Novel writing

25th June 2015

News, Alumni news

Leaves, the new novel from Wadham alumnus John Simmons (1966, English), set in 1970s London, reveals the complex characters of the residents of Ophelia Street.

  • Leaves by John Simmons

The idea for the book started when John was at Wadham, but as he explains, it took a bit of time to come to fruition.

“I started thinking about the book when I was still at Wadham. When I should have been revising harder for Finals, the idea for the book was forming as I started to think about moving from student life to working life. The setting for the book – an ordinary community in north London – was similar to the place where I would return home in vacation times. Ophelia Street was fictional but I drew on the places where I had grown up.

Of course I’d now been steeped for three years in English Literature. This meant I was reading and writing about a great author every week, most of them poets. I was grateful that we had two weeks for Dickens who was, and remains, a great inspiration. But the Wadham course, at least then, did not cover 20th century writing so novelists such as F Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Patrick White had to be pursued outside the course.

At Wadham I was taught by Ian Donaldson and a very young Peter Robbins. Old English was Alan Ward. Although Alan’s subject matter was furthest from my own interests, I got on really well with Alan and used to look forward to my weekly pre-dinner tutorials with him on Beowulf or Sir Gawain or Middle English vowel shifts. The sherry bottle would come out, no doubt my vowels started to shift, and I regularly missed dinner as a result. Our friendship continued and Alan’s wife Peg was so kind too, allowing me to use their car as I learned to drive.

My first jobs were in publishing. To be honest, sub-editing scientific journals for Pergamon Press in Headington was not my dream job – but it did allow me to think, make notes and jot down sentences under the guise of copy editing. These found their way into the first draft of Leaves. I returned to London, tried to get the novel published (twice came very close) but in the end decided that I’d better get on with my life.

My career became linked to writing but not in a way I could have foreseen during my time at Wadham. After a long stint at the National Economic Development Office, writing and editing reports on different industries, I started freelance copywriting and got a job in a design company Newell and Sorrell (where later Monica Ali, also of Wadham, joined my team before she wrote Brick Lane). I loved the creative experience of working with designers, and I ran one of the teams as the business grew. It was then bought by Interbrand and I found myself as a brand consultant forging my own niche in answer to the question I kept raising “How do brands communicate if they don’t use words?” Of course they do, and I started writing books on writing for business and brands such as We, Me, Them & It and The Invisible Grail.

I left Interbrand in 2003 because I wanted a bit more independence to write – and to help others write. One of my books Dark Angels led to a training programme that is now in its twelfth year, helping writers in the business world to write more expressively and creatively.

When I went independent I promised myself that I would get back to writing fiction. So I got the manuscript of Leaves out of the drawer, read it, thought it was surprisingly good more than 30 years on, and could see how to change it. The change that unlocked it was to introduce a narrator/observer who was now looking back at the original events in this London street. Without ever intending this, I realised that I now had a historical novel set in the year 1970 that I could guarantee was authentic in its period details.

So that was it. The final version was a painstaking rewriting that still retained much of the original. I came across a publisher called Matthew Smith who was setting up a new independent imprint, Urbane, with an approach that aimed to break many of the outworn conventions of mainstream publishing. Matthew read the novel, loved it, said “let’s make it happen”. He did, as you can see with the publication this month of Leaves.

I’m left with two regrets at the length of time it took. First, Alan Ward is no longer with us. Second, neither is my good friend from Wadham, Mike Fosbrook (1966, English). Mike died from cancer a dozen years ago but I had shared the original manuscript with him. Mike would have been delighted and proud to see the book published. Our conversations from our time at Wadham and after were an important part of the genesis of this book.”

  • John Simmons

    John Simmons (1966, English)

Outline of the book

A street like any other, a community that lives and breathes together as people struggle with their commitments and pursue their dreams. It is a world we recognise, a world where class and gender divide, where set roles are acknowledged.

But what happens when individuals step outside those roles, when they secretly covet, express desire, pursue ambitions, even harm and destroy? An observer in the midst of Ophelia Street watches, writes, imagines, remembers, charting the lives and loves of his neighbours over the course of four seasons. And we see the flimsily disguised underbelly of urban life revealed in all its challenging glory.

John Simmons biography

John Simmons has written a number of books on the relationship between language and identity, including We, me, them & it, The Invisible Grail and Dark Angels. His books helped establish the practice of tone of voice as a vital element of branding. He’s a founder director of 26, the not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better language in business, and has been writer-in-residence for Unilever and Kings Cross tube station.

In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Falmouth in recognition of ‘outstanding contribution to the creative sector’. His most recent books are 26 ways of looking at a blackberry, about the creative power of constraints, and Room 121: a masterclass in business writing, co-written with Jamie Jauncey as an exchange over 52 weeks. In June 2011 John’s first published work of fiction, The angel of the stories, was produced by Dark Angels Press, with illustrations by the artist Anita Klein. He recently initiated and participated in the writing of a Dark Angels collective novel Keeping Mum with fifteen writers - the novel was published by Unbound in 2014. John is on the Campaign Council for Writers’ Centre Norwich as Norwich becomes the first English City of Literature.