My interviews with the Marshawn Lynch of writers

Some people like famed writer Patrick O'Brian want to concentrate on the work they are passionate about. Is that so bad?
Crosscut archive image.

Marshawn Lynch is ready to defend the Super Bowl title - and so are his more talkative teammates.

Some people like famed writer Patrick O'Brian want to concentrate on the work they are passionate about. Is that so bad?

Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawk’s star running back, is famous for his desire to avoid sitting and answering the media’s questions. Hostility to the media is common among people whose fame relies on it, but it is not restricted to athletes. There are plenty of literary figures who detest the probes of inquiring minds — think of semi-recluses like Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee.

We understand the need for solitude and control in the case of creative types, and honor it. Authors, however, also play in a public arena, usually less raucous than a football stadium but still often a circus of distractions. With a unique soul like Lynch — an artist of the running game — maybe we should cut him some slack. Think of him as Emily Dickinson in shoulder pads.

The saga of Lynch puts me in mind of another popular semi-recluse whose work was beloved by millions and who enjoyed the fruits of adoration — and its monetary rewards — but loathed interviews and fuss. In 1995, I was tapped to interview this man, the author Patrick O’Brian, beloved for his series of Napoleanic era sea stories, the so-called Aubrey/Maturin novels. They have been described as the successors to the works of C. S. Forester, or as “Jane Austen-at-sea.” They are sensitive and dramatic historical novels, written over 30 years, that examine all of human life, a tumultuous period in world history, and the intricacies of male friendship.

O’Brian was an intensely private man who lived and wrote in relative obscurity in the south of France near the Spanish border, where he’d moved from Britain in the late 1940s. His stories developed a following, and by the 1990s he had became the George R.R. Martin of naval fiction, a popular cult figure whose books sold in the millions of copies and readers waited with bated breath for the next installment.

As his fame grew, demands on his time — author appearances and interviews — began to eat away at him. O’Brian was very loath to have his private life examined — and it was a controversial life with a tragic upbringing and first marriage — but more than simply protecting a past, he seemed determined to protect the zone he’d created that allowed him to create. Still, as his popularity grew, he did some rare public appearances. In 1995 he went on a U.S. book tour arranged by his New York publisher, W.W. Norton. He would hit only a few select cities — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York and some others. The format was on-stage interviews — not your usual bookshop signings. I was tapped to interview him on stage in the two Northwest cities on that tour, Seattle and Portland.

I was — and am — a huge O’Brian fan, and foolishly agreed to do it. The minute I said “yes,” I became ridden with anxiety. This interview was a public performance for the interviewer as well as the interviewee, and I wasn’t sure I’d be up to that. But the organizers told me that it was very important that O’Brian’s interviewers be deeply familiar with his work, and I fit this bill. But my nervousness went higher when I realized the interviewers in other towns included people like Richard Snow, Robert Hass, John Hightower and Charlton Heston  — celebrities in their own right.

I was made more nervous because I knew that O’Brian hated interviews on principle. A few years before, he had told Francis X. Clines of the New York Times that "Question-and-answer is not civilized." He also asserted the right to keep his private life private. O’Brian, a man of culture, high literary achievement, a close friend of people like Pablo Picasso and Simone de Beauvoir and whose work was consider by some to be on the level of Austen’s, was being sent forth into America to capitalize on his success, yet in a format that he considered by definition to be barbaric. I left like a lamb heading into the lion’s den.

First up was the Portland interview and I worked on my questions on the train down to the Rose City. I was to meet O’Brian and his editor, Starling Lawrence, at the Heathman hotel and have drinks before our evening Q&A for Portland Arts and Lectures. When I met Star Lawrence in the lobby at the appointed time, he informed me that they had just flown in from San Francisco where things had not gone well. O’Brian was tired, but worse Lawrence didn’t want the author and me to talk prior to going on stage. I was baffled — I had hoped to get to know my subject a little bit, perhaps establish a bit of rapport. But Lawrence said that they had done just that in the Bay Area. O’Brian had drinks with Robert Hass, then America’s poet laureate, right before the event. They’d hit it off, and had a great conversation. So, what was the problem?

The problem was, when they got on stage, O’Brian became very annoyed that Hass asked him some of the same questions he’d already answered over cocktails. Why was this man hounding me, he thought? We’ve already discussed this. Why is he being repetitive? I’ve already answered these questions. O’Brian became prickly and stopped answering, the interview became awkward and O’Brian was not happy. If O’Brian was going to suffer through an “uncivilized Q&A” with a man, he certainly wasn’t going to do it twice. So it was decided that I wouldn’t meet O’Brian until we walked to the theater at showtime.

My panic level was duly raised — this was going to be a cold call, an interview without rehearsal with someone who hated the whole idea. I didn’t even start to process the idea that we would have to go all through this again in Seattle a week or so later. If he hated second interviews most of all …

Our walk to the Arts & Lectures venue was friendly and I carefully avoided any discussion of a topic that might come up. O’Brian showed himself to have a delightfully twisted imagination. When he had got off the elevator at the hotel, he’d noticed one of those bellhop carts with brass fittings for carrying hanging suits and bags. His eyes widened. “One wonders what the Marquis de Sade would do with such a thing,” he said. That seemed to break some ice. He had the look of a mischievous Irishman about him, but his wit had bite, he delighted in surprising you, and one of the biggest shocks for his fans, which came out later: he wasn’t Irish.

I decided to approach the interview with O’Brian from a slightly unexpected angle. His fans would want to hear about his Aubrey/Maturin books. Most were unfamiliar with his other works. So I figured, if I came at O’Brian with something fresh, he might find it fun to talk about, before we slid into the hardcore fan stuff. I began by asking him about his relationship with Picasso — O’Brian had written an excellent biography of the artist and had known him well. We also talked about his biography of the British naturalist Sir. Joseph Banks. I appealed to his ego, to the historical substance of his work, and by this route we managed to get through potentially rough waters and into the friendly sea of a wonderful conversation.

The evening was a success, as was the follow-up event in Seattle, which he later described as “as pleasant as could be.” There, O’Brian saw me as a friendly face during our second encounter — backstage he offered me half of a pastrami sandwich the size of a small ham. The crowd had enormous love for the man, and he was overwhelmed by gifts and adoration. But he was clearly uncomfortable in the modern world. He was then in his early 80s, clearly not used to the super-sized meals of America and baffled by people who pressed nautical family heirlooms into his arms — stuff he did not want, but offerings he could not turn down. It was easy for me to see why he was uncomfortable — events were like a decidedly polite feeding frenzy, but a frenzy nonetheless. He seemed exhausted by the strangeness of fandom, by the energy-sapping nature of the interactions with strangers, by the burden of having to care for some stranger’s hand-carved ship’s model, which he would now have to lug back to France. He was a private man who wanted to pursue his art, but didn’t want to be drained of his time and energy by those who now demanded it.

As a journalist, I can also now understand his idea that the Q&A is not particularly civilized — let alone a sports media press scrum. The formats don’t necessarily further understanding between two people. It is not always true conversation — a discussion that unearths nuggets of insight. It too often seems like interviewers are running through a pre-fab checklist, looking for a Tweetable quote, trolling for a gaffe, or ticking off pre-conceived points like those on a medical checklist at the doctor’s office. It can feel invasive, like a trip to the proctologist — in front of an audience.

How do you protect that inner fire that makes you who you are, that helps you create or perform in a way others describe as genius? O’Brian managed to do it for decades, until his fame hit a critical mass. I’m sure he loved parts of it — on this visit to North America, he was able to acquire a narwhal tusk and some first editions of Jane Austen that he treasured. Fame had its rewards. But it also disrupted the bubble of privacy and quiet that he had cultivated for so many productive years — that had helped to make the reclusive, private O’Brian a literary star.  Success bred scrutiny, revelations about his past were enormously painful to him. Not long after his visit to the States, where his wife of 50 years had become ill on the trip with pneumonia, she died and O’Brian reportedly went into a funk.

O’Brian seemed like a figure from another time — polite and mannerly, unused to the modern world, except as a literary stylist. He said that he knew more about the politics of the 18th century than he did of current affairs. His handwritten letters were minor works of art, spare, articulate, and he clearly kept up his correspondence that way a gentleman should. I tried to make our conversations more civilized than they might otherwise have been, but I sometimes wonder if O’Brian, who died in 2000, would have lived longer to write more if we’d all just left him alone.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.