Tony Parsons: This charming man (and boy)

Caring, stylish, mature, sensitive: Tony Parsons may have grown up, but he still really wants to be Number One.
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The Independent Culture

"You do feel a bit like Jarvis Cocker when you're a bestselling author," quips Tony Parsons. He looks remarkably dapper, bearing a light tan from a recent American book tour and the nervous glow of someone about to follow up a bestseller. It's a bright enough Soho morning outside the Groucho Club, yet the future looks even sunnier for Parsons.

With his new novel One for My Baby, (HarperCollins, £15.99) Parsons seeks consolidation rather than radical departure. Alfie Budd is a recently widowed thirtysomething who returns from Hong Kong to work at an Oxford Street language school. Believing that he has no more love to give, he starts a string of meaningless affairs with students, before Essex single mum Jackie helps him rediscover his chi, or life energy. The ending, as sweepingly cinematic as that of Man and Boy, sees a dramatic rebirth for Alfie in, appropriately, Hong Kong.

"I was really surprised to read in the paper the other day that I'd used Hong Kong as a metaphor for change, but I can see now that I did. Every day I go up in my own estimation." He may be dissembling, but the canny tone is characteristic.

His move from soap box to literary soap opera has proved wildly successful. Dubbed a broadsheet mind with a tabloid tongue, Parsons acknowledges the transformation. "For a quarter of a century I was this mouthy, superficial, gobby, chirpy Cockney, and now I'm Mr Sensitive". Man and Boy was actually Parsons' fifth novel, but the first to achieve a real breakthrough, keep up with the Bridget Joneses, and seriously challenge Nick Hornby in the New Man market – with Parsons the Artful Dodger to Hornby's Oliver.

Parsons was drawn to writing, he feels, because as an only child he was a "shy exhibitionist". To be the author of a million-selling book (the magical sales landmark is a constant reference) was all he dreamt of, but "as soon as you've had that success, the machine is geared up for you to do it again. Sooner or later every writer has to discover whether he's the Rolling Stones or Chicory Tip." And he admits: "No one says it, but there'll be enormous disappointment, in the publishing house and in my house too, if [One for My Baby] isn't number one".

He may be from the wrong side of the literary tracks for some, but former Late Review colleague Mark Lawson considers him a rare talent. "He's certainly one of the most original stylists in journalism, and that style has been carried over to the novels," Lawson comments. "The surprising element of it is that as a writer he comes from a generation of ironists, and although he can do irony, he isn't an ironist. He's deeply heartfelt, and not afraid of sentiment." Call Parsons old-fashioned and he won't deny it. A brazen use of the F-word – Family – informs much of his writing, something about which he is unapologetic.

"I'm a novelist who returns to his themes like a dog to its bone. You can't escape what holds your heart, and I'm interested in families, fathers and sons, the ways men have changed, and the ways they haven't." Even the cover is a close relative of the first book, leading to the sense that he is becoming a brand as much as a writer. He does not disagree. "There's definitely a certain feel to the books. Last year, I sold more books in this country than Stephen King and John Grisham. You can't con the public, but you can do everything to say, the book's out there. It's a strange marriage of art and commerce."

While he talks of "smuggling" Tai Chi, Frank Sinatra and Hong Kong into the new book, the three big- hitting themes are grandparents, cancer, and single parenthood. His sensitive, frank writing asserts their commonality in describing "life outside of the library". There is still an occasional leakage from his Mirror column, and a tendency towards fortune-cookie aphorism, but scenes such as when the terminally-ill grandmother delights in her first trip up the stairlift, with all its symbolism, are written without undue mugging. Parsons's prose embraces the cadences and riffing of popular song, but the tone is minor key, and less jaunty than Man and Boy. As a result, One for My Baby is perhaps the better novel.

The trajectory of Man and Boy was undoubtedly helped by his six years on the Late Review, and the show has not been the same since his acrimonious departure. Mark Lawson agrees. "Of all the people that have done the Review, we've found him the hardest to replace. Virtually everyone in the media world is left-wing liberal, and Tony is right-wing, which is unusual. Yet he is genuinely open-minded." Parsons acknowledges the debt he owes; the Review's audience are precisely the people who buy books, a point not lost on HarperCollins.

Though he loved Updike's Rabbit books – Harry in Man and Boy was named after Harry Angstrom – for Parsons, the "Muhammad Ali of American letters" is Philip Roth. From the British ranks, he admires Blake Morrison's versatility. And then there's Nick Hornby.

"I'm a fan, but I think we're quite different. In all honesty, there is rivalry in the sense that I want to sell more than him, but there's also respect. I think he's a lovely man, and he writes like a dream."

Would he consider using a female narrator, as Hornby does in How to Be Good? "No, because I just don't think that I'd be able to pull it off. I thought about telling the story of One for My Baby from the perspective of a teenage girl, but I just thought technically I wasn't good enough. I wouldn't know every little corner of her soul the way I know a man's."

Lawson still hopes that he will return to the show after the next book, but Parsons says "No, I'd never go back... You have to know when to move on." This is the main theme of One for My Baby, that life is to be worked at, and resting on your laurels is akin to giving up.

He has a publication date for his next book, Man and Wife – "16 July 2002, so I'd better get started on it" – which will continue to explore the modern family's post-nuclear fallout, or what Americans call a "blended family". He says it will have a "different vibe" from One for My Baby but, as he dryly throws away as we part: "It'll probably have the same cover."