In a regular year I interview at least sixty people for The Guardian and that means I've done more than 600 formal one-to-ones [as we call our chit-chats] since late 2003. One of the more helpful attributes for such a job, apart from a mild streak of madness, is a relentless interest in meeting new people. This is coupled with a desire to sometimes interview the best people more than once. Hello Usain Bolt, AP McCoy, Bradley Wiggins and everyone else that's put up with me more than a few times.
I'm often asked to choose my favourite interview and, usually, I tend to think of someone I met at some point in the last few months. So, in this way, I am fickle. My favourite interview keeps changing. The better ones rattle along until I groan out loud and realize that I've written over 5,000 breathless words for the first draft. It's then a case of hacking and pruning them down until they fit the normal space for me in The Guardian – which is, especially in these straitened times, a routinely generous 1,800+ word hit. And we sometimes stretch to longer-form pieces for those seemingly more special encounters. But I know that, for those who wade through them, it's probably a relief that they're stripped of too much waffle.
This will be confirmed by my poor old editors over the years. They normally end up sighing or laughing despairingly at the sight of another excitable email from me after a routine interview. A 3,600 word "summary" of a planned 1,800 word piece usually tells them that I think it went well.
Over the years I've been lucky enough to interview some intriguing people. These stretch from talking to Usain Bolt on Hellshire Beach in Jamaica to sitting at the hospital bedside of a tennis player, Ross Hutchins, during a session of chemotherapy, from interviewing Michael Phelps in Baltimore and Jürgen Klopp in Dortmund, to meeting a warm and hopeful boxer, Kieran Farrell, who had lost 30% of his brain during his last terrible fight.
Sometimes I get asked to write another book, or to help make a television documentary, on the basis of a specific interview. It's almost never the right time but, once, a 2008 Guardian interview with Victoria Pendleton ended up with our working together on a BBC1 documentary, made by a fine film-maker called Dan Gordon, and a book, Between The Lines – both of which emerged in 2012.
It's always fascinating to meet people who are at the peak of their profession – but some of my most memorable interviews, at least for me, have been with lesser known men and women. I always remember meeting Sarah Stevenson – just a few weeks after she lost both her parents to cancer in 2011. Our subsequent interview was less about her being a Taekwondo world champion than a courageous young woman talking about life and death with unflinching honesty.
Sarah StevensonThen, in March 2013, I interviewed Robbie Rogers.
I had met many famous footballers but our interview seemed more significant than those other fleeting exchanges – for it was Robbie's first interview since he had come out as gay. Of course not every interview is this compelling.
Here are most of my Guardian interviews from 2003:
My book Dark Trade, which was first published in 1996, set me on the path of the sporting interview – even though the most interesting aspects, at least to me, of my interviews with fighters were linked to their lives outside the ring. Twenty years since I first met Mike Tyson and James Toney, Chris Eubank and Michael Watson, I now write a monthly interview for Boxing News. It's called "Up Close & Personal" and here's an archive of these fight interviews:
I still believe that boxers are the most riveting, raw and honest interviewees I've ever encountered – and I love interviewing fighters like Liam Walsh and Ricky Hatton for both The Guardian and Boxing News.
Liam Walsh and Ricky Hatton
My solitary gripe about interviewing people, even fighters, is that I have to spend hours every week laboriously transcribing their words. It can be very boring – especially as I have to hear my own voice droning on and on.
But most weeks I return home with at least one astonishing story from my latest interview – whether it's with a fighter or footballer, a cricketer or runner, a tennis player or bob-skeleton athlete, a gaunt jockey or hulking rugby player. Once or twice a year I'll interview someone who is either arrogant or dismissive, but they are the rare exceptions. Usually, once we've got talking and moved beyond the usual interview routine, some small gems fall my way and I think again how interesting it is to meet such people. I might call it 'work' – but it's really something much more special.