Lynn Barber and the art of the interview
Her new book A Curious Career is a great insight into why she is the best celebrity interviewer in the game
if you think about it long enough, interviewing people for a living is a weird way to earn a crust. Every single day of the week, every single of us will have a couple of conversations with other people. We’ll talk and moan and complain and cheer and gossip about what’s going on in our lives, a compendium of events and experiences coated in small chat, guarded comments and occasionally fortright and honest opinions. Then, we’ll head off about our business, remembering some details of what we’ve talked about but forgetting much of it. Think about the times you’ve been asked what you were talking about for the last hour and you’re lucky if you can recall a few sketchy details. “But you were talking for an hour!”
Interviews are a much different kettle of fish. They’re formal set-pieces, one on ones organised for the purpose of the interviewee to plug their wares and put their best face forward. The interviewer, on the other hand, is working to a different agenda. Some might think that they’re there to deliver the message that the subject is A-OK and that their new film/book/event/album/product is worth your time and money. But the best interviewers are not there to act as an advertising billboard. The best interviewers come back with a story which goes much deeper than the surface. The best interviewers drill into that conversation and the surroundings and the room and the ambience and the past and mine gold. They don’t waste a minute or forget a second of what happened.
Great interviewers need other qualities too. Lynn Barber says she was always curious about other people. As a schoolgirl, she was the one who was despatched by her peers to ask the awkward questions. “They thought I had an almost magical ability to get secrets out of people, perhaps by some form of hypnosis”, she notes in her new memoir A Curious Career about why she was the one who asked the question about who was snogging who. The truth of why she got these answers, Barber reckons, was that people were so flattered by her interest that they’d tell her what she wanted to know. That was when she discovered she’d a knack for “asking questions that other people wanted to know the answers to, but were too embarrassed to ask.”
She’s been asking those questions for a long time. When it comes to interviewing famous people, she’s the very best in the business, the fierce, frank and funny writer who has delivered one career-defining interview after another. Read her pieces on Marianne Faithfull, Rafa Nadal, Christopher Hitchens, Shane MacGowan and Tracey Emin, all contained in the new book, and you’re reading timeless pieces of premier league journalism. While Barber admits that the actual interview is the least favourite part of her job – she loves the research and the writing, but doesn’t think she’s great at putting people at their ease to tap them for stories – she has this fantastic talent for knowing the right question to ask to get that story.
As instruction manuals go, A Curious Career is a superb study for anyone who wants to know about the spadework which goes into doing interviews. Barber knows that she was lucky to work for most of her career at a time when newspapers had cash to spend and pages to fill with long-form interviews like hers. She also could insist on having enough time to do an interview – not for her a 10 minute phone interview with someone on a hour’s notice – and can pick and choose who she wanted to talk to.
Leaving aside the fact that the framework around the process has changed and that it’s obviously a lot different for the bulk of repoters and writers working today, the actual mechanics of interviewing have not changed an iota since Barber first struck out on the road with her tape-recorder for Penthouse magazine. You still have to do your research and you still have to ask those questions. The diligent research which she does means she’s not repeating any questions which have already been asked and knows when she’s getting the same anecdote as a previous interviewer (something you’ll notice if you read a bunch of interviews with the same person, as they naturally tend to tell the same story again and again and again). She talks about asking the questions which no-one has asked before – she mentions Piers Morgan and his name-change, for example – and leaving an X on the map for future interviewers to follow up on.
For all the advice, though, A Curious Career is a reminder that there is only one Barber. For instance, she lists a series of questions which she says helps to probe the subject – what they spend their money on, if they prefer to be a guest or a host etc – yet you know that these are the kind of questions which any of us could ask and not come away with the same insights as Barber. It’s that unquenchable curiosity which she had as an only child growing up in Twickenham all over again.