Sunday Times journalist Decca Aitkenhead says growing up in an all-male household is key to her success as an interviewer, having learned to ask questions of “slightly narcissistic men” to make her voice heard.
Aitkenhead was raised in an isolated part of rural Wiltshire by her father after her mother died of cancer when Aitkenhead was nine, the youngest in a family of four children and the only girl.
“I learned that if I wanted to be involved in family life, then the way to do that was to have conversations with slightly narcissistic men that are of interest to them and ask them lots of questions that make them want to talk. That way, as the youngest, you got a look in,” she says.
“I know that sounds facetious, but I really do think that’s why I’m an interviewer – because I’ve basically been doing it since I was about six.”
Aitkenhead was named Interviewer of the Year at the 2019 British Journalism Awards in December, the first time the prize has featured at the annual event hosted by Press Gazette.
Her interviews with comics Russell Brand and Rob Delaney, and former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, won her praise from the judges who said she was “top of her game” and “goes deeper into her subjects than you expect and gets information out that goes far beyond the PR”.
Over a career spanning decades, the 48-year-old has interviewed everyone from Hillary Clinton and Debbie Harry to Jamie Oliver and KSI – most recently sitting down with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
How she gets people to open up to her – usually over 90 minutes, always in person, ideally at their home for “maximum nosiness” – and whether being a woman is a factor, is something she says she has thought about a lot.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that lots of interviewers are female and certainly I think the greatest ones have been female,” Aitkenhead tells Press Gazette.
“I think that’s partly because almost all women grow up with the experience that they’re expected to make nice and ask questions, or be interested and deferential to some extent rather than bang on about themselves.
“So I think it comes more naturally to women to assume that they’re not the most important person in the room and that their job is to draw out the person who is more important than them.”
She says a man might also be “more forthcoming to a women who he sees as a sympathetic ear” and is more familiar with women in that role.
But the idea that there is a romantic element or frisson to her encounters is, she says, a “commonly held misapprehension”.
“I can’t speak for other interviewers, but the idea that you’re coaxing confidences out of men by deploying your feminine charm and flirting and teasing it out of them coquettishly – never once in any interview I have ever done has that been the dynamic. There’s not a whit of that.”
Aitkenhead decided she wanted to be a journalist by the age of ten and would sit in the corner writing stories as a girl, deciding BBC political editor John Cole’s job was more interesting than being a politician, another option.
She studied in Manchester and won a placement at the Independent who paid for her to do a journalism postgraduate degree at City University and gave her a contract in the early 90s, when print was still king.
From there she went to the Sunday Independent and then the Guardian, where she spent a total of 21 years, including a break as a freelance in the middle. In August 2018 she joined the Sunday Times as chief interviewer, writing mainly for the paper’s Magazine supplement.
A ‘peg’ is a ‘gateway drug’ into the conversation
Over the years Aitkenhead has done a mixture of feature writing – “I was never interested in news” – and columns – “which I hated” – but has focused solely on big interviews for just over ten years.
She has an ongoing “wishlist” of people she would like to talk to and pitches for names, but the vast majority of interviews are “generally tied in to the cycle of books, films, events etc.” in the diary.
“Very few distinguished people will give an interview for no reason other than the joy of being in my company for 90 minutes. That doesn’t happen very often,” she says.
“I used to be frustrated by that, and every now and then we’d managed to get somebody who I’d always wanted to interview to give one just for no reason other than it would be a fun experience or interesting.”
But she says a “peg” – a news hook for the interview – acts as a kind of “gateway drug” and that without it an interview “doesn’t quite work”.
She says PRs understand that interviews that go in “unexpected directions”, rather than sticking to a marketing script, are the most well-read. “They’re not stupid,” she adds.
“In think my job in a nutshell is to get people to say things that they hadn’t intended to say. That’s where it gets interesting.”
But the star interviewer at the Sunday Times Magazine reveals that she didn’t always know how to handle PRs.
“When I started out, obviously being a nice well-brought up English lady, I thought that if there were two people in the room, and one of them is your interviewee and the other’s the PR, then you must, of course, extend equal amounts of attention to both people. Clearly that’s mad.
“I’ve learned through experience that the only way to do it is to be polite and smiling at the beginning and then just behave as if they don’t exist.”
Aitkenhead has never had someone walk out on her during an interview, but says she and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay “walked out on each other”.
“I tend not to broach difficult subjects or ask questions that might risk a walkout until towards the end, for obvious reasons,” she says. “I tried that once and it was a complete disaster and I’m never going to do it again.”
‘I didn’t want to interview Lauren Laverne’
But that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. In a recent interview with Desert Island Discs host Lauren Laverne, Aitkenhead delivered what might be regarded as something of a takedown.
“My heart sinks when [Laverne] appears at the restaurant and the energy in the room plummets like a stone before she has even sat down,” she wrote.
“I didn’t want to interview her,” Aitkenhead tells Press Gazette, saying it was given to her by the desk at the Sunday Times Magazine.
“Of course I could have just not told the truth about what I think,” she says.
“But honestly had she given a really great interview, a really lively, interesting, engaging, ‘lots to say’ interview, then it would have been a relief to be able to focus mostly on that and not say so much about Desert Island Discs or my thoughts about it, but she gave me literally nothing.
“And this I do find endlessly confusing, that some people go into an interview thinking – and it doesn’t happen very often because my job is all about making sure it doesn’t – but sometimes you will encounter an interviewee who seems to think that the safe way to get through this is to say nothing for 90 minutes. Just say nothing.
“And it’s actually the most dangerous thing you can do as an interviewee, to give the interviewer nothing, because they’ve still got 3,000 words to fill. And if they can’t fill the page with your words, they’re going to have to fill the page with their words.”
She adds: “I’ve got no desire to write something controversial, but I do think that the point at which I don’t tell the truth is the point at which I have to stop doing my job.
“I just think there’s an absolute contract that you’ve entered into with the reader who buys the newspaper. They buy the newspaper, in return you tell the truth, otherwise you’re not a journalist.”
‘Those are the moments that keep me awake at night’
Preparing for a big interview takes days – reading through memoirs, biographies, novels, up to 100,000 words in cuttings, watching films and documentaries, scanning social feeds.
“You could say it’s a very inefficient process because 95 per cent of it you probably won’t use, but none of it is wasted,” says Aitkenhead.
“Without even intending to, somehow you do just communicate to your interviewee that you’ve really done the work.”
She adds: “The one way you can guarantee to scupper an interview, particularly if it happens early on – I still wince to remember the few occasions this happened – is when you ask something or say something which reveals that you didn’t know a fairly elementary thing about them. That’s the worst.
“For me those are the moments that keep me awake at night and make me feel sick. Not the moments when I’ve had to ask people really difficult questions or when they’ve taken offence.”
‘Anecdotes are the worst’
Aitkenhead says an interview “goes by in a flash” unless an interviewee is “talking about something that’s completely useless” for the piece.
“Anecdotes are the worst,” she says.
“They work quite well on a chat show sofa and people watch Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross for the anecdotes, but they’re a disaster in print. You’re always just thinking: ‘God, hurry up and get to the end of this sodding anecdote.’”
Aitkenhead says she scripts her interviews, ensuring each question flows on to the next, and knows the “map of the interview” by the time she’s sitting face-to-face with her subject, so rarely looks at her notes.
“Each time you look at your questions, or worse still read them aloud, you’ve broken the spell. You’ve lost the dynamic you’re trying to create, which is of two people having a conversation rather than one person being interrogated by the other.
“I would have a nervous breakdown if I had to walk into an interview without [my questions] in my hand, but if at all possible, you don’t look at them until the final five minutes.”
She says if she doesn’t ask anything she hadn’t already planned to “then in my money it’s a really bad interview”.
“You have to pick up those signals and dive straight in and have the spontaneous questions,” she says, adding that follow-up questions had given her “some of the best interviews I’ve done”.
Brand’s newsworthy revelation that he’s never been in sole charge of his children for 24 hours was the result of just such a question.
‘If you go in acting like the star, good luck’
Despite her reputation in the journalism industry, Aitkenhead does not consider herself an equal to her subjects when she interviews them and maintains a clear distinction.
“If you go in there acting like you think you’re the star, good luck,” she says. “I mean you will get a terrible interview and you’ve got no business behaving like that because you’re not the star.”
But she adds that being too deferential can also throw the dynamic and strives instead to strike a note “where you’re clearly the junior party, but you’re worth them paying respect to or taking seriously”.
“It’s one of the most subtle but most critical bits of the whole dynamic, striking that balance correctly,” she says. “It’s hard and sometimes you get it wrong, of course.
“I get a million things wrong every time I ever interview anybody. Literally every single interview you walk out thinking ‘fuck, I got that wrong’, ‘I asked that at the wrong point’, ‘I should have shut up there’, ‘I should have asked that’.
She adds: “There’s an enormous amount going on, that’s why I love it so much. You can never get really good at it – you’re always getting things wrong and learning.”
The dream interview is somebody who is drunk, Aitkenhead says, only half joking. But failing copious amounts of alcohol, someone who is “interested in engaging in new thoughts” makes for the best copy.
‘I can talk to you because you’ve been through shit too’
Aitkenhead has experienced a number of personal tragedies in her life. In 2014 her partner Tony drowned during a family holiday in Jamaica while trying to save their son who was struggling in the sea.
She wrote a book about her experience, All at Sea, and shortly after it was published developed breast cancer of the same type that had killed her mother, undergoing chemotherapy.
“I’m able to do my job better now aged 48 than I was aged 28 or 38, just because if you’ve been alive this long, a list of quite bad things have generally probably happened in your life – and God knows they certainly have in mine,” Aitkenhead says.
Delaney, who she interviewed after his two-year-old son had died, told her: “I can talk to you because you have been through shit too,” she says.
“At 28 you can ask the best questions in the world, you can do everything right, but if you’re talking to people who are older than you, who have lived through experiences they know you can’t begin to comprehend, you’ve got no analogous life experience in your biography that makes you a really engaged and understanding listener, then they won’t tell you that stuff.”
Aitkenhead says writing about her own tragedies, which she has done for the Guardian and the Sunday Times, is an “uncomfortable and rather disconcerting” experience, but adds: “It also felt like fair’s fair,” given she asks other people to do the same thing every week.
Journalists on Twitter are ‘going mad’
But one area where Aitkenhead is unusually silent for a journalist of her profile is on social media, namely journalist-favourite Twitter.
Aitkenhead says she has an account so she can follow her interviewees and gauge the public view on them, and will occasionally retweet posts of other people’s work she admires, but otherwise is not a fan.
“I think it’s catastrophic,” she says. “I think that the journalists who are on it all the time are kind of going mad. And I don’t blame them. I think it is a mad-making platform.”
She adds: “I’m in a really unusual, privileged position where I get to publish my work in a national newspaper. So I don’t really understand why journalists who share that privilege, have this compulsion to keep talking and talking on Twitter. I’m quite old school.
“I’m not interested in promoting my personal brand, I just want to do good work.”
‘Write what you know your editor doesn’t know’
Finally, Aitkenhead offers some advice to young journalists looking to break into the ever-competitive journalism industry.
“Write what you know your editor doesn’t know,” she says. “Think about things you have access to that somebody whose sitting in an office all day and going home to nappies and laundry won’t know about.
“Most young people might be surprised that they know about stuff or have access to things that superficially very well-connected editors don’t have just because they’re living quite boring domestic lives and they’re not in a warehouse in Peckham at four o’clock in the morning.
“The stories that got me my lucky breaks in the beginning were all gleaned from nightclubs in Manchester during the rave scene.”