50 Questions With June Newton

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June Newton by Nadia Lee Cohen

We quiz June Newton (aka David Owen) on her sexual awakening, who would play her in the inevitable film adaptation of Best Seller, and her habit of conducting imaginary conversations with popular celebs of the day

The cover of June Newton’s novel Best Seller is truly irresistible. Not just because it’s an audacious title for a debut book, but also because the design is that of a future classic – Joan Didion’s The White Album by way of a Jackie Collins’ masterpiece. And the author’s black and white portrait on the back of the glossy dust jacket is intriguing and uncannily familiar…

Yet you definitely haven’t heard of June Newton. Because she doesn’t exist. June Newton is a purely fictive character initially invented and performed by artist Nadia Lee Cohen. Her most recent book and exhibition Hello… My Name Is (published by IDEA), featured self-portraits in which Cohen transformed herself into a range of imagined figures – each inspired by name badges belonging to unknown individuals she’d accumulated over the years. Alongside the photographs, she amassed and documented collections of their personal effects, and performed and filmed a series of in-character monologues. These soliloquies – which so imaginatively fleshed out and richly embellished the everyday lives of Cohen’s cast of fictional characters – were created with Cohen’s friend and IDEA co-founder, David Owen.

“The true story is that I wrote the line, ‘If I wrote a book it would be a best seller. In fact, that’s what I will call it: Best Seller’ for one of the characters in Nadia’s Hello… My Name Is book and then I just carried on writing,” Owen explains in a conversation over email. “Nadia was the reader of it, bit by bit, on WhatsApp.” Inspired by these immortal lines, what follows is “one woman’s attempt to write a very popular book – the kind you might find at an airport or spot twice on the same subway carriage.”

In Best Seller, we meet its fictional author on the brink of 50 and dissatisfied with the life she’s led in retail management, in the womenswear section of a department store in her hometown – a tired,  anonymous seaside destination. What begins as an attempt to “write herself out of obscurity” becomes, as the story unfolds, both the catalyst and the record of the profound and thrilling changes her life rapidly undergoes. From encounters with assassins, a fantasy spending spree, and an illicit love affair, the tumultuous events are narrated by Newton’s wry, unpretentious and hilarious take on the world opening up around her.

“I didn’t know what would happen as I was writing it, which I think is an unusual approach, but one that may convey a genuine sense of surprise in June as her life turns out to be worth writing about,” Owen confides. “Also, quite unbelievably I suppose, most of it is true (to me or people I am related to, at least).” 

Below, we quiz June Newton (aka David Owen) on her sexual awakening, who would play her in the inevitable film adaptation of Best Seller, and her habit of conducting imaginary conversations with popular celebs of the day.

1. Where are you right now? In the Barbican! I just moved from Wardour Street. I have a one-bed flat for however long £8,500 is divided by £3,100 a month. Then I need some new money.

2. What are you wearing at this moment? A Claridge’s dressing gown that Angela from IDEA gifted me. I have never stayed there though. My son was just here visiting me. He said ‘You’re treating this place like a hotel.’ His first-ever joke. Aged 20.

3. What song would be most likely to lure you to the dancefloor? In the 80s in Portsmouth, there was only one indie night in the city - at Martine’s nightclub on a Thursday. The Waterboys’ Whole of The Moon would see me– and all the girls –  twirling around in our paisley print skirts and Chinese slippers, strongly smelling of patchouli oil.

4. What is your greatest pleasure in life? Writing dialogue for characters. Fiction is beautiful. The world is so worried that humanity will be consumed and taken over by technology. I’d like us to be subsumed into fiction.

5. What first inspired you to pick up a pen and start writing? Latent talent*.

* would be so cool if I could answer everything in anagrams!

6. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone? A pirate plumber. I didn’t know he was a pirate until he came round to unblock the toilet. He was very rude about my high-fibre diet and then charged me £185. I’ve heard of cowboy builders but this was definitely a pirate plumber. He nearly knocked the door down and when I called out ‘Who is it?’,  he shouted out, ‘It’s bloody Jim.’  So that’s what I call him – Bloody Jim, the Pirate Plumber.

7. If you could emigrate, where would you go? Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. There are two houses in the tree tops you access via a tiny lift like a personal funicular railway. John Lennon lived in one for a while. It’s magical.

8. Do you believe in ghosts? When my son was about six I checked to see if he was asleep and he was sat upright in bed. He said, ‘Mum, do ghosts believe in people?’ I thought he was a savant for about three minutes.

9. Do you believe in God? Absolutely not. It’s pointless because even if, as an atheist, I might be tempted to wonder why the universe exists, if the answer was God, I could then just ask why God exists.

10. What achievement are you proudest of? OK, so how could I not say Best Seller. To have written a book is one thing but people actually really like it!

Do you have a motto and, if so, what is it? “Now I guess it is: ‘If I wrote a book it would be a best seller’” – June Newton

11. Who is the last stranger you struck up a conversation with? I saw a woman sitting outside Bruno’s on Wardour Street just like I did in the book. She was about my age and had a voice recorder, just like I did! She was with someone but when they were done I approached her, told her it was uncanny, and gave her a book. She was an academic, originally from Poland, and a stranger no more.

12. Do you have a spiritual practice? Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking and debunking spiritual nonsense. I find it very therapeutic. I’m no closer to the meaning of life…  but, as I say in Best Seller, humans are the wrong people to ask, it would be like asking Madame Bovary what she thought of the novel.

13. You’re taking us on a tour of London. Talk us through where we’d go. All the stinkiest alleyways. They are my favourite. The one from Chandos Place to St Martin’s Lane that gets narrower as you pass through it and has a pub halfway down it. The one between Wardour Street and Berwick Street that is so vile that dogs won’t even pee in it. People have offices down there!!

14. Do you have a motto and, if so, what is it? Now I guess it is: ‘If I wrote a book it would be a best seller.’

15. Who do you most owe an apology to? My husband. But I have made this apology in real life and in the book. Fortunately for him – and me –  no one has found the real him – or me. So he has accepted my apologies on the condition of further anonymity.

16. What do you miss most from childhood? Childhood.

17. Who’s your best friend? Rebecca Shackleton – not her real name. She disappeared from my life for 30 years and stole my name but I found her and saved her life. I also use her credit card.

18. What’s the most expensive purchase you’ve ever made? I have bought two houses in my life. But if you mean what is the most expensive or overpriced purchase, then I once ordered a vegetarian club sandwich off-menu at a hotel in Cannes. When I complained that my husband’s club sandwich was 22 euros and mine was 26 euros, the waiter said, ‘Yes, but we had to take out the meat!’

19. If Best Seller is made into a film, who will play you? Here we go! I would like Olivia Williams. She was so great in The Ghost Writer and even looks like me. But you know it is going to be Olivia Colman. Like today is Tuesday and tomorrow is Wednesday, it is going to be Olivia Colman. She plays everybody.

20. Who would you like to direct it? Nadia Lee Cohen could do it. She wants to direct. She’d be great. Plus she has already been me. We have a lot in common.

21. What’s the most embarrassing photo on your camera roll? I took photos of the moles on my chest and am supposed to check them every few years to see if they got bigger. I have lost count of how many times they have appeared on my phone screen when trying to show someone something else. I will die of embarrassment before cancer.

22. What’s your star sign and are you a typical one of that star sign? Sagittarius. I am so disinterested in star signs I don’t know how to spell it and certainly can’t be doing with correcting it. If that makes me typical of someone born in December, whatever.

23. Do you plan on writing a sequel to Best Seller? It is more than half finished. It is set in the Barbican and called Home Cinema. Some readers will be disappointed that it is not Dead Head in a Bag For Life, which I did promise to write next but that will come in time. This new story just took over, it’s so much fun to write. Bloody Jim the plumber is in it now.

24. Reading Best Seller, it seems like you’re a pretty prolific writer. Do you still write on a daily basis? Do I do anything else?

25. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Closeted extrovert. Have you seen that Norm Macdonald interview with Larry King? Larry asks Norm to tell him something about himself that people don’t know. Norm says he is a closeted gay man. Larry says, ‘So you are gay?’ Norm says, ‘No’ –  because he is a closeted gay man. It just amazes me. It is the most extraordinarily honest interview.

26. In Best Seller, you candidly describe your sexual awakening with Pipa, a teenage skater. Have you embarked on any new lover affairs since? Ha, more honesty! I am back in a love affair with my husband. He comes up to London two weekends a month. I don’;t know about sexual awakenings but I weirdly found myself wanting to have sex in an art gallery - that’s a revelation for you! When we were teenagers, Rebecca and I came up to London on a school trip and for some reason we were doing really basic robotics in the ICA for a laugh. When we looked up, a Japanese family were watching us like we were performance artists. They very flatteringly applauded. Now I think that whole stunt would be better if I had sex with someone. This isn’t the place to discuss this though, is it! I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying again – actually just the ‘zipless fuck’ sexy bits again) - that’s probably put this idea in my head.

27. Last time you were starstruck? I saw Bill Nighy sitting outside Lina Stores on Brewer Street. He is the most perfect casting as the bigamist Len in Best Seller. So perfect, it hurts to think about it.

28. What’s your biggest regret? The funny thing about regret is, it is better to regret something that you have done than something you haven’t done. That’s the Butthole Surfers. My youngest son loved that song. The next bit goes, ‘By the way,  if you see your mum this weekend be sure and tell her SATAN SATAN SATAN!’ We used to play it on the school run. My son turned to his friend – this little boy with a violin – and said, ‘I bet your mum likes Dido.’

29. What, if anything, do you miss about working in the department store? You are pushing it now! Regional retail is a two-word phrase you don’t want to read let alone live through. 30 years in ladies’ fashions and I miss nothing. I mean there are little stories in the book that are funny now. The time when someone was stealing the hands off the mannequins. Actually, like bloody hell, that was the only thing that was even vaguely interesting. And they screwed them back on before I could catch them.

30. As a writer, do you have any creative rituals? I answer emails and WhatsApp desktop messages while writing. I know every other writer does not do this. But I kind of like the extra levels of proficiency. Just showing off, I guess, that I can write a book, answer these questions, fend off my husband, chat with David at IDEA, and transfer money to my youngest son all at once.

“Are you a tidy person or a messy person? Tidy apartment, messy life” – June Newton

31. How do you deal with writer’s block? I started writing at 49 years old. I’d like to think I served my time on the block. I have more books to write than years left to live now.

When Best Seller came out, I panicked that maybe I had copied my favourite books. So I reread Tales of the City, Postcards From The Edge, and bits of Douglas Adams and was super relieved to find that my book wasn’t really like any of them. It feels to me that it is, but when you look at the text, it is quite different. Then I reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem just to remind myself how good prose writing can be. 

I went into Dover Street Market and put my book right next to Joan Didion’s The White Album. I sent David at IDEA a photo but he wouldn’t Instagram it. He was scared of the backlash! But I don’t care one bit so you can run it here if you want. The caption is:‘'If June wrote essays/If Joan wrote jokes.’

32. What is your favourite time of day or night? Shower in the morning. My shower head is broken (I did not ask Bloody Jim to look at it) and the water pummels me like the punches a boxer throws at the speed bag. I squeal in terror. 

33. If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead, who would it be? Paula Yates. But I would like to actually meet some people I admire. So let’s say Adam Sandler and hope that doesn’t jinx it. 

34. What would you eat? What would I eat with Adam Sandler? Bagels, I suppose. 

35. Alongside the likes of Keanu and Winona, what other icons have you been conducting conversations with recently? Let’s be open about this. The conversations in the book were imaginary. I am aware that these people can only say the words I think of for them. That said, the one with Carrie Fisher was spooky real. I spent serious time last week with Takeshi Kitano but with him you don’t talk, you just sit side by side and stare straight forward. 

36. What is your favourite art gallery or museum? The Tate Modern. But, if I am honest, only for the bookshop, not the gallery proper. They charge you to start with and then there are just acres of polished concrete and the odd sculpture. In the shop, there is loads of art and it’s all really close together! I can appreciate a Warhol on an apron just as well as I can hung on a wall. I have Monet oven gloves!

37. Are you a tidy person or a messy person? Tidy apartment, messy life.

38. What would you say your obsessions are? Nicolas Cage films. Adam Sandler films. Home cinema, basically.

39. Who is your ultimate muse? OK, so I met Julia Fox (twice). 

40. Your favourite true crime show? I don’t like ‘true’ anything. I can’t watch documentaries. If I start watching a film and it says ‘based on a true story’ I am like, ‘What, you couldn’t be bothered to make something up. Just lazy!’

41. What are you most grateful for? Grapefruit.

42. Where’s the best place to get coffee in London? I shall be controversial and say it is best not to go east of City Road. Very sour experience. The best coffee by miles and miles is Starbucks or Pret double macchiato. And then the purple Nespresso pods (sorry). 

43. Do you have any enemies? If so, who? And why? I do, but they don’t know me. The Chinese government, responsible for the persecution of the Uyghurs, Putin and co for Ukraine, any Nazis left alive. 

44. Do you believe in life after love? That’s Cher. The use of the vocoder and auto-tune should have ended with that track. It was perfect. I took Ubers in Los Angeles and never heard a human voice come out of the radio. 

45. What advice would you give to aspiring young writers? Write if you want to write but just be glad to be young. That doesn’t last forever. Youth has no happy ending. 

46. What would you say is the eighth wonder of the world? The scene at the end of The Sixth Sense when Haley Joel Osment tells Toni Collette that her mother did see her dancing. 

47. If you could murder anyone and get away with it, who would you choose? Anyone who ever sent one of those phishing emails. I would support the death penalty for them – one a week. 

48. Are there any conspiracy theories you believe in? Should there be? Is that a thing now? I hope not. I have an idea for a novel or a film that has holes in the plot – people aren’t always where they are supposed to be, their names get mixed up, hats change colour,  that kind of thing – continuity errors if it were a film. Anyway, the reader will only just notice them before realising the only reason why the lovers survive at the end is because of a hole in the plot. Like it should never have happened without the plot holes. 

49. Do you think you’ll ever marry again? I am on my second husband now. It is beginning to look like there won’t be a third. 

50. What question would you ask yourself if you were setting these questions? Exactly that.

June Newton’s Best Seller is published by IDEA, and is out now.