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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Blog guest - Ian Probert - 'super-geek' and writer

Today's blog guest is Ian Probert. Ian’s a journalist and author who’s been around the block, it seems. He certainly can’t be pigeonholed regarding genre writing. He’s clearly a fan of boxing, having contributed to periodicals featuring that sport, and has written a book, Rope Burns (2010) which is currently in the top 100 on Amazon; readers of the Fight Card books might like to take a look.

The Guardian photo

NM – Welcome to the blog, Ian. I’m intrigued about your contributions to a number of periodicals/newspapers. Yes, some relate to boxing, but can you give us a glimpse at some of the other subjects you’ve written about (for example in The Sun, the News of the World, the The Guardian, NME, and Nuclear Forum?

IP – My big problem used to be that I would do anything that anybody wanted me to do. It’s what you do when you’re young. You’re so desperate to get on that you find yourself jumping through hoops. Over the years I have written for a lot of different magazines and newspapers. Subjects have ranged from boxing, football, serial killers, book reviews, record reviews, antiques, dictators, the supernatural, music, computers and countless other things I’ve forgotten about. I wouldn’t say that I was an expert in any of these subjects but I had to make a living.

Nuclear Forum was a funny one. Back in about 1992 I used to work for a company that packaged trade magazines. Nuclear Forum was one of them and I remember that they had an exceptionally picky editor. He rejected everyone. I think the whole office had a bash at writing an article for this mag and they were all rejected. For whatever reason, mine was the only one that wasn’t binned so I got the job for a while. I have to say that there was a silver lining to this: I got to interview Professor James Lovelock– he of the Gaia Principle – which was a particular highlight.

NM – Fascinating subject, Ian: I reviewed Peter Pringle’s excellent book Nuclear Barons for the BSFA in the early 1980s. Your book Internet Spy (1995) has picked up good reviews and even a niche following. It seems now to be ahead of its time; when did you first get involved with computers? Did you get involved in the TV film of the book?

IP – You’re talking to super-geek. I first got involved with computers back in my second year of art college in 1984 when I became addicted to the computer game Elite. I seriously missed a whole year playing Elite. It was brilliant and ground breaking. Anyone who has ever played it will know what I’m talking about. A year later when I was putting together my degree show I came across my first ever Mac. For some reason the college had bought an SE or something and it was just sitting in a corner gathering dust. It was a revelation to me. The fact that you could create things and see what they looked like before you committed them to paper was absolutely amazing to me.

Since then I’ve lost count of the number of computers and kit I’ve owned. And I won’t even begin to mention the time I’ve spent learning to use programs. Ten years ago I began occasionally training software such as Adobe InDesign and Photoshop. However, my favourite program has to be Adobe Illustrator. I can lose weeks and weeks putting together illustrations.

For Johnny Nothing my aim was to create the entire book and its illustrations using just an iPad. I have a guilty conscience about computers – If I purchase one I try to ensure that I make enough money out of it to cover its cost. I had problems doing this with an iPad, hence my decision to try and really put it through its paces. For the text I used Apple Pages, which really is a throwback to what word processors used to be, i.e. software that allowed you to type words. For the illustrations I used a Jot Touch Pen and a variety of app, including Procreate, Art Rage and other stuff.

Regarding the Internet Spy TV movie. It’s bit of a non-story really. A few years ago someone from South Africa emailed me saying that they were a fan of the book and could they make a movie. I said yes – you’d hardly say no would you? Then forgot about it. A year or so later I received a DVD in the post. Apparently the film had been shown twice on South African TV. Me, I binned the DVD. I couldn’t bear to even look at it. Internet Spy was a commissioned story. In other words, Kingfisher contacted me and said, ‘We’d like you to write a story about this…’ It wasn’t supposed to be a success, but it was. It was 1995 and the book had the word ‘Internet’ in the title. It sold 100,000 copies because of that word. I haven’t looked at the book since. It’s slender and has little value. I hate that people sometimes associate me only with that piece of crap.

NM – A strong streak of irreverence runs through some of your work, notably your book title How to Lose 14lbs in a Week, which is in fact not a diet book at all! Is writing therapy?

IP – How can writing not be therapy? In my case I would be a fool to claim otherwise. It took me a long time to admit to myself that all my books are about me. Mainly about me and my frankly terrible relationship with my recently deceased father. All my main characters are almost definitely me. In Internet Spy the hero is a geeky boy addicted to computers; in Rope Burns my father gets a whole chapter to himself (although I don’t think he ever read a single world that I wrote); in Shrink the boy kidnaps his own father and starves him half to death; in Johnny Nothing the boy kidnaps both his parents and locks them in their room for months. Doesn’t sound much like a comedy, does it?

How to Lose 40 lbs in a Week was written long ago. My agent at the time read it and told me that it was going to be a bestseller. Then we split, I got ill, and the book was lost somewhere on a hard drive. The story is about a man who discovers that his long estranged father is dying of cancer. Then, when he tries to see his father he is rejected by him. Fun again, huh? This – and I can’t bring myself to say the word ‘ironically’ – is exactly what happened to me eventually. I found out that my long estranged father was dying and he refused to see me. This happened last year and I’m still coming to terms with it all. Part of the coming to terms bit was to dig out How to Lose…, give it a polish and put it out; it’s free, folks, although it’s not for the faint-hearted. Here’s a link, if you want it. 

And by the way, it may not exactly be a diet book but it does tell you how to lose 40 lbs in a week.

NM – ‘Free’ always ‘sells’ well, doesn’t it? Anyway, besides your many articles, you also dabble in non-fiction in book form, notably photography. Has this art form always been one of your interests? As the cliché says, a picture is worth a thousand words; for you, does the cliché hold up?

IP – In my third year at art college I got heavily into black and white photography. That’s traditional black and white film photography. Since then I’ve always taken photographs. In fact, my daughter Sofia is probably one of the most photographed children in the world. Have you seen that Michael Powell film Peeping Tom? Sometimes I worry it’s me.

NM – Yes, it was ahead of its time, and it’s still creepy.

IP –  Well, a few years ago I was asked to write a couple of books on photography. Nothing too heavy. All beginner’s stuff. I wish I hadn’t now because if you check me out on Amazon I look like a total hack. I’ve also self-published a book of panoramas that were taken over a ten-year period. This is long before every cell phone had a built-in panorama feature. Mine were all assembled by hand.

NM – I get the picture, Ian… And, finally, did the bank manager reply to your letters?

IP – No. But he wrote a lot of letters to me. Most of them were red.

NM – Thanks, Ian. Below, just for a laugh, you can find details about Ian’s book, Johnny Nothing.

Johnny Nothing – book blurb

“Great new kids book alert! My two are in hysterics reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert (and I am too).” Jane Bruton, Editor of Grazia

“Oh, Wow! Dark, sordid, grotesque and hilarious are only a few words I can conjure up to describe this hilarious book.” Lizzie Baldwin, mylittlebookblog

Critics are comparing Ian Probert to Roald Dahl. And in Johnny Nothing we have a modern successor to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Johnny Nothing is best-selling author Ian Probert’s first ever children’s book – although adults are enjoying it too. The story of the poorest boy in the world and the nastiest mother in the universe, the book is earning rave reviews. Children and grown-ups are all laughing at this incredibly funny kids’ book.

Take a look for yourself: here


To celebrate the paperback launch of Johnny Nothing we are offering a free Kindle copy of the book to the first 100 people who Tweet the following message:

@truth42 I’m reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert. #YA #Kindle #kidsbooks

The first ten readers who answer the following question will also receive a signed print of one of the book’s illustrations.

Q: What is the tattoo on Ben’s arm?

Send your answers to




Book promo




Twitter @truth42

Author biography
Ian Probert has been scribbling down words ever since he learned to spell the phrase: ‘Once upon a time...’ He is the author of Internet Spy, Rope Burns and a bunch of other titles. Internet Spy was a bestseller in the US and made into a TV film. Rope Burns is a book about why books shouldn’t be written about boxing. Ian has also written things for a shedload of newspapers and magazines. When Ian was a student he used to write lots of letters to the bank manager.

Johnny Nothing EXCERPT

Bill had a shaven head and was wearing a blue tracksuit. He was almost seven feet tall and built like an outdoor toilet made of brick. Bill didn’t realise this but he was a distant descendent of Neanderthal Man. He had only one eyebrow – one long bushy eyebrow that reached right across his forehead. He looked like what you might get if you force fed a member of Oasis with a half-tonne black plastic sackful of steroids.

And if you were brave enough to be present when he took off his tracksuit you would discover that his back was so covered in hair that he was able part it with a comb. If Bill had had more of an interest in fashion, he might even have considered giving it a curly perm and perhaps a few extensions.
Bill & Ben, not the flower-pot men

On his right arm, Bill had a tattoo which simply read ‘Bill’. This was in case he woke up one morning and forgot who he was. This was actually less unlikely than you might imagine because standing next to him was his twin brother. His name was Ben and he was identical to Bill in every way except that the tattoo on his arm read ‘Bin’ (the tattooist was either South African or not a very good speller). He was wearing a red tracksuit.

Bill gave Mr and Mrs MacKenzie the tiniest of smiles and managed to grunt ‘Hello.’ Ben gave the couple exactly the same tiniest of smiles and also managed to grunt ‘Hello.’
The two men were standing protectively close to Johnny. They were so large that in the confines of Johnny’s bedroom they looked like giants, which they were. They were so enormous that each of them had their own postcode. They were so gigantic that they had their passport photos taken by satellite. They were so humungous that you could spend all day thinking up rubbishy jokes about how big they were and never adequately describe just how indescribably, earth-shatteringly ENORMOUS they were. By no stretch of the imagination could you call them small (unless, of course, you were a lot bigger than them).

The pair of Goliaths were having to stoop slightly so as to avoid head-butting the ceiling, which actually even looked a little scared itself. They were a terrifying sight. Even scarier than a school trip to a Weight-Watcher’s nudist camp.

There was a long, pregnant silence in the room like this:

This eventually gave birth to an even longer post-natal silence, which, in the interest of preserving the rain forests or the battery on your Kindle, I shan’t demonstrate.

The four grown-ups eyed each other nervously. Bill and Ben looked at the Mackenzies like they were looking at insects that could be squashed into pulpy insect juice any time they so desired.

The Mackenzies looked at Bill and Ben like they were looking at two giant skinhead Neanderthal bully boys who had just appeared from nowhere in their recently and unexpectedly decorated council flat.

Johnny looked a little scared.

Finally Billy Mackenzie managed to get his mouth working a little and spluttered: ‘Who are you?’ And then: ‘What do you want?’

There was another long silence – let’s call it a pause – while Bill and Ben looked at each other as if trying to decide who was going to answer. Finally Bill spoke: ‘You the boy’s parents?’ he demanded in a voice that sounded like an angry rhino with horn-ache. Although if he was clever enough he would have realised that this was a rhetorical question.

There was yet another long silence (you’ll be relieved to hear that this is the last silence you’re going to get in this chapter) before Billy Mackenzie mumbled, ‘Yes’.

‘We’re Johnny’s bodyguards,’ continued Bill. ‘We’re here to make sure that everything’s hunky dory.’
‘Hunky dory?’ Mrs Felicity Mackenzie suddenly found her voice. ‘What do you mean “hunky dory”?’

Now Ben spoke: ‘What my brother means to say,’ he explained. ‘Is that we’ve been – how shall I say – contracted – to make sure that this young feller’s affairs are in order.’

‘Get out of my house!’ interrupted Mrs Mackenzie, suddenly feeling a little braver, although she had no idea why.

Bill and Ben looked at each other again for a moment. They did this almost as much as your mum looks in the mirror. Or you dad looks at websites that he shouldn’t be looking at. ‘First of all,’ said Bill, ‘this isn’t a house – it’s a flat.’

‘And second of all,’ said his brother, ‘we ain’t going nowhere. And neither are you.’

‘Johnny, who are these men?’ Mrs MacKenzie asked her son, ignoring the two giants.

‘I’m sorry, Mum but…’ Johnny started to speak but Bill cut in like a pair of scissors that chops sentences into bits.

‘…What the young feller means to say is that the fun’s over.’
‘The fun’s over?’ repeated Felicity MacKenzie numbly.
‘That’s right,’ continued Ben. ‘You’ve had a right old time. You’ve been spending his money like it’s your own. You’ve been ripping the poor young feller off. And we’re here to put a stop to it. From now on things are gonna be different.’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ said Mrs MacKenzie. ‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my house…’

‘Flat,’ corrected Ben.
‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my flat. Billy, call the police!’
As usual Billy MacKenzie did as he was told. He reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. Before he had the chance to even turn it on the gigantic frame of Ben was towering over him.

‘That an iPhone?’ asked Ben.
‘Erm… Yes,’ said Billy, who could only watch as the huge man took it from him and with one hand crushed it into a chunk of buckled metal and shattered touch screen.

‘I think it’s broken,’ said Ben. ‘You ought to take it back to the Apple store. Tell ’em that you’re not getting a decent signal.’

‘Right!’ cried Mrs MacKenzie. ‘We’re leaving! You’ll be very sorry you did that. I’ll fetch the police myself!’
Now the giant frame of Bill was standing in front of her. He was holding something in his hand that looked a little like a child’s toy space gun.

‘Know what this is?’ he asked. Although once again he wasn’t clever enough to recognise that this was a rhetorical question.

Mrs Mackenzie regarded the object for a moment. Then she shook her head. Whatever it was she guessed that it was not intended to provide pleasure, happiness or fulfilment. Anything that has a trigger and a barrel and goes Bang! seldom does.
‘Come on Billy!’ she said. ‘We’re leaving!’
Bill stood in front of her, blocking the doorway. ‘Not so fast,’ he said, not so slowly. ‘It’s called a Taser. See this little trigger at the front? If I press this it’ll give you a small electric shock. It won’t hurt you…Well, not too much anyway.’

Bill raised the object and gently touched Mrs MacKenzie on the arm. There was a loudish bang and a flash of blue neon light and Mrs MacKenzie collapsed groaning to the floor. She was conscious but wasn’t able to move her arms and legs
‘Oh my gawd!’ said Billy Mackenzie, bravely charging out of the room in terror. He got as far as the stairs before there was a second flash. He, too, crumpled to the floor. Ben dragged him back into the bedroom by the scruff of his neck.
Johnny Nothing got to his feet and stood over his two parents. He looked anxious. ‘Are they… Are they… OK?’ he gasped.
‘Don’t you worry yourself.’ Ben smiled. ‘Give ’em a few minutes and they’ll be right as rain.’

‘But they’ll think twice before they try to run off again,’ said his brother.

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