The two long narrative books I’ve written about Robbie Williams (Feel in 2004, and the recently-published Reveal) are usually referred to as biographies. That’s fine - I sometimes do it myself – but they’re not really biographies at all. Certainly not in the conventional sense of relating the central events of someone’s life in an ordered fashion. They’re actually a sustained attempt to do something far more ambitious, unusual and intimate. (And, yes, revealing.)
It begins with how they’re reported. I slip in and out of Rob’s daily life, on and off, for years. When I’m around, I’m usually living wherever he’s living, and I’ll often be in the same room pretty much from the moment he wakes until the moment he goes to bed. And I’ll always have a notebook, and one or two audio recorders, with me. Often I’m with him when he’s working – making an album, or doing promotion, or travelling on tour – but sometimes he’s just living his day-to-day life. And as the day progresses and conversations take place and events happen, the fact that I’m periodically making notes is rarely mentioned by either of us. I suppose this might sound weird from the outside, but we’re very comfortable in each other’s company. And we trust each other.
By the time I sat down to begin writing this latest book, Reveal, I had 70 thick hardback notebooks filled with notes, and countless hours of audio. There was probably enough raw material there for 15 or 20 books – and most of those would be pretty interesting. So then it becomes a question of selection and of juxtaposition – a process of honing in on the moments or stories or arcs that are not just the most fascinating or moving or entertaining in and of themselves, but which will cumulatively combine to form a whole even greater than its parts.
What I’m looking for is a narrative which is, as I say, intimate and revealing, right down to its moment-by-moment minutiae, in a way that books about someone this famous never are. A book which brings the reader so close that they can actually taste the air of Robbie Williams’ true world, rather than some cosmetic ersatz version of it, so that the reader might really feel what it is like to be and think and create and exist within his life.
I want a book that is funny and entertaining (and there’s never any shortage within his life of suitable raw material for that). I want a book that is hard to put down. But I also want a book that is unflinchingly true and honest, one that holds its gaze even, or maybe especially, when it’s uncomfortable to do so (and there are many, many such moments in Reveal). And by doing all of this, I want a book that allows you to understand - and, I hope, to empathise with - the real man at its centre.
I’m sometimes asked why Robbie Williams is open to having his life laid bare in this way, when most of his peers’ instincts are so different. I think there’s a few reasons. For one thing, I think he has a smart reflex that if there are stories to be told then it is better to tell them oneself than to allow others to tell them about you. This way, even when they are not flattering, at least they are yours.
For another, as he is very well aware, it is simply part of his nature to over-share. (At one point Oversharing or Oversharer were considered as possible titles for this new book.) He is also allergic to the idea of being just one more celebrity taught that the most sensible media strategy is to bore us into submission with anodyne pre-packaged anecdotes. We live in an era where people in his position are often deliberately uninteresting, calculating that they have more to lose than gain by sharing anything too real, and I think he considers this a kind of sin against the gods of entertainment.
I think he also believes that if he is going to let people into his world, they should see what it is actually like. In these times of oversaturated chatter, there’s already far too much pointless and inaccurate nonsense written about anyone famous, both flattering and unflattering. Why add to that with nonsense of your own? A better antidote is the truth.
None of this would work so well, of course, if not for how Rob is. That’s because of his openness, of course, and his ease at allowing someone within his slipstream to watch. And because he lives a life abnormally bereft of boring moments. (On the rare occasions these do come along, naturally I leave them out.) But for a writer, he offers a further invaluable gift: his habit of, and facility for, articulately commenting on whatever is happening to him and around him, even as it is happening. The first draft is often not what I write but what I hear.
To tell a particular story well is, of course, also to tell a more general one. Another impulse behind these books could, I suppose, be best described as anthropological. This particular moment in this particular culture will pass and I’m not sure that anyone else has been recording this rarefied and unusual part of our world in such forensic detail. That feels not just like an opportunity, but a responsibility, too. Because it matters that we record and understand our world – and that we record and understand it accurately, first hand.
If you want gossip and funny anecdotes and jokes, and stories of celebrity, and great personal joy and drama, there’s plenty of all those in these books. But the chance to tell honest stories of how people live their lives…that’s what I’m most interested in writing in general. And even though a book like Reveal is about one very particular person, unusual in both his own character and talents and in the circumstances of his life, it’s still also more generally about how someone lives and makes sense of their life. And so, on its most fundamental level, it’s a story about - and also, I hope, for - all of us.