Home > Writer Talk > Writer Talk: An Interview With Richard Moore

Writer Talk: An Interview With Richard Moore

richard-moore-photoTake two of my biggest interests, writing and cycling, combine them into one, and you have my interview with Richard Moore. His first book, In Search of Robert Millar, was one of the first cycling books I read and I still consider it one of the best cycling books I’ve read. Richard and I spoke a couple of days after the 2013 WorldChampionships. As much as I would’ve enjoyed talking cycling with him, I managed to keep most of the conversation focused on writing.

About Richard: Richard is an award-winning writer and journalist. He’s the author of several books: In Search of Robert Millar: Unraveling the Mystery Surrounding Britain’s Most Successful Tour de France Cyclist (2008), Heroes, Villains, and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain’s Cycling Revolution (2009), Sky’s The Limit: British Cycling’s Quest to Conquer The Tour de France (2011), Slaying the Badger: Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France Ever (2011), The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final (2012) and, Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of the World’s Greatest Race (2013). I’ve read them all and enjoyed each one of them. He also ghostwrote Chris Hoy: The Autobiography of Britain’s Most Successful Ever Olympian. He has written for numerous publications and hosts a weekly cycling podcast, The Humans Invent Cycling Podcast (available on iTunes). Additionally, his book, Slaying the Badger, is being turned into an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.

In our conversation, we talked writing and a little bit of podcasting. Here’s my conversation with Richard…

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CHRIS DIKES (CD): What led to you wanting to be a writer?

RICHARD MOORE (RM): Just loving reading, I suppose. I think reading is the starting point for most people. At a certain point at school, I discovered the joy of reading good writing. The first books that really clicked for me were books like Thomas Hardy. There was also the music I was into, there seemed to be a lot of thought put into the lyrics. I was a big fan of The Smiths and Morrissey. He spoke a lot about good books and had a lot of literary references in his lyrics. I suppose that made it quite cool in my eyes at the time. And then I’d always read newspapers. We had a newspaper delivered to the house every day and I read the sports pages in particular from when I was quite a young kid. In primary school, I briefly ran a school newsletter in Edinburgh, but it didn’t last very long. There was always an interest in writing.

CD: In one of your podcasts during the Tour de France, you mentioned the influence of Jeff Connor’s book, Four-Eyed and Legless. Was it his book that made you want to go into sports writing or was there something else?

RM: I think reading the sports pages of the newspaper gave me a real taste of sports writing. I don’t remember reading many sports books at all actually. Jeff Connor’s book was perhaps one of the first sports books I read. It was one I certainly enjoyed. When I got into books, I really loved literature and fiction. I went to study English Literature at University. I had a real taste for nineteenth century literature actually. I did my thesis on Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence and their depiction of women. I was always interested in literature. After I left University, I started reading a lot of mountaineering books and I really developed a taste for those- Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, and Stephen Venables. I tend to find a kind of book that I like and then I read all I can. I find cycling books quite similar (to mountaineering books). The characters are quite similar. They’re quite driven people with extreme personalities who tend to have a lot of time to think while they’re doing their activity. If they’re capable of processing those thoughts, they can turn those thoughts into good books. More recently, I’ve sought out good sports writing and there’s quite a bit of it out. But that wasn’t the driver in the first place.

I’m more interested in good writing than in the subject. I have read some fantastic non-fiction. One of the first books I read as a teenager was Nicolas and Alexandra by Robert Massie, a big thick book. I loved the way that was pieced together. Another non-fiction book I read was Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. I read that right before I wrote my first book (In Search of Robert Millar) and I found that quite inspirational. I certainly loved his approach to the subject and I copied that in my book about Robert Millar. I wanted it to be a sort of mystery story and for the author to be present in the story. It’s about the author trying to find something out and that was Jonathan Coe’s treatment of B.S. Johnson and I really enjoyed that.

CD: How did you get started writing?

RM: I was quite late to it. After I left University I started volunteering at a literary magazine in Scotland. I started writing the odd book review for them. Cycling was an interest so I started pitching article ideas to a cycling magazine and started getting the odd thing in there. It just kind of built up from that over a very gradual period of time. It wasn’t anything sudden. I didn’t get a job at a newspaper or anything like that. Just bits and pieces. When I started, I was very keen not to write about sport. That wasn’t my interest at all. It was literature I was really interested in and I was pitching all kinds of feature ideas about all sorts of literary ideas. Probably a bit too ambitious if I’m being really honest. That was the start of it for me.

CD: What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a writer?

in search of robert millarRM: I was also a cyclist, a racing cyclist, and one thing you learn is that there’s a direct correlation between hard work and results. In a sense, very clichéd and very obvious, but the harder you work at it, the more you get out of it, and the better you are at it. For me, working on a book, for the first one (In Search of Robert Millar), I probably did too much research, but the book was better for that. I think you really can’t do too much research. It’s like building the foundations of a house. They’re really important. I’ll be confident I can write a decent book if I can do the research and really know my subject.

The other thing is reading. You constantly improve or refine what you do and hone your talent by reading. All the time that you’re reading, you’re constantly thinking about whether something works or doesn’t work. The things that work you stow away somewhere and the things that don’t work kind of jar you when you read them. Reading is a way of really working at what you like and don’t like. It becomes an instinct. I think you can constantly hone that sense for what works and for what doesn’t work. It has become more and more important to me to read and to read lots and to read as widely as possible.

CD: You’ve written six books, you’ve written newspaper columns, and you write magazine articles. Is the writing process different?

RM: I find there to be a huge difference between them. Journalism gives you an adrenalin rush. I was saying this to a friend of mine today. Journalism is like a one-night stand versus a book as a long-term relationship. I definitely find writing books more fulfilling and more satisfying. Often when you’re working on a book, you’re working on an area where you don’t think anyone else is. Whereas with journalism, there are lots of you chasing the same story. It’s nice to be working on your own project and then you can work at your own pace. I find it’s easier to interview people when you’re working on a book than if you’re one of ten or fifteen or twenty journalists all chasing the same story from the same person. I much prefer the book side of what I do, but I must say that journalism is exciting, and in the moment. It’s nice to keep your hands in and do a bit of it.

CD: Where do you come up with ideas for books? I recall reading an article in one of the cycling magazines about the greatest Tours ever and you wrote a piece about the 1986 Tour? I didn’t know if that article was the impetus for the book (Slaying the Badger) or if you’d already been working on it?

RM: The idea for that book came about indirectly because I’d read a book by a colleague of mine. Tom English wrote a book called The Grudge. It was a book about a rugby match between England and Scotland. The entire book was based around one rugby match. I liked his treatment of it, the way the story filled in lots of background material and then built towards the match itself as the climax to the story. That got me thinking about what would be the best race to give a similar treatment. For me, the 1986 Tour was the obvious one. It was the first one I really watched, it was a brilliant race, and there was all this intrigue as well. I’d also been thinking I wanted to write a book about a rivalry, and again, for me, that race was perfect. It was a rivalry that had all the ingredients and the fact that they were on the same team just added intrigue. That’s how I came at that one.

That’s another reason for reading. You read books and you can see how different writers have approached a subject. Ideas come out of reading books. The idea for In Search of Robert Millar didn’t come from a book, but the way I approached it did. I was very much inspired by Jonathan Coe’s book. I’m constantly getting ideas from reading books. Some of them prove to be really bad ideas, not really worth doing, but there’s the odd one you get. I buy books all the time with a view to reading them and seeing what might I get out of them. Just looking at my bookshelves now… I like travel books and I buy a fair number of travel books. I don’t want to write a travel book, but books I do write incorporate some travel in them. There’s often the description of the place, which is important. You can pick up little things like that which are important as well.

CD: There is a similarity between travel and adventure books and cycling. Both are solitary acts.

RM: Yeah, definitely, a travel writer is on a journey. The essence of a good book is that of a journey, especially non-fiction books. You can pick up things from different genres. If you write sports books, I don’t think you should just read sports books. There’s lots to be gained from reading all sorts of books. You can borrow or be inspired by techniques used in fiction. The dialogue in fiction is worth studying to try and incorporate into non-fiction. In non-fiction books, you still have to dramatize some scenes so the obvious place to look is fiction and that’s what fiction does well. There’s lots of crossover.

CD: You’ve mentioned In Search of Robert Millar. Where did the idea to write a book about him come from?

RM: It (writing a book) wasn’t something I was thinking of a great deal. I was out in the pub with a friend who asked me if I fancied writing a book. I said, “Well, the obvious one for me would be a book about Robert Millar,” because I was quite intrigued about his story and wondered what had happened to him but I saw his disappearance as an insurmountable problem. This friend of mine, who was an editor, a sports editor at a newspaper, said, “Just write an in search of.” And the penny dropped; I thought his idea was absolutely brilliant, that’s how I’ll do it. The story didn’t depend on his cooperation or even me finding him. It was the story of me trying to find out what happened to him. That was quite a key moment. I made contact with an agent at that point and he liked the idea. I was lucky because there was a burgeoning interest in the UK in cycling books. There were a couple that had been done really well and Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike really opened up the market. But that was the moment; I was having a drink with a friend and him sort of asking me if I fancied writing a book.

CD: When you’re working on a project, at what point do you share the idea or the manuscript with someone else for feedback?

RM: Just the initial idea, I’ll talk about it with my agent. He’ll encourage me or not. If he likes the idea, I’ll work on a proposal- anything from a thousand words to five or six thousand words. I have an agent who is pretty involved in helping me to write and shape the proposal. We’ll often go back and forth on different drafts. He’ll finally take it around to different publishers and see if anybody’s interested and take it from there. I wouldn’t do anymore at that point.

Slaying The BadgerI’ve written a couple of books (Slaying the Badger and The Dirtiest Race in History) where a key part of the book has been my ability to get interviews with the protagonists, but I would never suss out that possibility in advance. I’ve always got the agreement for the book from the publisher and then worried about getting the interviews. One of the advantages of being a journalist is that you know how to get interviews with people and generally there’s always a way. If you can’t get an interview from somebody then that becomes part of the story. Why couldn’t I interview somebody? What have they got to hide? An example of that is The Dirtiest Race In History. I didn’t actually get an interview with Carl Lewis. I did meet him dirtiest race in historyand sat down with him, but he didn’t agree to an interview for the book. That does become part of the story and it’s not a problem at all. It just makes me go in a slightly different direction.

CD: If I remember correctly from the book (The Dirtiest Race in History), you write about there being the possibility of an interview, kind of like a carrot hung out there, but the interview never occurred.

RM: Yeah, I met him at the Nike store in London at a press event and did a twenty-minute interview with him with a couple of other journalists. That wasn’t officially an interview for the book. He didn’t officially agree to an interview for the book. But you make the best of what you’ve got. You obviously try to get as much as possible. I certainly didn’t think the book was contingent on him being fully involved. The obvious example was my first book, In Search of Robert Millar, where I didn’t meet him. Eventually, I had an email exchange with him. But I didn’t regard that as a problem. I think it becomes a defining feature of the book. You can write books about dead people and you can write good books about dead people. So if you can write good books about dead people, I think you can write good books about people who are alive and refuse to speak to you.

CD: The Dirtiest Race in History was a departure from your other books, which were all cycling-related. What was the reason for that?

RM: I was keen to do a non-cycling book just to prove to myself and I suppose to other people that I could. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a cycling writer. I wanted to branch out and do other books. That was one reason. The other reason and the main reason was I was so interested in the story. I loved that story, that race, everything about it. To me, there was so much mystery surrounding it, so much that was unresolved. It was exciting to try to piece together what happened. If I came across another, a great story in another sport, I’d definitely want to follow it up.

CD: When it comes to writing, what do you enjoy the most?

RM: The aspect I enjoy the most…I think it’s when you see the manuscript taking shape, when you get to a certain point, forty or fifty thousand words in, just beyond halfway, and you can see the road ahead, how it’s shaping up. That’s quite exciting. I think the first few chapters are always quite difficult. Those are the ones you end up going back to and making quite substantial changes. They’re quite difficult. I enjoy having a manuscript and then going back, making changes, trying to make it better.

CD: And what do you least like about writing?

RM: The aspect I enjoy the least is the process of trying to setup interviews with people. It always takes much longer than you think it will. And then, just making the arrangements, travel arrangements to see people and hoping against hope that they’ll actually be there. For The Dirtiest Race In History, I did a sort of tour of America where nothing seemed set in stone. I’d be arranging to go and see Calvin Smith, but I hadn’t heard from him. It was quite stressful. You’ve booked flights, hotels, and there’s always the chance that it won’t come off and then you’ll have a complete waste of time and money. I find that pretty stressful and don’t really enjoy that part of it all. But when you’ve done a really good interview with someone and you walk out of their house or wherever, that’s a real buzz. Paul Kochli, for Slaying The Badger, I went to see him in his remote house in Switzerland in the mountains when it was really snowing. It was a real epic journey just to even get there. I went in and stayed for dinner and he was fantastic and interesting. I came away on a real high. It can be really satisfying and rewarding in the end. Before the interviews actually happened, before you’ve got them sitting down in front of you, there’s an awful lot of stress and hassle and worry that it won’t happen. I don’t really like that part of the process.

CD: When it comes to writing, what do you find to be your biggest impediment?

RM: It’s hard to know when you’ve got enough research and you never feel like you have done enough. You never get it (the research) all finished before you sit down and start writing. You’re doing a bit of writing and then you’re constantly going back to do other interviews or a bit more research. In an ideal world, you’d love to do all your research and then sit down and write the book, but it never happens like that.

CD: You write books, magazine articles, columns, and host a podcast. I would think juggling all those endeavors might present a challenge to writing.

RM: That’s the thing as well. You can never carve out absolutely one hundred percent dedicated time. That again would be an ideal scenario where you don’t have any other work on and you can just focus entirely on that big project, but it never happens like that. You’ve always got other commitments, which take you away from it. I do like to go away and work on a book. For The Dirtiest Race In History, I rented a chalet in Chamonix and went there for a month, just to get started on it. When that’s all you’ve got to think about, then that’s great.

tour de france 100CD: Your latest book, Tour de France 100: A Photographic History of the World’s Greatest Race, seems to be a bit of a departure from your previous books. How did that one come about?

RM: It was a project I took on because I didn’t have anything else on at the time. The publisher came to me with it. I thought it sounded like fun and it was. It was much more work than I thought it would be, but that’s usually the case. I’ve followed the sport for a long time but there’s a lot I didn’t know about the history. I really learned a lot and I enjoyed that part of it. I’d definitely be open to doing something like that again.

CD: In a recent podcast, you mentioned you were working on another book. Is that something you can talk about at this time?

RM: Yes, I’m working on one, provisionally called, Etape, a book of twenty chapters with each chapter telling the story of a stage in the Tour de France. They’re all stages in my lifetime, apart from a couple in the 1971 Tour, stages that Merckx rode. Every chapter is interview based, so I’ve tried to interview the protagonists from each stage. I’ve got the Merckx ones from 1971, the Hinault stage in 1981 over the cobbles which he won, Chris Boardman in the Prologue, Claudio Chiappucci to Sestriere in 1992, Greg Lemond into Paris in 1989, Luis Herrera up Alpe d’Huez, and there’ll be a couple of others in there that will be quite interesting. I’ve tried to pick stages that are famous, that everybody knows, but others are sort of quirky and unusual, like the famous stage from 1992 with Frans Maassen and Marc Sergeant. Their directors, Peter Post and Jan Raas, hated each other and ordered the riders not to work with each other. The riders literally stopped pedaling and allowed Jean-Claude Colotti to win the stage. That created a huge scandal and they got into a lot of trouble from the Tour organizers. I’ve got the story of that stage and the background and the context of it, along with the fallout of it, and how they made up. I’ve tried to tell some of the great ones as well as some of the quirky ones.

When team tactics influence the race, it’s quite interesting. Another stage I want to include is the crosswind stage from this year. I think that’s a great story. I’ve also got an interview with a little-known rider, Jose Luis Viejo, who won a stage in 1976 by twenty-two minutes. He holds the record for the biggest ever margin of victory in a Tour stage.

CD: Also, on the podcast, the subject of ghostwriting came up? Have you ghostwritten any books?

RM: I ghostwrote Chris Hoy’s autobiography (Chris Hoy: The Autobiography of Britain’s Most Successful Ever Olympian), that’s the only one I’ve done. I enjoyed it. I’d be up for it again.

CD: It seems that ghostwriting would be a special skill. Not only are you trying to tell the person’s story, but you’re also trying to capture the person’s voice?

RM: I didn’t find that too difficult with Chris because we have very similar backgrounds. Growing up, our houses were about five hundred meters from each other in Edinburgh. I knew all the people he was talking about. I knew when he started cycling and who he’d worked with.

With ghostwriting, you’ve got to try and be faithful to the person’s voice. I’ve done a lot of ghostwriting of columns in newspapers and obviously that’s on a much smaller scale than a whole book. It’s just the case of listening to the person and trying to capture the way they speak, their turn of phrase, but polishing it a little, obviously. When you quote somebody at length in a book, you try to be faithful to the way they talk and it’s similar to ghostwriting. It’s a voice you’re trying to capture, not the way that they write but the way that they talk. It’s a two-way process where you sit down and talk to somebody and then you write. Sometimes, it’s a case of writing what they said. If it’s somebody who’s quite articulate, like Chris Hoy, you don’t have to do that much. You don’t put words in their mouth. With Chris, it was a two-way process where he read everything very, very carefully and came back with lots of feedback, additions, and changes and so on.

CD: I saw recently where you’d re-tweeted something about an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary based on Slaying The Badger.

RM: Yeah, John Dower, who made a film about Bradley Wiggins last year, is making a 30 for 30 documentary based on Slaying The Badger. He’s been out to see Greg Lemond twice, he’s interviewed Hinault, Andy Hampsten, and others. I’m very excited about it. He’s actually working quite hard on it at the moment with a view to finishing it very soon.

CD: Do you have any role in the documentary?

RM: We’ve spoken quite a bit on the phone and I’ve met John several times to talk about it but I don’t know anything about the film world at all. I think it’ll be quite different from the book and because it’s an ESPN film, there’ll probably be more Greg Lemond than there will be Bernard Hinault. But one of the things that’s interesting, in speaking to John, is that they really enjoyed meeting Hinault. I think they found themselves absolutely fascinated by him. He’s a brilliant character.

humans inventCD: How did the Humans Invent Cycling podcast come about? I know you’ve done podcasts at the Tour de France in previous years, but this podcast has continued after the Tour? 

RM: We’ve always done a podcast (at the Tour de France) as an add-on, as an extra. It’s always been something we’ve done at the end of the day if we’ve had time. I’ve always enjoyed doing it and we’ve had a really good reaction from people to it. Before this year’s Tour, we put our heads together and thought about getting somebody to sponsor it. We approached Sharp and they and Humans Invent have helped us do it. The initial plan was just to do one at the Tour, but they were really happy with it and they could see we’d built an audience doing it so they were keen to carry on. It’s great fun. It’s something I think we (Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe) really enjoy doing. It’s a bit of variety to the working week. When you’re writing all the time, it can be pretty isolating, a lonely occupation. It’s nice to do something that’s genuinely collaborative like that.

CD: You seem to have a nice mix of back and forth conversation about cycling as well as interviews with various people in the sport.

RM: We’re able to say things in a podcast that we’re not able to say in an article. I’ve also noticed people have a different relationship with the spoken word than they do to the written word. The feedback you get on stuff that you write, especially articles and newspapers, can be quite negative. Whereas with the podcast, it’s very different. I think that’s because it’s a far more intimate thing. It’s like listening to some people have a conversation. This is quite a new experience for us… to be getting positive feedback (laughter). I think you can put across ideas and you can explain the nuances of what you’re saying more easily in conversation than you can in an article where your words appear in black and white.

CD: I would imagine you get tired of talking about doping in cycling and I think it can be become difficult to write an article about doping and not get a lot of negative feedback- stuff such as you guys are against the sport, you have nothing positive to say- but in listening to your podcast during the Tour talking about Froome and even during the Vuelta talking about Horner- you can hear tone of voice, a conversation, a back and forth –

RM: Absolutely. In an article, you’re forced to take a position and you don’t always have a position or it can be subject to qualifications, doubts, clauses, that can sometimes make an article very cluttered and pointless. In conversation, you can explain there’s this, there’s that, and maybe there’s this also. Daniel and Lionel, they bring different viewpoints and knowledge and experiences, and they can help you come to some kind of conclusion. The thing with doping is that none of us know. It’s something that lends itself well to discussion, because none of us really know. We can have educated guesses. I think during the Tour, with Froome and Sky, there was a sort of pressure to say, “Do you think they’re doping, yes or no?” And in the context of podcast, we can talk about why we don’t think he (Froome) is and here’s why. We can talk about some of our experiences with the people involved, because we do have long histories with the people involved in that team (Sky) and I think that’s relevant. It’s never as simple as yes or no. There might be people on the team you’re not sure about but there are people on the team you do feel sure about. You can put all that across in a podcast more easily than you can in a lot of articles.

It’s why I love books as well. In a book, there’s the space to really deal with a complex subject. It’s far more easily dealt with in a book than in an article, where you’re sometimes forced to focus on one point.

CD: In a sense, a podcast is like a book, in that you’re asking this person to engage in a conversation and you want to explore a plethora of ideas and take them on a journey and see where it goes.

RM: I think you can be ambiguous and ambiguity is not necessarily bad. You don’t have to have a hard and fast rule on anything. The world isn’t black and white, good guys and bad guys. It’s complex. Slaying the Badger is a perfect example. When I started off with that book, I thought it was the story of a good guy and a bad guy, but it’s really far more complicated than that. And more interesting.

***

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Richard Moore on writing (and podcasting).

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Categories: Writer Talk
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  1. June 22, 2014 at 2:30 pm

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