Essays: Bryan Appleyard |
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Bryan Appleyard

The star interview is one of the hardest tasks to handle in all journalism, so I thought it might be useful to put on display, for the benefit of beginners, just how an expert goes about shaping up the raw material once he has secured it. There are excellent reasons for thinking that Bryan Appleyard's interview with Monica Bellucci, obtained in 2004, remains a benchmark of the genre. First of all, it's got Monica, about whom I, even in my dotage, feel the same as Appleyard does, along with millions of other doting admirers all over the planet. And we feel that way, of course, not just because she is beautiful, but because she is talented. Second of all, Appleyard, appreciating both those attributes to the full, doesn't let awe throw him. Instead, his tactical sense, faced with this plenitude of stimulus, is sharpened rather than blunted: the sure mark of the veteran.

A journalist working over a wide range, if always at a high level, Appleyard employs a plain style, with no hoopla. The advantage of such unadorned transparency is that it doesn't interpose the writer's own personality between his notebook and the subject, and that kind of reticence really counts when you're interviewing a star – who is the main reason, never forget, that the reader is reading the piece. In view of that circumstance, the first essential is to make the star the centre of attention. Notice how Appleyard keeps himself out of it even when dealing with the difficult subject of the diva's physical attractiveness. His running gag about leaning forward draws attention to her, not to him.

There is a high proportion of recorded speech in the piece and it all comes from her. He captures her voice with only two tricks, and no more. Both of them are actual observations. Her habit of quoting her mother's admonitions as all beginning with "Monica, Monica" is legitimately treated as endearingly funny: a rare flash of self-regard in a personality which he otherwise records, believably, as unusually well balanced. And her trick of saying "leave" for "live" is exactly what Italians do, no matter how well they speak English. (Even Poles do it: that short sound for the vowel "i" can be awkward in the Slavic languages as well as the Latin ones.) If he had left that little mispronunciation out, he would not have been able to leave with himself, so he puts it in. But only a few times, and always observing the rule that the subject's way of saying things can be regarded as an item of entertainment only if she has plenty to say.

Monica, Monica has loads to say, and the amount of it her interviewer manages to register is a hidden tribute to his charm as well as his craft, because the tape recorder, which modern rules oblige him to use, can quite often be a gruesomely effective instrument for turning eloquence off, rather than on. Clearly he had plenty of taped talk to choose from, so he could afford to be selective in what he quoted. Quoting it, he uses no square brackets. Their absence is a sign that he occasionally neatened up what she had to say. Mercifully this is still possible when writing for a British outlet. Writing for the Americans, the journalist is obliged to indicate, with square brackets, even a single word that he has supplied. This acutely irritating extra punctuation stems from a few notorious occasions when prominent magazines were burned by a reporter who made quotes up, but the nervous aftermath is a horrible example of the American habit of fetishising detail. If you can, you owe it to your interlocutor to make her sound coherent, and if it takes fudging a few clauses closer together to do that, do it. But finally what Appleyard gives you here is the gifted siren in all her starry magnificence, and his biggest help in giving us so much of her is his hard-earned ablity to give us so little of himself.

Contrary to received wisdom, the star interview is one of the easiest assignments to secure early on in one's career. It will never happen in a big city, but when stars are operating out in the boondocks they can be surprisingly available to student newspapers and the like. What's hard is not to blow the opportunity. The surest way to blow it is to talk too much in an effort to prove to the subject that you know all about him or her. Antonia Quirke, in her excellent debut novel Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers (2007), gives an hilarious but all too convincing example. Overflowing with knowledge, the book's heroine is compulsively unable to let Jeff Bridges get a word in edgeways.

The lesson is plain. Don't, whatever you do, try to be the co-star. Get off the stage and turn up the lights. And don't dream, later on, having made something of a reputation, that you will ever get an interview on your name alone. Even a veteran like Appleyard finds it useful to have a base. If Monica Bellucci has been yearning to meet Bryan Appleyard ever since she read his approving opinions about John Ashbery's poetry (opinions I don't share, but what the hell, it's Monica, Monica's opinions that we are discussing here), nevertheless she will give him the audience mainly because the publicity people working for the movie they have got her pushing want her face in the Sunday Times. That influential publication is the fortress from which Appleyard operated for a lot of the articles which are preserved on his website. The upside of being sent on assignment from a powerful base is that it will get you through the door. The downside is that you will sometimes end up interviewing someone you don't admire. The thing to remember then is that very few stars, not even Matthew McConaughy, get famous without a reason: so it's still a story. The other thing to remember is that next week's story might be Monica, Monica – or, if such a thing exists, the male equivalent male equivalent.