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Razor-sharp voice

'Previous Convictions,' a collection of A.A. Gill's essays, may expand his reputation as an attack dog.

June 24, 2008|William Georgiades | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — A.A. GILL is a man in perpetual motion. Whether he's flying around the world reporting on atrocities or settling in for tea in a hotel lobby, his hands gesticulate wildly and his facial expressions change by the moment. To spend time with Gill is not unlike reading his ever-increasing body of work -- it is to be caught up in a hyper-reality of enthusiasm and outrage.

In England, Gill is as famous for his journalism as many of the celebrities whose photos regularly fill the newspaper he writes for. Every week he files two columns for the London Sunday Times' style section, one on television and one on restaurants, along with an endless series of travel stories. For the last three years he has also become known in America as an attack-dog columnist for Vanity Fair magazine. That reputation is set to expand here this month with the release of a collection of his journalism, "Previous Convictions," 32 essays that redefine "vituperative."

Recently, Gill was sitting in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel in New York, having just returned from Washington, D.C. His partner, journalist Nicola Formby, and an assistant were waiting for him upstairs while a sedan idled in the rainy street to take him to his flight back to London. He looked at a copy of the bound edition of "Previous Convictions" and began to intone, unprompted, as he poured tea for two.

"It's a collection. They're always awkward, collections. The nature of what we do is that it all happens very fast -- you get that instant gratification. But the other side of course is that it's in the bottom of the poodle's tray the next day, and I'm not sure that anyone who thought they were writing for anything longer than the poodle's tray should be in our business. That's in the nature of how we write. And I think that people who think that they are writing for posterity generally write very bad journalism. So you never really know if anything is going to have a life that makes it worth going into hardcover."

Going here and there

The book is divided into two sections -- the first half is called "Here," all set in the U.K., where Gill sets his sights on the theater, on golf and on hunting, among other pursuits. The second half, "There," is a series of dizzyingly entertaining and chilling dispatches from around the world, including pieces filed from Haiti, Iraq and New York.

Gill speaks fast, in clipped tones that sound like someone reading out loud. This makes sense, because Gill is famously dyslexic and, unusual for a writer, certainly one as prolific as him, he doesn't actually write -- he dictates all of his stories and books to copy editors. He speaks in full paragraphs.

According to his editor at Simon & Schuster, Sarah Hochman, "His books work beautifully because of his sharp and delicious voice. Reading his essays feels something akin to being seated next to the most entertaining guest at a dinner party."

In England, though, that dinner-party seat is not universally coveted. Gill has inspired a strong resentment, because of his blatant success (his tailored suits are lined with Hermes scarves) and his ability to offend. Famously, he was once escorted, along with his date Joan Collins, from a Gordon Ramsay restaurant by Ramsay himself, who didn't care for Gill's reviews. He shrouds much of his outrage with a razor sharp wit that Vanity Fair has used several times on unsuspecting targets. But rather than bringing bitterness or cruelty to his work, he is more playful. He is asked if he ever feels that he gets too personal in his attacks.

"I hope not vindictive," he said, his face a mask of innocence. "I hope that it's always about what people do rather than who they are unless they make what they do inescapable from who they are. I think it would be asking an awful lot for people to like me, and you don't get into any part of journalism short of writing the crossword clues if you want to be liked. The worst things to have to read are journalists frightened of not being liked."

Gill came to journalism in a curious manner. He drank himself nearly to death by age 30 and in the process of cleaning himself up started writing for the British magazine Tatler. He was soon approached by the London Times to write television reviews and from there branched out into reviewing restaurants and traveling. He didn't really begin working as a journalist, he said, until his early 40s.

Providing a service

"I think of myself as being a craftsman," Gill continued. "I produce a service just like a plumber does. Part of the problem with America is that journalists are too full of their own importance. And that makes journalism prissy and self-referential."

His brand of journalism is firmly first person. He has written two novels, but that has only increased his passion for journalism. "I now know that I am not a frustrated novelist," he said. "I know what I'm good at, I'm good at this sprint, good at the 1,000- to 5,000-word story -- that's my distance."

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