MENTION TONY PARSONS, and the reactions are always strong. The man has an opinion on everything. A columnist for London's Daily Mirror and a television pundit on BBC, he often seems to have considered all subjects and stored away a few hours' worth of invective or praise for each. It was thus to the chagrin of many of his knockers when, five years ago, he wrote a commercially successful novel that was adjudged a worthy addition to the new wave of witty British relationship dramas. Parsons followed 1999's Man and Boy with two more successful novels, One for My Baby in 2001 and Man and Wife the following year. The newly released The Family Way is battling Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings at the top of the Sunday Times' best-seller list. The novel follows three sisters as they fall pregnant or strive to conceive. As he takes a seat at his favourite Italian restaurant in north London, Parsons removes the dark sunglasses he's been wearing, on account of laser surgery to correct his eyesight a few days earlier. He wants to make a point early: writing The Family Way required as much research as imagination. 'It was a really difficult book to write just in terms of self-doubt, and wondering if I could get away with it and pull it off,' he says. 'You take any one of those three main characters and you could have written a book about them: the woman who can't get pregnant, the sister who gets knocked up on a one-night stand, the sister who doesn't know what she wants to do with this guy and time's running out. I wanted to cram it all in and just cover the lot: the whole thing of fertility, infertility, unplanned pregnancy, post-natal depression. 'The reaction from women has been pretty positive. It's a book that couldn't have been written without a lot of women talking to me about the issues.' In some ways, Parsons seems uncomplicated. Born in 1955 in Essex, he's boyishly British, overflowing with nasal east London vowels. It's no surprise that his dish of choice is cod and chips. But the strident reaction his media commentaries can inspire is largely converse to how his books are viewed. Parsons is a considerate listener and when he writes he treats his characters lovingly. This mixture of incisive but unjudgmental analysis has proved hugely attractive to readers, male and female. Women expect a straight-talking, football-obsessed lad they can disagree with, and instead find an evenhanded writer keen to empathise. Men tune in for some male bonding and discover it comes with sage maxims on the best and worst of their behaviour. 'They say that stories are tools for living and that's always been my viewpoint,' he says. 'Stories are how we make sense of our world. The book is No1 because women have bought it in huge numbers. Because women decide what's on top of the best-seller list. 'This is the big step for me and this is why every day that I was writing it I was thinking, 'Have I bitten off more than I can chew?' When a woman says to you, 'Having a Caesarean is like having someone doing the washing-up in your stomach', you think, well, I've got to try to imagine that. 'Some books you can just go into your room for a year and come out with your manuscript. You write from your head and your heart,' he says. '[The Family Way] required quite a bit of research. I knew a few girlfriends who had abortions when they were in their teens. They told me how it would have been impossible for them to have a child at 16. But at the same time they had real profound regret. It's complicated stuff. It's great material. It's the best subject. But sometimes there's an emotional truth that's more important than the facts.' The 'emotional truth' came from a chance encounter more than two years ago, when his then-pregnant wife, Yuriko, went for an ultrasound scan. 'My wife had a scan at 12 weeks that gives you the odds of Down's syndrome, and they can tell you anything. They can say the baby's dead, anything. You don't know.' Parsons breaks off to yell across the crowded restaurant: 'Can I get an apple pie and custard, and a cappuccino please?' Then he's back: 'Anyway, we got out of the cab and there was this couple in the street holding each other, crying. And I thought, 'Well, that's what you've got to write about. Because of the inherent drama in it, the unfairness of it. It's the most momentous thing that any of us ever go through in our lives.' There was more to come. 'I knew nothing about premature babies, and then my wife had pre-eclampsia. We had an attempted burglary, one of these fishing burglaries where you have this bamboo pole stuck through the letterbox. And my keys were on the end of it, jingly-jangly, at five o'clock in the morning. And I went f****** berserk. I got my baseball bat and I was screaming and shouting, and I think I caused it, because she woke up with me screaming blue murder. 'They say it's not linked. Pre-eclampsia is high blood pressure, but it's not like a businessman's blood pressure, caused by stress. But that was 5am, and at 8.30am, we were in the obstetrician's office and her blood pressure was sky-high, and that afternoon she was in the hospital. 'Our baby was born at 34 weeks. She was less than 4lbs [1.8kg]. She's caught up now, but this is the kind of stuff you learn on the job. When they're born it wrenches your heart, because they're so tiny.' The book is 'pro-baby, pro-maternity, pro-pregnancy', but it's countered by dissenting voices: husbands who stray, boyfriends who won't commit, an ineffectual father, a negligent mother. 'You need the man who doesn't want to be a father,' he says. 'You need the man who thinks that since his wife had their kid he's second best. He's sidelined. A lot of women said to me, when the baby comes along the man's got a rival. And it's a rival you can't compete with, because the love that gets unlocked when you have a kid is unlike anything else you ever feel. It's just not on the same level as the love you feel for a partner. It's much more fundamental than that. 'I wanted as many dissenting devil's advocates as I could. And as much as we love our children it's a natural human reaction that you've given up your life. My mum, the first time I became a father, was always saying, 'Your life's not your own, your life's not your own'. And that's scary. That's what love is: putting somebody above yourself.' Parsons' son, Robert, with first wife Julie Burchill (a prominent British columnist and author) is now grown up. Although his daughter, Jasmine, was born under different circumstances, he's finding fatherhood the second time around has a new set of problems. 'When I had my son in my 20s I was really poor,' he says. 'I never knew how I was going to pay the rent and that was really time-consuming. The second time around I had a few bob. But the big difference was that, when I was in my 20s, I never dreamed I wouldn't be around to watch my son grow up. 'When you're in your 40s you think, 'When she's 18, where will I be? How much longer have I got?' Especially with both my parents dead. Once your parents are gone, you're under no illusions about your own mortality. [About a Boy author] Nick Hornby became a dad again around the time I did and he said, 'You know that we're going to be in our 60s when they're teenagers'. I think a man also identifies with a boy more easily. It's like Dr Evil and Mini-me. I could sort of recognise him, whereas my daughter's a complete mystery.' Parsons is moving to the leafy suburb of Hampstead, where he says his daughter will get the safest upbringing. A sniper shot at a policeman near their home of 10 years in Islington, and a move to suburban Stanmore proved stifling. 'We've got two too many houses at the moment,' he says. 'I like Hampstead. I went through a period recently where I saw three 80s pop stars on the trot, three weekends in a row.' Aside from being a little pink-eyed from the surgery, Parsons is well and looking forward to a book tour of Australia and New Zealand next month. The stopovers will also give him a chance to indulge one of his other passions: Hong Kong. Parsons has plenty of mates in Hong Kong, and The Family Way touches on the city fondly, with two of the characters visiting an orphanage on the mainland. 'I've been really heartened and amazed and pleased that there's a lot of interest from the Chinese community in the book,' he says. 'As you get older, you know what you like and where you like, and I try to get back to Hong Kong once a year. It's still got a greater buzz than anywhere. All that we love becomes a part of us, and that's how I feel about Hong Kong. 'Travel is my big passion, but I've cut down a lot of it, because modern business travel can be a complete pain in the arse. After 9/11 in the US, if you're catching a plane every day, the danger is not getting blown up by Islamic fundamentalists but that they're going to bore you to death by making you queue. 'I grew up with [IRA] bombs going off. The security here is tight, but it's not intrusive, whereas over in the US, it doesn't feel safe at all.' Donning his sunglasses again, Parsons pays the bill and heads for the door. He gestures to his eyes, laughing. 'You sign about 20 disclaimers saying they can't guarantee anything, but the results for me are better than I expected. You get a little halo effect at night, nice and shimmering. It's like taking half a tablet of E.'