31 August 2005
'A Tantalizing Offer'
On the day that Michka Assayas's 'Conversations With Bono, was due to go to print, Michka's phone rang. (Guess who?)
Michka Assayas's 'Conversations with Bono' has wowed the critics and raced up best-seller lists. But, as the French writer explains to U2.Com, it became a totally different book when Bono invited him to Nice to 'go through the manuscript'.
'You probably won't believe this, but the day this book was due to go to the printer, Bono gave me a call. "Listen, I'm gonna make you a tantalizing offer," he said. "I've just finished reading it, and I really think you've done a great job. Still, there are little bits here and there which I think we need to correct, if we want it to be fully credible. I've got some work to do down in the south of France: why don't you come and join me there? We'll spend the afternoon going through the manuscript for the last time, and then I'll take you out to dinner to celebrate. After that you can send it to the publisher." Did I have a choice?
When I arrived in Nice, I asked Bono, "What's your schedule like?" "My schedule is you," he said, as though I'd asked the most unnecessary question. "We have to get this right." So I unpacked my bag and what had been intended as an overnight trip turned into a five-night stay. We worked like maniacs, as excited as a couple of kids creating our first high school fanzine. I'd come up with a new question, and Bono would bounce an answer back to me. Then I'd type it up, we'd read it through on my laptop, and work it over yet again. At one point Bono told me: "This is like songwriting, you know. You can feel it when it flows."
Bono once likened our conversations to a game of "handball." He says he chose me to interview him because "he needs a hard head to be the wall, so the speed of the ball sets the mood of the game." Well, in Nice, it felt more like squash. Pacing up and down the house in his white bathrobe, Bono would improvise new lines until midnight. I felt like a general working out a battle plan with Napoleon under a tent in the plains of old Europe. Days and nights ran together.
Back in the early '80s, as a young rock critic in Paris, I didn't consider myself as a "professional" writer. And I still don't think that way now. Why would Bono tell me his life story? Why would he talk about things, like being a son, a husband, and a father, that he'd kept from other interviewers? He knew I wouldn't act like a "pro," but as a challenging friend who happened to be a writer.
When I came across Bono in the late '90s, I think I made him realize that the past is not something you bury once and for all. Sometimes it comes back to you like a boomerang--and can serve up revelations about the present and the future. Somehow, Bono needed "to look back into the house of his various lives and tidy his room," to quote his own words; I became "his opportunity" to do that. To me, it was like taking a train trip beside him. I knew that when the train would stop, we'd go our separate ways again, maybe for another fifteen years. Hence the urgency and the hard questions: when you're on a train with Bono, you want to make the most it, because it's the kind of miracle that won't happen again.
"What do you do when you meet sycophants?" I asked him at some point. "Yawn," was his answer. So I tried to keep him on his toes all along the way. He knew there were a few things my hard skeptical French head hadn't really bought about U2's career and that there were positions he took that I didn't agree with. But one thing I like to think Bono and I have in common is that we rarely go for the obvious. "I'm familiar with being pushed," confided Bono.
I believe writing is like archaeology--you know there is something down there, but you're not sure exactly what it is. You just have to go there. My approach to this project was similar to what Bono calls "divining" when he refers to songwriting. I've tried to divine Bono, and so has Bono allowed himself to be "divined."
When I came back to Paris six days later with a totally reworked manuscript, about 100-pages heavier, I told my wife that I had that amazing feeling of freedom and boundless energy that an 18-year old has when he feels the world is utterly malleable and there are no limits to his dreams. Now that's magic. I hope the book conveys more than a part of that.'