A rural community radio station deep in the Surrey Hills is offering a guiding light for wannabe authors. ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ is a weekly show hosted by Peter Snell, a Bookseller, and Roz Morris, an Author. It’s recorded in Peter’s ‘Barton’s Bookshop’ in Leatherhead. It features the pair using their experience to give advice on becoming a writer and getting published.
The show plays out on Surrey Hills Radio but also has an international following online. The pair pick a subject each week to discuss giving listeners an ‘insider’s view’ of the publishing industry.
The show opens with a (usually strange) song picked by Roz. The latest episode features Echo & The Bunnymen – People are Strange to mark Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s adaption for TV. After a quick argument about pronunciation (No-rell? Norull?) they talk about books being adapted for the big screen. It turns out Peter’s wife can’t bear to watch the Hobbit films as she loves the books so much she doesn’t want her mental image of them ruined.
I visited the shop to find out more about the show. Peter tells me “I don’t know why I came up with the idea about doing this but we just thought it might work. Truth be told it’s just a chance for Roz to play weird music on the airwaves.”
I asked Roz if being a Writer is a little like being a Doctor at a dinner party. Instead of everyone wanting to discuss their ailments with you they are asking how they can get published as an author. “It’s a very attractive thing – one day I will make this piece of me. People can carry book ideas around in their heads for years.”
Despite the programme’s hyper-local roots, digital broadcasting has allowed it to appeal to a global audience. As it broadcasts Peter tells me they have listeners from around the world messaging them on Facebook. He lists them by name – “Janice in Venice, Tina in Canada, EJ in new Mexico!”
When I visited the shop they were recording amongst the bookshelves. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Chain’ opens the show. They talk about the different ways authors can get published and they have a playful chemistry as they speak.
After they finish recording someone from the radio station comes in and asks if they can have the microphone back. It’s needed by the DJ about to broadcast.
While they pack up I find out more about Roz. She’s an Author with a vivacious personality and waves of red hair. It’s quite likely you have read one of her books without realising. As a ghost writer she’s sold millions of paperbacks with alter egos such as a member of the SAS, a rock star’s bodyguard and a City executive.
What was it that drew her to writing? “I was always fascinated by the way stories worked. How did words make me feel that?”
Roz also offers her services as a ‘book doctor,’ helping people refine their writing.
“As a writer you’ll have blind spots. There will be things you have done really really well but things you don’t know anything about.
Few people have their first meetings documented in a book. When I ask how they met, Peter wanders up to the counter and picks up a copy of ‘Opening Up to Indie Authors.’ He begins reading –
Barton’s Bookshop is exactly the sort of place a bibliophile would dream of when they think of an indie bookshop. It’s an eccentric place with painted white ornaments hanging from the window. A large wooden dragon hangs from the ceiling and a huge scruffy toy bear sits by a fireplace. The smell of coffee fills the shop as Peter’s machine crackles into life.
He looks an awful lot like Father Christmas, something he’s all too aware of (he does actually double as Santa around Christmas time).
Like many others, he’s loved books from an early age – “I’ve spent my whole life reading. I don’t even really recall learning to read. I remember falling down a staircase and hitting my head on the radiator because I was reading.”
I ask Peter more about running the bookshop. “I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as someone who doesn’t read. It’s just people who haven’t found the right book yet.”
He proudly tells me that he often urges parents of children who refuse to read to come in and spend an hour or so with him. He asks them about their lives, what they like and dislike, what makes them tick. He then chooses a few books for them and so far has hooked every child on reading.
Books aren’t just a way of making a living for Peter. They saved his life.
He spent his early career in finance. He also trained as a teacher and became a programmer for IBM. Life became difficult for him – “I became really rather ill. I was sleeping 23 hours a day and thought life was coming to an end. But I began working in a book shop. Initially just for an hour a day as therapy.” He gradually started working more and more hours until after a few years he became manager.
When the owner wanted to retire Peter’s wife bought the business for him. He now spends the day surrounded by books, his coffee machine brewing, talking to people all day about novels. Is the really as wonderful as it sounds?
“It’s almost the perfect job – if only it paid well!”
Listen to my full interview with Peter and Roz below –