In the process, what sort of — because a lot of your writing is sort of very meta about process —
Very meta, did you say?
It’s the way that you approach getting into the topic.
Because of various other sort of inadequacies like storytelling and observational stuff, the churning going on in the head… that’s providing certain amount of traction in a way that the story might be expected to in other kinds of writing.
Yeah, process about process, if you will. The reader is coming along with you on the ride of the thing that you’re writing. Just sort of curious about what route do you take with reporting and editing?
Well, this book was the first one I think I’ve ever written where while I’m at Heathrow… I think I say this, I had to buy a dictaphone and I did. What that meant is that it wasn’t just literally transcribing the interviews, which I didn’t do — just out of laziness — but this book, out of many others, was boring to write at first because it was just transcribing experience. I had my amazing free holiday and then I had to write a book to sort of justify the free trip. I had this amazing time. I knew what I thought about it.
There was nothing that there normally is in the writing process to make it enjoyable: to find out stuff, to discover what it is about photography or what it is about this. It was literally a labor of transcription, and it was really boring and then it just didn’t become any fun to me until I got to work on the language and alter things and all this kind of stuff. Normally, it’s not so boring at the beginning. It’s difficult at the beginning, but not super boring like that.
Maybe that’s because it was required, I guess?
Yeah, it was the nearest I had to come to do any sort of reporting. I guess the book started to become fun in the writing when I could get back to the way about its failure to be reporting. You know, not surprising, the bit that I most enjoyed writing was writing the “Beachbelly” [riff]. That was really a lot of fun, and all the fun in writing comes quite late in the day. Initially, it was just a question of getting it down. And then I realized the inadequacy of all my notes. You know, all this stuff. I was really learning as I went along, to be a reporter, and it took me quite a few days before I realized I had to take a photograph of the person, to let them speak their name. But when The New Yorker ran the extract, I realized here were all sorts of people, I didn’t have their names or their ranks.
Did you have to get fact-checked?
Yeah, but in a moment of genius, if you’ll forgive this bit of self-praise, I just referred the fact-checker to my friends at the Navy.
Did the Navy have to approve the book?
Oh, there’s no way that I would ever go along with something on that basis. But as it is, you know, they can’t complain. They were never gonna have any say over that. In the same way, you can never really enter into any kind of book which requires the approval of the subject, unless you’re a total hack. Then you just can’t do it.
Otherwise you’re one of the people trying to write about Sylvia and Ted.
Yes, exactly, yeah. You’re just their sort of fluffer girl, really, aren’t you?
It’s interesting to see how writers create tension when you’re talking about life, which is not always tense. What were your expectations going in about American military, and what did you kind of get out of it?
I knew I was going to like them, partly because all these books you read about Iraq and Afghanistan — whatever people think of the policies, the soldiers, and whatever they’re implementing, I always end up admiring what these people are putting up with. I was well disposed towards it because it was an American thing, so I’m always comfortable in an American setting, and I knew I wouldn’t have wanted to be on a British aircraft carrier.
Is it more dour?
I think it would just be that the class structure of the Royal Navy is so overt. The U.S. Navy is every bit as hierarchical. But, as was exemplified by that lovely Admiral Nora Tyson, it seems to me that there’s virtually no chance of somebody like the equivalent of her in the Royal Navy. It would be a straightforward, old-style representative of his class.
Who did you think was the most impressive?
I think Nora Tyson, the admiral, was pretty amazing. Partly because it was so mindblowing that she was an English major. And then that whole dynamo, down-home Kentucky manner that she has, and she’s running the whole fleet or whatever it is. The guy I was spending all that time with, Paul Newell, he was really cool, actually. Even though he was this religious nut, too.
What was it like to encounter religion on the plane?
Well, initially they led me to believe it wasn’t religious. But I don’t think he was sort of misleading me. I think they just didn’t realize how religious it was…
Because it was so part of their everyday?
Yeah, it was funny. I didn’t find it objectionable, but of course one is always thinking when one meets someone who believes in God, “Why are you so stupid?” And I didn’t have that reaction because… I don’t know why I didn’t. I was as much a hardline atheist, I wasn’t going to concede personally. But I didn’t sort of find it objectionable the way that I normally find something like that.
A lot of stuff that you write, clearly it’s infused by passion, you’re working something out, how do you get to do that as a writer? It seems economically difficult.
How do you get to not do it? You know, for me, writing has always been this thing of ongoing, self-funded education. It seemed to be the most viable way to continue that education, so, yeah.
I’m thinking more, say, the photography book. That was really just like a school project, you know. Go away for a year or two and then hand in your homework about photography. And yeah, came to the end of that book, and I emerged from it a kind of recognized authority on photography.
How did your book on the movie Stalker [ Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room ] come about?
I was commissioned to write this book on tennis and then I didn’t want to. And I was really in despair and then just started summarizing this film as sort of a distraction from that. Not with a view to publishing it, but just to not be depressed about being unable to write about tennis. Gradually, I thought, well, god this is a book — which no one will want to publish, or maybe they will want to publish it. To their great credit, even though nobody at the British publisher had seen the film, they did publish it. I was able to say to them, you know, because obviously in many ways it was a totally unfeasible book, especially in these times, and I was able to say all over the world there are people for whom this is not just a film but an almost religious experience. I’ve been proved right. Without question that is my greatest achievement as a writer. That was, I think I say it in the book somewhere, people talk about success as a writer, which typically means selling lots of copies. But to be able to publish a book like that, that was exactly the kind of success — sort of beyond my dreams, you know.
Yeah, you’re very idiosyncratic as a writer.
Yeah. Don’t try this at home, but as a career path it’s not advisable. But it was really, that was a very, very happy… Yeah, it was really, it all turned out nicely.