits from Alchemy

SY: Oh no. It was just getting good!!

KY: Well, we can’t listen to music all the time, we’re here to find out about you. But this isn’t the first time you’ve been on Desert Island Discs is it?

SY: [laughs] Blimey. You really have swotted up. I wrote a blog entry back in… oh I don’t know 2014? which was a transcript of my future appearance on here. It was just a bit of fun really. Writing practice I suppose.

KY: But you were obviously sure you were going to make it then though?

SY: No. It was just nonsense really. I’m an ninja-level procrastinator and when I wrote it I’m sure I thought I was somehow helping my writing career, when actually I was just putting off doing any constructive work on “Charlie’s Worries”.

KY: So. You’ve told us that in your twenties you thought of yourself as a bit of a wastrel. What changed?

SY: Meeting my wife. It’s as simple as that. I was very prone to self sabotage I think. Probably scared that trying too hard might end up in failure and if I didn’t attempt anything I couldn’t fail at anything. Plus, I would tell myself that living the life I was living was edifying for a writer. My life was much rawer than someone who worked for a living, closer to the edge.

KY: And she taught you otherwise?

SY: I’m not sure how it worked really. When we first started living together she seemed perfectly happy to let me carry on with my revelries. It became a bit of a joke that me going out for a couple of hours in the afternoon would mean me rolling home six hours later and barely able to speak… Surprisingly, she didn’t shout or rant about it, I guess it’s something they teach women at their clandestine training camps. She used to work lots of hours 80-90 a week and I suppose subconsciously I knew I was not really pulling my weight.

KY: And so you stopped?

SY: Gradually, yes. It probably just ran its course I suppose. I was worried at one time that I might descend into addiction, but strangely that never became an issue. I’d go out, drink copious amounts and come home happy. But I can’t even begin to imagine behaving like that now. Marriage and children and a normal working life have taught me that you don’t need to be staggering around the streets to mix with people who have interesting lives. And, for me, not being drunk all the time makes it easier to write.

KY: I don’t know how she put up with you.

SY: No. Me neither. But I’m glad she did. I’ve chosen one of my pieces of music from those times though. Whenever I’d come home, I would always go straight to the jukebox and put on a particular song. It was quite loud and long and no matter where she was in the building, upstairs or in the cellar she’d know I’d got home safely.

KY: So, what’s track number five?

SY: It’s “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead.

“Paranoid Android” by Radiohead from OK, Computer.

KY: You do like long songs…

SY: Yes, well I wanted to get my money’s worth.

KY: You moved down to Northampton then and got a job working for a Engine Tuning Company. Did you enjoy that?

SY: Yes. Immensely. It was exhilarating to actually be doing something constructive. Writing computer programs is like a very rigid version of writing prose. There are far more rules and the logic always has to work, but some computer code can be crafted so well that it looks like art.

KY: Really?

SY: Well, maybe not quite art. But artistic.

KY: I assume that’s where you got the idea for your “Programmer’s Guide to Life” series.

SY: Absolutely.

KY: But what made you change from programming to writing? Especially as you say you were enjoying it so much.

SY: Well, my youngest daughter was born in 2002. At that time a couple of friends and I had started a business based around a program I’d written. I had thought, foolishly, that I’d be able to commit to carrying on the development of the program along with looking after a new baby. I’d had a fantasy that my daughter would sit quietly in her high chair next to me while I wrestled with the complexities of the latest API for 3D graphics… It turns out that babies are quite messy. And noisy. And don’t listen to instructions very much.

KY: And that came as a shock?

SY: I know it shouldn’t have done. But it meant that while I still worked full-time I didn’t have the energy or concentration for complex coding in my spare time.

KY: So you wrote a novel? Most people wouldn’t think that would come any easier.

SY: It wasn’t easier. It was just different. If you make a mistake with a piece of code, the program doesn’t work. If you make a mistake with a piece of writing, it doesn’t read very well but you can still continue and come back to it later. You might need to rewrite the whole section or chapter or even the whole book, but it’s subjective. You might actually find that you like what you’ve written when you come back to it, whereas with a program it will never work unless you find the error. And if someone is throwing baby food at you that can be quite challenging.

KY: But surely writing a novel requires some peace and quiet.

SY: Oh absolutely. But it’s very much something you can ponder over while a two month old baby snuggles into your chest. I found it inspiring, and while some people might be able to channel that inspiration down more logical avenues, I had a real urge to start writing again.

KY: And so you wrote “The Clockwork Butterfly”?

SY: No. Actually I wrote “Entering The Weave”, which I finished in 2007. It was picked up by an agent, but never found a publisher. And by that time I’d been bitten by the writing bug and realised that that was what I wanted to do. So then I wrote “The Clockwork Butterfly”

KY: Time for your sixth choice.

SY: When I sat down to make my choices, this band came to mind immediately. I could easily pick eight tracks just from them because although I don’t have specific memories associated with particular songs, I think as a whole they formed the soundtrack of my life. Certainly my teenage years and my twenties. It’s Pink Floyd, and the song I’ve chosen pretty much arbitrarily is “Comfortably Numb”

“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd from The Wall

KY: Another long one.

SY: I could’ve chosen “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Parts one and two are twenty-five minutes long.

KY: Do you listen to a lot of music?

SY: Not nearly as much as I used to. I listen to a lot of podcasts rather than music. When I’m writing I’ll often put some music on in the background, but it can’t be too intrusive, so I’ll usually put something on that’s either very familiar or purely instrumental.

KY: Like your next choice?

SY: No. Not really. I find a lot of my favourite classical music very distracting, even when it’s familiar. If you listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos there seems to be a lot of mathematical trickery going on, or with Schubert’s Sonata in D Major I find myself playing Haruki Murakami’s game of listening for the mistake. There always seems to be more than just the music when it comes to really great classical pieces.

KY: Is there with your choice?

SY: Well, not so much really. Although, like all my other choices, it tells a story. Or rather describes some scenes I suppose. I liked it at the time though because, although it was written just over 300 years ago, this recording felt very modern. It was certainly the first piece of classical music that I considered to be as entertaining as pop music. Interestingly I think both Patrick Stewart and William Shatner have recorded versions of it with them reading the sonnets that Vivaldi possibly wrote to accompany it.

KY: So what is it?

SY: It’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Le quattro stagioni by Vivaldi

KY: So, after the publication of your first novel, you really went from strength to strength, didn’t you?

SY: Well, yes. As I said at the beginning, it was very hard to get published initially, but after my first hundred or so rejections, I really learned to knuckle down and write. So by the time my first novel was in the bestseller lists I had five more ready to follow them in quick succession. My agent and publisher did a fantastic job of timing the releases, but before I knew where I was I’d become an overnight success.

KY: After fifteen years of trying.

SY: Exactly. I think that’s the way of it. A year before I’d entered some writing competitions and hadn’t even got on the short lists. I remember a golfer, maybe Palmer or Player, said something like: “The harder I work, the luckier I get” And I think my success can be attributed as much to continued effort as it is to the quality of the writing.

KY: Do you really think so? Or is this just false modesty?

SY: No. Not at all. There are hundreds, thousands of great writers out there who never get their work published. It’s a lottery really. When you’re submitting, you’ve got to absolutely blow your reader’s mind. It can’t just be good enough to be published. I’ve heard agents say they wouldn’t take on a new author unless he or she was better than the clients they already had. So this leads to inevitable disappointment, even from books which are perfectly publishable. And writing a novel is hard, time consuming work. You’ve got to be bloody minded, lucky and probably a little bit stupid to carry on…

KY: So that’s the message then? Keep plugging away.

SY: Definitely.

KY: Right. Time for your final choice.

SY: I love musicals and I couldn’t come on here and not choose at least one show tune. The problem was narrowing it down. or just choosing one. But in the end I decided on this one from Evita. It’s not in the film version or the more recent stage revival in this form, which probably means that Andrew Lloyd Webber or Tim Rice don’t really like it that much, but for me it’s perfect. It moves the story along giving out a mass of information, the wordplay is sublime and it absolutely rocks. It’s “The Lady’s Got Potential” from Evita

“The Lady’s Got Potential” from Evita – Original Stage Recording 1976

KY: So now I have to ask you how you think you’d get on alone on your desert island.

SY: I think I’d be OK. I’m fairly practical and necessity is obviously the mother of invention so I think I’d enjoy the physical challenge of surviving.

KY: And mentally?

SY: Well that’s hard to say. My family and close friends will say that I’m a bit of a misery guts where people are concerned, but I think that’s a bit of a show really. For the first few days it’ll be bliss I suspect, but then, especially without loads of books to read, I think I’d get a bit lonely.

KY: You won’t have a lot of reading material, but I’ll give you the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. What other book will you take?

SY: You’ve made this easier recently. In the past you didn’t allow encyclopaedias or reference works. And you even allow “The Complete Works of…” whoever.

KY: Well, just for you, I’ll make an exception you can only have one.

SY: Damn! Well my favourite book of all time is “Slaughterhouse 5” by Kurt Vonnegut and I think that it probably covers most aspects of human experience. From war to being captured by aliens… so, yes. “Slaughterhouse 5” please.

KY: And your luxury?

SY: Oh, now this is hard. A few years ago someone asked for a tennis court and you gave them Wimbledon Centre Court… now that includes the roof and the stands I assume?

KY: No. You’re cheating…

SY: OK, then… I guess I’ll go with a piano? No. No. I think it’ll have to be a great big notebook and a pen. Actually how about a Stationery Shop?

KY: [laughing] You can have the notebook and pen. Now, if the tide swells and washes away your record collection, which is the one disc you’d save?

SY: Oh, now this is difficult. I’ve sort of attached some sentimental meaning to a lot of these so choosing one might upset the others…

KY: I’ll have to push you.

SY: “Paranoid Android” then.

KY: Why?

SY: Because otherwise Marie would kill me.

KY: Right, Simon Yates. Thank you very much indeed, for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.

SY: No, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.