Q&A with 'Tales from the Vicarage' author Lionel Birnie
12:20pm Tuesday 30th October 2012 in Latest Sport
Tales from the Vicarage is a new book about Watford FC and features stories by 11 different writers, here is a Q&A with the author Lionel Birnie.
The writers include former Watford Observer staffers Oliver Phillips, Andrew French, Lionel Birnie, Stuart Hutchison and Kevin Affleck. Other contributors include ex-Watford and England goalkeeper David James, Adam Leventhal of Sky Sports News and Simon Burnton of The Guardian.
The book is £9.99 and is available now in Waterstone's in The Harlequin centre or from lionelbirnie.com/books. Lionel will also be selling the book in The Red Lion on Vicarage Road before Saturday’s game with Leicester City.
This week we spoke to Lionel about how the book came about.
What was your motivation for producing this latest book?
I spent 2009 and 2010 researching and writing Enjoy the Game, which involved travelling round the country to interview the players and management from the 1980s and then telling the story from the wealth of material I had. The book did very well and the comments from readers were particularly gratifying, so I came up with the idea for The 100 Greatest Watford Wins last year.
Settling on a ranking of the club’s best and most famous triumphs, and thinking of a way to present each game differently was great fun. The book did really well – it sold out, in fact. So, after two enjoyable projects I wanted to produce something for this Christmas. The question was what.
Is that why you decided on the change of format – a collaborative effort rather than writing it all yourself?
That’s partly right. I’ve had a couple of cycling-related projects on the go and knew I wouldn’t be able to write another Watford book on my own this year.
Having established that publishing these Watford books works, reassuring myself that there’s enough of an audience to make it worthwhile, I thought I could take a calculated risk and invite some other writers and journalists to see if they thought a collection of stories would work.
What was the process of getting the authors on board? Did you approach them? Did some volunteer? A combination of both?
I contacted people I thought would have a good story to tell or could write really well and put the idea to them.
There are quite a lot of Watford supporters working in the media. Twitter made it easier to get in touch with people like Simon Burnton at the Guardian and Adam Leventhal from Sky.
I explained the format of the book and the ethos of the project and that I planned to turn it into a series and everyone was really enthusiastic.
The cherry on the cake was when David James agreed to write something. I think he’s one of the most perceptive commentators who can offer insight from within the game, telling us what it’s really like to be a player. His column in The Observer is always thought provoking and cliché-free, so I thought he could tell an engaging story about how his goalkeeping career began at Watford.
How did the process of choosing the subjects in the book develop? Were they your ideas or the authors or a combination of both?
I left it up to the writers to propose an idea and waited to see what they came up with. For one or two people it was obvious which areas they would cover – Kevin Affleck wouldn’t have told any other story but the one of the Boothroyd-Simpson-Ashton years; it made sense for Andrew French to write about the first Premiership season, because he was the club’s press officer at the time and he could take us behind the scenes.
How did you find the process of putting the book together differed from your previous publications, given the majority of the content was produced by others? Was it more or less challenging?
At the start it felt like the pressure was off me as I only had one chapter to write. I knew the success of the book depended on ten other people so in that sense I felt a bit like a player-manager!
I’d given them all a blank page to write the article they wanted to write. I didn’t want to be heavy-handed in the editing to the point where someone failed to recognise their work when it was in print, but I also wanted to ensure the quality was high. So I had to just trust that people would get the idea and come up with the goods.
Fortunately, I needn’t have worried because the stories that came in were terrific to read and although one or two pushed the deadline right up to the nick of time, I knew as soon as the first two or three came in that I had a great collection. The quality of the writing was excellent, each person has a distinctive voice, and the mix of stories was varied. There’s something to appeal to everyone, I hope, and the beauty is that if a particular reader doesn’t enjoy a particular chapter for whatever reason, there are ten others they hopefully will.
Once seven or so chapters had come in and I hadn’t started on my piece, I started to feel the pressure. Could I come up with something good enough to sit alongside the others?
Do you hope the book will have a broader appeal than Watford fans alone?
Not particularly, no. This is a book aimed at Watford supporters rather than a generic attempt to appeal to all 'football fans'. Supporters of other clubs may still enjoy it because there’s some great writing in the book.
If it was simply about chasing huge numbers of sales I’d be putting together Tales from the Emirates or Tales from the Bridge, but I couldn’t do either with any passion.
I’d prefer to try to create something to delight a smaller number of people. The book’s already been successful enough to warrant a second volume in 2013, so we’ll start work on that in the new year.