Authors on Authors
Peter Conradi, journalist for The Sunday Times and veteran non-fiction writer, co-wrote the book The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy with Mark Logue, the grandson of Lionel Logue, speech therapist to King George VI who ascended to the throne after his brother abdicated on the eve of World War II.
Laurel Zuckerman: Who were the writers who made you first want to write?
Peter Conradi: It would be difficult for me to point to any writer who has been a particular influence. It was while I was studying at university in Oxford, where I read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, that I first became involved in journalism, working for and then editing Isis, the university magazine. From there, I went to work for Reuters, the news agency, before moving into newspapers. After many years of journalism, it seemed natural for me to start to write non-fiction books as well.
PC: I was based as a journalist in Moscow from 1988 to 1995, initially for Reuters and then for The European, a newspaper that, unfortunately, no longer exists. It was while I was there in 1992 that I wrote my first book, The Red Ripper, a “true crime” book about Andrei Chikatilo, a Russian serial killer who murdered 52 people, and whose trial that year was a huge event. I wrote these – and subsequent -books through a literary agent and it was this same agent who approached me in May last year and asked if I wanted to work with Mark Logue on The King’s Speech.
I was not sure, because there was very little time: for commercial reasons, the book had to be out and on the shelves by that November in time for the US release of the film, The King’s Speech, which meant I would have only about three months to write it. I could see this was not going to be easy: I have a demanding day job at The Sunday Times and I was also busy finishing another book, Royal Europe (to be published in French by Editions Plon on April 28), about Europe’s royal families.
After hesitating for a few days, I agreed – and although it meant a very busy few months, I am delighted in retrospect that I agreed, given how successful the book has been: it’s up in the top 10 of both the (London) Sunday Times and New York Times best seller lists and is being translated into more than a dozen languages, including French.
LZ: What was the basis for your collaboration? What did each of you bring to the book?
PC: It was quite simple: Mark Logue provided and transcribed his grandfather, Lionel’s diary and letters and also carried out other research to fill in the various gaps in our knowledge, by going through newspaper archives, shipping manifests and other documents. He presented me with all this material and it was my job to go through it and use it as the basis on which to write the book.
LZ: One of the great difficulties of non-fiction is not to let documents and facts overwhelm the story. How did you achieve this?
PC: In writing non-fiction books, as with journalism, there is one simple rule: the aim is not to produce a summary of the material but rather to tell a story that is based on the facts. If you always keep that in mind, then it should be possible to keep readers’ interest.
LZ: The King's Speech is, as everyone now knows, also a terrific film. Did the film change the focus of the book? Were there elements that were added or left out that make a big difference? Did you have a role in the making of the film -- beyond writing the book on which it's based?
PC: The relationship between the book and film is an unusual one, as Mark Logue and I have found ourselves explaining many times over the past few months.
A few weeks before director Tom Hooper was due to start shooting the film in London in summer 2009, Mark was approached by the film makers and asked if he had any material relating to his grandfather. A search in his attic revealed not just Lionel Logue’s diary, but also a mass of other letters to and from the King, as well as other extraordinary documents. This was a godsend to Hooper, who made last-minute changes to the film to incorporate a lot of this. The film was a biopic or docu-drama rather than documentary, however, and Mark became convinced that there was scope for using all the material he had found as the basis for a non-fiction book. Thus, it’s not a case of the book of the film or the film of the book, even though both are based on the same true-life events. For this reason, while both have at their heart the real-life relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue, they differ considerably from one another.
While Mark acted as a consultant on the film, I had no involvement with it. Although I had the opportunity to see an early screening film while I was writing the book, I decided against doing so, since I was concerned I might then inadvertently include some of its fictional elements in our – non-fiction – book!
LZ: Until now (much to my despair) the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson have been cast in a romantic light, often as fashion icons. The King's Speech gives us a glimpse of Edward's other, politically disastrous side. How important was this to you and Mark Logue in the writing of the book?
PC: Edward VIII is an extraordinary character – and one about whom we will hear a lot more this year: two biographies of Simpson, both promising fresh revelations about her, are due to be published in the next few months. And then, of course, there is Madonna’s film, W.E. to look forward to.
Edward obviously plays an important role in our story: if it had not been for his abdication in December 1936 in order to be free to marry Simpson, then Bertie would never have become King George VI, but this not primarily a book about him.
That being said, Edward did not get off to a good start as King and I don’t think we would have improved if he had managed to stay on the throne. There is little doubt he did his country a great service by abdicating.
LZ: How did you learn your craft?
PC: After leaving university, I was fortunate enough to be accepted by Reuters onto their graduate trainee scheme, which was based very much on practical journalistic work rather than some kind of abstract communications theory. I see my books as an extension of my journalism. That being said, one never stops learning.
LZ: What advice would you give to a non-fiction or memoir writer?
PC: A huge number of books are published every year – probably far too many. So for that reason, you should choose your subject carefully and also think commercially: even if your main motivation is not financial (and it shouldn’t be since there are other easier paths to becoming rich!), it is obviously satisfying to have as many people as possible reading your work.
For that reason, while you are undoubtedly fascinated by the story of the person or event that forms the basis for your proposed book, how many other people will be? You should also probably ask yourself what new and different you will be bringing to the subject. Have you had to access to some material that no one else has been able to see or maybe had the opportunity to interview people who have never spoken before? If this is the case, then this should make it much easier to interest the newspapers and other media in your book when it comes out. This should then translate into sales. A link with a film, as we have had with The King’s Speech, helps enormously.
As an experiment, try writing a paragraph or two about your book of the sort that would appear on the back cover and show it to friends. Ask them if its contents would make them want to buy such a book. If not, then you have probably chosen the wrong subject – or perhaps just the wrong friends.
Peter Conradi will present and sign The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy at WH Smith on March 14 at 7 pm.
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