Whenever I think of how much pleasure I have interviewing scientists, I remember that they're having the real fun in actually being able to do the science.
THE INTERVIEW FOR THE MEDIA. If you are in the media, an interview is an end in itself—or close to it. Subject to a certain amount of editing and tweaking—and sometimes a great deal—the interview becomes the product.
WORLD CLASS CELIBRITIES. I did interviews like that in my teens when I was dipping my toe into the world of freelance journalism. Back in those days, I had no idea what you couldn’t or shouldn’t do—and because I was clearly so young and ignorant, much of my more outrageous behavior was tolerated with good grace, and high good humor, by my victims. These included some world class celebrities—in their day—such as Gregory Peck, Vicki Autier, Kenneth Moore, Peggy Lee, Johny Hallyday, Sir Anton Dolin, Carla Fracci, Christina Onassis—and many others of such standing. Many will have been forgotten today but, at the time, for instance, Carla Fracci was the prima ballerina at La Scala, Milan. As for Christina Onassis, she was married to Aristotle Onassis who went on to marry Jackie Kennedy, widow of JFK.
MY ONE AND ONLY QUEEN. My one failure was former Queen Soraya—in Monte Carlo—who was so drop dead gorgeous that I am amazed that I had the nerve to even approach her.
MONTE CARLO. Her reply to my request to talk to her constituted the shortest discussion with an interviewee I have every had, “No,” was the answer—and on she strode in her black bathing suit—all tanned flesh and sexuality, one of the most exciting women I have ever met. The location was Monte Carlo and the encounter took place at Le Beach—which was really a beach club made up of a pool bordered by an array of mostly topless women of stunning beauty, various bars and restaurants, and a strip of actual beach covered with imported sand. Soraya, you will call, had been married to the Shah of Iran. He had divorced her because she couldn’t bear him a son.
THE COMMAND TO WRITE. I was very tempted to stay with journalism (and should have) but adequately paid jobs in the field were rare in those days in Ireland—so I strayed into business. There, I received some excellent training in marketing, and enjoyed some significant commercial success—after some initial failure—but the desire to be creative and to write would not go away. In fact, it eventually became so strong it was almost as if I had been gripped by some alien tractor beam. It was an extraordinarily powerful feeling. People talk about a ‘calling.’ This was more like being commanded. Obeying it was the best decision I have made in my life—and I give thanks that I made it every day. Writing is so satisfying, so challenging, so enriching, and so exciting that it’s the one thing I can never adequately describe. I’m not particularly religious, but if ever there was a gift from God, as far as I am concerned, this is it.
THE QUALITIES YOU NEED TO WRITE. To write really well—and you will never write quite as well as you want—ideally you need quite a number of strengths (if you are me). Few of us are quite as well qualified as we would like—and it is noteworthy that one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen, wrote brilliant work while—on the face of it—living a somewhat circumscribed life. Nonetheless, these include:
- Experience of life so have something to write about. Here I include the full gamut of emotional experiences—from grief to being in love.
- To be widely read for the same reason and so that you will have absorbed—not necessarily consciously—how the process works.
- To have traveled because it really does broaden the mind.
- To have had adventures—and to be prepared to have more.
- To know a great deal about a great deal.
- To have a sense of story.
- To have an imagination. Almost everything we write is derivative in some way or other (Shaespeare being a perfect example) but it is how you put the elements together than normally makes the difference.
- To have an original cast of mind.
- To be observant
- To be empathetic
- To have a deep understanding of the human condition.
- To be intellectually curious.
- To have considerable interpersonal skills.
- To be able to draw people out.
- To be able to make associations where other might not.
- To understand the techniques that go into writing.
- To be disciplined in your work—and, in particular—to be pro-active. Most jobs are reactive in that circumstances, colleagues and customers dictate what you do. Where writing is concerned—particularly book-writing—you are normally on your own and no one but you knows whether you are working or not.
- To be able to withstand solitude.
- To be able to withstand rejection.
- To be able to deal with stress generally.
- To have clarity of mind. It is virtually impossible to write well unless you can think clearly. The world is a complex and constantly evolving place and you have to study it—and then convert your jumble of thoughts into clear, entertaining, and compelling prose.
- To be decisive. The number of choices you have when writing is truly staggering—particularly where fiction is concerned. If you try and evaluate them all, you’ll crazy—and you will write at the speed of an arthritic snail. Instead, you have to have to make the best choice you can within the limits of your capabilities—and move on. Writing is a decision making process.
- To develop an inner voice. This is vital—but takes time. It means that, in the final analysis, you will follow your own creative judgment rather than following the advice of the endless flow of people who will try and influence you. This doesn’t mean that you wont listen to advice and criticism—it’s virtually impossible to avoid. But, in the final analysis, you will develop the experience and confidence to decide.
STEEP LEARNING CURVE. Do I possess all these attributes now. Yes, I do—though to what extent it is hard for me judge. However, I certainly did not when I started to try to write. In fact, if I had know how steep the learning curve was, I might have run for cover—if I had been allowed.
CONFIDENCE. What I did have going for me from early on was the confidence that I could interview people and gain a great deal from the experience. Was I formally trained in interviewing? Unfortunately not. However, perhaps because of my emotionally charged upbringing I am extremely sensitive to atmosphere, empathetic, and can normally deduce a great deal from a single interview. Here, I am not just referring to the conversation itself, but the setup of the meeting, the attitude of staff, the bearing of the interviewee—and so on.
EMOTIONALLY INTENSE. My mother used to say I was psychic or had “second sight.” Frankly, I am not sure I believe that, but I am unusually intuitive, and am normally able to read a situation and gain a sense of things with some accuracy. Beyond that, I seem to be able to get people to talk without really knowing how I do it. Partly, it has to do with my genuine interest—which people seem to sense. Another part has to do the emotional intensity I put into the process. When I’m doing an interview, the only person who exists for me is the other—and when an interview is over, I often feel quite drained and need time to get my bearings.
THE ART OF THE SECOND QUESTION. I have one extra attribute that is vastly helpful. I am good at what I tend to think of as “The Art of the Second Question.” That isn’t so common in U.S. media—where there seems to be a tacit understanding that an interviewee shall not be pushed too far—but I come from a different culture where the questioning can be remorseless. That said, I make it a point to be courteous and to keep the tone of my voice friendly.
GIVE A BOOK IN ADVANCE. All in all, I enjoy interviewing greatly and would like to do even more of it. Apart from anything else, it’s a great way to meet people—and it seems to shortcut the getting-to-know-you process. And I should probably add, it works better still if I have supplied one of my books in advance.
SOMETHING DIFFERENT THIS WAY COMES. I do have a new series of interviews planned for a new book—but all I’ll say a this point that both the interviews and the book will be somewhat different (something of an understatement).
A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
Reading THE CENTURIONS was a life changing experience as far as I was concerned. Not only is it an extraordinary novel about the French in Algeria—but it explains more about war than just about any other book I have read.
After completing it, I set off to track down and visit with the French Foreign Legion—quite an adventure.