17th August 2020    |    Interviews    |    Paul Foster

With the iminent release of his 4th book "All Or Nothing At All" about the life of Billy Bland I chatted to Steve about the book and the writing process...

"All Or Nothing At All" is Steve Chilton's 4th book. The topic of this one is Billy Bland and the Borrowdale valley in the English Lake District where he grew up and still lives now with his wife Ann.

Many know Billy as the former holder of the Bob Graham Round record, but he has achieved so much more and Steve's latest well researched work gives a very interesting insight into a very interesting character and his family - The Blands of Borrowdale and the Lake District where they live.

I was given an advance copy of the new book by Steve and Sandstone Press and I genuinely think this is Steve's best work yet.

Steve agreed to have a chat about how he goes about his writing (and a few other things)...

 
"He was certainly not enthusiastic about having a book about himself initially!"
Steve Chilton

FROM AN IDEA TO APPROVAL

Q – ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL is your 4th book. When did you first have the idea to write a book focusing on the life, running and achievements of Billy Bland?

A – When I wrote my first book, It’s a hill get over it, which is a history of fell running, I had originally intended to write a book about Billy Bland. But my publisher (who at the time had not offered to publish anything, let alone give me a contract) thought it would be too narrow a topic and suggested the change up to the wider topic. In the circumstances – wishing to get my writing accepted for publication, and not wanting to go for vanity publishing – I swallowed what little pride I have and went away to research the revised topic.

Q – Did you already know Billy Bland from working on your previous books? When did you first meet or speak with him?

A – When I started writing this book – on Billy’s life – I had already met him several times when researching the other books. I first interviewed him in October 2014 for the second book (The Round), and spoke to him again about running against Kenny Stuart and John Wild for Running Hard. When first writing It’s a hill my network didn’t extend all that far and I wasn't able to talk to him for that book, even though I argue in the book that he is one of the three all-time greats of fell running.

Q – From what I’ve read in the new book Billy appears to be very proud, but modest and humble about his achievements. Was he enthusiastic about the idea of a book about himself or did he take some convincing?

A – He was certainly not enthusiastic about having a book about himself initially! I went up Borrowdale to see him in February 2018 to see if he would agree to the idea, and I came away discouraged. I wrote in my notes: ‘Need to chew over my idea for a book on Billy. It has given me pause for thought. I haven't given up the idea, but am giving serious consideration to how I might write about Billy if I did, and also what possible issues it might raise, and whether I even want to go there.’ Further chats took place and he eventually agreed to do it on the very day that Kilian Jornet took his BGR record (in July 2018).

Q – Did you first approach your publisher Sandstone Press or Billy Bland with the idea?

A – Billy first, then the publisher. Receiving Billy’s blessing I submitted a synopsis to my editor at Sandstone, who replied: ‘I suggest that your book be called: The Blands of Borrowdale and that you widen out a bit from Billy while keeping him as the principal subject. That way you could widen out your writing from any of them and make Borrowdale, its life, characters, ecology, etc, the main subject. It will all be in the writing.’ This response formed the basis of the book that has emerged.

"IF THE WEATHER WAS BAD THEN I WOULD RUN ON THE SPOT IN THE KITCHEN FOR THREE HOURS"
Steve Chilton

RESEARCH AND WRITING

Q – The level of detail in all of your books is meticulous indicating a great amount of time spent on research. How much time do you spend researching from home and how much time was spent in Borrowdale in the Lake District with the Blands?

A – It is difficuIt to quantify these aspects. I have certainly got hours of audio recordings of the discussions with Billy and Ann Bland. But I also interviewed many other friends, family and contemporaries, and this often involved a lot of travel from my home in London, as I prefer face-to- face interviewing than over phone/internet – as you can ‘feel’ the responses and see when supplementary questions might just reveal a nugget of information or an interesting story. Fortunately for the topic I have chosen much can be done at home, via for instance the online archive of The Fellrunner magazine for results, reports, and other factual information. Actually, I absolutely love the research process, way more than the writing process.

Q – Do you have a tried and tested method or formula for your writing – for example do you write for a certain number of hours each day?

A – Writing is a funny game. I have no formula and no pattern that I can identify. I have to be in "writing mode" (maybe that should be mood) to start writing on any given day. Sometimes it doesn’t happen for days. I also have to have a start point or spark to work from. This is usually an interview transcribed or some data recently uncovered. One strange thing that I do (and it makes no sense as it is counter-productive really) is to start a spreadsheet and record the word count of each chapter as it is drafted. This gives me a running total of the words written. Seeing that number going up steadily seems to incentivise me to make it happen. Weird, or what? Have writer’s block and I am in big trouble though!

Steve Chilton

Q – Do you carry out all of your research, then start writing OR do you begin writing during the research?

A – I do tend to research a good deal of the topic and then start writing, but sometimes it works as well to write it completely as I go. What I do though is jump around chapters, as the research tends not to follow a nice linear pattern. It is worth noting that the chapter composition, and even the structure of the book, can change considerably as you go on – and even after you think the manuscript is finished too.

Q – One of my favourite quotes by Billy Bland from the new book is taken from the chapter entitled REASON TO BELIEVE, which discusses Billy’s training where he goes on to say “If the weather was bad then I would run on the spot in the kitchen for three hours”. Do you have a favourite quote from Billy?

A – Early doors in the book Billy is talking about when he started running as a teenager, and whether he got support within the family: ‘I was just wasting my time, according to some. Work was all-important, as was making a bob or two. My father was not like that. He used to say if I came home from a race, "well, why didn't you win?". But life had been hard for that generation and it was going to be hard for us.’

Q – Again in the REASON TO BELIEVE chapter discussing training, Billy’s brother David says “I was not quite as dedicated to running as Billy was, I only trained once a day, seven days a week”. Do you have a favourite quote or story about Billy Bland from someone you spoke to while researching the new book?

A – Scoffer Schofield had this to say about Billy Bland: ‘He was just hard. He would run until he fell over. He didn't often do that, but he did once or twice. There are loads of races where he has felt rubbish and ended up winning.’

Q – Your third book RUNNING HARD focuses on the competitive rivalry between John Wild and Kenny Stuart in the early 1980s – shortly after the period when Billy Bland was setting long standing records for the Bob Graham Round and the Borrowdale and Wasdale Fell races. Both Wild and Stuart also appear in the new book. Were you able to re-use any material from previous interviews or did you need to re-interview both?

A – Not really re-using the same material, but covering the same ground, but from a different perspective. So, for instance, comments that Kenny or John may have made about races that they and Billy were in might be used as a start point for getting Billy’s own views on those events. As well as that I went back and re-interviewed both Kenny and John (meaning another trip to the Lakes and to the Midlands respectively) where they could counter-point what Billy might have said on a particular matter.

"A Good Title Is A Real Bonus..."
Steve Chilton

PUBLISHING AND PROMOTION

Q – How do you decide when a book is finished? Do you have someone you get to read the first draft before it goes off to the publisher? Is there a period of suggestions and revisions? How does this process go?

A – This is a very difficult and challenging part of the whole process. I think of a manuscript as a jigsaw, and to me it is finished when all the pieces are in place – but again you have got to be savvy enough to recognise that point! Then. at that point I have always had a critical friend lined up to read the first draft. Their input is vital as they see the whole thing with a) a new set of eyes, and b) a reader’s head on. A good critical friend won’t shy away from being honest about over-writing, repetition, deviation or the inclusion of stuff ‘just because you have got it’. Then the re-write takes place. Then, if that goes well, the draft might go to the editor, who will probably tell you more things that are worth considering changing – which means ‘change these’. Then re-write two and finally the day it actually goes to the publisher.

Q – Do the titles to your books ever change? i.e. Do they start off as something in your head, but change by the time they’re in print?

A – Very much so. A good title is a real bonus – as I found with It’s a hill, get over it, which both summed up the book and also seemed to strike a chord with readers. That came from seeing a t-shirt slogan ages ago. Sometimes it doesn’t come easy though. Once I did a poll among friends, getting them to choose between my suggestions. In the end I seem to remember one of them suggested something completely different, which was eventually used. You have to respect that your choice of title may not work, and may yet be re-worked by the editor, as they have an unerring eye for good and bad book titles.

Q – Who creates the book cover artwork? Do you start with your ideas or is there someone creative who gives you a selection to pick from? How does this work?

A – My cover artwork has always been created by someone working for the publisher. (See this earlier blog post for some thoughts from them). For my first book I naively thought I would have a say in it and proposed a photo I liked for incorporation. I was soon disabused of that idea and was presented with some ideas to chew over. In the end the same creative agency has produced all four covers and they form a series of stylistically-linked designs.

Q – For your 3 rd book RUNNING HARD you had a book launch in the Skiddaw Hotel in Keswick (which I attended) with both Kenny Stuart and John Wild present. Will the current COVID-19 restrictions prevent you from doing a similar style book launch with Billy Bland? Have you considered an online/streaming book launch - maybe everyone who pre-orders the book could get an invite to an online launch?

A – No traditional launch is possible. I am doing a streamed and recorded launch which will be delivered on 20th August via the Wild Ginger Running video channel, hopefully with the possibility of viewers being able to ask questions or comment live. Claire Maxted is organising it and is trying to get Billy Bland involved in some way or other. I will be advertising it widely via social media.

"Excited by all the FKTs in lockdown times I have been inspired to start researching a possible Book V..."
Steve Chilton

AND JUST A FEW MORE...

Q – Your wife provided the drawings used at the start of each chapter in the new book – is this the first time she’s had any drawings published? How did that work? Did you say what you wanted or did you let her decide based on the content of each chapter?

A – Yes, the brilliant drawings for each chapter by my wife Moira are the first she has ever had published. A very good friend suggested the idea and I tentatively suggested it to her. She drew a trial illustration which we both liked so she agreed to do them right through the book. I chose a couple of images that I felt offered a window into each chapter and we searched source material (photos from web, or from my own sets) and she used tracing paper over printed copies and Sakura Pigma Micron pens to do the artwork, which was then scanned and sent to the editor for his approval.

Steve Chilton

Q – Did you get any stories from Billy or about Billy that you weren’t able to use in the new book for any reason?

A – There were some fairly small things that cropped up in the research that were certainly sensitive enough to not be used in the book. No, I am not going to say what they were! Having said that, as the author, my criteria for inclusion of any material is: ‘does it actually add anything to the story that I am telling’.

Q – IT’S A HILL, GET OVER IT was your first book (which was first published almost 7 years to the day before ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL). When did you first have the thought that you might be able to write a book and how did you realise that idea?

A – I first started the research for It’s a hill on 2 January 2011, and submitted a synopsis/proposal to Sandstone 3 months later. I tell the story of having that idea in the preface of ‘All or nothing at all’, which in a nutshell first arose in the autumn of 2009 when I realised a book had just been written about Joss Naylor.

Q – What have you learned since book one?

A – See above about enjoying the research process. I also feel that I have become a marginally better writer after the four books. I was an academic for most of my working life, and I (rightly, I suspect now) received criticism for It’s a hill being too ‘academic’. You get backhanded comments from people saying it is full of detailed research – meaning ‘has too many facts and numbers in it’. But with this fourth book I feel that I can say – like some kind of rock band releasing their latest album – that it is best work. I think I have eventually found my voice, so to speak.

Q – Have you seen an increase in digital copies of your books being sold in recent years?

A – It is difficult to say really. I have another spreadsheet that charts the numbers of copies of each book that are sold over time. All I can say really is that it shows the split between books and ebooks. All three have always been available in both formats. For all sales the figures are: 15% ebooks and 85% books. The individual figures (for ebooks) are: 21% For Running Hard, 14% for The Round, and 14% for It’s a Hill. So, to answer your question, it seems that the latest book has sold a significantly higher proportion of ebooks than the earlier two.

Q – What’s next? You’ve previously mentioned about wanting to write a book about Joss Naylor and have said that you’d approach it differently to Keith Richardson’s JOSS. Might this still happen?

A – I did, but it’s not going to happen. A close friend of Joss has a plan to publish a new book on Joss and asked me to author it. We discussed the idea, but the project and approach to it did not fit with the way I work - so we agreed not to pursue that. On the grapevine I believe it may still be happening with another author on board. Excited by all the FKTs in lockdown times I have been inspired to start researching a possible Book V. I will leave that thought there and let readers think for themselves what the pitch might be.

All Or Nothing At All
Steve Chilton

‘All or nothing at all’ will be published on Thursday 20th August and can be obtained from all good bookshops and online at Amazon.

About The Book

All Or Nothing At All: the life of Billy Bland. Sandstone Press. Format:Hardback. ISBN: 9781913207229. Publication Date: 20/08/2020 RRP:£19.99

All Or Nothing At All is the life story of Billy Bland, fellrunner extraordinaire and holder of many records including that of the Bob Graham Round until it was broken by the foreword author of this book, Kilian Jornet. It is also the story of Borrowdale in the English Lake District, describing its people, their character and their lifestyle, into which fellrunning is unmistakably woven.

About The Author

Steve Chilton is a runner and coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University as Lead Academic Developer.

He has written three other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It; The Round:In Bob Graham’s footsteps; and Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. He has written articles for The Fellrunner, Compass Sport, Like the Wind and Cumbria magazines.

He blogs at: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/

About The Book Launch

Live book launch, Thursday 20th August 6:30pm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVbuEUURETE

 

 

 

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Borrowdale Billy Bland Kilian Jornet Keswick Bob Graham Round Honister Rosthwaite Dunmail Raise Threlkeld Wasdale Sandstone Press Steve Chilton