Monday, October 17, 2011




George, you literally fought your way up from being out of work to taking a leap of faith with writing and it has paid off beautifully. Tell us more about that journey and the hobby that became your lifesaver.
Even though I’ve been a manual worker for a large part of my life, I’ve nearly always written in my spare time. For instance, I used to write a weekly column for one of the local giveaway newspapers, and do sports reporting for another.
Writing a novel was always the ultimate aim though, and I think it was in 1985 that I eventually found the time and the ability to complete my first one. However, despite some encouraging noises from the people I approached in the publishing industry, it didn’t get anywhere.

After becoming unemployed in 1991 and subsequently failing miserably in well over one hundred job applications, it was time to reassess. An economic recession was just beginning in the UK, so at the age of 47, and without any proper educational qualifications to my name, I had a sneaky suspicion that it was going to take a darn sight more than a can of energy drink to give this no-hoper a set of wings to fly. The only alternative I could see at first was to throw myself completely into the writing of a new South African based novel I’d been researching. I wrote a minimum of one thousand words a day, praying that this new work might get me the publishing breakthrough that would be answer to my problems. Of course, it didn’t happen anything like that. Everyone, including publishers and agents, told me how good my stories were - I even had what appeared to be a very promising lunch in London with a lady from the literary agency that now represents J K Rowling - but no firm offers were ever made.

In the end, almost in desperation, I went back to the classroom at my local college and did a part-time A-level course in English. The essays I wrote as part of this course, plus extracts from my new novel, were later key to me being accepted for a full-time two year Higher National Diploma course in advertising copywriting. Which in turn led on to an almost unimaginable new career as a copywriter at a top London advertising agency. So all that writing did pay off in the end, just not in the way I was originally hoping for.

Tell us more about your stint as a copywriter/creative with Saatchi & Saatchi, what were some of the most important things you learned while there?

How would I describe my time there? In a few words: Highly competitive, quite often exceptionally long hours, and probably the happiest years of my life. I never came remotely close to being a Don Draper type figure (dream on), but did manage to win one major award for a radio campaign I created for Staropramen beer.

I still look back on my time at Saatchi & Saatchi in amazement. Just two years previously I was regularly being turned down for some of the most basic jobs imaginable. Then somebody up there decided to smile on me. Suddenly I’m working on accounts for companies with multi-million pound advertising budgets – Sony, Visa Card, Proctor & Gambol and Roche Pharmaceuticals for instance. That’s a comeback gig even Frank Sinatra would most likely have been proud of.

Lessons I learned while working at the world’s most famous advertising agency?

1 Not everybody who smiles at you is your friend.

2 Not everybody who kicks your backside is your enemy.

3 Be grateful.

As the great Stephen King once wrote: ‘Being paid for doing what you love is the best gig on earth. It’s a licence to steal.’

You can catch up on a lot more of my thoughts about working in advertising at

How hard was it to get published for the first time?

My mother used to type manuscripts for an author called John Creasy, who was most famous back in the 1950s and 60s. Mr Creasy is officially recorded as having had 774 manuscript rejections before ever making a sale. He went on to publish well over 500 novels.

Well, I certainly can’t claim to match that number of rejections, although at times the knock-backs I’ve received have felt almost as many as those of mum’s former employer. In truth, over the course of more than 25 years, I guesstimate that my submissions have boomeranged back to me with a negative message at least 300 times and still counting.

I didn’t know it at the outset, but the company that did ultimately show some faith and publish that second novel I wrote was already struggling to survive. In the Long Run went straight to the top of their best-seller list – I was sitting on cloud nine conducting an orchestra of angels – then that oh so comfortable cloud went pop and disappeared from under me. I hit the earth with a painful bump. The publishing company went bust almost overnight. Along with most of their other authors, I never received a single penny in royalties during their winding-up process because that guy that everybody loves (the taxman) was at the head of the queue and took everything that was going.

I subsequently republished the title with BookSurge (now Create Space) in 2006 and am still looking for a mainstream publisher. This year I also put the book out as a Kindle title with Amazon. Maybe that’s the way to go for all my works in the future? Unless there are any other offers out there?

Give us more information about your books. What are "In The Long Run" & "Buried Pasts" about?

As I’ve already mentioned, In the Long Run was the second novel I completed. The story uses fictional characters but is set against the backdrop of the real life Comrades Marathon held annually in South Africa since 1921. For many years during the dark days of apartheid this was the only major sporting event in the country that permitted all colours and races to compete equally. I’ve actually posted a blog on Goodreads called ‘How Over Two Million People Helped Me To Write A Novel’ telling of the inspiration I found when first witnessing the race. Please do give this a read if you’re interested. Goodreads page . Meanwhile, to give you a better idea of the storyline, here’s the back cover blurb.


THE RACE: South Africa’s awesome Comrades Marathon – fifty-five miles of physical torture run over a series of massive hills in stamina destroying heat and humidity.

THE MEN: an idealistic British marathon runner duped into assisting with a murderous plan; a world famous American entertainer who unknowingly puts far more than just his career on the line; a Zulu youth with outstanding natural ability but an unknown enemy; and the dissolute son of a wealthy Johannesburg stockbroker competing in a desperate attempt to preserve his inheritance.

Some of these will learn harsh lessons. Some will pay a much heavier price. None will ever forget.

This novel was written as a personal tribute to my Canadian father, also called George Stratford, who was a pilot with 78 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command during WWII. He was killed in action in July 1944 when I was just six weeks old.

It's no coincidence that the central character Mike Stafford's surname is so similar, nor that he comes from Brandon, Manitoba, my father's home town. Even the fictional Bomber Command 79 Squadron is as close as possible to the real thing. In fact, I visualised Stafford as being my father throughout the writing. I liked to fondly imagine that this is how Dad, had he lived, would have responded to the same difficulties and dangers that Stafford finds himself confronting.

As a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2011, Publishers Weekly described the story as: ‘An engaging and satisfying novel for fans of adventure stories with a heart.’ Once again, to give you a better idea of what the action is all about, here’s the back cover blurb.

Even after eighteen years, Canadian pilot Mike Stafford still carries an overpowering sense of guilt for the death of his best friend during a huge RAF bombing raid over Berlin in 1944. He eventually returns to England for an inaugural squadron reunion full of apprehension over what the visit may produce.

Siggi Hoffman, then a young German girl of twenty, also has terrible memories of a personal loss from that same night in 1944. She too is unable to forget. Nor has she ever been able to forgive.

When fate throws these two together in a small north Yorkshire town during the summer of 1962, the past collides devastatingly into the present. And all the time, lurking ominously in the background, is an unknown enemy intent on extracting violent revenge. Private demons are only one of the many problems that must be overcome when Stafford and Siggi find themselves fighting to survive.

As long buried secrets are finally revealed, events reach a literally explosive conclusion.

What other genres if any have you thought about writing in the future?

I’m a firm believer in writing the kind of books that you enjoy reading yourself. I think that Publishers Weekly comment in the previous answer sums up precisely what I try to achieve with my novels - adventure stories with a heart.

I did once experiment and write a sort of psychological thriller featuring two teenage girls as protagonist/antagonist, but I’m not sure how well it worked. So far I’ve never done anything with the manuscript, but if any keen readers out there would like to receive a free pdf copy of the story and give me their feedback …..

Aside from novels, I have recently finished writing a memoir covering the period during which I experienced that Andy Warhol promised fifteen minutes of media fame while working at Saatchi & Saatchi. More about that in question seven I believe.

Tell us a little bit about your family and what influence if any they have had on your writing.

There’s not much to tell here. I’m divorced, but happily still on very friendly terms with my ex. She now has three children aged one, three and five, all of who seem to thoroughly themselves when Mum brings them to see their (Uncle) George.

The only direct relative I know of who showed any serious interest in creative writing was my paternal grandmother, whose main interests were poetry and short stories I believe. However, because she lived in Canada and me in England we had very limited opportunities to compare notes. It appears that, after her, the scribbler’s gene must have skipped a generation.

Mum died in 1989, so never saw any of my novels published. However, she did read most of my early work and passionately believed that my stories would succeed one day. Now I know that nearly every mother in the world fondly imagines that her own children are especially talented, but I so much wanted to make her proud and prove her right. Sadly, time was against us, although I like to think that she is up there somewhere with dad and that both of them have been sharing in the pleasure of my recent limited achievements. Especially after having hit pretty much rock bottom for a spell shortly beforehand.

"Ain't Finished Yet" is mainly your memoir - correct? Tell us a little more about that and what we can expect from this documented journey.

Generally, I’ve tried to write this memoir in a light-hearted style, even though many of the situations I talk about were deadly serious for me back then. It’s a darn sight easier to laugh at setbacks in hindsight, so it is at this massively low point in my life when I was out of work and with apparently zero prospects of things improving that I begin the story. From there, as they say, the only way was up.

Returning to the classroom as a fifty year-old was weird, especially when the average age of my class was only around nineteen. I swore to myself from day one that, when talking with fellow students, I would never once begin a sentence with the classic killer line: “When I was your age …. ”

After first arriving in London to work at Saatchi & Saatchi I was stony broke, having spent the last of my money on the train fare up from my college in Cornwall. Because of this lack of cash I was forced to spend two or three nights on the streets of central London. This did not feel like such a big deal to me at the time, but several months later a national daily newspaper got to hear of the story and asked if they could do a feature on my rather unusual arrival into the world of advertising.

The combination of my age and this temporary homelessness while at the same time working in the perceived glamorous profession of big time advertising was media copy from heaven it seemed. As a result of this initial news feature, very soon the telephone on my desk at work was ringing almost hourly with a whole variety of other newspapers, radio stations and TV channels also wanting to do an interview with me.

Although it’s not yet been officially released, the opening few pages of Ain’t Finished Yet can be read for free on my website at . This extract will give you a much fuller idea of what’s involved than space here allows. Also, I am prepared to send a free pdf of the full manuscript to the first five people who might be interested enough to request one through this Great Minds Think Aloud website.

What is your next project going to be?

I’m still considering that, but I think I’ll take a look at re-writing an old drafted novel of mine involving a controversial United States senator, an ill-matched cartel in New York seeking to set up an assassination, Britain’s most notorious hitman, and a former Delta Force soldier who is both godson and bodyguard to the senator.

This may sound very much like a hard-edged action thriller, and in many ways it is. But I will still be working hard to introduce that previously mentioned ‘heart’ element into the story by digging deep into family matters and personal relationships.

For instance, how would a strictly law-abiding mother react when she discovers that her loving only child is an infamous killer responsible for more than fifty contracted murders? Sending him to bed early doesn’t quite cut it, I think.

Where can we find your books?

Having recently terminated my paperback contract with the publishers of Buried Pasts, this title is currently available only in kindle format from Amazon websites. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping a new deal will materialize for future paperback rights before too long.

In the Long Run is available in both paperback and kindle formats from and Amazon UK.

Do you have any advice you'd like to share with other aspiring authors?

Sure it’s a cliché, but true for all that. If you truly believe in yourself, never give up.

Remember John Creasy. If he can produce over 500 highly successful novels after having received the brush-off 774 times from publishers and agents, then that’s an example in perseverance to all of us writers. It might also perhaps be an example of how poor the judgement of some people working in the publishing industry is when assessing what people actually want to read. But if your work is genuinely good enough, it must surely land on the right person’s desk eventually.

On a more practical level, you’ll find several pages on my website covering aspects of writing a novel. Characters, conflict, finding ideas, and advancing the storyline are all covered. Every writer has their own way of doing things, so I can’t guarantee that these tips will work for you. But if they are of any help, please do e-mail me and let me know.

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