Book Festival: Lynn Barber

Edinburgh International Book Festival blog: Heather McDaid on legendary journalist Lynn Barber’s event in Charlotte Square

Imagine you’re a journalist making your first steps into the media world, and you’re given your first interview assignment. A small time singer? Someone of local significance? How about Salvador Dali?

As crazy as that notion may seem, it’s exactly what Lynn Barber faced back in ’69, and it’s these kind of stories, many recounted in her new book A Curious Career, that have a room full of people eagerly listening.

“Oh, celebrity interviews. It’s a doddle,” Barber remembers thinking. She spent four days interviewing Dali, who seemed to thrive off her naivety and almost interviewed himself. Moving forward from such a start, “I then realised celebrity interviews aren’t all fun.”

With Dali, she thinks she lucked out. “On one hand I respected the subject,” she begins; on the other, “he’s eager to talk about his sex life.” The celebrity appetite for those details as the norm hadn’t yet clicked.

“I’ve always tried to do artists,” says Lynn, when talking about her preferences. She feels like they don’t have enough airtime. She wouldn’t choose actors, avoids sports and doesn’t want to interview the wives, who’re only famous by virtue of their partner. Touchy feely interviews would make her “run a mile” – she prefers combative interviews, not empathetic.

Her worst interview – Marianne Faithfull – is well documented, and Martin Clunes is her biggest surprise. Going in a fan, she found him irritable, ending up in a “rant about journos getting things wrong”. His dog tipped water over her tape recorder with his tail; she suspects Clunes might have trained it to abruptly end bad interviews.

But how important is truth (with unfavourable details, at least) in the grand scheme of a well-written, engaging piece? “Tell the truth otherwise what we’re doing is pointless.” If they’re good, she’ll try to use as many quotes as possible, if they’re not overly chatty, “tell the truth in as interesting a way as possible.”

From the Twitter backlash of angry Nadal fans and her dream interview of Rupert Murdoch, to her encounters with Jimmy Savile and putting the important questions to him, this is an all-encompassing journey through her career.

With decades as a writer behind her, how does she find the challenge of a book versus an article? “Having deadlines is good for me,” she laughs. “I enjoy tinkering and will keep tinkering until I have another job to do.”

“I think of writing journalism as various problems that need to be negotiated. When it’s me, I think what do people want to know?”

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