True or False?

“The interesting peripheral zone between biography, autobiography, memoir, social comment and current affairs…” Jonathan Heawood, PEN Director, sketched out the territory of Alexander Masters’ and Jon Ronson’s writing at the start of the evening. He found the two authors to be “pushing at the boundaries” of genre in their ways of writing about real people; the audience were full of anticipation.


Alexander proceeded to outline the process of writing Stuart: A Life Backwards, which won last year’s Guardian First Book Award. When writing a piece for The Cambridge Evening News, Alexander came across Stuart, a homeless man; their friendship developed as Alexander started working in a local shelter. “Stuart was telling me the most interesting stuff I’d heard,” marvelled Alexander, “it was so fresh!” He decided to write a book about him, an idea which Stuart liked, so they began work on it as a 50:50 joint project. “As Stuart said,” Alexander explained, “he’d done the living, I did the writing… seemed like an even deal.”


Jon then described his intriguing subject matter: “People on the margins of society who are trapped inside these irrational bubbles within which all sorts of crazy thoughts and actions make perfect sense.” Jon claimed that despite the madness he encountered in people, such as a politically correct Klu Klux Klan leader, he never felt “morally superior”. He claimed that anyone was capable of being in a bubble, and went on to discuss episodes in his latest book Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness, highlighting his own bubble of parental lunacy when dressed up as Father Christmas for his four year old son.


Both authors read from their work, choosing instances of self-deprecating humour. For Alexander, it was the moment that he showed Stuart his first draft of the book, only to get the reaction “it’s b****cks boring”. For Jon it was a desperate phone call to the British Embassy in Portugal when he had to describe himself as “a humorous journalist out of my depth”.


The discussion went on to encompass ethics, subjectivity, empathy, psychopaths, cults and reality TV: a lively and at times hilarious discussion. Thanks to Jon and Alexander, and also to Waitrose for the wine which everyone enjoyed after the talk.


Report by Emily Rhodes

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