Media Interview with Alex Corlett and Shirley Blair at The People’s Friend
Since its launch in 1869, the weekly fiction magazine has entertained its (mainly female) readership with a mix of serials, short stories and poetry in print, and now embraces a whole new generation online. Features editor Alex and commissioning fiction editor Shirley (we're friendly enough to be on a first-name basis now) let us in on how each issue is crafted, their love for their contributors, and whether it's worth getting risky to make new friends. Though, if you've seen any childrens' movie from the 80s, you can probably guess the answer to that one…
About The People's Friend
Tell us a bit about the new website for the magazine; what can regular readers and newcomers find there?
Alex Corlett [AC, pictured above]: Our new website, www.thepeoplesfriend.co.uk, is intended both to keep people up-to-date with upcoming magazine content, and allow folk more scope for getting in touch with us and finding answers to their questions.
The website has our writing guidelines on it – for fiction, features and poetry – so that writers who would like us to consider their work can learn about what we’re looking for before they take the plunge.
We’ve also just gone live with our Facebook page, which is a 'brave new world' for most of us here at the Friend! It’s been a lot of fun so far, though – and is proving a great way of keeping in touch with our readers.
Which magazines are the main competitors to your publication – does The People’s Friend have any ‘enemies’ (‘enemies’ in the nicest sense of the word, of course!)?
AC: The People’s Friend doesn’t have any enemies – we’re far too friendly for that! We do consider that we share our market space with Yours, Woman’s Weekly and Take a Break, though. Our readers also seem to enjoy our sister publication, My Weekly, too!
Do you plan a forward features list for the magazine? How long does it usually take the team to plan the year ahead?
AC: We certainly do plan a forward features list. We work on issues about six weeks ahead of their 'on sale' date, but we like to get ahead where we can and aim to be at least two months in advance of that in terms of planning.
For the big occasions – Easter, Christmas, etc. – we will regularly do a year ahead, writing pieces at events this year for use in a year’s time.
With our recent increase in pages, we’ve got a healthier appetite than ever for features, too, so we are always on the lookout for new ideas!
How do the team decide on the short stories that make it into each issue? Do you ever disagree on what’s right for publication?
Shirley Blair [SB]: We’re a team of five and we read a lot! We have a very clear picture of what Friend readers want, which is feel-good fiction, and we do our best to provide a good variety of it. This means working very closely with our freelance contributors to get the best and most appropriate material from them. But we have some great writers who, if it should happen that they don’t hit the mark first time with a story, are very responsive to our suggestions as to how to make it fit. So in terms of choosing what goes in each issue, we always ask ourselves three simple questions: “Is this a satisfying story?”, “Is it a feel-good story?” and “Is this a Friend story?”
Do we ever disagree? Of course! We’re five individuals with our own tastes in fiction, and we’re also very aware of changing times and changing standards. Sometimes we’ll want to push our boundaries a little.
Talking of pushing boundaries… with all the hype surrounding erotic literature for women at the moment, does The People’s Friend plan on including any racier stories in future issues?
SB: Nope! It’s just not us and I don’t think it ever will be. Our readers are wonderfully communicative and take immense comfort from the fact that the Friend is the kind of magazine they can leave lying around and not worry if their grandchildren pick it up. Why would we want to betray that unique sense of trust?
About freelance journalists
Does the magazine pay for contributions from freelance journalists? If so, what are the most important attributes that make a freelance journalist stand out and would make your team use them again?
AC: We rely on our great freelance contributors – they’re invaluable to us, and the magazine wouldn’t be the same without their voices. Naturally, we do pay them for their efforts, and – as with the fiction – we’ve always got our eyes open for undiscovered talent amongst the 'unsolicited' features we receive, and welcome submissions and ideas from professional freelancers.
Along with the usual popular freelance qualities – promptness, good images, etc. – our main concern is for them to understand the tone of the magazine. A feature for the Friend should be a warm, conversational piece that addresses the reader like an old friend.
We’re not here to challenge or preach, just to share great stories and heart-warming tales…
What information/input from PRs is most useful to you?
AC: PRs are also an invaluable asset for us, and a lot of great features have been put together thanks to someone getting in touch with us out of the blue.
The only request I would make of any PRs reading this would be to let us know of anything as far in advance of the event as possible! Newspapers are obviously able to work much more spontaneously than we are, but sometimes we miss the opportunity to cover things because they come in too late for us.
Describe a typical day at work: What are your editorial duties/responsibilities at the outlet (e.g. commissioning, subbing, features, interviewing)?
AC: Days at work are a bit of a mixed bag. There are a lot of regular weekly tasks, including subbing, writing features, updating the website, reading the dummy etc., but I would say now that the bulk of what we do as a team is reading submissions, planning features and correspondence.
Correspondence seems like such a small word for what it represents to the features team! It’s a huge part of what we do – sourcing pieces, discussing them, interviewing folks, sending out guidelines, requesting pictures, responding to queries and critiquing unsolicited manuscripts…
Much of that correspondence is with our readers, who are very communicative! It’s a boon for us that they are, though, as it means we feel very in touch with our demographic.
What’s been the best interview you’ve done for the magazine? Is there anyone you’d still like to interview and, perhaps, befriend?
AC: My favourite interview was with the wonderful Alexander McCall Smith. Being reasonably local – I’m in Dundee and he lives in Edinburgh – I was fortunate enough to be invited to his house.
I sat in his very elegant writing room waiting for him with a cup of tea, where I felt a bit like Elizabeth in 'Keeping Up Appearances', nervously clutching a fine china cup that shook in my hand. Anyone who knows me knows better than to trust me with delicate objects.
My nerves were totally unnecessary, though, as he was just as warm and friendly as I’ve come to expect from attending talks of his at literary festivals. At the end, he presented me with an armful of his books, which he promptly signed personally for every member of staff in my office – a true gent.
I’ve really enjoyed the charity features we’ve been writing recently, too. We’re featuring more of these in our extra pages, and it’s always a privilege talking to dedicated volunteers working for others. Joining the SARDA (Search and Rescue Dog Association) in Highland Perthshire for a day of training was a highlight.
I might not have felt the same had it been raining, though.
Have you ever had a go at writing any short stories yourself? Do you think they’d make it into the magazine?
AC: I have written features for the magazine, as do all the features team – but short stories are not my forté. However, some of our fiction team have written some great pieces for us.
I’m afraid my days of story writing ended a long time ago at uni, with a bizarre short story about somebody getting stuck in a reclining chair. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t continue, I think.
Do you tweet? Why, why not?
AC: None of us in the office tweet professionally – purely because we’re not totally convinced that it’s the best way to connect with our readers. As I said, we’re on Facebook as its format suits the idea of community and friendship that our magazine stands for, but both the team and our readers are far too chatty to stick to 140 characters!
Who is your best friend in the whole world, and why?
AC: Apart from my partner, I have two – one nearby and one all the way down in my home county of Devon. Both have known me long enough to tell me when I’m right and when I’m wrong.
I’m also pretty fond of my gigantic cat, Murphy, but probably just because he doesn’t place any demands on me whatsoever! He’s very easy to get on with.
***Please note: Alex would like to make it clear that the jumper he's wearing in the picture does not belong to him. So, there's no need for jealousy.***