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For fifteen years, I had one of the best jobs in the world. I was book news editor at The Bookseller, and most weeks I included in my pages an interview with an author. I talked to celebrated novelists, including several of my literary heroes. I talked to biographers and science writers. I talked to creators of blockbusting best-sellers. All sorts of people write books, or at least get their names on to book covers: I talked to movie stars, sports heroes and supermodels, and to people who had fought in wars or been shipwrecked.

I knew it was a great job, but I did not spend most of my time glowing with self-satisfaction. I spent most of it feeling anxious: ‘Kingsley Amis is going to think I’m an idiot, and he’s not going to disguise the thought’; or, ‘Before I phone Peter Carey in two hours I’ve got to get through 300 more pages of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, I’m not enjoying it, and I haven’t read any of his other novels’; or, ‘What on earth am I going to ask Kate Moss?’; or, ‘I spoke to Lennox Lewis for three and a half minutes, and the longest sentence he uttered contained six words – how am I going to get a piece out of that?’

I enjoyed interviewing. I felt privileged to be able to do it. Mostly, though, I was able to say to myself that the interviews were enjoyable only after they were over. While they were in progress, I felt as I imagine professional tennis players do during the course of a match, or opera singers during a performance: you’re doing something you love, but you’re not exactly having fun. (Neither are the authors, I’m sure.) I wanted my questions to impress – in part for egotistical reasons, but also because I thought that the better I performed, the better the author would respond. I rarely prepared questions in advance, believing that interviews worked best if they were spontaneous. The disadvantage of this approach was that I had constantly to worry about what

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For fifteen years, I had one of the best jobs in the world. I was book news editor at The Bookseller, and most weeks I included in my pages an interview with an author. I talked to celebrated novelists, including several of my literary heroes. I talked to biographers and science writers. I talked to creators of blockbusting best-sellers. All sorts of people write books, or at least get their names on to book covers: I talked to movie stars, sports heroes and supermodels, and to people who had fought in wars or been shipwrecked.

I knew it was a great job, but I did not spend most of my time glowing with self-satisfaction. I spent most of it feeling anxious: ‘Kingsley Amis is going to think I’m an idiot, and he’s not going to disguise the thought’; or, ‘Before I phone Peter Carey in two hours I’ve got to get through 300 more pages of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, I’m not enjoying it, and I haven’t read any of his other novels’; or, ‘What on earth am I going to ask Kate Moss?’; or, ‘I spoke to Lennox Lewis for three and a half minutes, and the longest sentence he uttered contained six words – how am I going to get a piece out of that?’ I enjoyed interviewing. I felt privileged to be able to do it. Mostly, though, I was able to say to myself that the interviews were enjoyable only after they were over. While they were in progress, I felt as I imagine professional tennis players do during the course of a match, or opera singers during a performance: you’re doing something you love, but you’re not exactly having fun. (Neither are the authors, I’m sure.) I wanted my questions to impress – in part for egotistical reasons, but also because I thought that the better I performed, the better the author would respond. I rarely prepared questions in advance, believing that interviews worked best if they were spontaneous. The disadvantage of this approach was that I had constantly to worry about what to ask next. After interviewing Alan Bennett, I came across a reference to our meeting in his end-of-year diary in the London Review of Books: he said that the eyes of his interviewer had glazed over during a particular anecdote. I had not been bored. It was simply that I knew the anecdote already, because it had appeared in his book, so instead of listening I had started to think about my next subject. Martin Amis has said that interviewers are often nervous when they first meet him, and that he considers it polite to engage in some business that will allow them to settle. His father Kingsley behaved that way too, when I spoke to him before publication of his memoirs in 1991. I had passed my first test. In spite of waiting a long time after ringing the bell of his Primrose Hill flat, I had resisted pressing the buzzer again: I knew that he was not agile, and that importunate ringing would annoy him. In due course, he opened the door. Feeling relieved that I had got that right, I was nevertheless still nervous as we headed upstairs to his sitting-room. When I got my tape-recorder out of my briefcase, I dropped it. ‘That’s right, show it who’s boss,’ advised Sir Kingsley, who had his back to me and was pretending to rearrange some item of furnishing. I fiddled around with a blank tape, placed it in the slot, and dropped the machine again. ‘You don’t know your own strength,’ Sir Kingsley observed, still facing away from me. Once we began to talk, I felt fine. Sir Kingsley was attentive, and he performed. Discussing the difficulty of getting the novelist John Braine to stop banging on about the same subject, he said, ‘He stuck to his guns, or rather to his single gun.’ I was impressed that, even in conversation, he was monitoring the language he used, and revising a cliché. He must have got on to the subject of the differences between men and women when I quoted to him an observation I had read in a recent novel: the heroine had all her life believed that when the men she knew talked about politics they were really talking about something else, when in fact they really were talking about politics. He turned his head up to the ceiling and laughed. Who wrote that? he asked. Michael Ignatieff, I replied, guessing that he would be surprised to hear the line attributed to the liberal cultural commentator. ‘I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him,’ Sir Kingsley said. One moment gave me an insight into authorial insecurities. Sir Kingsley said that he had ideas for his next two novels; and then he gave me the outline of one of them, The Russian Girl. His manner, eagerly confiding, was that of a small boy revealing a treasured conker; and I saw that, even with nineteen novels under his belt, a writer is not free of the fear that he might be unable to tackle another. However, getting to know the interviewer is not, for the author, the point of the exercise. A year later, Sir Kingsley’s publisher gave him a seventieth birthday lunch, to which I was lucky enough to be invited. I was introduced to him again. I said that I had done an interview with him not so long ago, and enjoyed it. Seeing his blank expression, and his struggle to say something polite, I realized that I should never have raised the subject. The point of an interview for an author is to get some publicity, and the interviewer is a means to that end. I never expected authors to remember me; and quite a few of them, met again even a short time after the first encounter, did not. They had given a series of interviews to publicize their books – interviews in which they had given the same answers to the same questions. The interviews, and the interviewers, had merged, and blurred. Newspapers, though, present their journalists as celebrities: we get ‘The Lynn Barber Interview’, and so on. Interviewers today have attitude; they do not spare us the warts. I always want to read Lynn Barber’s pieces, and I found ignobly entertaining her merciless depictions of the likes of Melvyn Bragg and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down). But when I met Bragg and Adams, I saw how partial those pieces were; they exaggerated facets of the subjects’ personalities for comic effect. Perhaps Lord Bragg is a little vain, with the slightly insecure egotism that many people in the public eye develop. Perhaps Richard Adams is a sentimentalist, and inclined to boast. To highlight those traits, though, is to obscure others: they do not, for example, preclude talent or integrity. I want to be diverted when I read a profile; but I do not want the interviewer, however skilled, to pretend that he or she is going to offer me the low-down on a person after a meeting of only an hour or two. ‘The best interviews, like the best biographies, should sing the strangeness and variety of the human race,’ Barber has written. That is a self-aggrandizing statement, in my view. Still, you can gain unexpected insights. Some of the most startling come when you realize that the person you are talking to has a slightly different cultural conditioning. ‘You wouldn’t’, Joan Collins said to me, in reference to contemporary mores, ‘walk along the street drinking from a bottle of water, would you?’; and I realized that the star of The Stud and The Bitch was a well-brought-up girl of the 1940s. J. G. Ballard, handing me a glass of tonic water, said: ‘A bit of gin would make that sit up a little!’ – an expression that reminded me that this chronicler of modern dislocation and perversity had spent his early years in the colonial outpost of Shanghai. I have met two men who had slept with Marilyn Monroe: Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan. I was 30, and single, when I talked to Kazan, who had slept with many other women besides. ‘You married?’ he asked me. No, I told him. ‘Living with someone?’ No. ‘Got a girlfriend?’ No. ‘Jesus,’ he exclaimed, ‘what the hell’s wrong with you?’ I did not ask him about Marilyn, but I did ask him about the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, before which he had testified. He was defiantly unapologetic. Miller had refused to testify, and fallen out with Kazan over the issue. I did not ask him about Marilyn either; in fact I may have been one of the few journalists not to raise with him the subject of that troubled marriage. That was one of the few points in my favour on the day. We were supposed to be discussing a novella he had written. That did not take up much time, but I did not feel it appropriate to branch off into a discussion of his theatrical career, on which, although I knew the most famous plays, I was not an expert. I floundered; and he, who was too distinguished to need to impress maladroit journalists, was courteous but not fully engaged. I look back on the encounter with some mortification. The journalist, as I have said, should know his place; but of course you want the other person to take note of you. Only two interviewees ever wrote to thank me after my pieces appeared: Lord Bragg and Mavis Gallant. Gallant – the Paris-based, Canadian short-story writer – said that thanking a journalist was probably bad form, but she had got past being anxious about that sort of thing. Indeed, it is odd to thank the journalist. Though the author may be getting publicity for his or her new book, it is he or she who is extending the courtesy. Nevertheless, I, a fan of Gallant’s work, was delighted to receive her card. Interviewing suited me: I feel more comfortable if I can divert a spotlight on to other people. But it would not have been the best job in the world if, just occasionally, it had not satisfied my own vanity as well.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Nicholas Clee 2007


About the contributor

Nicholas Clee was book news editor of The Bookseller from 1984 to 1999. He then enjoyed the different pleasures of editing the paper for five years. He is now a freelance writer, and the author of a cookbook, Don’t Sweat the Aubergine.

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