ing as we spoke). Prepping for actors, though, is a different kettle of fish: ‘One of the reasons I’m reluctant to do actors is because I never go to the theatre. I hate theatre: you’d actually have to pay me to go. It’s just that thing of being stuck in a seat while people shout at you. So I do feel a bit ill-equipped to do theatre actors; there’s no way of retrieving their performance. If they’ve done film, I can go to the cinema or watch the DVDs.’ (Given a free evening, though, she prefers to spend it reading over anything else).
She insists on doing her own transcribing. ‘Everyone always tells me it’s a waste of time, but I always notice things that I hadn’t noticed at the time. I was just reading this interview’ – she grabs a weekend magazine – ‘with the actress Robin Wright Penn and it said that when the writer played the tape back he noticed that anytime he mentioned her husband Sean Penn, there was a little sort of, you know, a snort. Often, when you play an interview back you notice, “Ooh, crikey! They skidded off that subject very quickly!” It gives you clues.’
She transcribes, prints it out, underlines the bits she’s going to use, cuts the bits she won’t. Then…‘I’ve always been bad at construction,’ Barber admits. ‘I can usually do the beginning quite well, but I’m very bad at an end. So I look for a quote or something that I hope will end the interview – then I can stop worrying about it. I must say, when I first started, you literally had to cut and paste; it was a real messy way to work. Being so bad at construction, it’s easier for me now – I can just think, “Would that paragraph
be better there?” and try it out. I like that.’ She grins broadly. ‘I like tinkering on the page.’
A morning writer, she goes over her work in the afternoon. ‘Sometimes, I find if I have a glass of wine in the evening, I think, “That’s what I should have said!” There’s some fluency that comes; some bit that’s been sort of clogged and boring suddenly takes off a bit. So I will scribble that down – sometimes very drunkenly – and then see how it looks in the morning.’
That Lorenz interview remains her favourite, along with a day in Paris with Salvador Dalí that turned into a week in Paris – as part of his posse. ‘That was hugely fun!’ Barber recalls. ‘He kept saying, “Oh! I do not want to talk today – you come and sit by me.” It was just endless parties, one after the other – I was just part of his retinue: “Oh, that is my English interviewer,” he would wave at me. It was this incredible thing: all sorts of weird people turned up. I kept saying, “But I must ask you some questions!” And he just said, “Oh no! You don’t need to do that!” She’s laughing. ‘I did get some bits and pieces, but it wasn’t really a proper interview. But it was a good account of what Dalí’s scene was like.’
She was very moved and impressed by Rudolph Nureyev, and enjoyed a drunken night in Dublin with Shane MacGowan. ‘That was quite, quite interesting….But I loved them all, really,’ she says in a burst of affection. Then Demon Barber smiles. ‘Well, not the politicians,’ she says. ‘They’re very boring.’
My first memory… ‘is of being held up to the window of my grandparents’ cottage to see a bus going by.’
My first writing… ‘My first writing – apart from the usual cat, dog, stuff – was probably a description of my dog Zulu.’
Thanks to… ‘My late husband, my daughters, my publishers, my employers and the many friends I am so grateful to have.’
The first book that affected me… ‘The first book that affected me was Black Beauty. I found it so harrowing I resolved never to read a book again – though luckily I did.’
LYNN BARBER was born in Bagshot in 1944. The film version of An Education – screenplay by Nick Hornby – is out this autumn.
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100 ways to write a book: *43 The Barber method
›› Read Lillian Ross’ interview with Ernest Hem
ingway: I hugely esteem her interview. It’s this succession of vignettes where he’s doing all those swaggering macho-y things – going to a gun shop, going to a tailor’s – and she’s just slightly poking fun at him. But you also come away with a sense of great sensitivity to his writing. ›› Don’t diminish the reader – they are your
ultimate responsibility. ›› You must possess real nosiness. You have to
really be curious about people, and not bored. ›› Don’t let your ego get in the way. You can’t do
your job if you start thinking, ‘I’ve had a more interesting life than she has.’ You can’t do your job if you think you’re more important than the person you’re talking to. ›› Go in with a list of questions, but put them
aside when it’s time to listen. ›› Listen.
›› Immediately after the interview, write down a
series of notes about anything that struck you. ›› You have to have a fearlessness about asking
questions. Some journalists and students are embarrassed to ask questions, but if you don’t ask questions, you’ll never get the answers. ›› If you see an opportunity for something that’s
got a bit more emotional reality – be it a sort of ding dong, a hostile exchange or a very warm and friendly exchange – follow through with it. Go for the real emotion. ›› Don’t go in with a pre-assumed angle: I get
cross with people who say, ‘Well, what’s your angle on Jordan?’ ›› Tell people right at the beginning, ‘Some of
my questions will be very intrusive and some will be very blunt but there’s no compulsion to answer them and I won’t be hurt if you don’t – just shake your head.’ ›› You can’t be too embarrassable if you want to
be a good journalist. ›› Good, solid prep work is essential, if only to
save precious time so you don’t ask questions or go over material that’s already out there. Use cuttings, reliable online sources, books… During the interview, time is of the essence. ›› I don’t like slimy interviewers who just want to
be best friends with Meryl Streep or something. ›› Take two weeks for an interview: two days
to prep, then the interview, then ten days to write. The longer you have to write something, the better it is. ›› Work in the mornings; lunch with friends. ›› Aim for: the longest answer from the shortest
question. ›› Transcribe your own tapes. It gives you a
chance to mull over the content. ›› When you’ve worked all day, take a step back
and relax. Allow things to pop into your head.