Q&A with Ben Watt on his longlisted book 'Romany and Tom: a memoir'
How does it feel to reach the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?
I was speechless when I heard. Every writer seeks validation and approbation for their work. It is easy to feel we live in a blizzard of words and voices these days, that we’ll never get seen, or we will disappear under another avalanche of new books, so to be spotted in this way - by something as respected as the Samuel Johnson - is quite remarkable to me. And perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I still feel like an outsider, a songwriter who has written a couple of books. I feel very honoured.
What research did you do for writing your book?
I began with my own memories and then gradually moved outwards adding detail and corroboration and historical accuracy. I was lucky that my mum was a meticulous archivist; a box of souvenirs and private letters in particular became central to the emotional drive of the story. I revisited places, took photographs, made field recordings, remade journeys, pored over family photographs, ordered birth, death and marriage certicates over the internet, visited the British Museum newspaper archive at Colindale to help piece together the public version of my parents’ careers, leafed through scrapbooks, spoke frankly with helpful relations and interviewed old family friends. With the evidence finally laid out I felt I was then able to fully imagine and recount the stories of all of us in the book.
How do you feel about the status / popularity of non-fiction books in general?
I am really the wrong person to ask. I just write.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I hate singling people out but non-fiction that I remember striking me or still percolates to the surface includes Bruce Chatwin’s travel writing especially ‘The Songlines’, Martin Amis’ ‘Experience’, Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Dreaming’, Andrew Smith’s ‘Moondust’, Hugo Young’s ‘One of Us'. There is a robust exterior to all of them but a tender heart. Fact, humility, insight. I am drawn to this. Or what about ’The Football Grounds of Great Britain’ by Simon Inglis. That’s a great non-fiction book. Does that count?
What are you working on next?
At the moment I am travelling a lot. I have a book and a solo album at the same time which is taking up much of my time. Thoughts about what to do next swirl around my head all the time but like small snowflakes most never settle and just melt away. And I never plan ahead. I just wait for something to mass up and ‘feel right’. And then I throw myself into it. Out of a kind of compulsion. Fiction, non-fiction, a body of songwriting? I’m still not sure which, but one will emerge soon.
Ben Watt is the author of Romany and Tom: a memoir (Bloomsbury Circus)
Photo credit to Edward Bishop