Question: What distinguishes Saudi Arabia from other Middle Eastern countries?
Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia is unique in the whole world in that A, it has the largest reserve of oil in the world, which gives [it], you can imagine, enormous power, and B, it contains the holy places of Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina that every Muslim, 1.8 billion Muslims are supposed to visit those shrines in the course of their lifetime. These are on either side of the Arabian continent and in the middle you have Riyadh and the House of Saud, the princely family, which controls both these sources of economic power and religious power with their own very puritanical interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that is named after its ruling family. When I first went there it thought Saudi Arabia meant southern Arabia—[but] no, it means Arabia as conquered, ruled, pulled together by the House of Saud. Six, seven thousand princes and as many princesses of course, but we don’t see so much of them.
Question: How has King Abdullah affected Middle Eastern culture?
Robert Lacey: Coming into New York today to do this thinking what a lovely, beautiful autumn day it was I couldn’t help thinking of the accounts I’ve read of 9/11 and the tragedy of 9/11, which was of course terrible tragedy and we are still living with the effects, but in a weird way 9/11 was a very good thing for Saudi Arabia because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The mastermind of course, Osama Bin Laden, was and is a Saudi and although it took a time for the Saudis to acknowledge this they were responsible in many ways for the hatred and bitterness and intolerance and anger that produced 9/11 and they’ve trying since then. Certainly King Abdullah has been trying to make amends, more than make amends, to turn the country in a new direction, like for example, taking the intolerance out of textbooks. In traditional Islam there is a great fear of non Muslims, infidels. That turns into hatred. I mean it’s a phenomenon we know in Arab cultures. Trying to get more dialogue between the different faiths, I remember going to Madrid last year to see the king meet rabbi’s, religious sheiks, bishops, Christian pastors, Buddhist monks, to create a spirit of religious dialogue, but he, the king of Saudi Arabia could never convene a meeting like that inside Saudi Arabia. There would be revolt at the idea that he was bringing these foreign religious figures to the Holy Land and that was a big fact in 9/11. 9/11 was really a Saudi quarrel played out in Manhattan. Osama Bin Laden wanted to attack what he called the near enemy by which he meant the House of Saud who he sees as westernizing and corrupting the old and traditional Holy Land and so he did that by attacking the far enemy, which is America, who has sustained Saudi Arabia by developing its oil, by buying its oil and by -- with military methods. In numerable ways America has made Saudi Arabia the power that it is in the world.
Question: Will the religious influence on Saudi culture wane as it continues to modernize?
Robert Lacey: The Saudis want to take from us the best of the West, but not what they view as the worst. For example, a month or so ago in Saudi Arabia there was a radio talk show host who started boasting as radio talk show hosts tend to and he got onto his sex life before he was married and all the girls he’d seduced and talked about how he would pick them up and get them into bed and there was outrage. Now the government didn’t do anything, but ordinary viewers phoned in and a local lawyer, prosecutor took the guy to court. He was sentenced to five years in jail and 500 lashes for being profane on the radio and also for insulting Islam because any sex outside marriage, not just during marriage, but before marriage for traditional Muslims consigns you to hell, so he was admitting that he was a bad Muslim. Now not many Saudis would complain that that man’s freedom of expression was being infringed by jailing him. He’ll do his five years. He will get lashed 500 times. That’s the sort of conservatism that exists.
You know they have beach resorts in Saudi Arabia, private beach resorts behind high walls. Recently a number of them feel that too many young girls are wearing bikinis, too many loud parties, too many fathers feel their daughters are getting picked up by unsuitable men, so they’ve invited the old religious police in to keep order. It’s impossible in Saudi Arabia for a young single man to go into a shopping mall on his own. You’re only allowed in if you’re a young male or even an old male, with women, with your family because otherwise the fear is quite rightly that you know shopping malls are where young people meet to pick each other up. Young Saudi men will complain about this, but if you say to them, “Oh, I see you -- so would you like… You’d like the right to go into a mall without being stopped by a security guard.” “Would you like your sister to have the right to go into a shopping mall and meet strange men?” “Oh, no”, they say. “Oh, no, no, my sister is going to marry someone that my family approve of, that I approve of.” So you know it’s only… I mean 1938 was when oil was discovered, another ten years before the money really started to filter through, so you know what are we talking about, only 50 years has western style life been in this country and the reaction of it, of people to it, is still very suspicious and still very conservative.
Question: Is this a 1950’s America style situation where cultural norms differ from reality?
Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia is living in the 1950’s in many ways. Well actually it’s living in the fifteenth century. In Islamic years Saudi Arabia is now in the year 1430—America didn’t even exist then as a Western state, and in Europe we had The Inquisition. There was no religious tolerance in 1430 in Europe. You belonged to one particular religion, the Catholic religion, and if you erred from that you would get burned, so when people get upset about—and I can understand it—public executions in the street Saudi Arabia, beheadings: I’ve seen in my time there three I think. You don’t see them every day and happily I’ve always arrived afterwards, but people get upset about that, although 70, 80 of those a year, that’s about the number of people that get executed in death rows in America. People say it shouldn’t be public, well you know, all gas chambers in America, electric chair chambers have viewing galleries and people forget that when Timothy McVeigh was executed in this twenty-first century the American government rounded up 250 relatives so they could come and watch the man being executed on television, so let’s not get too superior about these Saudis. And you know one of the upsides of this very fierce capitol code and moral code is that when I’m living there, which I still do, I can go out in the street any time of day or night to any part of any Saudi city totally safely. There is no, no go areas where you’re going to get mugged. There are areas where you might find drug dealers. You won’t find red-light districts in Saudi Arabia. I mean there may be prostitutes somewhere, but you know that’s something the Saudis don’t want. The idea that in European cities -- well in American states that you would legalized prostitution, that I think you’ll never going to see in Saudi Arabia. After all, they are the Holy Land and so they’re aware that they are judged by Muslims all over the world. At the moment for example, we’re talking now end of 2009, they’re very worried about the pilgrimage coming up, the swine flu. They’re going to the most incredible lengths to avoid any sort of epidemic because A, they don’t want pilgrims to suffer from it, but B, they don’t want the Muslim world to say you can’t keep us healthy when we come on pilgrimage.
Question: If a new global oil reserve or other energy source is discovered, where does that leave Saudis?
Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia would be lost if an alternative energy source to oil were discovered in the near future. That would actually pull the carpet out from under the Saudi economy because the Saudi economy is based for the next 20, 30 years on the revenues from oil. They’re trying to diversify. Also from oil and gas you can make petrol chemicals and most people would think that even if we find alternative sources of energy we still need plastics in the future, so Saudi Arabia is working very hard to develop that, but the other thing it’s trying to do and this what King Abdullah is trying, he is trying to create a sort of Arab Silicon Valley around the scientific research establishments that have started to be setup. At his new university for example, there are not just laboratories for research. Every single research discovery then goes to a business workshop. I mean this is an American model and there are economists and businessmen there who right from the moment of the first inkling of some new technology or discovery are working out how to bring in capital and turn that into enterprise because jobs will have to be the salvation of Saudi Arabia in the future and, you know, it’s a big question mark.
Question: What impact will King Abdullah’s new university have?
Robert Lacey: A few weeks ago I went to the opening of King Abdullah’s new university. It’s called KAUST, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and it’s supposed to rival MIT. It’s supposed to be an Arab MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It already has the second largest endowment of any university in the world, second only to Harvard. They’re trying to bring and have already brought some of the world’s great scientific researchers, mathematicians, not just to teach there, but to do research and bring students from all around the world. You can only go there if you’re a graduate student and in a way it was not like being in Saudi Arabia. There were young men and women mingling on the campus together. Now you never see that in Saudi Arabia. They have male campuses. They have female campuses. If there happens to be a male lecturer who lectures to women he does it rather like this, talking to a camera with the women in a room looking at him on a screen and when they want to ask him a question they have to press a buzzer. Most of us who were there felt this was a tremendous step forward for Saudi Arabia, but next day the television shows full of traditional old shakes complaining that the king was corrupting the country by having men and women mixing together on the campus, complaining that this university was going to teach science, no religion whatsoever. Saudi Arabia, one of the paradoxes of it is, and we see it with King Abdullah, King Abdullah is sort of like Saudi Arabia’s Obama. He is the embodiment of hope. He doesn’t always achieve what people hope, but he talks good talk. He clearly believes that he is trying to push Saudi Arabia into the modern age and this university is the -- one of the vehicles for it.
Question: If Saudi Arabia modernizes through education, will it become a force for regional peace?
Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia now does regard itself as a major force for peace in the big issue of Israel and Palestine and I would say they’re right about that. King Abdullah straight after 9/11 went to work to rally around the Arab states and get them to agree to what is known as the Arab Peace Initiative, which says, which offers Israel full normalization in return for the return of Palestinian land as it was formally defined with fairly vague language about what compensation and just settlement will be paid to the Palestinian refugees. Now as we -- and then having got this through the Arab nations with some difficulty he then convened an Islamic conference in 2005 and got the whole Muslim world to sign off, but one of the weird things about Saudi Arabia is that this older generation of old and fairly enlightened men trying to push the country forward is not matched by the mass of the population who are the Islamists, who are the guys who secretly cheer and not so secretly cheer for Bin Laden. Young Saudis, young Arabs who look on television everyday and see their brother Muslims getting beaten up by American troops -- now we know historically why the American troops have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Saudis just see -- the young Saudis in particular, see America as a nation that is waging war on Muslims, troops getting trained for the purpose of killing Muslims. They hear about videogames in which Arabs and dark skinned people are the victims and they see kids in America playing their videogames, joining the Army and putting it into practice in Islamic countries, so one of the problems for the future in Saudi Arabia is you can’t say oh, these extremists are old people who are going to die away and the enlightened young generation will take over. It’s sort of the opposite. The older generation remember 30 years ago women used to be able to water ski in ordinary swimming consumes. Now you sometimes see women waterskiing, it’s a bizarre sight, in abayas, black abayas and robes and things, but there has been this extraordinary regression in western terms and westernized, older Saudis remember that with some regret, so when people ask about the future of this society who knows.
I mean King Abdullah is a great believer in knowledge. He has taken that idea from the West. He had also taken it from the Islamic past. In the Islamic Golden Age soon after the time of the profit when learning let’s not forget, was kept alive by the Muslims. Words that we’ve got like algebra, logarithm, all this scientific knowledge, those particular words come from Arabic roots because it was Arabic scholars who kept all that going. They discovered the works of Plato and so on and preserved them so that the West could rediscover them later and so the Golden Age of Islam was an age of knowledge and King Abdullah is trying to achieve that. He sees his new university as the house of knowledge. There was a famous Bait al-Hikma, house of knowledge in early Islamic times which you know let’s not forget the first universities in the world were Al Qasr and other Arab universities and that’s the Golden age that he is trying to revive.
Now what is going to happen when these Saudi kids have been through all these universities and there is no jobs for them because that’s the challenge for Saudi Arabia? It’s a one product country and although it’s trying to diversify all the oil comes out of the ground. That’s another reason why there is not going to be democracy in Saudi Arabia for a long time because when your main source of income, your national resource is controlled by the government and there is no tax how do the people acquire rights? Traditionally in history we acquired our rights, America acquired its rights from Britain by saying no taxation without representation. Well Saudi Arabia is the most incredible welfare state. They’re not worried about socialized medicine. They get free healthcare. They get free education. When students get to university they get a scholarship, a monthly pay packet to pay their expenses, no fees. Now all of this comes from the oil. It’s a huge welfare state. So and the government controls it. The government controls their patronage and there is no many jobs associated with oil, so all these bright young graduates what are they going to do for jobs?
Question: How important was Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the G20 to the typical Saudi?
Robert Lacey: It would not have registered with most Saudis that Saudi Arabia in a very significant move was included in the G-20, top 20 economic powers, but it’s really striking when you see the photograph of G-20 meetings. There is just one Arab there, one king dressed in his traditional robes and Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, but it’s become crucial, not to the world economy, not just because of its oil, but because actually of all the oil producers it’s the one that is most careful with its money. That’s partly because oil is so inexpensive to produce. They make more profit on it than anyone else, but Saudi Arabia is now one of the chief supports of the dollar. All their surfaces just go unquestioningly into propping up the dollar and were they ever to withdraw their support from the dollar the dollar would collapse.
Question: Will Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the G20 have a long-term impact?
Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia has a very ambivalent attitude towards the modern world. Yes, it’s proud to belong to the G-20, but at the same time with the Copenhagen talks coming up, it’s sort of putting itself up, I think this is a terrible mistake, as a sort of trade labor union spokesman for the oil producers saying well, if you developed countries are going to cut down how much oil you use then you better pay us some compensation. I think that is very mistaken. I mean already the world has enough difficulty liking Saudi Arabia. I mean how would you like a country that gets oil out of the ground for a few dollars a barrel then charges us $70 for it? You know I mean you know they will explain that they got a country to run. They got nothing else they produce, but. And then this country gives you terrorists as well, so it’s got image problems and I would have thought it’s very ill-advised of it to complain, especially since in reality it’s doing quite a lot to study alternative forms of energy because they know it’s in their own interests. They are now one of the leading researchers in the world into solar energy because they’ve got a lot of sun out there and they’re looking into this strange technology of taking a sort of biomass slime. You put it in the sun. It sucks CO2, carbon dioxide out of the air and creates more biomass. Sounds sort of a bit Dr. Strangelove and creepy, but they’re doing all this sort of thing and I would have thought they were much better telling the world about that than trying to get compensation for the fact that. I mean I think it’s going to be a long time before we ever give up petrol oil in our cars. It’s a very, very, for all its polluting qualities; there is just nothing so -- there is not such an intense power source that is so portable and easy to use.
Question: Can the US learn from the Saudi approach to reforming terrorists?
Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia has this very soft technique for dealing with terrorists, which they’re very proud of, except I tell them, it’s not really so different from the Betty Ford Clinic. You know it’s this sort of rehab for terrorists. There has been quite a lot of publicity about it and it’s slightly exaggerated publicity because the real hardcore terrorists refuse to take part in the rehab. There are about 10, 15% of the guys they’ve caught from Al-Qaida, who want nothing to do -- I mean they hated the Saudi government before. They hate it now and they’re not going to sit around in the therapy circles discussing their problems. In some ways it’s been picked up from America. In other ways again, it goes back to the Islamic Golden Age. I mean the first mental hospitals in the world were created in Arab countries with people like Avasina having the idea of the healthy mind and the healthy body at a time when in Europe mad people were getting thrown into ponds with their arms and legs bound because they were considered as being possessed by the devil. Saudi Arabia -- not Saudi Arabia in those days. Arabia was treating mental, mentally damaged people with kindness and that is the tradition they’re trying now. It’s not just therapy they do. They do practical things.
These ex-extremists when it’s felt they’ve moved along enough to go out into the world they’re supplied with a car. They’re supplied with a job and they’re also most practically supplied with a wife because if you’re a young Saudi it will cost you about 18 to $20,000 to get married. This isn’t the party. This is the bride price you have to pay to get a wife if you’re a young Saudi and lots of kids can’t afford that, so the government pays for these young extremists to get wives and I know a number of them and I’ve got one particular friend, he did time in Guantanamo and he came back, got his car, nice Toyota, nice apartment in Jeddah, nice wife, but after several years his wife hadn’t produced any children, so they went back to the government and they arranged the fertility treatments, so now she is producing children because this is not just charity. This is based on the belief that you’ve got to give these young men a stake in society and it’s been reasonably successful, although Al-Qaida is so cunning.
A number of these young men having been through the process have then fled Saudi Arabia, reappeared in Yemen, which is in the south, like a sort of Afghanistan on the southern border where it’s so remote and mountainess there are camps and that sort of thing where these Jihadies train and the only difference between Yemen and Afghanistan is that Yemen is In the same mobile phone zone as Saudi Arabia, which means that the mothers and fathers can phone up the kids and say, “Come on, you’re disgracing the family.” “It’s time to come home now.” That’s another element of this Saudi therapy. They involve the family. I mean in the West most 18 year-olds can’t wait to get away from their parents. In Saudi Arabia men of 30 or 40 are scared stiff of their mothers and indeed of their fathers and so just last -- a couple of months ago, a few months ago, in August one very clever member of Al-Qaida who had been through the program, gone there to Yemen phoned up the minister, the prince who is in charge of the rehab program and said, “I’m sorry sir, I’d like to come back.” “Can you send a plane to collect me?” And so they sent a plane down to pick him up. It’s was Ramadan time in Jeddah and so there were all these gatherings and he came to Ramadan. He embraced the prince. He said, “I’ve got another friend down there who would like to come back.” “Can we go in a separate room and talk about this?” And, “I’ve got a mobile phone…” Because the security guards tried to take the mobile phone off him he said, “No sir, he won’t answer, he’ll only answer this number if he recognizes it.” So they went in a room. He picked up the mobile phone and called his friend, handed it to the prince. The prince listened to the phone and heard all this cheering and laughing and jeering at the other end and at that moment the guy with him blew up because it was a plot that Al-Qaida had devised and those are supposed to be the last things the prince heard, but unfortunately the -- well, the ingenious way they’d hidden the explosive was to insert the explosive up his rectum inside him. That is the way he got through on security checks and happily human physiology has made the central girdle, the pelvic girdle very strong, so as he stood there the pelvic girdle contained the blast. The blast went down. The blast went up. There were some very graphic photographs in the Saudi papers of these body parts sprayed all over the ceiling and the prince to this day has lived to tell the tale, but that’s the sort of battle that’s going on. I mean even as we speak.
Question: Have you ever felt in personal danger of extremist violence?
Robert Lacey: I have to say, I’ve tried dealing with some real fundamentalists and you try talking to them and they just look away. They sort of don’t acknowledge you as being a human being and I suppose at moments like that I’ve got a sort of sense of the chilling indifference to human life that inspires the members of Al-Qaida and the extremists, but on the whole you know most Saudis I know deplore and are embarrassed by Osama Bin Laden and no, I have to say I feel quite safe in Saudi Arabia.
Question: What sites or cultural quirks should travelers to Saudi Arabia should know?
Robert Lacey: It’s odd to think of this, but Arabia invented tourism. I mean the pilgrimage, which has been going on now 1,400 years, it was the beginning of mass tourism and with all the mechanisms of transferring money, people traveling together in bulk to save money, escorts to guide you, but that’s only a form of tourism that’s open to Muslims in Saudi Arabia. There is very little tourism for non Muslims. You’re only going to go to Saudi Arabia these days if you’re a business person. Business women go as well as businessmen and you’ll go to one of three cities. You’ll go to Riyadh, which is the capitol in the center or you might go the Jeddah on the Red Sea cost in the west or if you’re particularly involved in the oil business you’ll go to the east to Dhahran, which is where the oil was first discovered and where the oil fields are to this day, comfortable western hotels, very good food on the whole Lebanese food and a very warm welcome from the Saudis that you do business with. You will not meet, unless you’re invited by your Saudi business partner to his home to meet his family, you will not meet Saudi women because they are kept away from visitors and you know I think you’ll be struck if you’re a visitor to Saudi Arabia by the amount of segregation.
Every McDonald’s counter for example has a single end and the family end as it’s called and single men go to the single end, but families and women go to the other. In the eating areas of McDonald’s it’s all curtains in the family area, so families go, all the tables are surrounded by curtains so they can go in there and not be seen, then it’s possible for you. I mean just think of the practical problems of how you eat if you’ve got a veil, so you go into a curtained area, the ladies do and then they can take off their veil in the presence of their family. That’s another interesting thing. When you go to a Saudi home everybody is dressed quite normally, well the women are, in western clothes. The black that they wear is like a… Is like what it is, an outer garment that they take off as they come in the door and they hang it by the door and then in the house they’re often wearing jeans and sneakers and then the time comes to go out and they put on the uniform and they move on.
Banks, there are male banks and female banks in Saudi Arabia, men’s branches, women’s branches. The men’s branch is staffed by men. The women’s branch is staffed by women. Quite a lot of women businessmen in Saudi Arabia because from the beginning of Islamic history women have always been entitled to a half share of every inheritance. When a man dies his sons get a full share, his daughters get a half share. Now that’s not fair by modern standards, but for thousands of years… Well 1,400 years in the West women didn’t get any share at all. It’s only quite recent. I mean let’s just think a hundred years ago women didn’t have the vote in western countries, father ruled the roost at home, girls were supposed to keep themselves tidy, remain virgins until they got married. A girl who was thought to have slept around was damaged goods. We were very suspicious of other races. We all had capital punishment. In the south of America non whites got lynched in the street. You know it’s only recently that these things have -- were part of everyday reality in the West and so I think we are a little eager and too hurried to judge the fact that Saudi Arabia still has some of these things and is in fact trying to get rid of them.
Question: How has Queen Elizabeth II changed the role of the British monarch?
Robert Lacey: I don’t think anybody would have said, it’s more than 50 years ago now when Elizabeth the II came to the throne, that the Monarchy would still be around in the twenty-first century and in many ways be more beloved and more popular than politicians. I mean we’re going through a particular stage at the moment in Britain of distaste and cynicism about our political system and our political class and the corruption that’s been unveiled there at every level and suddenly this simple woman, Elizabeth II I mean living in all the splendor of the royal palaces, but these don’t belong to her and actually costing us very little money indeed. You wouldn’t have thought as I say, 50 years ago that she would have become a sort of icon for people. “Oh, good old Queen.” “You can always trust her.” Every year they release their budgets. They don’t release how much security costs, but the Monarchy still costs us all in England, Britain less than a liter of milk every year. This is not every day or every week. It’s less. It’s about 70p. What’s that? That’s about 60, 70 cents. It’s less than a pound the Monarchy costs and I think people feel in this age in which you know who would have thought that Britain would still be fighting wars in the twenty-first century. The royal family are very inspiring for the military element of life and this woman has done it by avoiding the tricks of celebrity and by modesty and service and she likes the gin and tonic, but you know that’s about the worst vice anybody has been able to discover about her.
Question: How will the monarchy change after Elizabeth II’s reign?
Robert Lacey: Monarchies are only as good as people doing the job. I mean at the moment I am in particular studying the Saudi Monarchy and there King Abdullah is doing the job very well in the opinion of most people, trying to bring in reform. And Elizabeth II in Britain has also been a monarch whose quiet example of hard work has struck a chord with people, but you know if the British monarchy were to produce another Edward VIII and by that I’m referring to the king who in 1935, 1936 conducted a love affair with Mrs. Simpson, an American divorcee, shocked Britain and abdicated and if he hadn’t abdicated he would have been forced to abdicate. Now if the Monarchy were to produce someone else like that then I can see Britain saying well, let’s get rid of it.
In fact, the queen’s heir, next in line is this curious, rather wonderful figure of Prince Charles famous for producing chocolate biscuits and campaigning. I mean this was a man who talked to his plants and got worried about CO2 in the atmosphere when every other person of his generation was driving sports cars and smoking cigarettes and he seemed totally out of keeping and out of sync and he is an example of a different sort of royal. He got involved in scandals. Many people felt he mistreated the glamorous Diana, Princess of Wales, but that is now behind him and as we speak this is a man who is trying to raise consciousness about the world’s rain forests, trying to persuade the developed countries to stop the destruction of the rain forest and is thoroughly plugged in, in the age of 60 to all the concerns of people much younger than him, so in his way he is… He is likely to keep the Monarchy going and popular. Having said that you know the Monarchy is part of the British class system. The Monarchy is part of the British past and the British nostalgia for the past, which holds us back, so I’m not saying it’s an unmixed blessing, but I’m saying that it’s managed to find and emphasize the positive side and actually make a contribution to British life and just to go back to this issue of the corruption. People say well thank God there is some people in public life who are not you know… who are trying to keep to higher standards. I mean the monarchy in Britain is sort of like a religion. Less and less people go to church these days, but people will still go and cheer outside Buckingham Palace and of course there is the sheer pageantry of it. You know the cynics would say Britain shouldn’t get rid of the Monarchy because if we do we’ll lose our tourist trade. Who is going to come and look at Buckingham? I mean people still go and look at the palaces in France, but they’re not so much fun without real royal people living in them and the idea that when you look at Buckingham Palace you can think there is the queen in there. Which is her window? Is she looking out at me? That’s all part of the strange mystique of the monarchy.
Question: What’s an ethical dilemma you’ve faced as a writer?
Robert Lacey: The ethical dilemma I’ve always struggled with in my career as a writer is that I tend to like the people that I write about and I believe it’s my duty and job as a writer to empathize with my subject. Not to get too high flown, Dostoyevsky said, “It’s very easy to condemn the evildoer, but the challenge is to understand him or her.” That’s what I’m always trying to do and I sometimes end up favoring my subjects too much and then I have to be stern with myself and say ethically it’s my job to dig out the nasty truths and to tell them as well, so that’s what I try to do.
Question: Do you tend to fall out of favor with subjects after publishing their profiles?
Robert Lacey: I almost invariably fall out of favor with the people I write about. My first book on Saudi Arabia was banned. I’m told this new book I’ve just written on Saudi Arabia will be banned. One of my most successful books I went to live in Detroit, Michigan and wrote about the Ford family and that was a wonderful experience to sort of live in a big old grimy American city although I could sentimentally afford to say that because I was going to go away and I didn’t have to live with the problems of the rust belt. I thought I painted a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of the Ford family, but they haven’t spoken to me from that day to this and I can live with that. That’s part of the job of being a writer. There is a falseness to it. You know you meet someone. You you genuinely like them, but there is an element of facsimile in the friendship that you are creating because it’s going to end the moment the interview is over and you have to—realistically I interview people to get something out of them and they give me interviews because they want something out of me and does that bargaining compromise in every transaction that a writer or journalist carries out?
Question: What advice do you have for someone who wants to succeed as a writer?
Robert Lacey: The advice I would give to anybody who wanted to go into my line of work is follow your passion and while it’s always good to take advice from other people don’t get discouraged when the advice somehow doesn’t jive with something inside you. To be specific about this, some of my most successful books have been… I’m not just… I’m not just talking commercially successful, but emotionally and meaningfully successful, have been hunches I’ve had. When I first got interested in the 1970’s about writing about the British Monarchy people laughed. They said, “You’re crazy.” “Why does the monarchy matter?” I couldn’t find a publisher for the book. They said, “Well, the Monarchy, the queen, that’s for women’s magazines.” “You can’t write anything serious about the Monarchy.” But I did. It’s given me an enormous perspective on life. I now look on the American presidency as a monarchy. That’s what it really is. The American presidency is the most powerful monarchy in the world and that’s why you have these dynasties in America of Clinton or Bush. America has got its royal families like we have and it explains the sort of intangible elements in our thinking that make us work and make us tick. Saudi Arabia, I couldn’t find a publisher for this book for two years. I had to dig into my savings and write it, what I believed and then—if you write it they will come; believe in yourself.
Recorded on: October 20, 2009