– and I love that there’s no false modesty here, it suits her character, it suits her journalistic style, it suits her professionalism – ‘it might be that I write them better. Because if you’re launching an attack you have to be much more careful – I’m thinking about the libel lawyers the whole time. If I’m saying someone’s vain I can’t just say I got the impression they were vain, I’ve got to actually give some evidence for why I thought that.’ What she can’t do much with, she confides, is ‘somebody who’s just sort of nice and articulate who I might meet at a dinner party. I mean, I like those people, but they’re not much use as subjects.’ Or, as she writes in her introduction to Demon Barber, the 1998 collection of her interviews, ‘be as rude, difficult, vain, self-obsessed as you like, but please please don’t be boring.’
Barber’s interviews are anything but boring:
having done her research, she clicks on the tape recorder, sits back and generously gives ’em enough rope to hang themselves with. Some do (Irons, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, John Aspinall, Jeffrey Archer, Peter Bogdanovich, Delia Smith, Gordon Ramsay); others mesmerise her – and therefore the reader – in a good way (David Hockney, Julian Clary, Neil Tennant, Agyness Deyn, Polly Stenham, Goldie). But Barber’s never smarmy: she’s got a knack for getting people to talk…and talk…and talk. As a journalist, you learn that interesting information comes out when you allow people to talk, and Barber is there, poised to catch it with humour and a pinch or three of salt. And though she places herself squarely in the interview scene – we never forget that it is Lynn Barber there, asking the questions, conducting the conversation, bringing a certain frisson to the proceedings – she doesn’t monopolise things, and she’s unafraid to show the limitations of what you can learn about someone in an hour, while still passing an enjoyable time with them and learning something about them.
Barber’s never been a big time-waster. (Once, fearful that Julie Andrews was going to utilise precious interview time asking about Barber’s children, she simply denied having any, thus, as she reports in 1991’s Mostly Men, ‘abolishing two daughters without even thinking about it.’) Fresh out of Oxford, the young Barber went to work, sharpening her writing teeth at Penthouse magazine (they offered her £16 a week, £2 more than Vogue) as its proofreader, stylist, Forum editor, literary editor (and, as Penthouse branched into America, the sometimes-smuggler-of-artwork to the printers). In a stroke of writer’s luck, her editor, Harry Fieldhouse was a mentor and a half: ‘Harry was vital really,’ says Barber. ‘What
I had was a school-girly fluency: I could write ten-page letters and ten-page diary entries; I never had any constipation about writing. On the other hand,’ – she chuckles – ‘it was all sort of babble babble babble!’ Fieldhouse took the young writer in hand: ‘We’re writing for men,’ he said to her. ‘Men don’t waffle.’ ‘He took this delight in showing me that, “You don’t need that sentence, you don’t need that adjective, you don’t need that qualifier, you don’t need that paragraph.” He would slash away at all that stuff. And that is now how I write: I let myself babble because I like that sort of freedom and freshness – I just try and get down everything that I can remember – and then I structure it by cutting and organising it.’ She considers her style quite masculine – ‘trim and lean and tight and not touchy-feely – but with a sort of femi
nine observation or sensibility.’
The inspirations kept coming. As Penthouse expanded its empire, Barber’s appreciation of interviews was revolutionised by magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker – and the meaty, substantive profiles that were at the forefront of American New Journalism: ‘In Andy Warhol’s Interview,’ she recalls enthusiastically ‘they just transcribed the entire tape so that half the conversation was “I like your shoes. Where did you get them?” and “Did you go to Bianca’s last night? Who was there?” Just chat chat chat! I thought it captured a really good feel of the period and of the characters.’ These interviews, she found, offered a certain level of immersion in the interviewee’s world that lent the finished product an air of familiarity, of equality. It was an interesting stance, quite different to what she was used to. ‘I realised that an interview doesn’t have to be so rigid,’ she says. ‘At the time, here, it was terrible, really. You had to write in the third person and you didn’t refer to yourself at all, so inevitably the effect of that was to give the impression of omniscience. So, you’d say, “He likes to drive down the Californian coast,” as if you knew everything about this person, which I think is quite dishonest if all you’ve done is read the press cuttings. What I try to capture is the feeling of meeting somebody and saying, “I spent an hour with Robert Redford: this is what it was like.” You have to write it as an encounter because otherwise who are they talking to? It’s just about trying to convey the feeling of that transaction between two people. That, to me, is justified. And when people say I’m very hostile or bitchy’ – is that a tiny eye roll I see before me? – ‘all I’m really saying is that I met Marianne Faithfull and she was just incredibly rude and unpleasant in the time that she was with me. I’m
not saying that she’s always rude and unpleasant – I mean, that might well be the case – but I’m not saying that.’
She left Penthouse in 1974 to start her family with husband David. As first Rosie, then Theo appeared, the stay-at-home mum indulged her love of Victorian nature books by writing the well-received Heyday of Natural History. ‘Never again!’ she vows now about the five-year project that became ‘a great chunk of academic work and took the fun out of those books for me.’ Publishers were clamouring for a book on Victorian anthropologists but ‘no way was I going to touch that with a barge pole!’
Then, her old mentor Harry Fieldhouse came calling: would she like to interview ethologist Konrad Lorenz for the Telegraph? The assignment was a revelation: ‘Suddenly I’m flown to Vienna, put up at a nice hotel and sent to interview this really fascinating, multi-cultured man,’ she says excitedly. ‘I mean, he was talking about PG Wodehouse and things; he wasn’t just talking about science. He had an amazing train set and all sorts of lovely automata and good paintings – it was a treat to meet him. And to be paid for it. And to be sent to Vienna. I thought, “This is the life.”’
Thus was Barber hooked. Work at the Sunday Express followed, again thanks to Fieldhouse, and her entrée into Fleet Street was complete. Meanwhile, her appreciation of feature interviews deepened: ‘I used to do these back-of-thebook interviews for the Express, ones made just of direct quotes. So I’d go off and interview, say, Barry Humphries, and when I’d get back to the office everybody would say, “What was he like?” and I’d say, “Well, he was half an hour late for a start, and then he washed his hands about four times.” And I realised that all the interesting stuff wasn’t going into the article. So when I got to the point where I could write all that – the number of times they cancelled the interview and blah blah – I seized it, because I thought, “That’s what you normally don’t get told.”’ PostIndy there were stints with The Sunday Times and Vanity Fair. She settled at The Observer in 1996 and has been there ever since.
Q: And what, for her, marks a successful interview? A: An interaction that’s held her interest. ‘It’s useful to raise the energy level,’ she says. ‘If someone’s telling the same anecdotes that they’re happy talking about, you’ve got to somehow give it a boost.’ That’s the point at which she ‘might interrupt to ask a rude question, make them realise they’ve got to try a bit.’
Before interviewing a writer, she’ll read as much of their work as possible. (When I meet her, she’s worried that a looming postal strike will prevent her from receiving a packet of Rachel Cusk books, key to an already-scheduled interview. As it turned out, she had more to worry about from a bout of swine flu, incubat-
‘Actually, I’d say that the nice interviews outnumber the nasty ones….’
14 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov /Dec 09