If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big robust circles, to tiny stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce.
Thrillers With Attitude is on a mission to find out what makes these weirdly-shaped and strangely-flavoured writers tick.
My guest this week is journalist, Stewart Ross.
Hi Stewart, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Where did you grow up?
I was born on an RAF base in Lincolnshire and moved every three years until I was about 15 so Avon, Leicestershire, Rutland, Ulster, Northumberland, Fife and now I’m in Dundee. I’m glad my background was rootless, it gives you a slightly wider perspective.
What were you like at school?
Hyper and happy. The first two secondaries I went to I really liked and excelled. I liked history and English. My third secondary totally sucked and by the end of fifth year my interest was in freefall. I went to college in Dundee after school having been accepted into their first ever “communications” course but I lasted about eight weeks.
Tell me about your route into journalism.
Unemployed, sharing a dank flat in Leith Walk with two other guys from school. We were in a band but I looked at them once and thought, nah, never happen. Then my mum called and told me about a job advert for an editorial assistant at DC Thomson’s girls magazines. I applied and halfway through the interview procedure the personnel guy from newspapers asked if I wanted to be a reporter instead. Well, I was 19 living on benefits and going nowhere so I said yes. A few weeks later I rock-up to the DC Thomson office in Kirkcaldy at 9am and no-one else arrived until ten. Then we all went for tea and toast. The boys in the band went huge about three years later. [The band were a little combo you may have heard of called The Proclaimers – LG.]
Was journalism something you were always interested in?
Not at all. One of my teachers in primary had mentioned in my report once that I should be a journalist because my essays were always full of nice detail but the advice just didn’t register. I wanted to be a soldier when I was a kid.
How did your expectations of the job match up to the reality?
I had no expectations. The way into journalism back then wasn’t years of college or university, you just went in at ground level and worked up. I was fascinated by the fact that a reporter can knock on a door and ask questions, stop people in the street and just interrogate them. I was a clueless lad who knew nothing but I could ask a question of a police Inspector and he was really quite obliged to answer. It was like we were outwith the normal conventions of society. After all, if you get into a chat with someone on a train or in a bar you can’t make your second question be “so what do you do and how old are you?”
I was told that every journalist harbours a secret desire to be a novelist. The person who told me this was a newsman-turned-novelist. I’m interested in hearing your reaction to his assertion. How much truth do you think it contains?
I’ve met loads of hacks who say they’d like to be given the time and space for “some proper writing” but not me. I did news reporting for about 20 years and maybe six in corporate and public-body PR and now I’m a feature writer. So some features are like little stories, little tales, and I do my best to make them interesting and engaging. Also it’s good to have the ability to write about something without the constraints of the news agenda. They did an ebook of a crime series I wrote but I’m never going to write a proper book. I don’t have the attention span or the drive.
Have you ever written or considered writing any kind of fiction?
Years ago as a sprog when I got a shot of the portable typewriter at work I would sit and type stuff but I never got past more than a couple of pages. I liked the look of words I’d strung together on a printed page. I liked being able to described a situation or a conversation that I had totally created. But it was to writing what solitaire is to poker, just playing to fill time.
Personally speaking, what have been your worst moments as a journalist?
The usual things; sitting in court and the defence advocate says “before we bring in the jury, could I bring my Lordships attention to this morning’s edition of…” or phoning up to do an obituary and the person’s not actually dead. I’ve still got the letter they sent.
One time this guy dies suddenly, collapses in the street. I’m sent to interview the family. The “death knock”. A child answers and I’m led into the living room. There they all are, the entire extended family is present along with the priest/minister and even the funeral people. Icy silence, so I go into my pitch – well-known local family man, opportunity to explained what happened to those who knew him. Tribute etc. I can see them soften and there’s a murmur of approval.
I get out my notebook and start slyly checking all my pockets. And at this point the cutting-edge of Scottish journalism from the class of ‘81 has to ask “does anyone have a pen?” I never, ever turned up without a pen again.
Another moment: road accident in Angus. Three vehicles, numerous casualties and we used to get right into heart of action back in those days. A photographer snapped me standing there in the middle of the mayhem, black suit, notebook and pen, looking all serious with frantic firemen, cops and medics all around. A couple of days later I proudly showed the pic to my then-girlfriend, an A&E nurse from Glasgow, and asked what she thought. “You’re the only one not helping,” she said.
And your best?
Working in features is good and nearly everyone I have to deal is happy to hear from me. I do general features and advertising stuff too and that, particularly, forces you to be creative – get excited about skip hire or a chip shop.
Also it forces you to not be precious about your craft (he said preciously) because let’s face it, you can write glowing editorial for a joinery business and the joiners rips it to shreds. I once had an advertiser come back about a proposed editorial and he was fuming because so many of the essential facts about the firm were wrong. Every one of the essential facts had been supplied by his business partner.
But whatever I’m doing I try to make it interesting. When all the papers did their First World War commemorations last year we came at it with totally different angles using testimony and pictures that had never been seen before, we didn’t just retell the old gas and trenches stories that so many other people seemed to do.
We looked at the issue of soldiers being shot at dawn for running away, the life of a prisoner captured by the Germans, we even looked at the anti-war movement. I think we did a good job with that.
I like it when we run an article and it strikes a chord with people, they send in letters or emails or talk about it on the website.
At work, I sit amongst the reporters and it’s a pretty young crew, most of my colleagues are half my age and there’s a buzz and energy about the place that’s really cool, some great banter. But I’m not really answering your question.
There isn’t a “best moment” because it’s always just been my job. I remember finishing a night a shift once, Saturday 1am about 1985, and I walked through the impossibly vast press room. Print was king back then, vans and lorries were taking out thousands of copies and young petrolheads were stopping at the back door to get that morning’s paper so they’d be the first to get at the car adverts. I paused and listened to the unbelievable roar of the presses, this endless stream of newspapers arcing overhead on those racks like rollercoasters. I looked up at all this and thought I really should feel something. But I didn’t.
This isn’t a calling for me, I’m not driven the way some journos are. It’s a job, pure and simple. I put effort into it because that’s because that’s the deal, they give me money and I write things.
The stuff I really remember are the little human moments: people who call you in tears because the obit was nice, when a someone thanks you for handling a difficult situation sensitively.
I covered a Black Watch funeral once and I got calls from colleagues and my boss because they really liked the piece. That meant a lot.
But I don’t have a scrapbook of cuttings and, yes, there’s been fires and murders and crashes and tears but the bottom line is that it was my job. If I hadn’t been told to go to these things and interview these people, I wouldn’t have gone.
I’m not a poet or a song writer who has to express something, or an author who wants to weave some intriguing saga, I write because it’s my job. If I won the lottery I’d never write another word.
How do you manage working to deadlines?
I honestly don’t understand the question. “How do you manage to put on shoes” “how do you manage to drink tea”. I imagine there are some proper writers who are told “finish your book by December” and, wow, the pressure’s suddenly on, but I have pages to fill every single day and I’m lucky, I can work on stuff days in advance sometimes. That’s nothing compared to what the news reporters have to deal with. Really, you wouldn’t believe it. They get handed a situation at half eight and we’re going to press at nine. They can’t have a coffee and a fag and think about what to do next, maybe try to work in a clever quote so they can show everyone they’ve read Proust or whatever. Ask a news guy “how do you handle deadlines?” and they’ll give you a pitying look and delete you from their Facebook.
Have you ever felt intimidated by anyone you have interviewed?
No. I’ve been shouted and sworn at and clearly looked down upon as vermin but on those occasions I would think to myself “you don’t get it” or, “you’re just angry/sad”.
I remember once having to interview a super-learned person who seemed to consider themselves to be the sort of guru who could look inside lesser mortals. They placed a low chair for me to sit on and a higher chair for them with the sun at their back. Every question was met with a thoughtful silence that lasted a couple of days and then they’d painstakingly assemble the necessary words for a breathtakingly clever response. I sighed inwardly, and we never ran the article in the end.
I’ve been in close proximity to a few people who were unnerving because of the crimes they’d committed but that’s about it. I suppose it goes back to that comment the A&E nurse made; we get to dip our toe into terrible things and just walk away, we don’t have to clear up the mess. We just look at it and tell people what it was like.
But being an effective journalist is being able to walk into any situation and be able to operate, seize a fleeting moment to make a little connection. Knocking on a door and you’re a complete stranger and the you’re going to ask about their dead baby – how do you do that?
Well, rationalise it. If no reporter ever did this how much would the wider world know about cot death, how many charities and research projects would be running if no-one ever talked about it?
You have to make an instant connection with people – a gruff old man who witnessed an incident is brushing me away but I spot a Scots Guards tie and mention it and suddenly we’re talking, a grimly surly bouncer has a faded skinhead tattoo and I bring it up and, boom, that little connection is made.
Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?
Know everyone. Be as friendly and helpful towards every single person you meet because you never know when it’s going to roll back and help you.
Always be wide awake; I once saw a printed-off A4 sign on the window of an old shop and it read “Hearing Voices”. So I go in and it’s a little charity for people who literally hear voices in their heads. No budget, no backing, no-one taking them seriously. So I do a piece and a couple of days later they tell me that two families came to them for help and others in the group felt that at long last someone cares.
Practice making your amazing world-exclusive interview fit into 600 words.
Be genuine. So many people have got the wrong idea about reporters/journalists that we have to go that extra mile to be credible and upstanding. I blame soap operas, they all portray reporters as being pushy and insensitive and so when people encounter the press they think the correct response is to yell “no comment” and slam the door. Thank you Eastenders.
Yes, I know everyone’s got a horror story about the time they got stitched up by the press or something was inaccurate but my view is that if you’re in a position to help ensure that a story is accurate and you choose not to help, we’ll don’t call me the next day bleating about it. We go with the best possible information that is available and, yes, sometimes the info we get even from credible sources like the police can be wrong. It happens.
Remember, every news article you read whether it was on CNN or the BBC or printed in The Times starts with the reporter with a pen and the vast majority are simply doing the best they can.
What advice would you give to the young Stewart Ross?
Join the navy.
Do you buy lottery tickets?
If you did come into giving-up-the-day-job kind of money, how would you spend your days?
I’d never get up before 10am. I’d do bike trips. Tour Europe. Buy a tank. Visit the Dundee in Michigan. I don’t want to go to anywhere in South America or the Far East and Australia’s too far away. I once spent seven days in Morocco so as far as I’m concerned I’ve done Africa.
Now for a few short questions. What is your favourite book?
Despatches, Michael Herr.
Pasta. The little pasta pillows that you boil for five minutes and it’s ready.
Master and Commander
No real favourites.
GTA V (level 271, so bring it m8 and get rekd).
What are you reading right now?
This, because if there’s typos you people will be all over it.
Thanks for coming on the Smorgasbord, Stewart. It’s been a blast.
Stewart Ross is a feature writer at the Evening Telegraph.