“First and foremost, you have to make the story about the person you’re interviewing,” said Donald McRae, the multiple award winning author and Guardian journalist renowned for his investigative interviews with famous athletes.
We’re sitting in a trendy coffee shop near the newspaper’s office in central London where one of the industry’s best willingly shares priceless information on a career spanning 35 years. “If you can learn four or five things about the person that you didn’t know before then you’ve done your job.”
The author of eleven books, the latest, In Sunshine Or In Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles, McRae masterfully lifts the veil on the glitzy world of sport and shines a light on the real-life humans who populate its bright stages.
Born near the outskirts of Johannesburg in apartheid South Africa, McRae grew up with an interest in the intersecting lines between sports and politics. “I remember when Mohammad Ali fought George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo] in 1974,” he said.
“My Afrikaans teachers were so passionate about Ali. ‘He’s not like our blacks’, they’d say. That was fascinating to me and cultivated a curiosity in me. I couldn’t square that. My political consciousness was accelerated by sport.”
After graduating, McRae worked as a school teacher in Soweto, the army came knocking, just as it did for all white abled bodied men when the country was divided along strict racial lines. His contentious objections meant he hightailed it to London to forge a new path.
He wrote about heart transplants and trial lawyers and drug dealers. His debut book, Nothing Personal, published in 1992, explored the dangerous and diverse world of London’s sex trade. He found himself drawn to the margins, speaking to people confined to the fringes of civil society. It was here he began laying the foundations for his seminal book on boxing, Dark Trade (1994), after spending time with Mike Tyson, Chris Eubank and Oscar De La Hoya.
“Boxing is life and death, people get killed, the aim is to hurt someone,” McRae said, explaining why this primal sport captivates his imagination more than any other. “It’s also a sport that welcomes outsiders, strange as that may seem. Even with a guy like Tyson at his most notorious and deadly, you could walk in the gym and ask for an interview. Of course there’d be bodyguards, but the realness of the sport allows for that interaction.”
McRae continued: “It’s a sport that demands honesty. There is something naked about the act of two men in a ring with nothing but their fists and bodies. They lie to themselves and two others when puffing their chests out but boxers are almost always the most honest when I interview them about their vulnerabilities or insecurities.”
This might have something to do with McRae himself. He is softly spoken and hunches over just enough that he presents as a man eager to listen. Even when talking to a rookie like me he asks questions and welcomes contrary opinion. He has a natural humility that immediately puts you at ease.
This is what former cricket Robin Smith must have felt when he opened up to McRae about his suicidal thoughts. Or Thams Bjorn, the great tennis player, when he spoke about depression. Or Robbie Rogers and his coming out despite plying his trade in the homophobic world of professional football.
“The art of the a good interview is to listen,” McRae explained. “Of course you go in with an idea of how you want to shape the conversation but you have to be malleable to the person’s emotional shifts. Often they want to talk about a particular issue, and their agent will contact me because they know about my body of work, but often we’re chatting about sensitive subjects and that can be difficult. You have to listen and be sensitive but also ready to explore an angle that you might not have anticipated.”
This does not come as easy to McRae as his work would suggest. “I’m definitely a better writer than I am an interviewer,” he said “They are two clearly distinct crafts. It’s important to recognise them as separate.”
Sometimes McRae will get an email or a text from a disgruntled agent unhappy with the way a piece has panned out. Sometimes the athlete will contact him directly, bemoaning a particular quote taken out of context or misconstrued by a trigger happy fanbase on social media.
Though there are people McRae interviews that he does not like personally, either because of polarising political or social views or simply a clash of personalities, writing a disparaging piece is never the aim.
“I see myself as an author first and foremost,” McRae said. “But I am also a journalist. As a journalist you are going to offend people. If I don’t offend someone at least once a year then I’m not doing my job as a journalist. I’d say over the years I’ve seriously pissed off about 10-16 people. But I don’t enjoy doing so.”
He won’t go into details, on the record at least, but does confess to still feeling guilt and hurt when someone does feel particularly aggrieved. But he sleeps easy at night knowing that the piece you read in the paper is an accurate portrayal of the subject’s character.
“It sounds obvious but you have to let the quotes speak for themselves. It’s a cliche but people will hang themselves with their own words so I don’t need to have an agenda. Sometimes I get told that I made someone seem so nice, which I’m not out to do either, but if I spend an hour with someone they will tend to show their best side. I just give them a platform. If that person is insecure or nervous or overtly confident or has an axe to grind then that will come out. Agents often what the most sanitised version of their client but I try and explain to them to allow their humanity to shine through.”
McRae takes a look at his watch and realises he has to run off. He has an interview with Liverpool’s Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk to prepare for ahead of this year’s Champions League Final.
“I still get nervous before big interviews,” McRae said as he slips on his coat. This contrasts the headline from the van Dijk piece that stated, “I’m never nervous. If you’re nervous, you limit your quality.” This does not resonate with McRae.
“The nerves show I still care,” McRae said despite having conducted, by his count, over 2,500 interviews. “I love what I do. It is such a privileged position I have. The day you think you’re good is the day you’re done. The art of the interview is rooted in humility.”
Featured image: Donald McRae