Robert Lacey
Author, "The Kingdom"

The Necessary Deception of Journalism

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Robert Lacey always tends to fall out of favor with the subjects of his interviews and profiles, but he regards it as a necessary evil of the job.

Robert Lacey

Robert Lacey is a British historian noted for his original research, which gets him close to - and often living alongside - his subjects. He is the author of numerous international bestsellers as well as the new release "Inside the Kingdom".

After writing his first works of historical biography, Robert, Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert wrote Majesty, his pioneering biography of Queen Elizabeth II. Published in 1977, Majesty remains acknowledged as the definitive study of British monarchy - a subject on which the author continues to write and lecture around the world, appearing regularly on ABC's Good Morning America and on CNN's Larry King Live.

The Kingdom, a study of Saudi Arabia published in 1981, is similarly acknowledged as required reading for businessmen, diplomats and students all over the world. To research The Kingdom, Robert and his wife Sandi took their family to live for eighteen months beside the Red Sea in Jeddah. Going out into the desert, this was when Robert earned his title as the "method actor" of contemporary biographers.

In March 1984 Robert Lacey took his family to live in Detroit, Michigan, to write Ford: the Men and the Machine, a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic which formed the basis for the TV mini-series of the same title, starring Cliff Robertson.

Robert's other books include biographies of the gangster Meyer Lansky, Princess Grace of Monaco and a study of Sotheby's auction house. He co- authored The Year 1000 - An Englishman's World, a description of life at the turn of the last millennium. In 2002, the Golden Jubilee Year of Queen Elizabeth II, he published Royal (Monarch in America), hailed by Andrew Roberts in London's Sunday Telegraph as "compulsively readable", and by Martin Amis in The New Yorker as "definitive".


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?

Recorded on:  October 20, 2009