Paul Merrill is the founding editor of ZOO Weekly, both in the UK and Australia. His debut book, A Polar Bear Ate My Head: Misadventures in Magazines, available through Amazon for £9.99, is a memoir of his time as a magazine editor.
Why I write
I prefer writing to actually doing. Why get out of your chair for an activity when you can sit down and describe it? Shakespeare wouldn’t have got far if he’d put down his quill to go bowling with his mates every day. Not that I’m comparing myself with Shakespeare. Not at this stage, anyway.
A Polar Bear Ate My Head is your first book. What sort of writing habits did you keep when writing it?
When I gave up editing ZOO, I had three months of gardening leave, where I wasn’t allowed to do any work. I’d often thought it would be fun to write down some of the more surreal events of the ZOO years, so I started listing things and going through back issues. By the time I’d finished, it was more a case of how I was going to fit it into just the one book, and whether anyone sane would believe any of it.
I wrote for about four hours a day so I got to do both school runs and spent time with the kids (a traumatic experience for both of us). Each day, I’d start by going through what I’d written the day before, realise how terrible it was, rewrite it and by then, the school bell was about to sound.
Was it difficult transitioning from editing a magazine of short articles to book writing?
The most difficult thing about being an editor is that you don’t get to write much from scratch. You’re going through other people’s copy and managing a team. I’d really missed writing so I loved every second. People asked if I felt lonely on my own in the house all day, but I never did, not for a second. And, although ZOO doesn’t exactly go in for Vanity Fair-length articles, the standard of writing is nonetheless very high as everything has to be funny. Anyone who thinks ZOO is just about sexy girls has clearly never read it.
Was A Polar Bear Ate My Head commissioned by a publisher? Or did you write it first and then pitch it?
I never expected it to be published, it was just something to pass the time, and remember all the crazy shit. But after about 20,000 words, I sent it of to around three agents, and all got back to me the following day. So I thought I should probably keep going.
Where physically did you write it?
At home in a cluttered office with an ancient laptop, on which the full stop didn’t work. I’d got to about 60,000 words before I finally relented and took it to be repaired. For weeks afterwards, I instinctively went to cut and paste at the end of every sentence. While it was in for repair, I used my kids’ PC, which had no letter ‘S’ (and still doesn’t). So don’t expect many plurals in chapters 8 through 11.
Do you write longhand or use a PC?
I think I’ve lost the ability to write longhand in the same way a dodo lost the ability to fly.
Worst source of distraction from writing?
Pretty much anything. The dog, proximity of the fridge, junk mail, Facebook, the rubbish being collected, a paperclip demanding to be straightened and then bent back into position, a gap of more than eight minutes between cups of tea, an ant in need of tormenting.
What was the motivation for writing A Polar Bear Ate My Head?
I just liked the idea of writing a whole book. When I was a magazine writer I probably wrote the equivalent of several books, but there was something mystical about writing one that would have my name on it. So, an inflated self-importance really, and a conviction that Baz Luhrmann might pick it up and decide to turn it into a musical one day.
How often did you get writers’ block? If so, how did you overcome it?
As it was a memoir, I had a pretty good idea of the plot. I didn’t have to agonise over a dastardly twist at the end.
Do you ever doubt your own ability to write?
I’ve always liked writing funny stuff, but didn’t think I’d ever have the time to write a whole book. As it turned out I wrote about four books during my year of working from home.
Contemporary writer in any medium you never miss?
I don’t read many novels, so I go for people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or Jon Ronson. And sites like The Huffington Post.
To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye or anything by Dr. Seuss.
Whoever writes Private Eye.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
The very first thing I had published was a letter I wrote to The Sun when I was about 12 criticising the ticket prices at the Farnborough Air Show. I got a two pound voucher for it.
How did you get started writing? Your first job was on The Farnham Herald…
The Herald was probably the first writing I did. Though there wasn’t much scope for humour in amid all the parish council meetings, Women’s Institute reports, neighbourly disputes over footpath routing and retired majors demanding that the town’s ‘rowdies’ be given military service.
Does writing change anything?
Certainly not my bank balance.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
Well, my second book, Muddle Your Way Through Fatherhood has just been published, also through Amazon. It’s a comedic look at all aspects of being a dad, written in the form of a spoof guidebook. So far the review have been great, which is good. In September, the follow up, Muddle Your Way Through Being A Grandparent, comes out, drawing on my vast experience of grandparenting, i.e. none. They were a lot of fun to write, but I’m not expecting them to top The New York Times best-seller list any time soon. In retrospect taking out all the mummy porn and teen vampires, and not setting it in a school of wizardry was a textbook error.
Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013