August 11, 2014

Interview with author Bill Jones

Happy Monday dear readers! I'm just back from a few days away to the French seaside with family, and have been planning on posting this interview since before I left, last week.

Today's post is special, because I got to ask questions of Bill Jones, the author of the newly released "Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry". Bill's book explores the life of an exceptional skater, clocking countless hours with figure skating's most elite who provided the author with rare insights into the life and works of the Olympic champion. He also unearthed private correspondence of John's, which Bill tells me he would have struggled without.

If you follow skating then you've probably heard the buzz around this new book, because quite frankly we don't get all that many that look into the private lives of skating's brightest stars. Bill originally posted some promotional materials for the book to the Figure Skating Advice Facebook page, after which I am thrilled to say he agreed to being interview for the blog! I must say, I don't normally read skating biographies, and haven't done so since my teenage years (the requisite "My Sergei" and a small book by Michelle Kwan were about all I ever clocked in terms of skating-reads) but having asked Bill 11 questions about "Alone", I'm more than tempted to buy myself a copy for the bedside table. Read on for Bill's answers.

Photo provided by Bill Jones, copyright Bloomsbury
Question #1 Figure Skating Advice (FSA):
Bill, can you introduce yourself to Figure Skating Advice readers, and tell us what makes you the ideal person to write about John Curry?

Question #1 Bill Jones (BJ):
Hi... thanks for approaching me... for most of my working life I was a documentary film maker. In 2004, I was peripherally involved in a film to mark the 10th anniversary of John's early death. Three years ago I wrote a book called The Ghost Runner, which won me the Times [editor's note: The Times is a British Newspaper] Best New Writer of the Year Award, and when looking for a new subject for a second book I remembered our film of 2004. To me, it was obvious we'd only scratched the surface so I began to make contact with a few of his intimate friends and family to explore that possibility.

Question #2 FSA:
What made you want to write about John, and how did you make the decision to go ahead with the book? What is your experience with skating? Have you been a skater yourself, or someone in your family?

Question #2 BJ:
Obviously, John's complex, and damaged, personality was of huge interest to me. Like most geniuses, his gift was both a blessing and a curse, and his struggle to find personal happiness, whilst breaking new ground artistically, makes his life a fascinating volcanic journey throughout. Equally, the whole narrative of the Olympics and his professional life afterwards was intriguing but above all, I think John's life perfectly reflects the battle fought by gay men in post way Western society. As a teenager his sexuality made him a lawbreaker. As an adult, it killed him. But no, I have no skating background which meant I took nothing for granted and needed to understand all the things which make the sport work. I do love skiing though, so I understood his passion for Vail and the mountains.

Question #3 FSA:
What were your first steps in writing the book? Can you tell us a little about your research process?

Question #3 BJ:
I spent 18 months researching, and spoke to well over 100 people. Dorothy Hamill. Toller Cranston. Robin Cousins. Haig Oundjian. And many other greats of the ice. The first step, however, was to meet John's amazing 100 year old mum, and his wonderful older brother Andrew. From them I got all the papers and letters John left, and as my orbit of contacts expanded I tracked down over 200 of John's letters, from which I could glean his secret soul... an amazing resource without which I would have struggled.

Question #4 FSA:
You mention that you met with over 100 people who knew and worked with John. Who gave you truly rare insight into his life and work; who seemed most affected by having known him; and what was the prevailing opinion of John as a man?

Question #4 BJ:
Nobody who knew John seemed unaffected by the intensity of his presence. In some ways he created the aura of a cult around him. Even when he was being horrendously cruel, people seemed to forgive him. Women especially seemed drawn and devoted to him, although since many of his male friends died of AIDS, there could be other reasons for this impression. The skater Cathy Foulkes was probably the closest to him - they skated together hundreds of times - and she was visibly moved when we talked. But then so were a lot of people. Tears were not at all unusual in my research interviews. 

Question #5 FSA:
Did you get on the ice at any point while researching/writing? Did you get the chance to skate with figure skating legends, and if so, what was your most memorable experience and why?

Question #5 BJ:

Question #6 FSA: 
In the book's promotional materials, you mention that John had a labyrinthine personality, and lived a toxic, troubled, but brilliant life. What can you tell us about that? In what ways was he troubled, and did it get worse once he was tragically diagnosed HIV positive?

Question #6 BJ:
This is a huge question, and the answers are in the book which - remember - is called ALONE for good reason. But the short answer is that Curry had a streak of self loathing which coloured many aspects of his life. He was rarely happy with any of his work, and his sexual appetites seem to confirm a need/liking for pain. Maybe this began with the suicide of his father (when John was 16) but possibly it began much earlier. Either way, I believe he was oddly happy when dying. No more did he have to perform or deliver or find the money to pay his skaters. He was also incredibly courageous throughout his life, and death presented no fear for him.

Question #7 FSA:
What have you gleamed about the world of figure skating from your research, and from frequenting skating legends such as Dorothy Hamill and Robin Cousins?

Question #7 BJ:
That it misses john's courage and vision; that corruption polluted it for too long; that John is in danger of being forgotten.

Question #8 FSA:
How do you feel John coped with the limelight of being a star? Receiving the OBE in England and winning BBC [editor's note: British Broadcasting Corporation, the world's oldest national broadcasting organisation] Sports Personality of the Year put him under the spot lights of the media - how did he cope with that?

Question #8 BJ:
He had a conflicted personality. Like a lot of famous people he claimed to loathe it, but in part rather craved it. Fame, I believe(!) corrupted him to some degree because (once he was no longer a sportsman) he had to play by the rules of business. His shows had to make money. This he found hard to accept. At root, though, he was a very private person and he fled to New York (like John Lennon) where public and press intrusion is much more muted.

Question #9 FSA:
Johnny Weir's marriage in 2011 was celebrated by many within the figure skating community. Do you think the fact that society is now more educated regarding homosexuality would have changed his [John Curry's] outlook on life? Would John be less tortured had he been a modern day hero?

Question #9 BJ:
No. I doubt it. He'd have been rich and properly managed. But his problems lay deep. 
Question #10 FSA:
Has this experience inspired you to write about any other skaters? If so, who? 
Question #10 BJ: 
No. Curry is and was a one off.
Question #11 FSA:
Finally, why should skaters and their families buy your book?
Question #11 BJ:
To be inspired. To be reminded what it takes to be great, and what it sometimes costs. To learn that greatness requires acts of daring, and self belief on an epic scale. To be moved, and to be able to tell others how great this man was. 

Bill Jones, author of Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry
I'd like to thank Bill very much for taking the time to liaise with me regarding this interview, and for answering my questions which have certainly peaked my curiosity, and hopefully will not have left you indifferent either. "Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry" is available on Amazon, priced £12.91 in the UK, and $24.75 in the US.

If you've read the book or are planning on doing so, please leave a comment below so that both myself and Bill can read your thoughts and feedback! You can also get in touch via the usual social media routes, outlined below.

Until next time, go pick up your books!
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  1. Such a beautiful skater, it is a shame he could not be happier! Yes, he had a difficult family background, but I can't help but think that if he were living now when being gay is more accepted he might not have that same self-loathing.

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  2. What a great interview – I can't wait to read the book. S Jude

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