Lesley-Ann Jones, Biographer and Journalist, on Freddie Mercury, and memoir writing

Having read ‘Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography’ by Lesley-Ann Jones, I was very eager to interview her. Here, you can read what she has to say writing, and about the book. Don’t forget to visit her website www.lesleyannjones.com (click here to view) and her Twitter page @LAJwriter (Click here also to view.) You can also buy the book here
Hello Lesley-Ann, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Thank you for asking me.
 Initially, how did the idea of writing a book about Freddie Mercury come to fore? 
I have written two biographies of Freddie Mercury, the first in 1997.  I was commissioned by a literary agent, Robert Kirby (then with the agency Sheil Land – I believe that he is now with PFD.) They had enjoyed unexpected success with a book called ‘Mercury & Me’ by Jim Hutton (Freddie’s partner for the final few years of Freddie’s life;  sadly, Jim himself died too, not long ago). They decided that a more general biography of Freddie Mercury would probably do very well, and Robert contacted me, to ask whether I knew anybody who had known Freddie well enough to be able to write one. As a rock writer, I had been on the road with Queen four times, and had got to know Freddie as well as any journalist could. I wrote a substantial proposal, which was submitted to Hodder & Stoughton, and they signed it. Cut to 2010, when speculation was mounting that Sacha Baron Cohen would play Freddie in a long-awaited biopic (never yet filmed.) My current agent Ivan Mulcahy (Mulcahy Associates) thought it would be a good idea to relaunch the book, on the wave of publicity surrounding that apparently forthcoming film – Peter Morgan (‘The Queen’, ‘Frost Nixon’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’) had been engaged to write the script, and there was talk of several high-profile directors, including Stephen Frears (‘High Fidelity’, ‘The Queen’, ‘Philomena’).

They decided that a more general biography of Freddie Mercury would probably do very well.

Peter Morgan contacted me, and came from his home in Austria to see me. I became, in the most modest terms, a script consultant to him. Having re-read my biography of Freddie, I decided that it could not possibly be republished ‘as was.’ Both the Queen story and Freddie’s had moved on. Not only that:  a dozen years down the line, I knew that I would write the book differently. Writers evolve. We become better at it. We wince when we read our old stuff. I had views and an understanding of my years with Queen that had taken time to shake down, to crystalise. Ivan agreed. I wrote a proposal for a new book, which Ivan pitched to a number of publishers, and we were very fortunate that Hodder & Stoughton agreed to publish it again.
How did you go about, preparing the manuscript? For example, did you interview anyone? 
A biography without interviews is a poverty-stricken read. No author can give an overview, an unbiased account, without having talked to as many people as possible. I was so lucky to have spent so much time with Freddie. I also knew Brian May and Roger Taylor well. I had even had dealings with John Deacon, which not a lot of people can say – he is notoriously reclusive. I recall with great fondness the night in Montreux, at the Rock Festival, when we, a gang of badly misbehaved hacks, managed to break into ‘Deaky”s suite and empty it of every single item within – including the toilet rolls, the lightbulbs, the bed … we were lucky  that he saw the funny side … I digress.  I interviewed everybody I could lay my hands on. I travelled to Zanzibar, Freddie’s birthplace, and found members of his family, including an aunt and a cousin, and friends. I also went to Bombay and Panchgani, in India, to find his Aunt Sheroo, and to visit his school, St. Peter’s. I interviewed Gita Choksi, an early girlfriend of Freddie’s, and also a couple of teachers who had known and taught him. Other notables included the late Barbara Valentin, who was Freddie’s girlfriend while he was living in Germany during the Eighties, whom I interviewed in Munich; Peter Freestone, Freddie’s personal assistant, whom I found in Devon; Jim Hutton, of course, who invited me to his home in Ireland. Etc etc. When it came to writing the second book, I interviewed many more people – some of whom had refused me the first time around. They had perhaps been too grief-stricken to talk to me originally. Time, the great healer. I wound up with about a hundred new interviews for the second book, some of which informed the text without making actual appearances. This was their choice, always honoured. Others, such as Spike Edney, the keyboard player with Queen for so many of their live shows, were happy to speak on the record.

I also knew Brian May and Roger Taylor well.

As for preparing the manuscript:  once I have all the interviews transcribed; once I have visited all the relevant locations, seen and experienced them for myself; once I have soaked up as much of the subject as possible, including where he lived his life, how he lived it, and who with, I map out a timeline, an overview, separate it all into years and categories, break it down into chapters, assign a word count to each, and I begin writing. The first draft is only the beginning. The revisions are a vital consumer of time. Two more drafts, and I pretty much have it … unless, as almost always happens, something unexpected comes to light which changes the course of the story, and I have to go back and rework a substantial amount. Every chapter must inform the next. Every contributor’s quotations must illustrate a point, an aspect of the subject’s character. As in everything we write, every word counts.
 Did you ever interview Freddie? 
Only once, officially … which you will know, having read the book. I was a journalist on the Daily Mail, and was sent to the Queen offices in Notting Hill to interview both Freddie and Brian. Brian did almost all the talking, while Freddie sat quietly in the corner. It struck me then, and I later saw it first-hand during the many live Queen shows I attended, how different the off-duty Freddie was from the huger-than-life star on stage.
 Out of their entire catalogue, do you have a favorite QUEEN song? 
This changes all the time. While Freddie was still alive, I adored ‘It’s a Kind of Magic’. It chimed with the life I was living at the time. Since I talked to his mother, Jer Bulsara, whose favourite is ‘Somebody To Love’, I have become very partial to that song too.  Mind you: ‘Killer Queen’ … ‘Is This the World We Created’ … ‘Love of my Life’ …’These Are the Days’ …’Who Wants to Live Forever’ …’Under Pressure’ … ‘The Show Must Go On’ … Then again, ‘A Winter’s Tale’ never fails to take my breath away. The clues to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ are in that song.

Often, Freddie and QUEEN were seen as a bit of an enigma. When writing this book, did this impression at all change? 
Yes. and no. And yes … and no … Queen took ages to ‘take off’. They were indefinable. They fell outside every known category at the time. They stayed true to their own inspiration and creativity, and never tried to conform to popular taste. This integrity paid off in the end. Four fantastically talented men with their own agenda often made for clashes in the recording studio; and boy did they fight. Every member of the band composed Number 1 hits. Every one of them brought something unique to the table. Musically, technically, they were all brilliant. Freddie, to me and to millions of others out there, is as alive today as he ever was. Perhaps that is the greatest enigma of all.

Musically, technically, they were all brilliant.

 Have you worked in any other aspects of publishing?
No, I am just a humble scribe. I do the words. The excellent people in publishing houses who edit and copy-read and legal-read and picture-research, and those who design the jackets and lay out the pages and the photos and other illustrations, who make the mere words sing as a book to be reckoned with, work as hard as I do. They are unsung heroes who deserve much more recognition than they get.
Have you ever worked as a Journalist ?
Of course! Fleet Street was where it all began, and where I honed my craft. Had I not had the great privilege of working on national newspapers, I would never have acquired the skills necessary to be able to research and write entire books of more than 100,000 words each. I owe every single newspaper editor who ever stood me on a doorstep in the snow until 2am.
 For people wishing to follow in your steps, do you have any advice? 
The newspaper industry and the publishing industry are unrecognisable today, compared to the businesses I started out in. Physical newspapers are in decline, as the online industry has taken over. Similar things are happening in publishing. It is much harder today to achieve a publishing contract, and therefore all the more rewarding when you land one. To have seen my Freddie Mercury biography published in so many languages in so many countries has been one of the most fantastic experiences of my life.  These days, I also coach would-be writers both in the UK and abroad, one-to-one sessions as well as group workshops, in which I share the tricks of the trade. Every time I host a workshop, I learn a little more about how to write. Advice? Follow your dream. Read whatever you can lay your hands on: newspapers, magazines, novels, biographies, blogs. Reading is how you learn to write.
And finally, one random question, as you may get bored always being asked the same questions: 
 If you had to dye your hair, would you rather it be bright pink, prairie green? 
Ah, the random question.  I am certainly not averse to enhancing what nature gave me, as the ever-changing publicity photographs show 🙂 Bright pink or prairie green, however: hmmm. Not unless I was researching a book, needed to go underground, and the only way to blend into some funky background was to be like everybody else. If the pink or the green were requisite, I’d slap some on without hesitation. Whatever it takes. I have gone undercover as everything from a hospital nurse to a London Zoo-keeper in my time, in the quest for a good story. I even dressed as a hotel porter and hung about round the back of the Dorchester, laying in wait for Madonna while she was out on a run around Hyde Park. I got the interview, though she saw right through the disguise – probably because I was six months’ pregnant at the time. (She liked the piece that was published, and sent me a bouquet the size of my bed when my baby was born). As to the psychology of why women dye their hair: are blondes really dumb, but have more fun? In Caesar’s Rome, blonde was an indication of nobility (and when their poor abused hair fell out, they sported wigs). Are redheads foxy and feisty but untrustworthy (and so often burned at the stake for it in the past), while brunettes are clever, reliable kooks, all strong and powerful and sensual? There is science behind it. Ancient Greek gods were assigned different hair colours for all sorts of reasons. An unnatural hair colour screams ‘Look at me!’ For me, a little anonymity goes a nice long way.
Thank you very much to Lesley-Ann for taking part. Don’t forget to buy her book (please click here.) 

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