Articles


AUTHOR INTERVIEW: MARK POWELL


Written by Annamária Rády, Published in Macmillan Hungary Magazine, 2002


Q What makes a good Business English author? In what way are you different from an author who does not specialize in business or any other professional area?

A I think what makes a good author of any kind is probably just the willingness to sit down and write the stuff when there are so many excuses not to! But I'm not sure Business English writers are any different from other EFL writers, except perhaps that they need to realise that, whether or nor their learners actually want to do English, they certainly want to do business. And that means putting the learners' professional goals first - however unclear these may be. In this sense, Business English is always a means-to-an-end. ESP pioneer Peter Strevens put it well. The purpose Business English, he said, is not primarily 'educational' but 'operational'. I suppose the other thing is that Business English authors and teachers need a fairly well-developed curiosity about business - not necessarily business expertise or even experience, but certainly a kind of journalistic interest in business and willingness to find out how it works.

Q Why has learning Business English become so fashionable? Students with absolutely no knowledge of English want to learn Business English.

A You're right that in one sense Business English is thought to be trendy these days, and that's partly because business itself is a whole lot sexier than it used to be, the pinstripe-suit-and-briefcase image replaced with the designer-suit-and-laptop image. A lot of younger professional people especially seem to see English as a 'cool' language to speak as well as the most useful one to invest their time in. On the other hand, most fashions are short-lived and, as far as I can see, as a lingua franca, English is pretty much here to stay. Even if, at some point in the future, the American economy should go into decline and globalisation be thrown into reverse, I still think it would probably be too late for any other language to take the place of English. Chinese? I don't think so - have you ever tried learning it?

Q It might sound a stupid question but how do you write your books? Let us just think about in company, the latest book of yours.

A With great difficulty - ask my publisher! No, seriously, some people plan their books down to the last detail, have the whole syllabus mapped out in advance, archive all the authentic material they are going to use and so on. I can't work that way. I wish I could. My publisher wishes I could! At the beginning of the project I'll have very clear ideas about how I want some of the units to be. Others, quite frankly, will be a bit of a blur at this stage. I'll know most of the language areas I want to cover, but often during the writing, I'll be forced to change my mind about those. Because of space constraints bits of units will have to be ditched or relocated to another part of the book. My guiding principle, if I have one, is really this: does this material motivate ME? Would I want to teach with this at 9am on a Monday morning with my least favourite class? Ultimately, I think you have to start out by writing for yourself and go from there. Editors will soon cut you down to size if you get too idiosyncratic.

Q How about authentic material? Was it a problem to get copyright / authorization for it?

A For the most part, no. Getting copyright is really the publisher's responsibility rather than the author's. And most publications are happy for you to use extracts from articles and so on. Journalists rarely object to slight changes or cuts to their copy - that's what their editors do to them all the time! Photographs and songs and so on can be trickier. With photos it's often hard to find out who the actual copyright holder is, which can be annoying if you've based a whole activity on their picture. Songs can be quite expensive, if you want the original artists. Fortunately, songs are not used a lot in Business English - although there is one in In Company! It was very cheap - the tune was copyright-free and I wrote the lyrics.

Q Do you think that as a very popular business book author you would make a successful businessman?

A Well, in one sense, I am a businessman already, having worked freelance since 1994. Perhaps entrepreneur is a better word. I combine teaching with teacher training and writing and have to make sure that all those activities add up to a reasonable income at the end of the year because there's no monthly pay-cheque, no holiday entitlement and definitely no fringe benefits. But if you mean could I work for a company in an office, I think the answer would have to be no. I'd make a terrible employee. I get bored rather quickly and do not respond well to authority. I work well in teams, but only on a short-term project basis. Like dolphins and badgers, I don't thrive in captivity.

Q You have run summer courses in Hungary at Dudás Julia and Andrew Wright's language school. Whose idea was the course in the first place and how successful is it?

A I can't remember exactly whose idea it was - probably Julia's. She's very much an ideas person. Actually, it came about because Julia attended a training course I was running in the UK and decided we could run the same thing in Hungary. We've done several now. You'd have to ask the participants how successful it is, but the feedback I've had has always been extremely encouraging. It's certainly a lot of fun to do - intensive, but exhilarating. I was going to use the old cliché and say 'its the most fun you can have with your clothes on', but we've had such great weather on some of the summer courses, that's not entirely true. Fortunately, the new training room at ILI is fully air-conditioned and we've still got the enormous garden to sunbathe in!

Q You are not the only British author I know who lives and works in Spain. Is there an immediate reason for it or it is just the climate that makes British more able to write?

A The immediate reason was marrying a Spaniard. We were faced with a straight choice: Brighton or Barcelona? A somewhat faded English seaside town blasted with wind and rain or one of Europe's most exciting and beautiful cities bathed in the Mediterranean sun? After a lot of agonising, we chose Barcelona.

Q Is there anything you can tell English teachers in Hungary about Mark Powell, not as an author and teacher of English but as a private person?

A This is a bit Miss World, isn't it? Wanting world peace and caring for the less fortunate and so on. Um, well, I read everything that comes within my field of vision (I'm very short-sighted, though). I like reciting bits of Shakespeare even when people don't want me too. I've never stuck with a hobby for longer than a month. Some of my best friends have been dogs and cats (not as sad as it sounds). You always know where you are with 'an animal companion' - they give you attention and you give them biscuits. An uncomplicated relationship.

Q You have been to Hungary several times. I do not need to ask you whether you liked it or not because I know the answer already. But is there anything that you would call specially Hungarian, something that you have experienced here and not anywhere else?

A Yes, I've worked out Budapest must be the foreign city I've visited most often apart from Vienna. And I've always had a good time here. Hungary is quite a mysterious country, it seems to me. Of course, I've never been here as a tourist. I'm sure for tourists, Budapest is just another stop on the European capitals route. It is, if you're just going on a river trip or looking at the architecture. I'm more interested in the Hungarian restraint and quirky sense of humour (not completely unlike their English equivalents) with all sorts of wilder stuff going on underneath. You can be very impassioned. You don't go berserk on violins for nothing! I like that. Of course, we English can be tempestuous, too. No, it's true. It's our great national secret. Just don't tell the Italians, French or Spanish about it. They think they have the monopoly on that sort of thing.

Q When will our enthusiastic teachers of business English meet you next in Hungary?

A We're scheduled to be doing another CertTEB Business English Teachers' course in October 2002. And then we've a couple more pencilled for 2003. I'm looking forward to October already!

Thank you for the interview.

My pleasure.