Journalist, author, beer expert, pop culture historian.
Jeff Evans is a freelance journalist and author with more than 30 years’ experience in writing – and talking – about beer and pop culture.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
I don’t write novels: I write non-fiction, mostly reference titles. The inspiration, right from the start, has been the many wonderful reference books I devoured as a child and teenager. I’m thinking here of things such as Halliwell’s Film Guide and The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, plus loads of lesser-known books. From them, I have a developed a passion for digging out facts and figures and presenting them in an attractive, orderly fashion. Most of my own works are in the field of popular culture, including The Penguin TV Companion (four editions) and Rock & Pop on British TV (a narrative history, published by Omnibus Press).
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
Compared to many other aspiring authors, not too hard. It obviously helps to have a track record. Before I submitted the proposal for my first television reference book, I was working for CAMRA, as editor of the national Good Beer Guide, so I suppose there was an element of trust on the publisher’s part that I would be up to the job and deliver the goods. That didn’t mean there were not rejections, but one publisher – Guinness – decided to give me a chance and I’ve always been grateful for that. Once you’ve had a book publisher, it becomes easier to interest publishers, but it still has to be the right idea at the right time.
How long did it take to write?
My latest work is The Political Compendium. It’s a new direction for me but still completely within the parameters of the work I love and have had success with. It’s basically a wide-ranging collection of lists, facts and figures from politics from all around the world, but with an emphasis on politics in the UK and the USA. Collating the information took a number of months but there was another dimension to this book, too, in that I also typeset the book. Anyone who knows the amazing work done by Ben Schott with his Miscellanies will know that the best factual books have a crisp, clean, engaging layout. I felt this book needed just that and that handing over control to a third-party designer or typesetter would have undermined what I was looking to do here and also would only complicate matters when it came to making subtle edits and other adjustments to ensure the correct layout and fit.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
I’m one of these people who simply cannot work with any kind of music in the background. I get drawn too much into the music and start thinking about it too much (probably figuring out how I can work it in to some future reference book). Silence is golden, for me.
How many publishers turned you down?
For The Political Compendium, I knew which publishers would be most likely and so the number of proposals I sent out was relatively small. The reactions were mixed – most liked the idea but figured it wasn’t for them. In the end, I weighed up two good offers and went for Zymurgy Publishing because there was more freedom on offer to do the typesetting and be more hands-on with the book.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
Everyone who has seen the book has appreciated the layout and the concept. Getting space in the print media and airtime on radio and television to discuss it has been tricky, though. There has been so much dynamic breaking political news in recent weeks that more light-hearted offerings such as The Political Compendium have struggled to get a look in but Times Radio gave me some time to chat about it and the presenter Matt Chorley was very complimentary.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
Of course. Any review is worth a look. Obviously, you like to read something favourable but, even when it’s not, there can be something in there that you recognise as being valid and worth bearing in mind for future works.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
Yes, but I appreciate that I would be starting almost from the beginning again. Fiction is a different beast to non-fiction and demands different skills. That said, the dedication and commitment that are needed when writing a book are the same so, if I came up with the right idea, I would certainly give it a go.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I was working in publishing as an editor and a writer before turning freelance more than 30 years ago. Before that I worked for a while in radio and as a coach tour travel guide. All of these things proved invaluable in learning how to collate, package and present information, whether it be on paper or through the spoken word. A great grounding for what I do know.
Which author(s) inspire you?
I love well-written biographies, ones where the author has really put in the research and fills the book with intriguing facts rather than just recycled partly-true stories. I’m always hugely impressed by Mark Lewisohn. The work that he puts into his books on the Beatles is phenomenal and he presents it so well, too.
Which genres do you read yourself?
At home, I’m constantly dipping into reference books and can lose myself for hours at a time. I find biographies inspirational, in terms of both exciting me to write something similar and also learning how really interesting people have changed their lives or risen to some immense challenge. If I ever need something to kick-start me when I’m feeling a bit uninspired, I’ll pick up Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days again. That book (and the TV series) always makes me want to get out and achieve something. On holiday, I need a complete change of scene, so that’s when I will pick up an easy-to-read page turner, something enjoyable but undemanding like a Lee Child or a Michael Crichton.
What is your biggest motivator?
Being interested in the subject I’m writing about. I’ll be honest, I would struggle to write a book about car engines or stamp collecting but every book I write is about a subject I genuinely take a great interest in. Classic television was the driver for The Penguin TV Companion, for instance, while I had the best time ever researching and writing Rock & Pop on British TV, digging around in archives, watching videos and speaking to many of the people who have made the great programmes over the decades. It’s been the same for The Political Compendium. There are so many intriguing angles to politics, so many arcane traditions and so many points of etiquette to learn about, that it was fascinating to bring all these together.
What will always distract you?
Not much when I’m immersed in a particular book I’m writing but, being self-employed, I do have the luxury of scheduling when I work so, if I want to watch Wales play football in the World Cup, for instance, I make sure my work fits in around this. That comes first.
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
I’ve always been allowed to have my input into cover designs and sometimes my comments have been acted upon but it’s usually the case that publisher and the designer have a fixed plan and whatever I add to that is mostly marginal. It can pay to get in first with your own rough concept of the cover, but you then have to trust the designer to deliver the goods, which may be completely different to how you see things. For The Political Compendium, the cover decisions were shared between myself and Zymurgy. We both wanted something very simple that said very clearly politics. We saw no need to over-complicate things.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, of reference books; not so much of novels. I’ve got into that more as I’ve got older.
What were your favourite childhood books?
The Narnia novels of CS Lewis stand out, as they do for many people. I also loved going to the library and taking out the next in the series of Will Scott’s novels about ‘The Cherrys’ – a family of kids whose father used to devise adventures for them to pursue.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
I live in a town that does not have an independent bookshop. We once had three but now we only have a small branch of Waterstones.
What books can you not resist buying?
A really well-presented reference book – visually attractive and clearly researched in depth. I’m a sucker for a series, too. I like to complete sets.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
Just focus and dedication. I tend not to break for drinks and I hate interruptions when things are flowing well. I also reread the whole text time and again, allowing a good period of time between each reading so that I’m coming to the book almost fresh each time.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
I have loads of reference books that I’ve only partially read, but that’s the joy of reference books. You pick them up when you need to or when you feel like, read as much as is relevant or as you want, and then return to them another time.
What is your current or latest read?
I’m currently working my way through Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent modern histories. I’m currently on ‘Who Dares Wins’, covering the period 1979–82.