Albert Jack is an English writer and historian who became something of a publishing phenomenon in 2004 when his first book Red Herrings and White Elephants, which explored the origins of well-known phrases in the English language, became a huge international bestseller. The book was serialised by the Sunday Times for over a year and stayed in the top ten of the UK Sunday Times bestseller list for sixteen months. Albert Jack followed up this effort with Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep, which was also a best seller and has sold over 250,000 copies since publication in October 2005. It became Penguin Book’s Christmas bestseller. Fascinated by discovering the truth behind the world’s great stories, Albert Jack has become an expert in explaining the unexplained, which is great news for conversations and storytellers everywhere. Albert Jack is now a veteran of hundreds of live television shows and thousands of radio appearances worldwide. His books have become bestsellers in Great Britain & Europe, America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and translated into many different languages. Please enjoy my interview with Albert Jack.
How do you describe your occupation?
I am an Author and Editor in Chief.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
I’m an early riser, so I am up before 6am for coffee and to watch the sunrise. Then I review the news stories and work through until lunchtime. Then that’s pretty much it for me. Afternoons is when something else happens but I am always on the lookout for a story or book idea.
I am reading a book about The Falklands War. For no particular reason other than a friend of mine fought in it with the Paratroopers and gave me the book. It’s called Three Days in June by James O’Connell.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
As a child, it would be the Reader’s Digest books. We always had those laying around and I always read them. The first story I actually recall reading was the Mary Celeste. I have no idea why I would remember that though.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Bookmarker. I can’t stand people who damage pages. That’s why I never lend my books out. I give hundreds away when I have finished with them and then people can do whatever they want. But I never lend the ones I want to keep, because of the page folders.
When did you fall in love with reading?
I suppose at school. We had a good library and I was always in there. You have to remember that during the 1970’s we only had the radio, 3 TV channels and books. That was it, there was nothing else to do. So it was music, books and Morecambe & Wise – That is pretty much how I remember the 1970’s. Nothing else.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Believe it or not, I can. It was an essay about something in the mountains and in the end I, as the writer, died in a skiing accident. I remember my English teacher saying it was great, but if you write in the first person you can’t die at the end, so write it in the third person instead. I suppose I was about ten years old. Call that lesson one.
At 16, I suppose it would be Animal Farm by George Orwell. There is a lot to learn about life in there including why some people do the things they do, how they get away with it and how to think for yourself. If we just trust the media, whose story changes at will, we will always be lied to. I actually can’t believe it has taken as long as it has, by which I mean Trump, for somebody to start exposing the media as fakes and liars. They really are shocking and always have been. Orwell points this out in Animal Farm. Especially how the messages changes line by line and week by week until it is completely different and nobody noticed.
At 25, I don’t know. I was trying to write my own by then. I suppose my first bestseller. I was 39 when that happened. I would like to have had that at 25 instead!
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
There is only one process. Just sit down and do it. Stop making excuses and finding good reasons to delay. Just start writing and get on with it.
Ideas come from everywhere and you just have to have your ‘radar’ on and be receptive. Lookout for the subjects that sell. They are the ones on the front tables of bookshops and not up on the third floor, behind the big plant pot and gathering dust. If you don’t have a good idea then just write up what you did yesterday, like a diary. Or write a report on a football match you watched on TV or something like that. Call it practice. But do something. Every line is an improvement.
I should add that routines, or disciplines, are important. Every writer should have one. Whether that be one-hour a day two- hours three times a week or whatever it is. But have one and stick to it. Mine is by the word. I have a 1000 – 1200 word a day routine. And I stick to it, whether that takes me one-hour or ten-hours. And really, 1200 words a day doesn’t sound much but they soon add up. You soon get some real content behind you.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
I just spent a week thinking about this. And there is no answer. It entirely depends on what interests each person/potential author. There are many successful writers of books about food, sport, yoga, golf, fishing etc so maybe books like that. They don’t interest me but there is obviously a market. There is a market for everything so if your interest is, say, snorkelling, then start with those books. For me, it is history and politics.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Authors in the sense that they all wrote books, even if that wasn’t their day job? Easy. Christopher Hitchens, John Lennon, George Orwell, Churchill and Hitler. I would like to be at that table and see how long dinner lasted.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
Actually, it was The War of the World by H.G. Wells. But only because I moved countries and didn’t have a copy here in Thailand. I happened to see it when passing a bookstore so nabbed it. I might even get round to reading it again one day.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
Getting some peace and quiet, you can read anywhere, and you usually learn something and often entertaining. Although not always. The best advice I will give to a reader, as a writer, is don’t persevere. If you are really not enjoying a book then put it away and pick another one up that you might like instead. Struggling through something just to say you read it is pointless. That’s why I don’t know what happens at the end of any Dickens story.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
A book called Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose. It’s about a 2nd World War operation.
I wouldn’t mind being in one of the Beat writers books. Say one of the characters in On The Road by Jack Kerouac or perhaps Junky. Life seemed pretty interesting during that post-war period. It probably wasn’t though. It was mostly mundane I expect. But that is what makes books great, they can transport you there and you can then colour in your own backdrop. Going further back then I would be Sherlock Holmes.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Firstly, read more. You can’t be a writer if you are not a reader. At least I don’t think so. Secondly, build up your own library. Buy all the books you can at car boot sales, executor sales and the like. You can pick up a couple of hundred at a time, from house clearance sales, for £20. Keep the ones you want and leave the rest laying around for someone else. Oh, and use short sentences. Full stops are always better than commas.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Red Herrings and White Elephants. I wrote it and it sold 500,000 copies in its first month. Made me a professional writer and led to three other bestsellers. That’s a pretty big impact on me.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Not specific books but there are writers I want to explore more. So anything by Saul Bellow, Graham Greene and James Joyce that I haven’t already read. I must get round to reading Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens as well. A bit late, I know. But I still have some time, I’m only 52. And there are writers I haven’t even heard of yet that I will have read by the time I am 62.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
None of them really. I should get myself down to a book sale and buy a few more crates.