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Talking on the job - Donald McRae

Author and The Guardian's chief sports interviewer Donald McRae on the background to his career in journalism, his road there and how books shaped the course of his life.

Brian Strahan: Am I right in saying your career in journalism came about through a want to be a novelist?

Donald McRae: That’s partly true – at least in the sense that, since I was very young, I knew I was going to be a writer. I’ve been very lucky throughout most of my life and one of the most fortunate aspects emerged early on. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from a pretty young age. It was just obvious to me, certainly from the age of about 13, I was going to be a writer.

When I think about it now it was a real help because I had no doubt. I was utterly sure that this is what I what I wanted to do…and that nothing would deter me from pursuing that aim.

I loved books and newspapers. At the same time I also loved sport and music and movies…but I already believed I would become a writer. So it was very simple. I knew I could write and I loved books…so this is what I would do with the rest of my life.

It seems naïve and almost absurd and so I can understand now why my parents worried about me. They became even more concerned when I said I was going to leave Johannesburg for London and become a full-time writer…despite the fact that I didn’t know anyone in London which was 6000 miles away from my home.

I was in my early twenties then and I was in awe of many great novelists – from Philip Roth to JM Coetzee – and so I hoped to become a novelist myself. Fortunately, fate intervened. While I was trying to write an appalling novel, that I never finished, I arrived in England and somehow managed within a few weeks to get a chance to write for the old New Musical Express.

The NME then had many great writers and I was excited to be writing for a paper I had read for years. I was only earning very small amounts but it was such a thrill. I worked as a freelancer for the NME for three years, while my novel went nowhere, but then I decided it was best to concentrate purely on book writing while doing a dead-end office job to pay the bills.

I sent some of my writing to a literary agent in London – and spoke about my hopes of writing a great book about life under apartheid in South Africa. She had seen some of my writing about working in Soweto as a very young English teacher and she said I showed an eye for non-fiction…for real life.

She also said it was too soon for me to try and write about South Africa. Instead she had an idea for me…and it turned out to be a book about prostitution in London. I spent three years researching that book and I met so many strange and compelling people that I decided that real life was really more interesting than fiction.

BS: What parts of growing up – school life and home life – nurtured your interest in writing?

DMR: Sport had a huge impact on my life. I always loved playing and watching sport – as well as reading about sport in newspapers and magazines. And the more I read about sport the more interested I became in writing. Music also had a profound influence. I loved reading about music and singers and groups. But, more than anything else, books shaped the course of my life.

I loved reading from a very early age and, as I grew up, the more challenging the books the more interested I became in the actual writing. At school, even though we lived in the midst of apartheid and I went to a state school in a pretty conservative South African town, I was incredibly lucky to have some very special English teachers.

They steered me in the direction of some great writers, and films, and that opened me up even more to the idea of becoming a writer myself. I think they could tell how much I enjoyed writing – compared to my yawning indifference to subjects like maths and physics. So they encouraged me…which gave me some self-belief that I might be able to write for a living one day.

BS: What was your path that led to what many would see as a dream job with the Guardian?

DMR: My first agent asked me if I still wanted to be a novelist once my first book, Nothing Personal, about the sex industry in London, was published. I said, ‘No…I’ve got an idea for a book about some strange boxers….’ This became the source of my book Dark Trade – which is about fighters like Mike Tyson, James Toney, Chris Eubank, Oscar de la Hoya, Roy Jones Jr and Naseem Hamed.

I spent five years researching that book and I was lucky enough to win the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. When I won the award again a few years later, for a very different book about Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, The Guardian approached me to ask if I would write a monthly feature for them. Within a year, in September 2003, they asked me if I would write their Sports Interview of the Week.

I hesitated as I was a full-time author then. I knew I still wanted to write books – but then quickly realised it was a wonderful opportunity. And ever since then I’ve worked as an interviewer and writer for The Guardian while continuing my career in non-fiction…and I’m now a couple of years into the researching and writing of book number eleven.

BS: Your interest in the story seems to be equalled by your interest in the person. Would that be accurate?

DMR: Definitely. I’m probably not a very good journalist because there are many times when I am far more interested in the person than the bare facts of a story. There are so many great and investigative journalists who unearth incredible stories. But rather than digging into the truth of what happened I am more interested in why did it happen? Why did a person act in a certain way? Why did victory mean so much to them – or defeat hurt them so badly?

I am also much more interested in the sportsman or woman as a real person rather than a sporting celebrity. I don’t care how much they might earn, or how many followers they have on Instagram, but I am interested in how they feel, as human beings, when they are most vulnerable or euphoric. I also know that their background has shaped or even scarred them. And so I am drawn to the human being and a desire to try and find out how they think and feel at key moments of their lives.

BS: How do you construct your final draft of an interview? Is it built around the interview itself or do you let what’s needed in the structure feed its way into the interview?

DMR: In terms of the actual written interview it’s shaped entirely by the contents of our discussion. I try and approach each new interviewee with a really open mind and attempt not to be judgemental. In this way I feel that the person being interviewed can talk openly. But if I interview someone for an hour that might produce a transcribed conversation of about 8000 words. I then need to choose which of those quotes are the most interesting. And once that’s clear to me then I will write the interview and include the most powerful or informative quotes – making sure that they are quoted correctly – while also adding writing of my own to provide some context and hold the interview together.

This means I will write four or five drafts…with the first being very long and totally free of any constraints. These are often easy to write as it just flows naturally. The difficulty for me is to then shrink it a draft in excess of 5000 words down to just under 2000 words…but this is a good exercise and so much of my own waffle gets stripped away. And, in the end, I hope we get a clear picture of the subject without much of me.

BS: How much preparation do you put into your subjects?

A lot. Research is key. For a typical interview I would spend a full day researching that person and preparing my questions. And then it takes at least a day, and sometimes longer, to write up the interview. I am also working on my book-writing at the same time…so my very understanding wife and three teenage kids know that I will work at least six days every week.

And when I’m approaching a deadline I have to work every day. But the great slice of luck for me is that, with the exception of those days when it does feel like a tedious old grind, it hardly seems to resemble work at all. I still love researching, interviewing and, most of all, writing.

DMR: Was confidence an issue at the start? Did you ever doubt your ability?

Doubt can be very useful. As clichéd as it sounds, the day you feel you’ve cracked it is probably the day to walk away. I always have nerves and even a little doubt before every interview. I am more confident with the writing because I feel in control then and I make sure I have enough time to really work hard.

But before every interview there is a little tingle of uncertainty, even worry, and I take this as a good sign. It shows that I care as much as always. But I have got better. I know that I can interview most people and so having experience clearly helps. It has got a little easier because my self-belief has grown. I am quite a shy person…and so, certainly at the start, I had to overcome that and remind myself that I was just talking to another person and there was no need to feel intimidated.

BS: What do you do with the interviewee who is reluctant or aloof?

DMR: I just keep banging away. If you have done your research and your questions are interesting enough then, eventually, you will open them up. But there have been occasions – no more than ten times in 14 years of doing these interviews for The Guardian – where I have been blunt and said, basically, ‘Look if this is so boring or uncomfortable for you then, fuck it, just be honest and let’s stop the whole interview.’ They usually then say ‘No, sorry, it’s cool…’ and away we go.

Sometimes having a frank exchange – after I have tried to be so polite – really shakes things up and we get somewhere quite interesting. But on the whole, especially lately, most interviewees have some idea of the kind of interview I would like to conduct and they’re pretty open to it. But because I stress how much time I need it also means that some interviews don’t happen…or they ask for copy approval which I can’t give. I’ve lost some potentially great interviews because I can’t accept certain terms or the interviewees are not willing to talk about specific subjects.

But, luckily, most agree and so we start from a mutual understanding as I will also have sent past interviews as examples to them or their agents.

BS: What do you read outside of the day job or do the two fuse into one?

DMR: I read fiction and non-fiction. It’s a curious mix and the most recent books I’ve read range from William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days [a beautifully written book about surfing which won the William Hill award last year] to His Bloody Project by Gordon Macrae Burnett [who has written a novel which defies easy categorisation…published by a tiny outlet in Scotland and shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year it’s about a series of murders in the Highlands in the 1860s…and it gripped me] to Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Books, Books, Books which is her intriguing memoir about being in The Slits during the punk era before she became a film-maker to David Szalay’s All That Man Is [a strange but involving series of stories that do not quite make a novel].

Right now I’m reading Hisham Matar’s The Return which is the book I love most out of this recent list. It’s non-fiction, a book about exile and returning to Libya as Matar writes about his father who was imprisoned and then disappeared. It’s understated but riveting. And it’s also a reminder to me that, at its best, I probably love great non-fiction more than even the finest fiction.

When I am approaching a book deadline I read less…mainly because I’m so knackered at the end of a working day. I also don’t want to get too distracted. But I think I’ve now reached the point where my style of writing is so clear to me that I am not unduly influenced by books I might have just read.

They’re often books by writers who are doing things I can’t do. I can love their writing but I think I’ve learnt enough not to then attempt to copy them. But it gives me great pleasure to read writers who very different to me. I guess each time I read a book that I love it simply refuels my interest in writing.

BS: What direction would you give to someone endeavouring to pursue a career in journalism?

DMR: I think any career in writing – whether it’s in publishing or journalism – is much harder now than when I started. Obviously newspapers are embroiled in a brutal financial battle…and publishers are also having to constantly look at how they make their business work. So it’s not easy to make a start. At the same time, however, there are ways of publishing your work independently that didn’t exist when I started. At the outset, for me, I needed a publisher to give me a deal or a magazine or paper to commission a piece.

So that was tough but things worked out for me. Now, it’s much harder to earn a living when you are starting out in journalism. But you can write and get your work online in the form of a blog…of course you still need to get it read which is where it’s tricky as there is so much material that everyone feels a bit swamped. But I still believe that good work eventually finds a home.

In terms of advice on the direction to take as an aspiring writer, I can offer two very basic points. Firstly, if you love writing then you’re already on the path. You will get knocked back and rejected and hurt. But if you truly love what you do then you’ll come back and try again…and again…and again. Eventually your work will get noticed and rewarded. Secondly, hard work underpins almost everything. I would encourage new writers to try and write every day.

Unless you’re some kind of genius or incredibly gifted, you will find that the harder you work the better you become. It seems ridiculously obvious…but even now I can see that the articles or books which have consumed me most are almost always the ones of which I’m most proud. And, finally, if you want to write just get to work. Talk less, unlike me here, and write more, as often as you can.

Donald's new book, In Sunshine Or In Shadow, is on general release.

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