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23 May 2014

A Curious Career: learning Lynn Barber’s rules for celebrity interviews

Lynn Barber's A Curious Career is a curious concoction, a mixture of retold stories and reprinted interviews from a writer who has always been better at writing about other people rather than herself.

By Erica Wagner

A Curious Career 
Lynn Barber
Bloomsbury, 211pp, £16.99

The rules of the celebrity interview can be pretty plainly stated, according to Lynn Barber in her new memoir, A Curious Career. Both participants – interviewer and interviewee – “know that this is a transaction in which we both hope to get something more than we intend to give. The celebrity hopes for maximum publicity for their book or film or whatever they are plugging in return for minimal self-exposure. The journalist delivers the publicity but aims to wrest a few revealing remarks from the celebrity along the way.”

How do you go about that wresting? Chapter three of this book, “On Interviewing”, provides a handy instruction manual – you’d think almost anyone could do it. Do your research. Arrive on time. Make sure your tape recorder is working. Hope your front tooth doesn’t fall out (this happened to Barber when she was interviewing Oliver Stone; apparently he was a gent about the whole business). See if you can persuade your subjects to allow you into their home. Ask open-ended questions: you can’t go wrong with: “Why?” I’ve done a fair bit of interviewing along the way, and I can vouch for the quality and usefulness of this advice: I even allowed myself to be pleased to discover that Barber hates listening to her own voice on her recordings just as much as I hate listening to mine.

Whom better to take advice from in this regard? Soon to be 70, Barber is the doyenne of celebrity interviewers. She got her start at Oxford, writing for Cherwell, the student paper, where she had the good fortune to interview Bob Guccione, who was just about to launch Penthouse to rival Playboy. She ended up working for him for £16 a week: “not bad for those days – enough to buy a new outfit every week at Biba”. She wrote a couple of books (the title of the first, How to Improve Your Man in Bed, has a perfect Mad Men ring to it) and eventually joined the Sunday Express Magazine, where (once again interviewing her old pal Guccione) she started writing her pieces in the first person, which wasn’t the custom then. The “Demon Barber” was born.

Now, perhaps all this sounds a little familiar to you. Much of this information – and much of interest that’s in this book – can be found written more carefully, and certainly at greater depth, in An Education. This first memoir was published in 2009 to wide acclaim, and its central story of the teenage Barber’s relationship with Simon, a much older man, was made into a fine film starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. If you haven’t read An Education, that’s the place to start – for A Curious Career is a curious concoction, an odd and, finally, not very satisfying mix of retold stories, reprinted interviews and hasty recollection.

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By now the tale of Barber lying to Julie Andrews when the actress asked if she had children (Barber denied the existence of her daughters to save precious interviewing time) has been recounted often; but it’s presented here rather as if it were brand new. Interviews that can easily be found online (with Marianne Faithfull, with Martin Clunes) are reproduced in their entirety for no better reason, one feels, than to pad out the book; interviews that are less easily accessible (with James Stewart, with Muriel Spark) are, alas, not included – but then if they were the reader might not purchase the author’s earlier collections of interviews. Clever old Lynn.

There is also a sense that, in the end, Barber isn’t really a natural memoirist. Towards the close of the book she reveals that she discovered, after An Education had been published, what happened in the end to Simon – “my conman”, she calls him. As he was so much older, it is unsurprising to learn that he died. Barber’s reaction is a pretty brisk “Phew!”.

Other people are her game. “To be a good interviewer you have to know yourself pretty well,” she writes: and in the most important sense at least, she does. She is “exceptionally nosy”, she tells us; but this applies best to her subjects. Introspective she is not. Over the long course of her remarkable, and curious, career, that nosiness has been served her – and us – pretty well. 

Erica Wagner is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize

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