Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Andrew Boulton, copywriter and lecturer in Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
I always feel the pressure to be slightly hipster and say something obscure, but the honest answer is the good ol’ Advertising Concept book is the one that has been thumbed, scribbled in and generally misused over the years. I tell our students that, when they get it, it will also sit on their many and varied desks over the years. If anything in the silly business of advertising is actually indispensable, then it’s probably this. Also, Read Me, by the lovely Gyles Lingwood, is the best guide to becoming a better copywriter that I am yet to find.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
I am, you might say a sucker for Surfer and the line about ‘I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream’ is as close to poetry (non-wanky poetry I should add) as I’ve ever seen from an advert. But I am, at heart, an irredeemable pervert for print and so my true favourite probably lies in that realm. Without shame or apology, this answer will undoubtedly change each time I’m asked, so for today I’ll say a weird little series of ads for Bowler Ale called ‘The Slightly Stronger Ale’ that feature a series of horribly maimed cricketer gents (you need to seem them for any of that to make sense). I like small, weird, silly stuff.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Ignoring pithy sayings is probably a good start – at least in terms of relieving yourself of the pressure and expectation on what you can and should be bashing out. My only advice would be that, in this particular line of madness, all advice is fairly worthless – in the sense that there is certain to be pain and doubt and regret and furious apathy at some point in the process, and the finest writerly wisdom in the world will not be able to excuse you from any of it.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Read something nobody else is reading. I know that sounds glib, but there is peril in ‘The Reading List’ – and the only way you don’t want to think is the way everybody else is already thinking. There’s a huge amount to be learned (and enjoyed) with the classic books on writing and copywriting and the ad business – but there are so, so, so many books beyond the famous ones, I think you can afford to find a weirder and less well-thumbed place to start.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
I’m bad with silence, I’m bad with talking, I’m bad with music with words and I’m mildly better with music without words, but not by much. To be honest, I’ve learned that the biggest and most important part of my work is done out and about in the world. I only return to my desk, usually at a dash, when I actually have the stuff in my head ready to pour out.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
I’m so shit at these questions because I argue them out with myself on a daily basis. I am captivated by Graham Greene, utterly hypnotized by the way he writes as well as the stories he tells. And I arrived at a similar state of unrestrained awe with James Salter, although this happened much later in life. If there are three, they’d come from those lads. If there is a gun to my head (and I suspect there is) I read French Exit by Patrick DeWitt last year and still find myself thinking about it most days. It is the funniest book that’s ever broken my heart.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
Some of the greatest jokes ever written were tweets of mine that received fewer than seven likes, so I am a poor and deluded judge. The thing that I have written that gives me the most pride is my (ahem) new book on copywriting called ‘Copywriting Is… 30 or so thoughts on thinking like a copywriter.’ I was delighted that it even became a real book (thanks to a wonderful idiot who I love, Giles Edwards) but since then it sold out from pre-orders alone and became the number 1 bestselling advertising book on Amazon (brag). Writing it was an enormous ball-ache and taught me terrible things about my capacity for hard work and commitment – but I am pathetically proud that I did it.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A book. You could ask me that question at any moment in my life and the answer will always be the same. My dear wife is, shall we say, exasperated at the expansion of the Boulton library.
Who was your teenage crush?
Someone once told me I had an Agent Mulder complex. I don’t think they meant it as a compliment, but it reinforced a lot of stuff for me, so I’m going with that. These days, Bill Nighy too.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Anything that wasn’t washed down with a gloopy slug of Gaviscon.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
I’m a beer drinker, but not a beer wanker. My dad brewed his own wine and was desperate for me to try it. I put it off for ages because I am suspicious of anyone who tries to subvert a perfectly adequate capitalist system (and the colour was weird). But then I got day-drunk watching old Columbo episodes (another crush), ran out of beer and had to crack it open. It tasted like wine. That’s my review.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
I really fancy Hawaii, but my wife is terrified of volcanos, so that may be a solo expedition. I’d probably write a shit radio play about a lonely boy who creates his own dog out of lava, but I’d have a lovely old time and Attenborough could smooth things over with Radio 4.
What’s in your pockets?
A homemade FBI badge. What’s it to you.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Pencil for scribbles, keyboard for just letting madness pour out of my brain like a great wave of hot vomit. I write best when I’m not thinking about it (or anything). Which actually means I write terribly when I am trying to write.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
I am very much within the brackets of this question. I subscribed to Granta for two years and I’m not sure I even opened a single issue, which is absolutely a me-failing rather than a Granta one. Having said that I have subscribed to Sophie Cross’ awesome Freelancer Magazine and I intend to read that til my eyes fall out.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Coffee. Lattes to be precise (pronounced, by me at least, and much to the amusement of my wife as LAR-TAY). Weirdly though I only really got into coffee in my 30s. I went to a meeting with someone and they just bought me one without asking what I wanted (weird power play, but I allowed it). And that was it. It was like someone had injected lightning into my tired old bones.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
If I declared any of my mugs ‘the favourite’ I would smash it to fucking pieces within minutes. My brain does not allow me to have nice things. See also ‘Expensive Pens He Has Lost’.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
I’ve never laughed at a book like I laughed at Adrian Mole. Luckily, it was my first experience of incredible writing at an age before I would become deeply intimidated by incredible writing.
Your favourite word?
My daughter can’t say ‘suspicious’ properly and I now prefer her version.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)
There are no bad words, only good ones used in terrible ways. Solution, for example, is a perfectly useful and valuable word – but it’s been horribly treated by business types and now it feels a bit gooey.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
I like small and cluttered bookshops. The kind of place where there’s a real chance you may get trapped beneath a stack of toppled hardbacks. My two absolute favourite bookshops are Five Leaves Bookshop in the centre of Nottingham and Scarthin Books in the Peak District. You may find me in either but I shan’t speak to you if you do.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
There’s a Bowie lyric about ‘the people on the edge of the night’ and I’ve just pinched that for a story title, if that counts. The lyrics from ‘Your Love is Killing Me’ by Sharon van Etten do strange things to my heart.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
I’ve been to see Father John Misty a couple of times and he tricks everyone in the crowd into thinking they can dance as cool as him. None of us can, but none of us can resist.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
Loads of stuff that I can’t tell you about, and some stuff that you wouldn’t want to hear about. There is an idea for a new book, but I’m still so brutalised by the experience of writing the last one, I’ve not been able to broach the subject with my willpower.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
My phone is filled with screenshots of books I want to read and my daughter’s abstract (and wildly intrusive) photography. There is a series of photographs that are just peering into different people’s nostrils that she could possibly exhibit.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
I don’t know if he actually said it, but Norman Mailer’s line about writer’s block being merely a failure of the ego has been oddly reassuring. Belief that you have something to put onto the page, initially at least, is more valuable than belief that what you say will be any good.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
I wrote a very tiny story for a tiny story competition about the world’s most remarkable woman. (And I won, he said, winningly.) I insist you all read it and send me your praise by postcard.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
There’s a George Saunders essay where he says ‘Humour is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.’ It’s one of those pieces of advice that, casually and irreversibly, flips the entire world upside down.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
They’re all shits, Don especially. But that was always the point of the show so I find it odd when anyone tries to see any sort of heroism in any of them, Don especially.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Chinatown – which is problematic because I would cheerily toss Roman Polanski into a burning skip. Nevertheless, it is a breathtaking piece of cinema. Along with Point Blank (the Lee Marvin movie), The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Where Eagles Dare, those four will be watched and rewatched until I go to the great Blockbuster in the sky.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
A book by Ted Hughes about writing and teaching poetry called ‘Poetry in the Making’. Unsurprisingly, its excellent. He’ll write things like: ‘all imaginative writing is to some extent the voice of what is neglected or forbidden.’ And I’ll nod my head and say ‘yes Ted, absolutely Ted.’
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
My old drumming teacher used to throw chairs at me. To be fair, I wasn’t on his tempo.
Who is your favorite artist?
Not a clue. Let’s say… Jonty. Jonty Brush. He exclusively paints second toes that are longer than the big toe.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
Outdoors. Any sort of outdoors will do, but pretty outdoors is best. I’ve found that I get a lot of good ideas swimming around this marvellous lake. But the challenge is to then safely transport them back to dry land.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
Aside from manhandling Roman Polanksi into the mouth of an active volcano, let’s say:
Plus my book is available from Amazon
Or, if you prefer a less sinister bookseller: https://harriman-house.com/copywritingis