City Lit Blog

Q&A with City Lit writing student Tony Page

Story added 26th Jun 2018


We recently caught up with City Lit writing student Tony Page to talk about this new book: ‘Secret Box’

What inspired you to sign up for writing courses at City Lit? 

It was three years ago in May 2015 in Majorca on a holiday with grown-up kids and their partners to celebrate a birthday. Helen my wife started to suffer a horrible problem with her hip. This brought a depressing end to a wonderful time and an inner voice began asking me: “What’s next?”  

As the summer advanced, that inner demon kept on gnawing, inexplicably, with only the vague notion it was something to do with dad. One day, I leapt into action to try an excorcism through writing, and hunted for a short summer school. But which to choose? I remembered Andrea Levy said her wonderful book (Small Island) fictionalising her life was written during a creative writing class at City Lit. Luckily enough, a 3-day residential (“Ways into Creative Writing” at Bourneville) was on offer and excitedly I booked my place.

After giving us the writing basics (including narrative arc and viewpoint), Neil Arksey the tutor allocated the bulk of our precious time to practical writing assignments. A classmate read my story aloud: it was like finding an itch and I wanted to shout with joy, “Yes, that’s it!”. Surprisingly, I learned just as much from listening to my classmates’ writing. 

When I left Bourneville, I actually felt like a writer with a grasp of how to satisfy a reader, but still in dire need of practice. I enrolled for City Lit’s “Story Development Workshop” and fell into a weekly rhythm bringing a new chapter to read out at each Wednesday class. After three terms, perhaps over-confidently, I entered the next level course: “Getting Published”.

In a nutshell, what’s the story you’ve written?

It’s the story of a man compelled to return to his ‘60s childhood using the diaries, letters and photographs left in a box by a father who walked out. This grown-up son gets sucked deeply into old family events. 

He finds his father, whose career was in “releasing human potential”, messing the family up comprehensively at home. Yet no one ever spoke of the hilarious and weird incidents he created and the father’s memory was smothered with a silence that became increasingly corrosive. 

At its heart, this is an absorbing detective story from a son tangled up with his father. By the time the son prises himself free, he has clarified why he became a psychologist just like his father: he’s on a mission to put things right.  

City Lit writing student Tony Page

There’s a saying that “All fiction is biography and all biography is fiction”. Do you agree? 

Yes, totally. When I believed, wrongly as it turned out, I was ready to publish, I gave my manuscript to four “first readers”, never expecting them to spot the stunt I was pulling. I’d written the story with fictionalised characters, including a central dad figure and those readers told me the story didn’t ring true. I had to come clean although I didn’t want to be in the spotlight. 

It took a further year of painstaking re-writing and editing to make this story my own. Then I had to check carefully with living family members and once they let the project go ahead, the work had become part memoir, part detective story and part novel. Since traditional publishers rarely take up such “cross-genre” books, I went the independent route and set up Telling Stories Press. 

How does writing a memoir differ from writing fiction?

With fiction, you throw characters into a plausible plot that’s primarily entertaining.  In memoir, the primary rule is “be truthful” but if you wish you can make the truth entertaining using a narrative shape to engage the reader. 

Memoir describes a challenging time truthfully. Often it’s the author’s own life so you and your family are in it together yet also at odds because your living relatives either hold different versions, or insist on privacy. This hobbles the writer with the risk of censure. 

To get over those taboos, I drew strength my City Lit classmates who kept putting me on the right track, and I had to use psychological skills to get the story straight. Yes, I’ve had to confess I’m a chartered psychologist.  

What does this book offer to a reader?

One Amazon reviewer, Kritika Narula, called Secret Box “the most realistic book I’ve ever read”. That pleases me and others have praised it too with “touching, sensitive”, “wholly engrossing”, “extremely enjoyable”, “gripping”, “compassionate”, “searingly honest”,  “like being told a story by a friend”, “a fascinating portrait”,  “a validation of real human potential” and “a book to savour”. 

I want the reader to understand this story works on many levels and that the benefit of receiving a story that’s raw in places is it brings us to untold stories of our own. Everyone constantly lives through perplexing events with people at home and at work that are too hard to understand and can’t easily be spoken of. It’s as useless to burst into violent verbal abuse as it is to avoid what happened and turn a true event into a shameful secret. The natural and binary human response, of violence or silence, corrodes relationships, happiness and well-being.

The book shows a third way to deal with a strong story and the great benefit is it’s therapeutic: it gives everyone relief and the chance to grow.  There is a joy in remembering hilarious moments and there’s a point to the churning emotions (of frustration, irritation and disappointment) that bring us to compassion, as I found towards my long-lost father. 

At book clubs, I aim to give the readers present a lively discussion on this topic, plus the option of a trying out a powerful method for writing and telling our stories.

Are you still writing?

Yes, for example, last week I wrote a blog for those who ignore Father’s Day, called Making Friends With Dad. It suggests baking a cake for Dad and having a long overdue chat. 

My interest right now is in talking to people, at book clubs and writing classes. When I’m invited I try to say yes. For example, earlier in June I ran an afternoon in Kennington, South London called “Writing and Meeting to Reconnect Creatively” for writers and facilitators.  We tried out some tools for writing and talking in special ways inspired by the Human Potential Movement. 

What are your tips for aspiring writers?

Here are two. The first is, don’t expect to polish off a finished chapter at a single sitting. Few people write like this. Instead, I spend 15 minutes each morning to write down the feelings, thoughts and ideas distracting me from the productive writing I need to do that day.  This free-writing is cleansing, like taking a shower. As a bonus, this short morning practice captures new creative material you can bring into your work, and over time brings you to your voice and to the story you really need to tell.

The second tip: whatever you’ve cooked up privately will never be good until after a public airing, which unfortunately comes with blank stares, puzzled faces and difficult questions. The longer you leave this the harder it gets, but the first airing gives you the feedback that can turn your story into something truly amazing.

Secret Box: Searching for Dad in a Century of Self (Telling Stories Press, 2018) by Tony Page is available in paperback or Kindle at


Tony Page

Tony Page is a facilitator, coach and writer. He lives with his wife Helen in South West London. Their children are grown up and planted out.

Contact: Book clubs, writers and event organisers can email the author at:




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