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© KGHH Publishing 2018
James Hogg is an acclaimed writer of biographies and sometimes ghost writer. He has written best-selling biographies of Brian Blessed, Kenny Everett, Ernie Wise and most recent the much-loved British icons Bernard Cribbins and Richard Briers by Little Brown publishing September – October 2018.
1.How did you get into writing, and what inspired you to write biographies in the first place?
I got into writing by accident. I was working in sales which I hated and had been researching British comedy since I was a kid. Then, one day, I started researching James Robertson Justice and found there was virtually nothing on him. Undeterred, I took it upon myself to uncover his life story and eventually started a website for him. To cut a long story short I was contacted by a publisher who asked me if I’d like to write a book about the great man and I said yes. I’d never written anything in my life at the time and had left school at 15 so I have no idea why I accepted. Fortunately, the publisher, Tomahawk Press who published Boris Karloff’s authorised biography, put me in touch with an established author called Robert Sellers and he helped me out. It turned out I could actually write after all and after that I never looked back. In fact, within a few years I’d jacked in proper work and was doing it full time. I’m now on my 17th and 18th books.
2.Probably a tough question but which of your books are you most proud of, and why?
The Richard Briers book probably which came out last week, and James Robertson Justice. Justice because it’s my first and Briers because he’s probably my favourite actor and writing about him – not to mention researching him - was such a joy. His family in particular were very supportive, and I had free access to his study and all his papers. It’s not a bad book too, even though I do say so myself.
3.How long on average does it take, you to write a biography and how do you set about it?
If there were no such thing as deadlines I’d give myself a few years but because my books are all quite commercial I usually get a few months. I collaborated with Torvill & Dean on their autobiography and that took me 3 weeks! I decamped to Cyprus and wrote from 6 in the morning until 6 at night. Then, I went to a bar, hard something to eat, drank a bottle of wine, went to sleep and started again in the morning. I’m not complaining though! I’m about to start writing the authorised biography of Rik Mayall and I’m going to need seven or eight months for that. Maybe more.
4.What is the most difficult part of your artistic process? Is it the research, dealing with subject family and friends, or the actual writing process?
Amending! I hate amending. When I finish a book I want to hand it over and be done, but that’s not how it works. It’s an important part of the process, of course, but it bores the tits of me. The most difficult part is starting a book. For Briers I was given a fantastic anecdote about him meeting Bill Murray but it’s not always that easy. Finishing a book is quite difficult too.
5.What was your hardest biography to write and why?
Kenny Everett probably. There were one or two legal issues and there was a lot of toing and froing. It was worth it though.
6.Do you read your book reviews? If so how do you deal with bad or good ones?
I try not to. I got an absolute stinker in the Observer a few years ago for the Everett biography and because I was new to the game I took it rather personally. In fact, if I could have found the address of the person who’d written it I think I’d have shoved a dead rat through their letterbox. They started the review with the words, “I always hated Kenny Everett,” so we never stood a chance. Apparently newspapers do that sometimes – ask somebody to review a book they’ll obviously hate. I think that’s appalling. The thing is, you can’t please everyone all the time so as long as the core audience like it – and you, of course - that’s the main thing. Everyone else can bugger off!
7.What does literary success look like to you?
Being able to spend the school holidays with my kids – which I almost always do – and have plenty of money for wine and the occasional cigarette.
8.You are also a ghost writer, in biographies, how exactly does that work?
First of all the subject will write a chronological timeline if their lives which will contain as much information as possible. Then, I’ll split that into chapters and we’ll start talking. After that I’ll go abroad for a few weeks, listen to the recordings and write as I’m listening. It really is that simple, apart from a bit of research here and there and the dreaded amendments! Getting the voice right is the most Important thing. I’ve written two books with Brian Blessed and although he’s written books on his own – very well written books - his personality doesn’t really come through. Or at least the personality we see on TV. It was my job to put that on paper and it was great fun. Brian’s a very special human being. Nobody, but nobody says the word “fuck” like he does. Or as much.
9.Entertainment and a love of comedy seems to come across in your choice of biographies. Does that help and what do you feel links the likes of Wise, Blessed, Cribbins, Briers and made them not just successful but deeply loved by the British public?
There are two things to consider. Do I like them? And, will it sell? If both are yes, I give it a go! It’s that simple.
10.To you, what are common traps for aspiring writers? And how would you advise an aspiring biography writer or ghost writer?
There are too many!! Everybody seems to be a writer these days. Or at least everybody seems to describe themselves as one. It sounds good though, doesn’t it?
‘Hi, I’m a writer?’
‘Really! Wow, what have you written?’
‘Nothing yet, but I’m definitely a writer!’
When it comes to advice, unless you’re wealthy or have another job try and think commercially. So many biographers come up with ideas that are so niche you’d be lucky to sell ten copies. Nobody wants to spend a year working on a book that nobody’s going to read. The amount of times I’ve had to ditch ideas because they won’t sell must be in the hundreds. I’d love to write a book on the Aldwych Farces, which were on the go in the 1920’s, but only a handful of people would read it unfortunately so it’s a no go.
With regards to ghost-writing or collaborating, my model is slightly different to the norm as I only write books that I’ve devised so am not a “pen for hire”, so to speak. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t work with somebody who approached me. Of course I would. I just tend to come up with the ideas myself which means I’m far more involved. Also, you can’t have an ego if you’re a ghost. Regardless of how well it does or how much control you have the fact remains that you’ve written it for somebody else so they’ll get all the plaudits. One of the reasons I started ghosting and collaborating is because I didn’t want the attention (or the responsibility for sale etc) and that’s still the same today. I will write the occasional biography, but only on somebody I really like.
11.What forthcoming biographs, or ghost-writing projects can we expect to see from you in the future?
Authorised biog of Rik Mayall as I’ve already mentioned, the autobiography of Jason Plato, who is a racing driver, and a history of the Hesketh Formula 1 Racing team that James Hunt drove for in the 1970’s. I’m also working on a book about the history of profanities which should come to fruition soon. How’s that for eclectic!
12.What would be the title of your autobiography, and would you tell all?
“Don’t buy this book. It’s shite.”
You can keep up to date with James Hogg’s work via his website:
And his two most recent books links to Amazon are here:
Richard Briers – More Than Just a Good Life – is published now. Amazon UK link: https://amzn.to/2CrKDMw
Bernard Cribbins – Bernard Who?: 75 Years of Doing Just About Everything - Is published October 11th 2018
Amazon UK link: https://amzn.to/2xXqp9B