In a previous career, I was a journalist who specialised in writing about the entertainment industry, celebrities, books and authors. I did this from the 1980s until 2008, when I became a university lecturer in media studies and journalism. In this series, “Long Ago Interviews”, I want to share some anecdotes from some of my more memorable interview subjects.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, I was books editor at the Sunday Star newspaper in New Zealand (now the Sunday Star Times). I had moved back to the big city, where I was brought up, after paying my dues from the age of 17 working at rural newspapers at Waipukurau in Hawke’s Bay and Warkworth, north of Auckland. I was still only in my early 20s when I became books editor of this major newspaper, but in those days, because we started so young, we were quite accomplished by age 23 or 24.
When I say I was books editor, this was an extra duty. I was primarily employed as the TV-page writer/editor, and before that the arts writer/editor of the Auckland Star Monday to Saturday. When the new Sunday edition was being planned, I sent the Editor—the big man upstairs who we lowly reporters barely ever saw—a proposal for a books page in the Sunday Star, because management had asked for ideas from staff and were prepared to give everyone a go. My proposal for a weekly books page was accepted, but it was additional to my role as arts editor then, later, TV editor. They paid me an extra $50 a week, but as all book lovers would know, it wasn’t about the money. I would be thrilled with anticipation every day as boxes of new books were delivered from publishers hoping to get a mention on the page.
Each week, as well as reviews by myself and other journalists happy to grab a free book (they got paid for reviews too, by the way), I wrote a news story about the book industry and did an interview with an author. It was a broadsheet newspaper, so there was lots of room.
As you can imagine, I was very busy, basically doing two jobs. As TV editor, every day I had to write a page of interviews and stories about local TV, and I also had to type out the program guide with witty comments! On Saturdays, I produced a TV lift-out. Then Sunday was thrown into the mix, though I’m not sure now if it was a dedicated TV page or just a news story or two.
“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him”
One of the interviews I remember vividly from this time was with the British author, Jeffrey Archer (now Lord Archer, but back then, plain old “Mr”). Before I write further, let me say I do not agree with his politics at all, and I wouldn’t comment on his private life, of which there are many versions (for an interesting article on truth versus fiction in his life, click here). Nevertheless, I have to say he was a most charming interviewee, humorous and talkative. In addition, he is one of only a very few among hundreds of authors I have interviewed who sent me a personally signed letter after the interview, thanking me for my time. I still have that letter.
Jeffrey Archer was extremely famous in the 1980s, and few authors could match his sales. He is perhaps best known for Kane And Abel, of which a 30th anniversary edition was released last year, and which alone has sold 37 million copies, according to Archer himself on his blog. I’ve read several of his books and enjoyed them immensely.
Anyway, Archer’s publishing company’s publicist had called me to set up an interview time, assuming I would go to his hotel. When I said that I was actually too busy to go out to an interview that day and that Mr Archer would have to come to the Star building to see me, the publicist was aghast:
“Mr Archer doesn’t go to interviews; you go to him,” she said.
I said that unfortunately, then, I would have to pass on the interview. She then got back to me with the exciting news that the author would indeed go to the journalist.
He duly arrived. I met him in the foyer, and up the rickety elevator we went in the ancient but quaint Auckland Star building, to an interview room on the editorial floor. He was with a young male assistant, who I prefer to think of as a sort of manservant (and I’ll tell you why in a moment).
Now, when I say interview room, think monk’s cellar. These rooms were just cubbyholes, really, with only a small table and a couple of chairs inside. Nothing on the drab grey walls, rather musty smelling, no windows. They were like interview rooms you see in those old hard-boiled cop movies. Nevertheless, I got him a bad cup of instant coffee in a paper cup and away we went.
Ask a rude question…
In the 1980s, young people still mostly lived by a lot of rules about how to behave in company and, especially, to have respect for their elders. You did not talk about money, religion or politics, as a rule, and you never asked a woman over 30 her age. But as journalists, we had to forget these rules, and we used to have to ask what I saw as tough questions, which you always kept until last. For Jeffrey Archer, the tough question I had to ask was, “How much money do you earn from your writing?”
He laughed and told me he had no idea. I don’t believe that for a moment, but he qualified it with some good material for my story. This is not the exact quotation, as unfortunately, I no longer have the clipping, but he answered something like this: “Let’s just put it this way. I have enough money to go anywhere I want to and to buy anything I want without having to check if there is enough money in my bank account.” He told me he had Louis Vuitton luggage, which was very impressive. He also told me that the sole reason he had started writing his first novel, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, was because he desperately needed money to stop himself going bankrupt.
One’s manservant has the pen
Another thing that has changed in journalism is that, in those days, you would never ask a celebrity for their autograph if you were a professional reporter. You would never show that you were “star struck”. This is the one time I broke the rules: I asked Jeffrey Archer if he would sign my paperback review copy of his book First Among Equals, which was what he was in New Zealand to publicise. He agreed, then held up his right arm with palm outstretched. Immediately, the “manservant” took a pen from his pocket and placed it in Archer’s hand. Archer signed the book, and handed the pen back to the assistant. I still have that signed paperback: you can see Archer’s signature and find out what happened to my copy of the book here.
I say “manservant”, because in New Zealand, we had nowhere like as rigid or apparent a class system as existed in England. No one else I knew or had interviewed had ever had someone else to carry their pen for them, including the then-Prime Minister, David Lange, who I met at the Beehive (as the Parliament Buildings executive area is known) in Wellington in the 1980s. Well, whatever the real reason the assistant had the pen, it makes a good story and is something that has stuck in my memory all these years.