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…
Joseph Robert O’Donnell, Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator at Bella Freud. I also consult for a few other clients and am currently working on a project called NOTTING HILLBILLY which will become a sort of shop/blog/community mash-up of everything I love: art, music, fashion, and pop-culture.
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 hate to admit I’m far too flighty to stick to one book and move on pretty fast to my new obsession, depending on what I’m working on at the time. Last year I loved ‘ART/WORK’ by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber, right now I’m reading ‘Bird by Bird’ which you very graciously gifted me(!). I also am a huge fan of reference books and biographies I find so much more captivating than business books (sorry!): right now I’m dipping in and out of David Sedaris’ ‘Theft by Finding’, ‘Please Come to the Show’ by David Senior (brilliant for graphics!) and Eve Babitz’s ‘I Used to be Charming‘ which is a collection of all her magazine articles and are just the most luscious, descriptive and carefree bite-size reads.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
Tom Ford’s GUCCI ads of the ‘G’ shaved into pubic hair is so hard to beat. Until he then used a similar type of style for the perfume ads for his brand. He just seems to be so irreverent and ‘act now, face the consequences later’.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Read and search out the nerdiest and ‘nichest (made that word up) of books. I’ll always remember an English teacher in my high school telling students to just read, read, read. Read everything and anything, wherever whenever. To read a book on something so niche that it’s almost as if you’ve had it commissioned just for you fills a void that not even the most hearty Italian pasta or night of passion ever will.
A recent win for me was finding Michael Rips ‘ The Golden Flea’, a memoir of a writer who moved into The Chelsea Hotel and discovered the Chelsea Flea. He chronicles the vendors and items they sell. Anyone who knows me will know I disappeared in Agatha Christie fashion the week I discovered it. Books like that remind me that there’s always something only you can or could write.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
The books that I did read first when I started becoming a quote-on-quote ‘professional’ were always magazines. When I started university I was spending all my money on any magazine I could get my hands on, for fear of missing out on something.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Always music! I was given my Gran’s record collection when I was 15 (after begging and begging her to let me into her loft), and when I was 17 I started working in a record shop, so since I was in my early teens vinyl has been the only way for me. I love getting up to change sides or choosing something else to put on. It gives you those precious few minutes away from the computer screen to reset and more importantly top up your glass. Listening to vinyl is a great way to punctuate or change conversation topics too if you have guests over. I couldn’t care less about the superior sound quality or tangibility, I just love the thought it makes you put into listening to music. That and the fact I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around how it works, like how an airplane stays in the sky or a cruise ship floats.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ was the first book I was ever obsessed with. I wanted to be Rob (the record shop owner and centre of attention at all times) and live his life, no matter how depressing it was. I was 16 when I first read it and have moved slightly on since then, but the novel still stays with me as something I know I could pick up at any time and read without putting it down. I also love ‘The Castle on Sunset’ by Sean Anthony Levy which is a biography about the Chateau Marmont in California. The Chateau Marmont is where I hope to go when I die, and I am completely and utterly infatuated by its past present, and future. Over and above anything else: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith. Because, obviously.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
Probably a joke so rude and specific I can’t face myself to write it down, nor would anyone want to read. Otherwise, a lot of the things I have to write for work are based on specific references so I’m always pleased when I find just the right phrase, lyric, or quip to accompany whatever I’m working on that week.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
An overpriced bottle of white wine and two tequila shots from my local, which I regret terribly.
Who was your teenage crush?
Since I met my girlfriend Alex when I was 17 I am legally obligated to say her… But if I was sworn under an oath it’s Kirsty Allsop to all who will listen without prejudice. Last year I learned that my Dad also has a crush on her which I found uncomfortable but also strangely relieving.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Alex and I are lucky to have friends that live in Boston whose parents are Italian. The meals we have when we have stayed with them in either Boston or Italy are hands down the best I have ever eaten. Closer to home nothing quite beats it but I do love a home-cooked full English on a hungover Saturday morning.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
I’m a wino and like to pretend (see: assume) I know a whole lot more than I do. The best white I’ve ever had was a Riesling from a posh London restaurant but I think the fact that the sommelier told me it was ‘a good choice’ meant he could literally have served me broth in a wine glass and I would have still thought it was the best thing I’d ever drunk. My favourite red is the house blend Côtes du Rhône by Berry Bros and Rudd.
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?
Los Angeles! A bungalow at the Chateau Marmont! An empty notebook, lots of paints, canvas, a killer wardrobe, and a seat at the bar every night! Please!
What’s in your pockets?
Hello, my name’s Joseph and I’m a Man Bag carrier. I go nowhere without everything I could need to survive Nuclear War. In my bag within my bag, which is a lovely Hill & Friends lockdown purchase, are two pens, a notebook, Trebor mints, two letters I need to post, sunglasses, a portable charger, a Sainsbury’s receipt, and my flat and office keys.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
A bit of a mixture of all. For work, it’s always a keyboard and screen, most of it in the notes app on my phone as reminders. For personal projects always pen and paper in a diary, or the notes app on my phone to catch the brilliant one-liners from family members or people on the bus. In my dreams, it’s exclusively a beautiful Kaweko smooth black ballpoint pen with a large Smythson notebook.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on desk and recycle?)
I love Air Mail which is a weekly curation/mailer of articles by Graydon Carter. Otherwise, I have had five ‘first-time’ subscriptions to The New Yorker under different aliases. I massively apologise to the gods of literature for this but I will pay it forward someday.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Herbal tea through the week and black coffee on the weekends. The first time I had a cold brew was mid-week and I had to take the rest of the week off work as I thought I was dying.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
My office mug says ‘Canny Wallsend Lad’, I got it from my parents last Christmas and I love to flaunt it in meetings as a catalyst to start the ‘where is your accent from then’ conversation. At home I use a practically destroyed mug with a smashed off handle from home, which always reminds me of my parent’s kitchen. Don’t tell my Mam I broke it though.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
The only children’s book I remember reading was from my Nana’s local library and I have never been able to remember the name of it. It was about a dinosaur-type-monster-thingy that was trying to wean off their addiction to pacifiers. My cousin and I, who were child-minded by our Nana when we were very young used to call pacifiers ‘Noo-Noos’ (pronounced ‘nou-nouz’), and my Nana had/has in her new house also a flower that we used to refer to as ‘The Noo Noo Tree’. I have no idea of the context, anything else in the book, conclusion, relation of the tree to the book, or name of the flower beyond those memories but I think about it every time I see the flower and appreciate the mystery.
Your favourite word?
I love Fran Leibowitz’s way of using the word ‘Trick’ as a descriptive of a type of person. The full article is brilliant (read her ‘Notes on “Trick”’ from ‘Metropolitan Life’) but my favourite line is: “It is not good form to take a Trick out unless one is so firmly established as to be able to afford being associated with someone who might at any given moment write a poem in public.”
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)
Depends weekly on what strangers at London pubs ask me to pronounce for them in my Geordie accent. Earlier this year I had a mouse… you get the idea.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street is just the most beautiful bookshop in the world but I’m an absolute stickler for loyalty cards so also love Waterstones. I’m not too proud to admit I always check Amazon and have my Wish Lists on there but can’t help but be suckered in with the want to have something instantaneously and the satisfaction of coming home from town with a new book.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
Pretty much the entirety of ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ by Neil Young. Harvest was the album that kind of cemented to me that music will always be a huge part of my life. I just love the imagery of the song and it always brings me back to being a young music nerd realising that the world wasn’t just being a naïve teenager but was quite serious sometimes.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
If I told you I knew all the words to ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ from The Little Mermaid, ‘Gaston’ from Beauty and The Beast and ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ from The Lion King would you be surprised? Really?
However, as much as I’d love for those songs to come on the dancefloor, I doubt they ever will beyond a five-year-old’s birthday party, so I’ll just say Pulp, ABBA, and One Direction.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
If I hear something funny I have to write it in the notes app on my phone immediately or I will forget it as I have the worst memory ever. Not that that’s strange, but otherwise I think I’m quite boring.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
Today I’m working on a press release for a project we’re working on launching some t-shirts featuring artists such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and John Giorno. I’m mostly working on layouts and graphics with this rather than writing but it’s such a fun project to be a part of.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
It’s a picture of a nice bottle of red (the one I am currently drinking – Beaujolais-Villages, 2019, Berry Bros & Rudd) to put on my Instagram story as there was a Poirot-esque blood (wine) droplet running down the label.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
That no matter what you’re doing with your words, you’re still a writer. Thank you, Kath!
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
I am in frequent converse (posh talk for ‘am pen pals’) with our family friend Ms. Ronnie and I have a letter in my bag I need to post to her. Because it’s always good to know a back story, she’s the ex-secretary to my Uncle (she no longer works with him and is retired) who I’ve known since I was about ten, she is 87 now. I am continuously gripped by the stories she writes to tell me and she’s just the most interesting lady. In one of her more recent letters, she told me of the time she lived in London and her friend wanted to bring Englebert Humperdinck home with him but his wife wouldn’t let him because her hair was a mess. The kids were furious.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
David Sedaris did an online Masterclass and said that no matter what happens, no matter how bad it gets or whatever horrid situation you find yourself in always remember: “I can write about this”. I’ve thought about that quite a lot, not that I’ve been in horrific places but when I find myself in a waiting room or a queue to use the bathroom I think about it. Always remember that a situation you are bored in is a situation you can listen (or eavesdrop) in.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
I always loved Lane (or the English one) as he always represented ‘the-one-who-is-not-from-here’ to me, and being the Englishman in New York (Geordie in London) I am, I related to that.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
I could watch terrible (amazing) mind-numbing (infinitely inspiring) films like The Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic all day long but I think the films that left a lasting impact on me were ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (Jim Jarmusch), because it was the first ‘arty’ film I saw and more recently ‘Beautiful Boy’ because it made me go to the cinema toilets afterwards and sob my heart out.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
I can’t read fiction and as previously mentioned have too much of a scatterbrain to focus on one thing at a time so I have five books on my bedside table.
‘Theft by Finding’ by David Sedaris. Brilliant, constantly referenceable, open at a random page, and read.
‘Tales from the Colony Room’ by Darren Coffield. Just bought(!), stories from the infamous Soho club but written in such a clever way that you can pick up and put down.
‘Index Cards’ by Moyra Davey. Intimidatingly brilliant essays and musings on photography and life.
‘Kitchen Confidential’ by Anthony Bourdain. Because Anthony Bourdain.
‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott. Because I don’t want it to end.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
In primary school my year six teacher Mr. (Phil) Clark who encouraged me to be who I was. In high school the amazing Mr. (Selwyn) Thompson for always keeping me grounded, steady, and encouraged. He saved me from going down wrong paths so many times I can’t even count. And every single one of my university teachers for allowing me to become good enough friends with them we can now drink wine at pubs and talk about the musings of the world together.
Who is your favourite artist?
Impossible to say! I have such an affinity for Andy Warhol bringing mass consumption and commerciality to the art world, and for solidifying the Polaroid as an art form but hands down my favourite artist of all time is Laura Lancaster (who happens to live in the North East). Her work is just mysterious and captivating and also gives me everything I could ever need.
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?
On my living room coffee table, with a glass of wine, and the table pulled as close to my sofa(-bed) as possible. I’m cross-legged and in a dreadfully damaging ergonomic position.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
My Instagram is: @josephrobertodonnell
NOTTING HILLBILLY is: @notting.hillbilly