A Conversation With Jeffrey Robinson

The bestselling author of twenty-seven books and popular speaker on the international after-dinner circuit, sits down with Bookpleasure's  Norm Goldman



Today, Bookpleasures is delighted to have as our guest, Jeffrey Robinson, bestselling author of twenty-seven books and popular speaker on the international after-dinner circuit.

Jeffrey’s money laundering tour de force, The Laundrymen (1993) was a headline- maker in 14 countries, establishing him as a recognized expert on organized crime, fraud and dirty money. Actively maintaining that reputation through books, television programs and speaking engagements, the British Bankers’ Association has labeled him, “the world’s most important financial crime author.”

Twenty-Eight Years ago, Jeffrey spent the better part of a year in five different countries, putting together his acclaimed international bestselling biography of Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who at the time was one of the most famous, most recognizable and most powerful men on earth.

Today, this biography, Yamani-The Inside Story is now available in ebook format.

Jeffrey is here to talk about this book as well as his career as an author, journalist, and script writer for television.

Norm: Good day Jeffrey and thanks for participating in our interview

Jeffrey: It’s my pleasure.

Norm: What do you think over the years has driven you as a writer and what keeps you going?

Jeffrey: The long answer has to do with the fact that I’m married to a French woman and have half-breed French kids. Now, when a child is what, somewhere around two years old and they start talking, in most cases, their first words are, “Mama” or “Papa.” But my half-French daughter’s first words were, “Christian Dior.” That should tell you everything. If not, the short answer is, because that’s what I do.

Norm: What’s the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?

Jeffrey: People are always asking, where do stories come from? And then they add, it must be tough finding new stories every time. Actually, stories are the easiest part. When you know how to find a story – when you know what a story looks like and where they hide – you see them everywhere. A lot of writers either don’t know how to find a story, or are too lazy to look, so they simply write the same story over and over again. To give them their due, that’s not always bad because some readers have Cheerios for breakfast every morning, and want the same thing over and over again. God help you if you give them Corn Pops.

Many years ago, when I was living in Britain, I met Dick Francis, who wrote horse racing pot-boilers. He was an old steeple chase jockey who turned to crime fiction and wrote about what he knew best. Wikipedia says he wrote 40 best-sellers. It felt like he wrote 400. His books were everywhere. And without putting him down, because he was a nice enough man and super-successful, he really only told one story. The rest were just variations on the theme. I don’t do that. I look for a new story every time. Who’s right, Dick Francis or me? Publishers will tell you, without blinking, Dick Francis. But if you’re a storyteller at heart, it’s a no brainer.

At the same time, what many people never understand about writing for a living is that there is more to it than just sitting in an attic, drinking gin and typing. There is also the business of being a writer. To get that right, you need a lot of time and a lot of energy, both of which take away from time spent in the attic typing. The gin part is strictly medicinal.

Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Jeffrey: I was born at the end of radio and the beginning of television, both of which have greatly influenced me. Besides having worked in both – and by the way, writing radio drama, which I did occasionally for the BBC, is the most fun you can have with your clothes on – growing up with radio and television taught me that all writing is spoken. By the time I was a teenager and discovered Hemingway, with that very distinct audible style of his, I was a died-in-the-wool, born again, “spoken” writer. Which explains why, when people ask me how I write, I always answer, “Out loud.” It’s the single most important piece of advice I give young writers. I insist, unequivocally, that the greatest works that have every been written were – every one of them – written out loud. Learn that trick, teach yourself to listen to what you’re writing, and your writing will improve immeasurably.

Norm: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Jeffrey: I am constantly challenging myself, on purpose, because it makes work more interesting. I want to tell great stories that I don’t automatically know how to tell. Remember Rubik Cubes? Why did we spend so much time trying to figure out how to solve the puzzle? Because it was fun. Then, remember those wise-assed 9 year olds who’d show up on late-night talk shows and solve the Rubik Cube in 14 seconds with their eyes shut while eating peanuts? The only fun they were having is staying up past their bedtime. Yeah, okay, and the peanuts. The Rubic Cube? They were just going through the motions. Some writers fall into that trap, too.

For me, once I know how to do something, if I don’t move on to the next step, take it to the next level, where’s the challenge, where’s the fun?

Norm: Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

Jeffrey: As I said, stories are everywhere when you’ve learned how to spot them. But not all stories are good stories. My dear friend in heaven, Lino Ventura, was the French Bogart. He was a huge European big box-office movie star who mostly played the tough guy with the marshmallow center. He used to tell me, “There are three things that make a great film. The first is a great story, the second is a great story, and the third is a great story.” Same goes for a book. So I’m always on the look out for a great story.

When it comes to the telling of that great story, there are three sources. There’s what you know, what you can observe and what you can research. That’s true of fiction and non-fiction. The source is the same. Often, the technique is, too.

Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?

Jeffrey: There is only one way you will ever know if you should keep creating, if your voice and vision matters, and that’s by putting your ass in front of the computer – or typewriter, or quilled pen and parchment – and writing. It’s kind of like learning how to ride a unicycle. Just keep pedaling.

Then, while you’re writing, don’t worry if it’s good enough to share, because at that point, no one else matters but you. Write what you want to read. Let someone else decide if it’s good enough to share with ten million people, or just ten people.

Now, there are plenty of writers who will tell you, I hate writing but I’m glad I’ve written. And you know what, that’s often true. But if you write for yourself, write to your own taste level, write what you would want to read – and work really hard at rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until you’re so fed up that it’s time to jump ship – then walk away, let the well fill up and rewrite it six times again. At that point, if you’ve got something that gives you the satisfaction of saying, I’m glad I’ve written, then you’re already way ahead of the game. The rest comes mostly with luck. Although, it’s true that the more you practice, the luckier you’ll get.

I can’t tell you how many people have said to me over the years, someday I’m going to write a novel. In the beginning I used to think, no you’re not, and I’d tell them the truth, that’s it’s really really hard. Now, I encourage them. I say, go for it, even though it’s obvious they’re never going to get around to it. When all is said and done, they don’t want it bad enough. If they did, they wouldn’t be talking about it, they’d be doing it.

Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?

Jeffrey: With non-fiction, taking liberties is a definite no-no. There is the truth, and there is the lie. Non-fiction is always the truth. Yes, there are varying degrees of truth, and there are different truths, but that needs to be spelled out. Everything you write in non-fiction needs to be justified and supported by facts. Even conjecture needs to be defined as such and backed by more than something John Lennon said to you in a dream. On the other hand, fiction is closer to the definition Picasso gave of art – it is a lie that tells truth.

When you’re working on a non-fiction project, you have to get out of bed, brush your teeth, get dressed, go out, dig up facts and disprove myths. When you’re writing fiction, you can sit home in your pajamas, with Judge Judy playing softly in the background, and make up stuff. However, there is a trick to both. Write non-fiction like fiction, so the reader is constantly turning the page to find out what happens next, and write fiction like non-fiction, so that when your character walks out of the donut shop and turns left into the nunnery, there really is a nunnery next door and not a muffler shop.

Norm: What made you want to write about Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani? How forthcoming was Yamani when you interviewed him and what were the most surprising things you learned in writing the biography?

Jeffrey: I wanted to write about him because his is a great story. And, making it even better from my point of view, no one had ever told it. It took me a lot of time and effort to find the people who’d help me understand the story, and a lot of time and effort to get to him. As you said, I traipsed around five countries during that year, spending time with him and his family. When I wasn’t with them, I was interviewing another two hundred people. Putting the story together was like a jig-saw puzzle with 10,000 pieces, and all of those pieces are the same color. But every time I locked down another piece, I could see just how great a story this was. As for the most surprising thing, just about everybody I spoke with – even those people he’d often disagreed with – told me, “Zaki is my friend.” He’s one of those very very rare people who makes everyone feel totally comfortable in his presence.

Norm: Could you tell us a little about Yamani-The Inside Story

Jeffrey: Here was a man who, for 24 years, was one of the most powerful people on the planet. As the Minister for Petroleum for Saudi Arabia, and the face of OPEC, the price of oil was in his hands. A mere smile or a wink or a smirk could send the markets into turmoil. Here was a man, too, who understood the sheer power he could wield, and used it with enormous care. Even in the face of the oil embargo, with gas lines going around the block, there were plenty of people in the West, especially in Washington, who believed that Yamani was the best friend the West had in the Middle East. Here was a man who’d gone to school in the US, and who understood that if the so-called “oil weapon” was misused, the repercussions could be fatal, not just in the West, but in the Middle East, too. Here was a man who was nearly murdered twice – first when King Faisal’s nephew killed the king, then turned the gun on Yamani who was standing next to the king; then when the terrorist Carlos The Jackal kidnapped the OPEC ministers and told Yamani that he was going to die. Here too was a brilliant man, a family man, with enormous charm, deep faith in God, boundless humanity and a wonderful sense of humor. Tell me that doesn’t all add up to a great story.

Norm: As a follow up, what purpose do you believe the biography serves and what matters to you about the biography?

Jeffrey: A biography documents a life. At the same, it puts that life into the perspective of history and documents that history, too. What matters to me is that the biographer is a seeker of truth. You don’t have to be nice to your subject. You simply have to tell the truth, and tell it fairly. Get it wrong and, no matter how well lived that life has been, you’ve tarnished it. Get it right, and you’ve done what you’re supposed to. I don’t want to over-dramatize this, but when you tell the story of someone’s life, you bear a great responsibility. Not just to your subject, and to your readers, and to history, but, as importantly, to yourself.

Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?

Jeffrey: You bet writers owe something to their readers. Just about everything. Heart and soul. When someone says to you, I’m going to shell out a farthing ha-penny – by the way, I have any idea how much that is – and that someone is then going to spend 12 or 15 or 20 hours at your knee, listening to your story, you owe him big time! You owe him a great story, an enjoyable time, a learning experience, laughter, tears and some terrific memories. Cheat your readers, even slightly, and you don’t deserve another second of their time.

Norm: What is next for Jeffrey Robinson and where can our readers find out more about you and your books?

Jeffrey: First, I’m going to look up how much a farthing ha-penny is. After that, there are always projects in the works. It hardly matters that my half-French daughter is grown up and can now afford her own Christian Dior, I want to keep her mother in the style that she thinks she’s become accustomed to.

For anyone who wants to know more, there’s a website: http://www.jeffreyrobinson.com/

Or they can follow along on Twitter: @writingfactory

Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.

Jeffrey: Ah… actually, the question I wish you had asked was, “Is it true that you look like Robert Redford?” No one ever asks that. Which is why I wish you had. My answer is, “Yes… absolutely… but only on the telephone.”

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your endeavors.