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MB Q&A: Toby Young, The Sound of No Hands Clapping

Professional persona non grata Toby Young tells us why some members of the media will call off their vendettas long before his wife does, and reveals which of his writings should really have his enemies running scared

- July 10, 2006

Meet Toby Young at mediabistro's July 12 celebration and reading of The Sound of No Hands Clapping.

mediabistro: You've worked within multiple industries: theater, journalism, books and filmmaking: What's the relative bridge-burning quotient in each? Which industry (or individuals within it) forgives quicker, which forgets, and which will never stop punishing you for prior offenses?

Toby Young: The general rule is that success absolves you of any sin. In my first book, for instance, I was pretty heretical about Condé Nast, but I got away with it because the book did quite well. Once it got onto The New York Times' bestseller list, Si Newhouse had to call off his assassins. If it had done badly, by contrast, I think I would have disappeared without a trace. (This may be a total fantasy on my part. It could be that Si is completely unaware of the book to this day.)

There is an exception to this rule: actors. Woe betide the writer who dares to criticize an actor—and the better known the writer, the more heinous the foul. For the past five years, I've been the drama critic of the Spectator (Britain's equivalent of The New Yorker) and I don't think a single actor I've given a bad notice to has forgiven me. They have the memory of elephants.

This reminds me of an anecdote related by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Frederic Raphael. It dates back to the 1970s when he was writing plays for British television: "An actor came up to me and asked whether I thought that the hydrogen bomb really represented a threat to the future of the human race. I answered with a lot of on the one hand, and then again on the other. I had given him, he said, a lot to think about. Another actor sidled up to me and said, "May I say something? When an actor asks whether you think that the human race is threatened by atomic weapons, the required answer is, 'I think you're giving an absolutely wonderful performance.'"

mediabistro: How do you follow up a success like your previous book? Was it easier or harder to get started on The Sound of No Hands Clapping?

Young: Undoubtedly much harder. I knew that people would be gunning for me after the success of the first book and that made me much more self- critical. I'd write a chapter, read it back, and then screw it up into a ball and hurl it across the room, saying, "It's going to have to be a lot better than that."

In the end, after several deadlines had sailed past, I just decided to get on with it. I realized there was no point in worrying what the critics would say because they'll all say the same thing: "I loved the first one, but this one sucks." And, of course, some of the critics saying this will be the same ones who said that my first book sucked five years ago.

mediabistro: Who/what friends or bigwigs have you alienated since your latest book? How about those you pissed off around the time of the first one—have any come back around?

Young: The Sound of No Hands Clapping was published in America on July 4 and doesn't come out in Britain until September 7, so it's too early to say. I'm hoping not to receive any threatening letters from high- powered attorneys, which I did first time round. Having said that, I did receive a call from Stephen Woolley, the guy who's producing the movie version of my first book and who appears as a character in the latest one. He said he wasn't particularly delighted with the way I've portrayed him—and then added, as if the two things were entirely unconnected, that he's arranged to review it for The Times of London.

mediabistro: What do you think about the "fake writer" controversies of late, for example, James Frey and Kaavya Viswanathan?

Young: Well, those are two different controversies. In the case of James Frey, he could have avoided all the trouble by including a simple disclaimer at the beginning of A Thousand Little Pieces admitting that he'd altered a few of the facts. It's only because he tried to pass off everything in his book as 100 percent true that he got busted.

I've always made it very clear that only 95 percent of my books are true. It probably helps that my memoirs are supposed to be funny. I think readers grant authors a certain latitude if they make them laugh. David Sedaris is a case in point. No one reading a book by him thinks that every story he tells happened exactly the way he describes it. They know he's given things a little twist in order to make them funny, in the same way you would if you were telling a story to a group of friends in a bar.

Kaavya Viswanathan has been accused of plagiarism, which is a very different charge. The thing that amazes me about cases like hers is why the authors don't bother to put what they've lifted from other sources in their own words. I mean, even when I copied out large chunks from text books in my school essays I knew enough to do that. I do feel sorry for Kaavya Viswanathan, though. It's terrible for a writer's career to be ended at such a young age. I hope she has another go at writing a book, only this time all in her own words.

mediabistro: Where do your memoirs land on the authenticity spectrum? Is there more pressure now to quantify how much you massaged actual events to make them entertaining to readers? Did this come up between you and your agent, editor or anyone else at Da Capo?

Young: I made it very clear to my editor at Da Capo, both in the case of How to Lose Friends and The Sound of No Hands Clapping, that I've given some of the stories in both books a bit of top spin. He responded by saying he wouldn't have expected anything less and that, in fact, he'd be very disappointed if I hadn't made some things up. I've kept a copy of that email because I have this terrible vision of some diligent journalist going through both books with a fine-toothed comb and teasing out all the fabrications. If that ever happens, at least I'll be able to prove that I never tried to hoodwink my editor.

mediabistro: What do you think of Oprah? Is she good for publishing?

Young: Yes, undoubtedly. I'm a huge fan—and I'm not just saying that because I'd like to be on her show. What's not to like about the fact that she promotes books? The only people who object to it are snobs who don't like the idea of their own treasured little habits being taken up by the hoi polloi. Literary culture is in decline and anything that slows that process down is to be applauded.

mediabistro: What are you working on right now? What will your next book be about? If you don't know, what are you leaning towards?

Young: I've just co-authored a sex farce about the Royal Family that's debuting in an off-West End theatre on July 20. It's the second play I've written with Lloyd Evans, a fellow journalist whom I also share the theatre beat with at the Spectator, and I hope we'll write several more. Plays don't make any money—at least, ours don't—but it's tremendously good fun writing them and putting them on. One of the best things about playwriting is that the author is king. The director literally can't change a word without the writer's consent. That's very different from the movie business, obviously, and that's one of the reasons successful screenwriters are so well paid—it's a way of compensating them for being so incredibly disrespected. As one screenwriter said about working for the Hollywood studios: "They ruin your stories. They trample on your pride. They massacre your ideas. And what do you get for it? A fortune."

mediabistro: What is the state of book publishing—best and worst thing about the industry right now?

Young: It's a winner-take-all economy. If you're in the winner's enclosure, that's great, obviously, but if you're not, it's terrible. The number of authors who actually make a living from book-writing in the United States—and I'm talking about proper books, rather than text books— is less than 200. As a career choice, writing books is about as rational as playing the New York Lottery. Still, there are compensations. You get to describe yourself as a "published author" at parties and prestigious Web sites solicit your opinions about stuff.

"I write down every juicy piece of gossip I hear, particularly about celebrities. I can't publish any of it now because of the libel laws—it's all rumor and hearsay, obviously—but if I wait for the subjects to shuffle off their mortal coils, I'll be fine."

mediabistro: How long can you make a living going places, then being cast out? At a certain point, will you have to live in a cave?

Young: I think I have one more memoir in me, then I'm going to wait 25 years, and start publishing my diaries. Otherwise, as you say, I'd have to live in a cave. The great thing about the diary form is that you really can burn all your bridges there because you're so close to death by the time they're published that you've got nothing to lose.

I started keeping a diary four years ago and I think I've already accumulated enough material for at least one volume. I write down every juicy piece of gossip I hear, particularly about celebrities. I can't publish any of it now because of the libel laws—it's all rumor and hearsay, obviously—but if I wait for the subjects to shuffle off their mortal coils, I'll be fine. You can't libel the dead. Or, rather, you can, but they can't sue you for it. As Mae West said, "Keep a diary and some day it'll keep you."

mediabistro: The current obsession with celebrities was just picking up steam when you came to New York as a journalist in the mid-90's- does the fact that popular culture is fixated on celebs these days make your life/job any easier, considering your area of expertise (pissing off big names, then documenting it)?

Young: I'm interested in celebrities as a collective group but I can't muster much interest in individual celebrities any more. They all tend to blend into one another. Like most other journalists, I'm waiting with bated breath for the public to turn on the celebrity class, but every time you think people's interest in them must have peaked, it then increases exponentially. Indeed, I think it might even be possible to come up with a similar rule to the one about microprocessor speed: the number of column inches about celebrities in the national press doubles every 18 months. One of my long-term projects is a novel called Starmaggedon about a dystopian future in which celebrities have become the underclass. Realistically, though, I don't think that's going to happen for a very long time.

mediabistro: With the focus on family life in your latest book, and the associated revelations, some might accuse you of going soft. Share a recent story/anecdote to the contrary.

Young: One story that isn't in the book is that a day after my first child was born I waited for my wife and baby to fall asleep and then crept out of the house and went to a party. Unfortunately, for the rest of the evening I kept bumping into my wife's friends, all of whom asked what on earth I was doing out drinking given that Caroline had had a baby 24 hours earlier. I managed to sneak back into the house without waking up my wife, but the following day all her friends called her to tell her they'd seen me out the night before. My marriage still hasn't recovered from that.

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Rebecca L. Fox is mediabistro's features editor.

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