Tony Parker is possibly the first writer of literary nonfiction to craft his books entirely from extended interview material from which he edited out most of his interview questions. Bella Bathurst, in her Afterword to Parker’s Lighthouse, notes that in most of his books Parker “introduces the individuals he interviewed with a short description, but otherwise leaves it entirely up to the subjects to speak for themselves [….] the point was always to let other people talk, to grant insight into the hidden corners of human existence, and to offer up the lives of ordinary people without judgement,” so that the reader could meet his informants face to face and decide for themselves (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 289). Parker, Bathurst says, “chose his subjects for his books and did the work, but the rest was up to the people he met. For most of his life, he devoted his time and energy to the art of being a witness in print ” (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 289). All Parker’s twenty-two books, written in the mid part of the twentieth century, deal with ordinary people who led unusual lives—most notably, with prisoners–and who are isolated and marginalised in some way, and their thoughts and feelings. Parker wrote about lives and communities which readers generally might know little or nothing about and find mysterious. In writing in such a way that the subjects each speak for themselves and tell their own stories about their life experiences, Parker reveals to the reader the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Not all Parker’s twenty-two books were about prisoners. After Parker had written ten books straight on prisoners, his publisher suggested it might be time for a change. Parker told Paul Thompson, “[so] I suggested … that I’d like to try and do a book about lighthouses and lighthouse keepers” (Thompson 1994, p. 72). Bathurst writes that lighthouse keepers interested Parker “partly because they, like prisoners, belonged to a marginal society, partly because they too had become part of an institution which bore its own peculiar restrictions, and partly because” he and his wife Margery had met a few of the keepers while holidaying on the Scilly Isles (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 72).
In talking about Parker’s Lighthouse, Bathurst writes that as with his books on criminology, “one of Lighthouse’s many charms is that it helped to destroy a couple of myths. His perception has always been that lighthouses represented the ultimate solitary profession; part ship, part prison, and part secular hermitage. But as the reader discovers, the problem wasn’t loneliness” but proximity, how to negotiate living in small spaces with comparative strangers ((Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 290). In Lighthouse, the lighthouse keepers also see that generally speaking, people who are not connected to the lighthouse keeping service in some way commonly hold some romantic perceptions of lighthouses, and about what it is like to live on a lighthouse. In the book, Principal Keeper Steve Collins works on a sea tower and understands what it is like: “When I first came here this was what surprised me, I think it does everyone else too. When you see it from the outside, the tower’s white granite so you take it for granted that it’s going to be light and airy inside” (Lighthouse 2006, p. 245). Assistant Keeper Stanley Vincent also works on that tower, and he feels, “That’s something should be got over to outsiders, there’s nothing exciting about it. I don’t think they want to believe it, they’d sooner hear romantic things” (Lighthouse 2006, p. 199). In a few well-chosen words worked into the conversations of the keepers, Parker reminds us that no reader in their right mind would actually wish to live with the danger of rogue waves or live in the isolation of a gloomy lighthouse (no matter however romantic it sounds) with great seas crashing into it and shaking it to its very foundations.
Bathurst, Bella. Afterword. In Lighthouse. By Tony Parker. London: Eland, 2006. p.p.289-296. Print.
Parker, Tony. Lighthouse. London: Eland, 2006. Print.
Thompson, Paul.”Tony Parker: Writer and Historian interviewed by Paul Thompson.” Oral History Vol. 22: No. 2. 25th Anniversary Issue (Autumn, 1994)). 64-73. Web. 3 Aug. 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40179366