Talking About Writing: Stuart McGurk, GQ

The GQ commissioning editor and longform don talks ideas, jewel thieves, and the perfect GQ pitch

Stuart McGurk is senior commissioning editor at British GQ magazine, one of the UK’s last bastions of longform journalism. Alongside managing a stable of award-winning writers, he’s covered everything from refugee camps to the decadence of yacht week, and interviewed cover stars from Amy Adams to Eddie Redmayne and Jon Hamm. His latest story, in the new issue of GQ — on shelves now — is a riveting look at the pensioners who burgled Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd.

How do you find the stories you commission?

The majority of things are pitches. But if myself or Jonathan [Heaf], the features director, come up with what we think is a good idea, then we want to do it. So I think there’s a bit more writing your own stuff, whereas I think in America there seems to be — and I might be wrong — but a clearer demarcation between whether you’re an editor or a writer. They keep those things quite separate.

So when you get a pitch, what makes you think yes, that works for us?

I always see it as almost like when a playwright thinks about a drama, they think, “What’s the conflict here?”. It has to have a few things — a strong human story to start. That doesn’t mean melodrama, but who are the people you’re going to write about? A quite obvious thing, with any feature, is why write this now? Why not four months ago? Because just writing about the person isn’t enough.

One example I quite like — and Esquire ran exactly the same story six months later — was about death row and the chemicals they use to put people to death. They were running out in the US because this British firm was no longer making them. At the time that was a news story and the writer Alex Hannaford pitched that as a feature. There’s the shift there in what’s happening now, and what’s happening before. There’s a bigger argument, about how ethical is putting someone to death.

But the bit that makes a difference between a longread and a general feature is that Alex had to go and find a person he was going to follow, who was going to be injected with this new cocktail of chemicals. So can this person’s story tell the bigger story? And I think that is always a thing that we’re looking for. If you can find a great — and I hate the phrase — case study, a person’s story you can tell in a really simple way, you tell the bigger story through them. If a story can do both of those things, and if the bigger story is worth telling now and couldn’t have been told a few months ago, then that’s a perfect GQ story.

So how are those criteria filled by your story on the Syrian refugee camp?

I found out through a NGO about that camp. It had just been built and they’d just taken in refugees. That’s a way to talk about the refugee crisis generally. But you can also talk about this idea of these camps that are cities. That story is actually a tale — to get Dickensian — it’s a tale of two camps. How this one camp is an atonement almost for the first one they set up in a hurry, which became rife with crime and debauchery. But the good side of it is that it became an organic trading spot in quite an amazing way.

With these stories, when does the idea that you go in with become a narrative? So you talk about the tale of two camps; presumably that’s not the story you’ve got from when the idea emerges. When in the reporting process do they become clear?

Unlike most pieces I knew early on roughly how that was going to be. There were lots of things I didn’t know until I got to the camp, but I had a fairly good level of knowledge of the things they were trying to correct; the level of security, the level of efficiency, the way it had streetlights because a lot of people had been raped in the other camp.

The one thing I was wary of was that I think you can easily, when you’re talking to a lot of people who’ve been through such incredible trauma, be a bit too emotive and make the piece top-heavy with that. You have to be quite cold sometimes as a journalist and keep the focus on, “What is my story?”. And the story was about these two camps. It had to remain about that, not a muddled thing about these horrific things they’d been through. Which they undoubtedly had.

Is it tempting when you’re writing to put in things that are interesting in and of themselves, but might not make sense for the narrative?

Every refugee has been through an experience that you and I can never imagine and you could write a book on every single person. But it’s about being strict about what fits the story I’m telling here. What gives most insight into that?

That piece, the majority is a story about infrastructure and logistics, but it’s bookended by this human moment of an individual and the way he’s renovated his shelter. When do you know which person’s going to carry the story?

I knew when I first met him. There were a couple of other options — there was a farmer I mention briefly, who had all his cows shot. I met him queuing up for gas on this desert plain and he had a pinstripe suit on, one of the few items of clothing he had. He had an amazing backstory. But what was interesting in the person who did end up carrying it was what he’d done to his house.

He had this shelter but the amount of modifications he’d done, the carpentry, this veranda round the side where his son was growing spinach. It was different from anyone else and it was this idea of really setting up home. There are just these things where you think I can’t leave that out — these canaries he’d bought and had to leave behind, and they’d died, but he had these new ones. And then sometimes you luck on this stuff, but the canaries were pregnant and about to give birth, and that linked back subtly to this other refugee camp where people had given birth. But you only know they’ll link together after.

British features journalism doesn’t tend to offer as much space as the US can — they can give 12–15,000 words if they feel the story carries it. But that’s a very hard thing to convince a British magazine to do. Do you ever feel frustrated that you don’t have space to tell the story you want to tell?

I’ve got to a situation where I think I don’t need, really, more than 6,000 words to tell a good story. It could be a very good story at 15,000 but I don’t think you’re shortchanging your reader at 6,000. Once you go to 2,000 or so, it’s an entirely different type of writing. There’s lots of forms you can’t do, it would be a completely different structure. There’s ways to tell a story in 6,000 words you can’t tell in 2,000. But I don’t believe there’s a difference, or another leap, between 6,000 and 15,000, that makes them different types. It’s just more.

How quickly are you turning these stories around? Because you have a day job that needs to be done at the same time.

Syria, I was there for a week reporting it, which is rare. Not rare for a GQ story, but it’s the reason that as a staffer, you can’t do 10 of those stories a year. I can probably get away with doing four or five a year. A good story should take a minimum of that out in the field, then add all the other phone interviews, research around it. And then they take the time writing up. It’s a lot of time. But in terms of how long it takes, with Syria as an example, there’s the week out there, probably about five or six phoners, some for background, some for quoting. There’s a lot of reading on various NGO reports and news stories. Then there’s the writing itself.

Do you write quickly?

I’ve realised that I’ve got a set level I can write at and no more. Getting going is difficult because I’m thinking how do I start this thing. And that can take a couple of days before I even know where to start. Tinkering around and deleting things, not a lot of writing. Once I get going, I can’t get faster than 1,000 words a day.

I had to write a Brad Pitt cover story once where I interviewed him so late to deadline the printers were virtually calling up asking where GQ was. So I had to write a 4,000-word piece in a day and a bit. But it was bad. It’s one of those pieces, a combination of having 20 minutes [of interview] to do a cover story, which we’d never normally do. We’d always have a minimum of an hour. But Brad Pitt, you know? You’ve got me over a barrel. But it was an awful combination of so little time, and so little time.

That dual role, you’re writing and doing your editing, you presumably don’t look at your hourly rate in the same way as a freelancer. But you also can’t sit on stories and work them out for a couple of months.

It’s hard. We think we pay enough that writers can spend at least a week out reporting something. We’re in the three or four organs in the UK that will do that and have the money to do that. It’s why a lot of magazines, supplements of newspapers, run their pieces at 2,500 words. If it’s longer, you need to put the reporting in and they can’t afford to spend the money to report it. What a lot of commissioning editors who don’t write anymore — and there are quite a few on papers because naturally you can’t. I get away with it because I’m on a monthly — but they forget how long reporting takes on a good story.

We just sent a writer behind the scenes on a fascinating TV show, not in this country and not in America, to do a behind-the-scenes story on the opening week of it. The writing room, rehearsal, everything. But that was a week just behind the scenes. Before she’s even started. Like everything, with the Syrian refugee camp, before you’ve even started transcribing. That takes a shed load of time, there’s phoners around it. The truth is that it’s just expensive to pay enough for it to be worth people’s while.

How do you pick the stories you want to do, when you can only do a handful?

It’s not that I’m turning stuff down. A lot of our things come from freelancers and if someone pitches a good story — that behind-the-scenes is a good example of quite an inexperienced writer. The piece is great, but it’s someone who was shepherded through the process, sure. But we’d always give it to them to do it. To be honest, I’m more like a freelancer in that way. In a year, I’ll only have so many good enough ideas or things that would work as a longform thing.

Do you change your approach for the celebrity stuff? Because industry wise, they’re not seen as being as ‘important’ as the foreign reporting.

Being blunt, in a journalistic sense, they’re not. But I don’t think journalists should be snobby about it. People are interested in them, if they’re done well. So you’re being snobby about your readers. But there’s a challenge to getting a good interview out of an hour and a half with someone. If I interview someone and all I’ve ever read are bad profiles, it gets me juiced up. Because I want to write the one good one.

What are the ones you feel you have done that?

You’re not really going to get to the heart of someone, but something that gets to the heart of someone more than other pieces have. I liked doing Matthew McConaughey because he’s been interviewed so much. He’s been famous for so many years I couldn’t even get through all the cuttings on the flight over.

With that, I found one interview mentioned this list on his laptop of the Matthew McConaughey rules for life. Which he’s kept for years. He had 920 or something when I spoke to him. As soon as I read that, I thought it’s been mentioned in one piece, and I thought this could be amazing. You could write a whole piece around it. So I did. It’s a case of being nosy and belligerent enough to go, “What number was that?” To get the details. “Did you do a rule around that time?” So I could base the piece around these and no one else has done that.

What are you looking for in those interviews that makes it work for GQ? You’re not trawling for gossip, but it’s not just actors talking about acting.

You have to find a middle ground. You pick the bit in the middle, the bit about their acting or their career that speaks to who they are as a person. Bryan Cranston is a good example. There’s a lot about the relationship with his father, dealing with his own anger issues. Which all speaks to this guy who is fundamentally this incredibly lovely, sweet dude. One of the nicest I’ve ever interviewed. But then for him to turn and say, “No, actually, I have these anger issues I’m in therapy for.”

His friend, Jason Alexander, said when he gets angry it’s not that he’s got angry, it’s that he’s turned off the restraint. And it’s a really interesting way to look at him, it speaks to him as a person but also the way he can go from these light, bumbling characters to this heinous drug lord.

Personally, what I’m always looking for is the crossover where I’m not telling a cheap, “Who’s your girlfriend?” story. But I’m not doing an overly wanky, “Tell me about your method” story. If there’s a way it can connect in the middle, that tells both, then that’s what I’m looking for. Eddie Redmayne is similar. The way this crippling anxiety that he has and how is always anxious and always tries to do the best work, but he’s so anxious that it both cripples him sometimes as a person, but feeds into him as an actor. It’s the crossover, if you can do it.

It can be tempting to therapize.

The best is actually American actors who go to therapy. They’re the best interviewees. Because they’ve already spoken about their issues, they can talk about it, they’ve mulled it over. As an interviewer it’s great.

You only have a small amount of time, in the grand scheme. Is it tempting to simplify and find links where perhaps they don’t exist? This occurred in their childhood, then this happened later on, and draw the lines that maybe aren’t there?

It’s a temptation. And I’ve been tempted to make links. What you have to realise, on the writing, is if it feels like a strain then don’t write it. If you can lay out events — this happened, then this happened — the reader should make the links. And if they don’t, then they’re not there. You don’t ever want too many sentences where you’re saying, “This is what you should think about it.” It should all be done in structure. So you don’t run the risk of doing that. The structure is its own manipulation. You can’t get in trouble over the structure.

In the Hatton Garden piece, you’ve got a very prescriptive structure — you pull out each character and dedicate a thousand-odd words to telling his part of it. When did you know that was how you were going to tackle it?

I hung out at the court case quite a lot. It’s funny because the first day, everyone’s there. Second day, not that many. By the time you’re on the seventh it’s you, two people from Associated Press, the guy from the BBC Drama department, and even the dude from Vanity Fair wasn’t there anymore. The main person who was there was a guy called Daniel Sandford, the BBC home affairs reporter. But I lucked out. I was there on one of the two days where they gave out the transcripts.

They were recorded undercover in their cars, mostly, by the police. Some were played in court but by no means all of them. They gave five copies to the five people in the press dock and we couldn’t take it out of the courtroom. So I sat there getting cramp writing it down longhand into my pad, all these amazing conversations that I could quote, but also that I might want to use. I spent all day doing it and was only about a third of the way through and this kind guy Daniel from the BBC said, “I’ll send you what I’ve managed to transcribe as well.” So I got almost all of it.

Once I realised I had that, and a lot of other people didn’t, and I read a lot of news reports and thought, there are so many characters in this. I’m getting the quoted highlights, I’m getting bits that say so-and-so did this crime in the past. Even someone who was at the court case, even the news, I didn’t get a sense of who the people were because it was so scattered. I realised there might be enough to just try to tell this as just a narrative. So you switch between the jeweller, do a thousand words on him, then one of the characters, and it moves on. It’s like handing the baton to each of these characters. You’re moving the story on and whose perspective you’re telling it from.

Vanity Fair dropped their version of the story two weeks before yours, and focused on the Flying Squad, a ‘can we catch them?’ take. Did you ever ponder that approach?

I really liked the Vanity Fair piece, it did what it does well. But I never thought the Flying Squad were the story, because they were so easy to catch. They would have been the story if it was this crazy, dastardly crime where they had to find new methods to find them. But the guy drove his own Mercedes to Hatton Garden and they just looked at CCTV and went, “That’s probably the guy.” Then they knew who they were and they found them. It was easy. Longform things are about drama and there wasn’t drama in that. There was drama in the characters.

You talked earlier about the idea of having a wider theme that the narrative supports. How did you row back from: “This is the past. This is the future. This is how crime has changed”?

It just seemed obvious to me. I didn’t think you needed to. The newspaper headlines — I was sitting next to the guy from the Mirror the first day at trial they had the Forensics For Dummies book. And every paper report has been about how old they are. I don’t think you needed me to say that again. If you show how it is and what they did, it’s just obvious. The other thing, I knew being a monthly that everyone does this piece. So what would you want from a longform story where you haven’t read anywhere else? The only thing I could offer is space. I could tell each of their stories individually and cram as much detail in as possible. Because it’s fascinating and it doesn’t matter that you’re reading about the same subject if it’s good, new information.

If I rolled anything into it it was probably a bit of this idea of why these old guys did it. It was interesting to me that so many of them did it not for themselves. There’s a fairly poignant bit about Daniel Jones where he talks about — and I didn’t see this quoted anywhere — he talks apropos of nothing about his son working as a dustman and how he only takes home £260 a week. You don’t want to bang on about it too much, because he’s doing a job and you’re a criminal and it’s not ok you’re stealing because your son’s a dustman. But it humanises him. I didn’t want to glamourise them. I didn’t want to hammer home every point too much. You just go, “Here’s what happened.”

There’s a lot of points in that story where you could glamourise them: old men out for one last job; safety deposit boxes that aren’t all declared for tax.

That was a bit I fell in love with. One bit that came out in court, that most of the traders — or ex-Hatton Garden traders — now traded purely from their boxes. You had these two rooms off the corridor where they traded. And I couldn’t say in the piece, “Clearly they don’t declare this.” But I couch it by saying, “Make your own mind up how much tax got paid.”

This isn’t a story you’ll be exclusive on. So when do you as GQ decide to cover it?

The minute it broke, and the minute they were caught.

What were you hoping for? An international team of cat burglars, Ocean’s Eleven style?

We were weirdly hoping they wouldn’t be caught and we might be able to do a really long read. We were fascinated by it so we were thinking could we just do a really detailed piece talking to everyone around that building, [the company] who made the drill, a million interviews around the story to piece it together. But we knew that if they do get caught, all that’s useless. Because then you can’t do anything until the trial and then everyone’s done the actual story.

And no one wants to read the story about the drill bit manufacturer.

Exactly, what’s the point? Once it was going to trial, we thought let’s definitely do a piece and then we can work out what our thing is. But we knew that we could give enough time and space to it that it would be different to what everyone else does.

Were you worried that the Vanity Fair piece would come out two weeks before and be really similar to what you wrote?

That was a massive worry. But as those two pieces showed, there’s so many ways to write the same story. You get stuff from them you don’t get from ours, and I hope there’s stuff in ours you don’t get in the Vanity Fair piece. The bit that I’m most proud of in that piece is going to the pub where they plotted. Everyone went to the pub where they plotted, and like them I had a pint at the table where they plotted. And the regulars knew, this media guy in his early thirties on his own.

Did you order a GQ drink? A perfectly mixed old fashioned?

No, just a pint. But I didn’t think I’d get anything, it was just for one sentence of colour. But the table was near no other tables, so I figured that could go in. That there were these barriers all around it. Then I thought it was interesting that there were loads of steps to the loo. So I went up them to count them, I was thinking a bit of colour about old men going up and down 10 steps in this place.

While I was there I noticed something on the women’s door, it was decked out in this Monopoly thing. So the women’s door, where it would normally say Women, had a diamond ring and how much it’s worth. Then the men’s cubicle door had Go To Jail. It’s like it’s made up. So the weird thing is, when you’re writing longform, if you’re a news journalist you’d no way put that in the piece. But for me, that’s a great bit of detail that no one else has.