There are not many writers who would graciously accept a spontaneous interview proposition from a frenzied Creative Writing undergrad via Twitter at 11pm on a Thursday. Then again, there are not many writers like Tom Cox. An author who began his career as a music journalist for NME on the back of a homemade fanzine that was delivered to the postman a day prior to the job offer, and has since been listed for the William Hill Sports Book of The Year and made it onto The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list, commending his memoirs of niche expertise: golf and cats. Apparently it wasn’t enough to be a nonchalant almost-golf professional at 16 (he later turned pro at 30) and The Guardian Chief Pop Critic at 24. As you do, Mr Tom Cox also became a social media adorned cat-documentarist creating memes musing the inner thoughts of his four felines… as well as a self-confessed ‘21st century Yokel’, writing about his triumphs and tribulations meandering the countryside.
I meet Tom at his home in Devon, where he has lived (and become somewhat of native Devonshire rambler and country-writer) since 2014 with his four famous cats: The Bear (@MYSADCAT), Ralph (@MYSMUGCAT), Shipley (@MYSWEARYCAT) and Roscoe. As we walk up the path to his cottage, I am greeted by Shipley, the loud mouth of his cats, who remains attached to Tom’s corduroy flares throughout our entire chat. In the kitchen, the better known of his cats, The Bear and Ralph, are having some sort of discussion about the girl in The Smiths shirt and Doc Martens who has just waltzed into their home. Thankfully they quickly forgive my intrusion when Tom lets me hand feed them chicken. Tom, Shipley and I settle into the living room, where Jimmie Spheeris’s ‘Isle of View’ fades out on the turntable.
Q: You began your writing career at NME, and have said Sloan inspired your wanting to write for a living. You were also Chief Pop Critic for The Guardian from 1999-2000. Do you ever find yourself missing music writing?
A: My heart was with this fanzine that I edited before I wrote for the NME. I put it together really cheaply, I would get sent CDs from record companies to review, and the ones I didn’t keep I would sell to Selectadisc in Nottingham, using the money to print the fanzine. I sent it to DJs and editors of music papers, John Peel mentioned it on telly (BBC 2) and Steve Lamacq mentioned it on the evening session on Radio One. It was already feeling like an exciting thing…I had no qualifications, but I was doing this, and I had my heart set on being a music writer. It was the 5th/6th edition of the fanzine, and I thought… this is going to be a job audition for the music papers. I researched bands they were excited about and I tried to write in their style. I remember getting back from the printers and sending it off, around half four. I had to rush six copies to the post-box, which were handed straight to the postman. It was like a fairy-tale thing at the time, the very next day I got the call from NME saying we love your fanzine; do you want to work for us? And I suppose that my first foot in the door of the industry. I think it was probably luck, it could have just landed on the guy’s desk at the right time, but I also had the passion and I put an awful lot of hard work into it, with the drive I had from a sporting background. As much as it was exciting, all my writing for them was terrible, I was trying to be one of them and wasn’t using my own voice. What I would say was that NME was a springboard to Uncut Magazine, VOX, and The Guardian… and I developed my own natural style of writing after that.
Q: You recently wrote a statement on your blog that you were retreating from journalism because you felt that what you wanted to write no longer had a place in its framework. Was this decision due to the success of your novels, and writing more of what you want?
A: I suppose a lot of it was due to my age, and how many years I’ve put into it [journalism].My heart was in a different sort of writing, and I thought I had to at least give it ago, doing what I want to do. It was a fairly brave thing to do, you haven’t got the security thing and it could all go wrong… it’s such a difficult industry to be in. If it doesn’t work out I’m all for doing a completely different job… tree surgery or landscape gardening, because I love being outdoors. The stuff I’m most proud of starts in 2009, when I started to write more in my voice, which tends to crystallise throughout your career. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2009 was the year I started walking. Ideally, you would write all your books on the walk. You’ve got this energy, you see the world from a fresher angle and the trick is somehow trapping that energy and mind-set.
Q: Do you think your niche interest in golf, cats and the countryside have always been the things you want to write about, or did they come after you had started writing?
A: They came afterwards definitely. I’ve always been impatient, and I’ve always been one or two steps ahead in my mind about what I want to be doing. I got the Guardian Pop Critic job when I was 24, but by that point I had already thought I don’t necessarily want to be a music journalist forever. I wanted to write books, I wanted to write fiction ultimately. When I started at The Guardian, publishers were already asking if I fancied writing a book and I said yes, but about golf. It [golf] was a natural thing to write about, it had dominated my teenage years in a very unlikely way from 13-18 when I won amateur tournaments and played for the Nottinghamshire county team, and it felt like the one weird story I could tell better than anyone else. I was 26 when I wrote it, and I didn’t have the perspective I could write it with now. You can question the value of what you write, as you always wince at your old stuff. But you probably should wince at your old stuff, if you’re moving on and continuing to develop as a writer. For example, I wince very little at The Good, The Bad and The Furry which was the book before last, but I don’t wince at anything from Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. Maybe in a few years I’ll find a few bits to wince at.
Q: Your books are incredibly autobiographical, especially the memoirs about your cats. Do you find it easier to talk about yourself because the self-evaluation is more about the cats than yourself?
A: Oh wow, good question. It’s sort of just one angle into my life, really, but people definitely know me quite well to an extent by reading the books. The question that is always there when writing first person non-fiction is why the hell should anyone be interested in my life. I think that’s a good question to have there, keeping you on your toes, as long as you don’t let it overwhelm you, and you realise that everyone’s writing about themselves in a way. The cats can be a nice distraction from me waffling on. People do get to know me through my books; they’re increasingly honest and honesty tends to bring out the more powerful stuff that people relate to.
Q: Was it hard to transition from being a journalist to being someone who writes books?
A: Really, really hard. I’ve realised so much that it’s a different skill. There’s only so far you can go as a journalist, most editors just want the job done quickly and passably. There is a huge difference in skill between filling a space and actually writing a book. You’re flicking between modes; my two music books are too much written from the perspective of a journalist. There isn’t enough love and care in them, which is part of why I’m not keen on them. I’m in awe of anyone who can be a journalist and a novelist, they are two very separate things, and all they have in common is words.
Q: Speaking of modes, do you think you will ever write anything fictional?
A: I haven’t written anything completely fictional but I’d love to. The beginning of Close Encounters of the Furred Kind begins with a folktale, and that’s fiction. It’s a humour piece, but was otherworldly, and was something braver for me to write. Fiction is the purest form of writing to me. I’ve had to accept at various points in my life that I’m not ready for fiction. Three times I have started to write a work of fiction about Norfolk, where I used to live. It was going to be this spooky, folklore novel, and I got to 30,000 words twice and scrapped it. I hadn’t soaked up enough of the environment, and for a long time I had other commitments financially and in my relationship. Writing a novel seemed like chronic self-indulgence when there were bills to pay. The book I’m working on at the moment [21st Century Yoko] is semi-fictional and about the moors [Dartmoor]. I always feel at home on the moor, and this began as just a piece that was sort of a love letter. But then my dad’s uncle Ken told me that my great-grandma grew up on the moors. She was a tenant farmer, and I thought, “Well of course I feel at home on the moors: I’ve got an ancestor from the area!” I haven’t told anyone this, and I feel I may jinx it, but I started writing about my relationship with the moors, and intertwining it with a third person story about my great-grandma when she was thirteen and living on the moor in 1913 or 1914. These two narratives alongside each other feel like a nice bridge into fiction. I’ve had to make up a lot of the perspective and detail of my great-grandma, so I’ve been reading ‘The Heart of The Moore’ by Beatrice Chase as research, which was written in 1915. It’s a non-fiction about this woman’s life on the moors, so the timing and detail is perfect, but the writing is extremely overblown and there seems to be an exclamation mark every three sentences.
Q: As someone who works largely from home, how do you motivate yourself to write?
A: It doesn’t always work, but in theory I get up at six, drink a bucket of coffee and just go at it until early afternoon and then go for a walk. Life gets in the way; there is always something that makes it more haphazard than that. I’m not a good enough hermit, I’m too social, there are so many temptations here in this part of Devon, especially in the summer, so it’s dangerous. That’s another reason I’m trying to write my new book so quickly, because come June I won’t have the discipline to shut myself away.
Q: With the discipline aspect, is it strange to have such a big internet following that demands a lot of attention. There are people that may have followed you as a music journalist, and now there is a different side that know you as the creator of @MYSADCAT. You’re incredibly responsive to your followers, but how do you juggle this with other aspects of writing and life?
A: Do you think I am responsive? I’m always worried about that. I feel rude not always replying to people’s tweets and messages but I guess if you did you’d never get anything else done. There’s also a golf following, and there is very little cross over between that and the cat following. It’s very odd, and I’m not always 100% comfortable with it but I’m grateful. My latest book [Close Encounters of the Furred Kind] didn’t receive any newspaper reviews, but I chose to separate myself from that world. Publishers will often buy into your journalistic reputation and contacts. If you write for a paper, it’s expected that newspaper will review your book. There are lots of little half-favours go on behind the scenes, and I’m very much out of that world now. I know my latest book is by far my best book, but is isn’t reflected in the amount of reviews because I divorced myself from that world, and of course because it just looks like a cat book. But social media meant the book still did pretty well, all because of people on the Internet recommending to friends, really. A writer wouldn’t have that opportunity ten years ago. I don’t necessarily like the attention, but I do have this fear, and lack of financial cushion, because I haven’t always come from a place of comfort and security. A few years ago I was in a situation where I had to give up my home, lost my two main forms of income, and thought nobody would let me write another book. But what my social media presence did was give me a loyal base of readers who were interested in my writing about my cats, my dad and the countryside. Initially I used social media to gain readers, but eventually I will withdraw more and more. I don’t want to be super successful and I certainly don’t want to be famous, I just want the freedom to write what I want without being terrified of not surviving. I could easily push and push the social media side but it comes with its downsides and I don’t want to – I want to write. I do feel that The Bear is a gift and it was his popularity which put me in a position to get a Sunday Times Best Seller. But then there’s the stuff in the books about my dad. People come to the books for the cats but definitely stayed for the Shouty Dad rants which have also become an on-going part of the persona of the books. I’ve been given two gifts with The Bear and my dad. In my first book [Under the Paw] the relationship with my dad isn’t developed, and believe it or not I tone him down. But by the last book that relationship is more developed, and I understand it better.
Q: What advice would you give new writers, or to your younger-self, for pursuing a career?
A: Read lots. Write lots. Walk lots. The idea of a young writer knowing exactly what they want to write forever is a big ask, and not realistic. I would say experiment with different forms and fields. I realised early on that being a music journalist in Britain was limiting. Don’t limit yourself and become a narrow writer. Mistakes are an important part of it, so I wouldn’t change a lot of things I did. But I would write more notes, even if it was mostly crap. I wish between the ages of 18 and 31 I’d kept proper notebooks. The act of writing it down on its own helps you remember something. I feel I should record more of my thoughts, but then I always think of that Alan Partridge Show, when he’s going round with a Dictaphone testing ideas like Monkey Tennis, and I feel a bit silly. I tend to finish at the pub after walking, so I sit and furiously scribble down any thoughts or ideas I’ve had.