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A Curious Career, by Lynn Barber, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 224 pages
When Lucian Freud received a letter from Lynn Barber asking if she could interview him, the famously difficult painter wrote back to the famously dangerous interviewer saying he had no desire to be “shat on by strangers”.
He was a wise man. Wiser than Marianne Faithfull, Richard Branson, Martin Clunes, Rafael Nadal and all the other famous people whom Barber has, if not exactly emptied her bowels on, then at least approached bearing a hatchet.
In reading her interviews over the past 30 years, I have wondered two things. Is it OK to be quite so horrid about people based on a meeting of an hour or so? And how come she is still so much better than all the other interviewers (me included) who have copied the style she invented in the early 1980s, in which the journalist is there in the first person acting as participant, prosecution and judge?
A Curious Career is Barber’s second memoir. Her first, the 2009 An Education (made into a film staring Carey Mulligan), was about how she fell for a conman when she was 16, and how she got into trouble by failing to ask him critical questions such as: are you married? This book is the story of how she has made up for that lapse by spending an entire working life putting awkward questions to celebrities.
It’s a terrific read, though an excessively short one, as most of its 200-odd pages are padded out with interviews that she prepared earlier. Yet even so, the book answers both my questions. Sort of.
On the very first page Barber explains why she is a natural interviewer. It’s because she is nosier than most people. And the reason she is nosy is because she had a weird, lonely childhood. This way of accounting for human foibles is typical of her interviews. It is neat and satisfying – which makes one prepared to overlook the fact that it is trite and almost certainly wrong.
Being a good interviewer is about more than just being nosy. Over the years Barber has collected a bag of tricks, which she generously allows the reader to rifle though. She spends two days doing her homework. She takes two tape recorders. She turns up on time, preferably at the celeb’s home, where she visits the loo and checks the medicine cupboard. She asks very short questions. She softens her subject up with the publicity stuff, saving more invasive questions until later. She maintains eye contact throughout. And she hates interviewing actors. They talk and talk and say nothing.
All this is wise, if not surprising. More telling is the revelation that Barber usually hates doing the interview itself. She loves reading the cuttings. She loves writing it up. But 90 minutes spent with the celebrity usually fill her with anxiety, frustration and disappointment.
What she doesn’t explain is her genius for ending up in ludicrous situations. She interviewed Nadal when he was lying on a massage table, flies undone, showing his Armani underpants. Her meeting with Salvador Dalí lasted four days, during which time he made a work of art out of a dummy and a stringless lute. Tracey Emin started the interview plucking a used condom from her sofa, and later invited Barber to meet her dad. Sometimes the chemistry works so well Barber ends up great friends with her subject. Sometimes it doesn’t. Marianne Faithfull was left so furious that she went around afterwards claiming she had been asked whether she had sex with animals. Barber got a lawyer on to her; Faithfull backed down.
It wasn’t pretty. But was it wrong? According to Barber, celebrity interviewing is a game played advisedly by adults. She has no truck with Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker, who once wrote that every halfway intelligent journalist knows what they do is morally indefensible. Nonsense, says Barber. Her interviews are hard-headed transactions in which a celeb hopes to get publicity for their latest book or film, and she hopes to winkle out a revealing remark or two. It’s morally fine.
Yet there is surely more to it than this. Barber admits that what she dreads are people who are nice and have nothing to hide. She prefers monsters. What troubles me is her way of turning the nice into monsters after 90 minutes of needling. The dodgiest example in the book is Martin Clunes, who was perfectly nice until she goaded him into a rage about journalists.
That piece began: “This is the story of a love affair and its ending.” Barber doesn’t show; she tells. I had thought this was for inferior writers and that good ones craftily led the reader while giving them the illusion that they were drawing their own conclusions. But rereading her splendid interviews, I’m not so sure. Her way is more honest – and much more bracing.
But what if her judgments are wrong? Her reply to this is to state that they usually aren’t.
I don’t see why we should take her word on this, though perhaps it doesn’t matter. If Lynn Barber can take an over-interviewed, not-terribly-interesting celebrity and write 5,000 words about them that are so clever, bold and funny you want to read to the very end, then I’m not sure whether ultimately I care much whether her verdict is right – or not.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist