Interview with Author Phil Biggerton – Ramona Portelli Blog

Interview with Author Phil Biggerton

Phil Biggerton has been teaching English in Europe and Asia since 1992.  In the last 10 years he has specialised in teaching as well as developing IELTS (International English Language Teaching System) teaching material.  This has led to the publishing of a number of IELTS books based on techniques developed over the years.  He has also taught English for Academic Purposes (EAP) presessional courses at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and trained as an IELTS examiner in Taipei, Taiwan where he worked for the British Council as an examiner.  Godiva Books Publishing Company was established in 2010 and supports the publication and distribution of books written by both first time and more experienced authors.

He now works online helping IELTS students to develop their writing skills and has just published a book to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Prohibition in America called – Drink and be Damned.

Ramona: Tell me more about your latest book

Phil: About a year ago, I read a book called Prohibition – Thirteen Years That Changed America by Edward Behr. While reading it, I realised that the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition was not that far off and it could be a very good opportunity to celebrate this by writing a book about America in the 1920s. My first concern was whether I could write the book in a way that brought the era back to life and make it far more important than just a look back at history.  I wanted to try and make the 1920s relevant to us today.

After a lot of research I realised that I could offer a lot more than just the typical image of bootleggers and speakeasies and actually take a wider look at not only some of the people and the places associated with Prohibition but also how some of the events that happened in and around the time created a momentum of change that can still be felt today.

A typical example would be how a man called Andrew Higgins – a boat builder for rumrunners – ended up using the skills he had developed during the rum running days to design and build landing crafts used for amphibious landings in World War II at such places as Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and D-Day leading General Dwight D. Eisenhower to say:

“Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us. … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”

Although women often take a back seat when talking about Prohibition, they also played a huge part in some of the events that took place with many women becoming involved in an otherwise male-dominated world by either making, selling, and distributing alcohol or actively working to catch rumrunners and, in the case of Elizebeth Friedman, almost single-handedly developing code-breaking skills which were then used by her to work on the Enigma codes during World War II as did Alan Turing in the U.K.

Drink and be Damned alsoshows that the 1920s was a magical moment in the history of America for people who lived through it and whoever they were, and whatever part they played, they all added an energy and excitement to a time that was also known as the Roaring Twenties: a time of great social change and innovation where the spirit of America and its people changed forever and the world took notice and changed with it.

Ramona: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Phil: The hardest part was not writing the book but finding photographs in the public domain or seeking permission to use photographs that I had found and wanted to use. Typically, photographs in the public domain have already been seen by many people and that was something I wanted to try and avoid as much as possible as I wanted my book to seem fresh and not just a rehash of what has already been used by many other authors. In the end, I managed to find good public domain photographs with many of them – hopefully – seen for the first time by a lot of those who read my book. I avoided using photographs where I had to buy a licence to use them as they were too expensive. In the end I used over 60 photographs.

The writing aspect of the book was very different from my usual experience of writing as I normally write text books. However, I loved the research part of this as I discovered a lot of interesting facts that I have added to the book.

Ramona: Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? How do you overcome it?

Phil: I treated each unit rather like a jigsaw puzzle. After the research I would put the information I wanted to use in the correct order – usually chronological – and then started to add extra bits and pieces in whenever I found something else that added to the story I was telling. As I do not write fulltime I always had time to think about what I had written and possible changes I could make before I started writing again. Quite a few times I got out of bed to write something down – often the way to start or end a unit – as I was afraid that I would wake up in the morning having forgotten what I wanted to write.

As I was always working on several units at the same time, I could always stop working on one unit if I was finding it hard going and move to another unit where ideas seemed to come more easily.

Ramona: What motivated you to become an author?

Phil: The first book I ever wrote – still to be published – was about my time as a medical herbalist. I was moving overseas to start a new career as an English teacher and I wanted something to show for my 10 years working in a clinic and so the idea of writing a book was formed. At the time, personal computers had not been invented and so I wrote it on a word processor with large floppy disks. It was a painstaking process, a labour of love that took far longer that it would take to day as I have become more able to avoid writers’ block simply by leaving the place that is posing a problem and moving to another part of the book. At the time, however, I could literally work for a whole day and have nothing to show for it and this was an experience that happened many times during the writing of this book. There were many rewrites but the end product was eventually reached after about two years of writing. It was this book that also enabled me to really develop a writing style that I was comfortable with and has been used ever since.

Ramona: How many books have you written so far? List and name them all here

The Soil Not the Seed (unpublished)

IELTS – The Complete Guide to Task 1 Writing

IELTS – The Complete Guide to Academic Reading

IELTS – The Complete Guide to General Reading

Shortcut to IELTS – Reading and Writing

Shortcut to IELTS – Listening and Speaking

Drink and be Damned

Ramona: What are some of your best practices as a writer?

Phil: I am a firm believer of a little and often approach to writing. Unless you have the luxury of being a fulltime writer, then you will be surprised at how much can be written with just a little time put into it each day. I also find that thinking about the book at other times e.g. your daily commute, eating, getting ready for bed – helps keep some kind of continuity in your writing and also allows you to slip back into the writing mode more quickly. If it takes you half an hour after sitting down to write to get back into it and you only have forty minutes available then this is not going to be very productive. You need to keep your book alive in your mind and let your subconscious do its work as well. Also, finding the best time in the day to write is also important. I am more of an early bird and can be more productive at that time as it is quiet and my mind is ready to work. At night, if I had some time at the end of the day, I would do other things like the bibliography or proofreading as this took time but was not really a creative thing to do.

Ramona: What is your advice for aspiring writers?

Phil: Simply start writing. You might not have a clear idea about what you want to say or how you want to say it but I have always found that once you start writing you begin to develop a better link between the brain and fingers. When I was a medical herbalist I often went to different organizations to talk about what I was doing to help people and found I could speak for two hours quite easily without notes or preparation. However, trying to put these ideas onto paper was a very different process and took a long time to develop the skills required to do this. Unless you are lucky enough to have this skill already developed you need to go through a learning process and that comes by simply writing what comes to mind – rewriting – rewriting – and eventually you will have your own style. I would also say that you should avoid over thinking this process as the aim of all writers is to come across as real. Thinking too much can make your style seem a little fake. Finally, be prepared to have off days when nothing happens. Don’t panic! Take a break. Even if you are not thinking about your writing you will be subconsciously and that is where the real you lie waiting to come out and write the next best seller!

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