You may not instantly recognise his name, but Lee Stuart Evans has left his mark all over our telly boxes. Having written for shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, A League of Their Own, Live at the Apollo and The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, he’s now turned his hand to novel writing. We spoke to him about his Nottingham-based debut, Words Best Sung…
First off, what’s the new book about?
It’s a comic romance about a well-meaning-but-naive Nottinghamshire lad who’s grown up dreaming about working on the railway and marrying the girl next door. We meet him just as he’s discovering life’s rarely that simple: steam is on its last legs, his dream girl’s eloped, his dad thinks he’s a fool for not going to university, and new girl Mary is gorgeous but demanding. An incident in Skeggy sees his pal invited to play with one of the top groups in Britain at the 1965 NME Poll Winners concert in London, which leads to all kinds of shenanigans.
It’s basically about growing up. A group of friends all hitting that thrilling, confusing, and terrifying time of young adulthood. That point where you go, “Bloody hell, am I a grown-up? Is this actually happening to me – now?!” I don’t think that changes, whether you grew up in the sixties, the eighties or today.
Where did you find the inspiration for the novel?
The honest answer is that I failed to write a sitcom. I’m a TV writer by day, mostly scripts and for comedy panel and chat shows. It’s freelance, so you can go from working a whole month without a day off, to nothing for a fortnight. You need something to do during the quiet periods, other than sit in the pub. I’d write short stories and some monologues – Alan Bennett Talking Heads sort of things – but then one day I had this vague idea of a young lad starting out on the railway and I just kept going with it for about five years.
What drew you to the setting of Nottingham in the sixties?
I’m a bit of a sixties anorak. The fashions, music, films, books, cars, Cold War spies, Christine Keeler. When I was about fourteen, my mum let me stay up late to watch ‘kitchen sink’ films – Taste of Honey, Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. They led to the books, and then The Smiths happened; all those great sleeves of Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, Shelagh Delaney. Been hooked ever since.
As for location, there was never any question of it being set anywhere but Nottinghamshire. I always used to ask my mum about growing up in Warsop in the sixties, the bands she saw at Mansfield Granada. She gave away her ticket to The Beatles because she didn’t feel like going. My late Uncle John worked at Langwith Junction railway shed after leaving school in the early sixties, and when he died in 2008 I ended up with a lot of his photographs from that time. He was a very cool, very funny chap and the inspiration for Alastair.
Alastair, the protagonist, is a train fanatic. Do you have that in common?
The love of trains is real. My parents divorced when I was eight, and to give mum a break, my uncle took me and my brother to York on the train. My younger brother wasn’t overly excited, but I was, so John regularly took me all over the country on trains until I was about fifteen and too cool to admit being a train-spotter. I’m comfortably ‘out’ these days, though I did use the excuse of “research for the book” so I could drive a steam engine at the Nene Valley a few years ago.
One of the key moments in the book is the seaside brawl; a common sight throughout the sixties. Any other kernels of truth in this book?
The brawl is a nod to the mods and rockers fights at Brighton, Margate and Clacton in 1964-65, transferred to Skegness. The NME Poll Concert at Wembley did happen on 11 April 1965, with all those great bands on the bill; The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, Georgie Fame, and The Animals. The decline of steam at the fictional Langbrook Junction shed is very similar to that of Langwith Junction.
I’ve spent so much time with these characters, I sometimes forget that they didn’t actually exist. It feels like I witnessed their whole story, so in a way every word of it feels true.
Was the writing process different for the novel compared to writing for TV?
It’s totally different. I’m used to sitting at a desk writing jokes for hours at a time, but for stories you use your brain in a different way. Writing gags is like solving a puzzle; you have to be focused on joining the dots, all before bringing them together to make a – hopefully – hilarious punchline. With stories, you have to step into a dream world. The hard part is getting in, but once you’re in, you can lose yourself for hours. I’d say that writing stand-up is probably very good training for concise, snappy dialogue, and perhaps with character drawing as well.
You say it’s a comic romance, did that come easily with the comedy writing background?
The early drafts were very serious and earnest, all a bit po-faced and “grim oop north”. I was trying too hard to write like a ‘clever’ novelist. I put it aside for over year, did other stuff, and then I went back and re-wrote it all over again until it felt right. There are some darker, heavier emotional moments in it – it wouldn’t be a coming-of-age story without them – but it seems obvious now that it was always destined to have some humour in it. It’s like I was resisting being myself for whatever reason.
Do you have any advice for readers who’d like to break into a writing career?
I’m still new to this novel-writing lark, but as with any kind of writing – prose, poetry or jokes – the only way to get better at it is to keep on doing it. There are no shortcuts, unless you’re an illiterate celebrity and can afford to employ a ghostwriter. The phrase I always remind myself of is by John Braine, who wrote Room at the Top, “A writer is someone who writes.” That’s probably the best piece of advice I’ve read about writing. That and “all the best writers are usually also the best readers.”
What’s your favourite book?
It’s like picking your favourite album: it’s impossible. My longlist would probably include an Amis or two, a Patrick Hamilton, some Evelyn Waugh, obviously a bit of DH Lawrence, Penelope Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, maybe a Simon Raven… The only way I can settle this is to pick a book I borrowed from school and never took back. It’s a double volume Longman edition of Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse and The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe. If there’s one book that got me into reading, it would have to be that one.
What sort of thing can we expect from you in the future?
I’ve started another novel, but I’m not convinced about it just yet. I recently finished working on a kids’ talent show with Dawn French called Little Big Shots, which will be on ITV, and we’re just about to start the new series of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, which is always great fun.
Words Best Sung is available at Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham Tourism Office, and other book retailers.
Lee Stuart Evans on Twitter