Meeting Julian Barnes
December 3, 2014
How to conduct an interview:
If only I’d sat on the left hand side of Julian Barnes when we met, I could have spared us both a lot of embarrassment. That’s his deaf side and he wouldn’t have heard a word I said.
I met Mr Barnes at the Station Hotel in Hull. (He was due to talk at the university that evening as part of a Booker Prize tour). I’d misunderstood the invitation from my professor and thought it was going to be a private audience. It was not. There were a dozen other research students present, which kyboshed my plans to get matey with one of the country’s leading literary figures. I’d imagined fascinating Mr Barnes with my thesis, swapping classical references, and eventually reaching such an intellectual intimacy as to be the only person allowed to call him Jools. ‘Jools me old mucker, how’s the book going?’
That had been the fantasy. The reality was that thirteen research students and Mr Barnes congregated round a conference table, with me at the furthest point away from the Booker Prize winner, though, unfortunately, still well within range of his right (good) ear.
Mr Barnes carries himself with a stately grace and speaks in rich clear tones. You’d think that kind of measured eloquence would encourage a reciprocal level of composure, but it has the opposite effect on me. The more insightful and articulate someone is in my company, especially if they're famous, the more squeaky-voiced and incoherent I become.
Due to my anxiety over the author’s deaf ear and the distance between us at the table, I asked my questions with all the volume and subtlety of a market trader. Enquiries about recurring motifs sounded like I was trying to flog a pound of potatoes, and had Mr Barnes looking to my professor for help.
Despite the presence of the other post-grads, I felt I had a duty to my thesis to ask all the questions I’d originally planned for my ‘one-on-one’. I was torn between needing to get as much info as I could and not wanting to hog the proceedings. This introduced a sporadic hesitancy into my questions, causing my voice to rise and fall in a startling manner, and in turn causing Mr Barnes to look alarmed one minute and dumbfounded the next.
Not only was my delivery faltering, it was interminable; trains at the station were making return journeys faster than I could get to the end of a sentence. And then, in the hush that followed the epic length of each question, and with Mr Barnes too stunnded to respond immediately, I’d pipe up again and answer the question myself.
At the end of the session I asked Mr Barnes if it would be okay for me to email the remaining questions on my list. He said no. But he did offer to buy a pound of potatoes.