Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Derek A. Issacs
Founder of wordclinic writing agency
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
The Copywriting Sourcebook by Andy Maslen. It motivated me to enrol on his copywriting course, take two flights, and head to London to be there. It was worth it. I have his other books too.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
That’s easy: The Cadbury’s Instant Mashed Potatoes campaign by the Boase Massimi Pollittfrom agency that aired in the mid-1970s.
Kids (including me) laughed along with the ‘Mash Martians,’ while working mums up and down the country homed in on the ad’s clear message: Save a big chunk of time with our product. Problem highlighted and solved in an instant. Copywriting at its best. Oh, and that catchphrase. I still sing it.
I actually have a box of the stuff in my kitchen cupboard, or the French equivalent: Maxim’s Purée – Flocons de Pommes de Terre. Classy.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
It’s time to stop thinking and just write. Reading lots helps too.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Book: Any of Andy Maslen’s copywriting books.
Advice: From Kathy Burke
I recently read an excellent piece on the talented Kathy Burke. This quote stood out:
“The thing with me is that I’m quite arrogant. I’ve got faith in my own talent and I always have. And if anyone turned around and said to me: ‘You’re never going to work again,’ I used to say ‘I will.’”
So, my advice to me would be ‘to have faith in your work and talent.’ And charge accordingly.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Well, I say that, but I’m located in the centre of Beirut’s bar and restaurant district, close to a six-lane highway and a busy port: car horns, foghorns, the general buzz of diners and drinkers… you get the picture. This background noise keeps me grounded and keeps me focused on who I am writing for, real people.
Music is a huge distraction. I become too involved in it and would get no writing done.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
I spot a thread running through my book choices. Can you?
- Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver
I only discovered Carver this year. I died and went to heaven. Readable and realistic, his minimalistic style conveys so much. Fleeting moments of people’s lives are revealed in the same way that the camera in the music video of Protection by Massive Attack peers into different rooms in a block of flats. You’re not always quite sure what’s being revealed, but it gives you an uneasy feeling. Genius. He’s a god.
- The Canterbury Tales: The Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
Who doesn’t like a bit of drunken bawdiness involving a red-hot poker and farts every now and again? I studied this tale in English class on my Access course. It was a struggle but how we howled.
- Maggy Muggins by Keith Waterhouse
It’s a pity not many people get beyond ‘Billy Liar’ with this author. Maggy Muggins was a charity shop find. The front cover illustration drew me to it: A pair of pink knickers pulled over a handbag. The prose followed suit. I laughed, I cried.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
‘The Flu Bug’. A story I wrote in middle school after a lesson on personification. I included a fantastic drawing of said bug (my sister drew that – thanks sis!). I was promoted to the A stream English class a few weeks later so it must have been good.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Two rotary dial telephones and a several vintage cinema lobby cards. Here they are.
Who was your teenage crush?
A school teacher, who shall remain nameless, but was probably weary – or wary − of my constant whine: ‘I don’t know how to do this. Can you come here, please?’
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Almost every meal I had on my recent trip to Singapore fits the bill. But if I must choose, it has to be the one I ate in the Oval and Verandah at the Singapore Cricket Club. The Sambal Stingray, or Spicy Banana Leaf Stingray. Indescribable. Thankfully, I wasn’t paying. Phew!
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
Until a few years ago, G&T was my go-to drink. Now I’ve moved on to the dark stuff, Cinzano Rosso. I’m actually sipping one now. Have Leonard and Joan arrived yet?
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
I’m a city boy through and through and I can’t imagine David Attenborough would want to traipse through a modernist cityscape. But you never know. So, it would have to be Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia. We could always pop down to the rainforest afterwards.
What’s in your pockets?
A dog chew, scrunched up tissue and a few loose coins.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Keyboard and screen for the main work, my mobile phone memo pad for quickly tapping in ideas, and the phone’s voice recorder for those ideas that suddenly appear while I am out and about.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
Absolutely. Can’t live without them.
- Andy Maslen – Sunfish. I’ve been subscribed to his newsletter for years
- Todd – Spaghetti Agency (Who doesn’t love a big hat?)
- Jackie Barrie – ‘Writing without waffle’ (I wished I’d come up with that strapline)
- Louise Harnby – Proofreader and copyeditor blog
- ProCopywriters – Social media posts and newsletter (I’m gagging to attend one of their seminars)
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Arabic coffee in the morning. There’s a whole ritual to making it − oh the aroma! It’s strong stuff and I can’t keep that up past midday, which is when I switch to Lady Grey or English Breakfast tea. Black no sugar, thanks.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
I do. But I don’t do the dishes often enough to use it on a regular basis, despite there being a set of five. On each one there are five, colourful… Oh, forget it. Here’s a picture instead.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
Rupert the Bear. I was intrigued by his humanoid appearance. I still am. I also admired his dress sense, which I tried to emulate. His magical adventures stirred my imagination no end.
♫Oh Rupert, Rupert the Bear… (come on, sing along).
Your favourite word?
Bamboozled, which I often am. I love the way it rolls off the tongue. It’s an excellent workout for the mouth and lips (You’re testing that out now, aren’t you?) ‘Hullabaloo’ is another.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?
The expression ‘out-of-the-box’ makes me cringe, especially by those who have no idea what’s actually happening inside the box, never mind out of it. Ban it now!
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
A bit of both, with browsing online having the upper hand. If you were to find me in a bookshop, it’s most likely to be a second-hand one. The one on Charing Cross Road is excellent.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
‘Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble
Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble.’
ABC knew how to write lyrics, didn’t they? I can almost hear the conversation as it was being written. I bet it went like this:
Fry: I can’t think of anything.
White: What about this?
Fry: But what rhymes with grumble?
White: Oh wait…I know.
Fry: That’ll do.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Definitely the electronic duo, Jam and Spoon. Nobody’s getting a look in when their mix of ‘The Age of Love’ hits the decks.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
Nope. I just like to get on with it.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
I’ve just finished editing a 30,000-word renewable energy report. My head’s still feeling fuzzy.
I’m now working on a corporate B2B newsletter for baby and hygiene products that are distributed in the KSA, a profile for an electro-house DJ, website copy for an architecture company, and a big project for an international hotel chain, all of which are repeat customers.
I also have two meetings scheduled, one for a B2B hospitality company, the other a finance company.
In the pipeline, I am working on a marketing plan for my company, wordclinic. Trying to find the time is difficult, but it’s a must.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
I think it can describe itself. So here it is.
Makateb Building, Tripoli, Lebanon. Circa mid-1970s.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
‘Believe in yourself,’ said by a close friend.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A WhatsApp message to my friend in Houston, Texas. I don’t do short messages, it was almost a book.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
I don’t have any. Oh, the shame!
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Never seen it. TV’s rarely on.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Jackie Brown. I love strong women, and she’s certainly that. I think it’s Tarantino’s best film. The cinematographic style, realistic use of metropolitan landscapes and the dialogue-driven narrative blend to produce an excellent crime thriller. Did I mention the characters? Mind-blowing.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Some read, some half read.
- The Gathering by Anne Enright
- The Man Who Wore His Wife’s Sarong by Suchen Christine Lim
- The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones de Sierra
- Smut by Alan Bennett
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
There are two and both taught English class in high school.
Mr. Lily came from a different era – reeking of whiskey, a tweed jacket, complete with pocket square, and topped off by an elegant cravat. I went to an all-boys school and not all of them appreciated the merits of writing and grammar. But Mr. Lily’s calm manner and sarcastic yet fun retorts had them eating out of his hands. I excelled.
Mrs. Igwama was a goddess. She set our imagination alight and got us writing. She was modern, funny and simply brilliant. We laughed our socks off till the end of the school year, and wrote some great narratives along the way.
Who is your favourite artist?
I’m biased. I’m a Mancunian and grew up surrounded by L.S. Lowry prints. Perhaps some originals too, who knows? Grim industrial landscapes appeal to me. Lowry is best known for his paintings of urban landscapes, but hanged on my wall are his Portrait of Ann, Head of a Man, and Gentleman Looking at Something.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
At my desk. But not any old desk. It’s a vintage one dangerously near the sofa.
I’ve tried working in a coffee shop but it’s not for me. Too distracting and noisy. Think how much you could have written during the time it takes to get there, order and drink your coffee, pay the bill, and walk back again.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?
LinkedIn: Derek A. Issacs
Instagram: For modernist architecture @beirutderek
Twitter: For vintage cinema posters @VintageLevant