There have been loads of studies about people who hear voices in their head—I have a great interest in mental illness; I have lots of friends who have schizophrenia and psychosis and hear voices—and it’s very closely aligned to a gene writers and creative people have. Novelists say there’s always a point when characters start doing things you don’t want them to do and start saying things you don’t expect, and that’s because you have a little Gollum in your head. And it’s the same when you’re doing journalism. If you know what you’re going to write about a week in advance, you can tuck that into the back of your head, and it can quietly tick away, like yeast rising in a bowl. And when you come to write that column, often you find your subconscious has done the whole thing for you and you can just sit and transcribe it all.
That’s in THEORY! In practice, sometimes you’re not as organized as that. [Then,] it feels like a really dry, thankless fuck. It’s just horrible, you’re gritting your teeth hoping to get to the end of a piece. Thankfully I very rarely have that. One, because I have that sticky. And second, my husband is really, really good at commissioning me—he used to be an editor and he’s also a writer. He’s really good at taking something he’s seen in the paper and going, “You should do a column on that.”
You talk in Moranthology about some of your early mistakes, like trying to emulate other writers’ voices and being really brutal in your work as a rock critic to try to impress more senior colleagues. Any advice to young journalists on finding your own authentic voice?
The last 10 years have been an era of cynicism and snarkiness, of angry and outraged people thundering very polemic pieces—and that feels old hat to me now. I see why that form of writing is appealing, because it’s a bit like doing a bump of cocaine to give you some confidence when you walk into a party. Sitting down and being very angry and indignant, with an invisible army you’re speaking for, is a really good way of falsely giving yourself the energy to get through a piece. But it’s unsustainable. It’s wearying and it really lowers the debate, not just in the media but politically and culturally. We’re coming to this very polemicized—THIS IS VERY RIGHT! and THIS IS ABSOLUTELY WRONG!—stuff that you see not just in journalism but in TV shows or news shows now. And this is what’s turned people off politically. This is why people are disengaging from bigger subjects and a proper understanding of economics or politics or climate change, because all they see is people arguing.
And I think that’s a very male thing as well. I’m much more interested in coming at a topic from an odd angle, rewinding, and asking, “Well, why has a certain set of circumstances come about?” or projecting into the future. If you’re taking that kind of angle, it’s very easy to inject humor into it. And I’d far rather be conversational, or evocative, or describe something or try to explain something.
You landed a job as a teenager without a degree, and without doing the unpaid internship route that’s the norm now. Would your path even be possible today?
People have to be aware of how the ecosystem of the media is changing. I can’t see how any working-class kid would be able to become a full-time journalist now, because there just aren’t jobs available. You would just be told to go away and blog instead. And then, that horrible thing of, “It should be a privilege to have people read your stuff for free.” Well, no. That’s like when people [ask me], “Wouldn’t you rather work for the Guardian so 86 million people can read your work?” [The Times famously instituted a paywall in 2010.] But what’s the point of having 86 million people read my stuff who don’t care about me enough to pay me to write and pay my mortgage? That’s like having someone say they really, really love you and then stand by while you’re drowning. If you love me, you have to pay me or I can’t afford to do this anymore. I’m very much in favor of the press charging for what it does. I despair of newspapers that think they can give their content away for free online, because they can’t. The statistics already prove that they can’t.
You’ve interviewed a lot of icons—Keith Richards, Paul McCartney. How do you keep from getting starstruck?