The ghostwriter behind the Rolling Stones guitarist and David Bailey’s memoirs on tough topics, the pain of the’ 60s and why he likes to write about a woman next
Since co-writing Keith Richards’ award-winning bestselling memoir in 2010, James Fox, 75, has been one of the UK’s most successful ghostwriters. He became a journalist at 19 and worked for the Daily Nation in Kenya and the Drum in South Africa in the 1960s, before moving to culture, politics and celebrity for the Observer, the Sunday Times and Vanity Fair. He has also written two novels: White Mischief in 1982 and The Langhorne Sisters in 1998. Look Again, his biography with photographer David Bailey, was published last month.
In 2014 the Evening Standard’s London Diary called you « the ghostwriter of the wild man’s choice ». . How does that sit with you? Did you really do it? I think it started with Keith, and although I’ve known him for over 30 years [Fox wrote a profile for the Sunday Times in 1973, first with the guitarist] he was actually a wild man back then. I have been since I was 12. Year of age obsessed with guitar playing so I approached him to talk about what worked as a way out into the world. We then became friends, which was quite dangerous at the time for various reasons.
You said on a recent podcast that your friendship included what you euphemistically describe as a pair of « crushed aspirins. ». . Yes, some substances were definitely passed through the channel. But I knew from the start that he was brilliantly storytelling and had a fantastic memory, so I stayed with him. These stories had to get out. By the time his manager finally decided it was time, it had only taken about 20 years.
David Bailey didn’t know you before asking you to work with him. He is known to be argumentative. How did you deal with this job? When I went to his office to meet him and his assistants, I said the only clause I want to add to this contract is a courtesy clause and everyone fell out over the laughs. That helped. He had a very dysfunctional background – abandoned by his mother, an unfaithful father, so he was always struggling physically and mentally. I found his story very moving. People from the East End didn’t give anything away or make themselves vulnerable back then, but it was this Teflon coating that intrigued me. To get from there and then deal with people in Vogue who probably had never spoken to people with his accent before, and get your way.
You interviewed many of Bailey’s former partners, including ex-wife Catherine Deneuve and model Penelope Tree, an unusual approach to autobiography. Why was that necessary? Because his version of events was one he was comfortable with, a practical version that left out a lot. The women in his life are also very interesting, intelligent, and articulate. Penelope Tree was key [Fox interviewed her alongside Bailey]. She said to David, “This is your book – you have to be honest. « And he said, » Did you ever know that I was dishonest? « She said, » No, but I knew you’d change the subject. « It’s one of his tricks.
Why are people like Bailey mythologized? The 1960s was about mythologizing. I think people look back on it now – at least I do – as a nightmare. The sexual release was very painful. The idea that jealousy had been lifted [within sexual relationships] was deeply hurtful, especially for women. But I didn’t get that pain when people were talking about Bailey. Penelope was having a hard time with him, but she still loves him and is his friends now.
How do you start a ghostwriting project?. Never think of a chronological clipboard. Sometimes you have to keep having the same story over and over again. The fourth time you will get the details. These stories have flattened and blunted over time. You have to humanize them again.
How do you effectively ghost a person’s voice? I’m very attuned to the way people speak, which I think goes back to my childhood. I had a very bad stutter when I was 12 or 13; I spent my time watching people talk because I couldn’t. I loved how everyone had their idiosyncrasies. I still love that now. Bailey has those East End expressions and that intelligence, and when you mix those two things you get that economy and speed. Keith has great cadences that just fit into prose. I read Keith’s book aloud to him before we finished and he listened to the sounds of the sentences, not the facts, and took a musical point of view. The sounds are what writing is really about.
How do you spend your working day as a writer? Momentum is the key. I get up as early as possible before the interruptions begin – the doorbell rings, the dog needs a walk. Basically, start early. And go ahead!
What books are on your bedside table? Oh god, many, all half read. Anne Applebaum’s Wonderful Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and Breaking Up with Friends, about what’s going on in politics right now. Carmen Callils Oh Happy Day to her ancestors in Australia. Joan Didion. Lots from Laphams Quarterly, that incredible magazine that comes out of New York. Geert Maks In Europe, which I read over and over again. It is unparalleled in detail and history.
Which book would you give a young person? Poem of the deep song / Poema del Cante Jondo by Federico García Lorca, a bilingual introduction to his genius. It was his first major work, written at the age of 23. Beautiful, painful lyrics of love, death, alienation. Can’t go wrong.
Whose memoir would you like to write next? After Damiens [Fox is currently working on an autobiography with Damien Hirst], I have another project that I can’t talk about yet. After that, it would be nice to have a woman to write about and experience a completely different story. That’s when I go to the mind – I could write something else – but one thing seems to lead to another.
• Look Again by David Bailey to be published by Pan Macmillan (£ 20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop. com. Shipping costs may apply
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