Thursday, November 5, 2009

[Interview: Part 1 of 2] Neil Marr

Publisher, author and former journalist, Neil Marr is the author of Bullycide: Death at Playtime (Success Unlimited, 2001), a groundbreaking book which exposed the epidemic of bully-related child suicides in the UK.

Bullycide received rave reviews around the world and sparked countless campaigns and Bullycide-dedicated websites, official studies, several follow up books and government and education authority action to combat school bullying in several countries.

In this interview, Neil Marr talks about his writing and the challenges he and his partners faced when they set up BeWrite.net, a publishing house that started off as a non-commercial writers’ website offering free professional editorial services and optional online showcasing.

How did the idea for Bullycide: Death at Playtime come about?

In the sixties, when I was a cub reporter of about seventeen or eighteen, I covered a huge police search for a missing child who lived just down the road from me. It was just after the horrific 1960s’ Moors Murders in England.

The search for Stephen Shepherd was the biggest UK police operation in UK history. When a child went missing, folks paled and talked of paedophile killings similar to those committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Turned out that the wee boy -- twelve year old Steve -- hadn’t been murdered at all: He’d taken his own life because he could no longer face school bullies.

The media then lost interest and dropped the story ... no juicy murder.

I never did lose interest. It haunted me for over thirty years. This was Bullycide (a catchy word I had to invent to snatch attention and to conveniently fit newspaper headlines – it’s now entered specialist vocabulary).

I was driven to do wee Steve justice; tell his tale and that of others in his predicament. More than thirty years later I kept the promise I’d secretly made at his funeral to tell the whole truth.

How long did it take you to write the book?

Writing a non fiction book is not a problem. It’s like a news story -- off the top. Second nature as a journo. The heavy work is in the research, making sure that your claims are fireproof and that your publisher will catch no flak. Like the investigative journalism I spent so many years with for major -- and attractively sueable (that a word?) newspapers and magazines -- it’s a matter of being able to back up every single line with signed shorthand notes and tapes.

Every single line of what you read in my book was self-edited by the bereaved families involved to be sure there wasn’t the slightest error or misunderstanding on my part. No shocks or heartache. They became part of the effort. They became friends.

The process took three years -- and I don’t begrudge a day of it. It’s a sensitive issue and had to be handled gently and with profound understanding.

How did you go about it? What was involved?

Gosh. That’s a big question. Like a reporter, I guess. Someone who listens, probes and seldom intrudes. I’d been an award-winning investigative journalist, on the street for thirty years. You might as well ask Al Pacino to teach you how to act King Lear over the phone. My work rested on decades of experience. I just did the job I was built for.

Where and when was Bullycide published?

2000. Small press in Oxford.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

I didn’t. The publisher chose me. A big mainstream publisher bought the book and paid me an advance of a few thousand pounds on the idea alone. That financed some of my travel and research (I’m in France, the story was in Britain). He later disagreed with my figures and methodology, so I went elsewhere to a small press in Oxford and pulled in a ‘qualified’ co-author to back up my findings; the late Tim Field.

Of course, it later turned out that I had my ducks in a row and -- if anything -- my startling numbers were conservative.

How was the book received?

Amazingly (am attaching early reviews). More than I could have dreamed of.

But there’s more...

On the back of the book have been several other book publications, countless internet campaigns, moves by education authorities and central government in several countries, plays, movies ... the book’s done its job. I’m chuffed with that. That was the whole idea.

Have you written other books since?

Oh yes, but I’m keeping those to myself because they’re mainly ghosted (fiction and non-fiction for other people to keep body and soul together) but I have edited/co-written 120 novels over the past ten years. Some authors acknowledge my input, others don’t bother. Fair enough because I’m a back-room boy by nature and don’t ask for up-front credit.

What made you decide to leave journalism?

Newspapers and magazines that pay worth a darn no longer compete with TV; they compete with the TV Guide. I was bored to tears and also embarrassed to be prostituted. Also, heart and vascular problems kicked in and I could no longer flit around the world as I used to. Can’t even catch a bus. Funnily enough, though, the Sun in the UK (rotten paper but great payer and I still have old pals there) called me today for 500 words on an Italian football yarn that will pay me more in an hour or so than I’ve collected from BB this year!

How easy or difficult was the transition from being a foreign correspondent to being an entrepreneur, editor and publisher?

Hey, I’m no ‘entrepreneur’. I’m just at old hack who knows his job and loves his writers and their words. The transition hasn’t been too traumatic because I apply the same principles I always did... are these pages worth reading? Health hassles slowed me down, too, so I’ve learned to live with those. These days, I hardly miss my suitcase.

What were some of the challenges that you faced when you first set up BeWrite?

Money. We were broke. And we were dedicated to keeping things in the black and absolutely independent. We’ve never been short of the cash to pay our dues, admin costs, print fees and royalties, but have resisted all outside financial help. We’re always a couple of books ahead of the shoe-shine and two steps away from the county line. I doubt that any one of our stable of writers realises that we’ve all worked for the past eight years without a salary, mostly covering our own expenses. That everything’s for free. Why should they when they’re coming up with the most valuable commodity of all -- the raw material? We’ve only just started to break even so that one book helps finance the next release (if it sells OK). Before now. every penny of expenses has come from the shallow pockets of the partners, me and Sandy.

There are other wee hitches, of course, but we can live with those because our authors and the other folks we deal with -- printers, distributors, publicists and reviewers -- very soon become good, trusting friends. We play from a square bat and it seems to count.

What reception did BeWrite receive?

Bewrite.net (the non-commercial website) had 3,000 members. There was free professional editing and enormous feedback (I handled over four million words myself). Everyone was happy. But we had to move to stage two -- publishing -- because so many people deserved that.

We started with one or two co-authored collections by BeWrite Community writers as an experiment while we got to understand the technology, then we moved on. When it comes to selection, BB is as tough as old boots, you know, but we do read every line submitted.

We would take non-agented work from writers who knew they were only almost there and work with it to make it spot on there ... at no cost whatsoever and with some tremendous results. BB produces beautiful books.

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1 comment:

thelionshares said...

Neil has done great things. Think of this: Feeling that it was unfair that other journalists and the police gave up on a boy that committed suicide, because he was being bullied, during a less open minded era, Neil made a promise to make a difference so that the boy's life would not have been lived in vain. Bullycide is an instrument to help bring awareness to bullying and to show that bullying must stop. People, children in particular, who know less of the world, have the right to be themselves, so long as no one else is harmed. Among whatever other accomplishments Neil has made, co-authoring this book is among the greatest.