Freelance Focus: Harriet Griffey

This week our Focus interview is with freelancer Harriet Griffey, who tells us about her latest book, The Art of Concentration.

About your journalism:

What do you write about?
I started off as a journalist doing a lot of health writing because I am also a qualified nurse, but now I write more general features, human interest stories and interviews. Every now and then I take myself off – some years ago I spent two weeks with the Phelophepa Healthcare Train in South Africa, which yielded lots of great stories – which replenishes the batteries.

Where are we likely to see your work?
I’ve written for all the main UK national newspapers over time, the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, FT, Sunday Times, and the Mail on Sunday – but I also write non-fiction books. My latest book The Art of Concentration is published by Rodale in April I also do a fair amount of corporate work, and that tends to be more specialised.

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
I love interviewing people, whoever they are and whatever they do, and the most memorable was probably going to Paris to interview Ray Charles for the Guardian and the BBC World Service. I spent three days hanging out with his band and the Raylettes before I interviewed him at the Ritz. But I’ve also interviewed a lot of people who are equally memorable for different reasons – the children representing the charity for example, and going to India to interview the country’s first environment minister, Maneka Gandhi. Finding out that Bill Wyman used to hang out with the artist Marc Chagall in France was pretty memorable, too! I remember Lynn Barber telling me that you must always ask the obvious questions and not fear looking stupid, otherwise you just don’t get the really interesting nuggets of information that make a great piece.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
I like to see what happens behind the scenes because you always get an interesting insight into what makes people tick and what makes things happen – so doing a feature behind the scenes at the Oscars Award ceremony would be fun.

About you and PRs:

Where do you source ideas for articles?
I get a lot of information from PR companies, and from health PRs in particular, but generally I usually source my own ideas. I also work with a number of different charities, helping them to place feature stories.

How can PRs be useful to you?
Building a relationship with a PR can be really useful, and provide a two-way street. With health it’s especially important to access the experts, and they can be helpful with that. I also do quite a bit of work directly with a number of PR agencies, as they often need specialist writers.

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
Email with some brief info is always a good first step – I will often pick up the phone and call straightaway if there’s something I’m interested in and want to follow up.

Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
Some press activities provide a wonderful opportunity for access and generating ideas, but I’m quite selective – and careful not to accept foreign trips if I can’t write about them. I turned down a press trip to the Maldives once, because I couldn’t place the piece – sadly! But if you constantly take the freebies and don’t deliver, you lose credibility all round.

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
Sometimes I think it would be useful for them to ask us what we, as journalists, need – but overall, they do a pretty good job in thankless times!

About you:

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
That’s a tricky one because I can’t think of a better job! I coach teenagers through a charity so maybe if I wasn’t a journalist and writer, I would develop that side of my work more.

If we gave you £1000, how would you spend it?
Travel. I have permanently itchy feet! I’m going to India next month…

What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
I often go to bed with the Guardian’s G2 section to catch up and do the (quick) crossword, but currently I’m reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, which I’m finding really interesting, and Lois Walden’s excellent first novel One More Stop. I used to be addicted to magazines but am in recovery now (!) and try to limit myself to holidays and train trips… the weekend newspaper magazines are great, though! The blog that’s mostly on my screen at the moment is my own – – purely because I’m doing one for my new book, and writing it is a great way of thinking through new ideas on the art of concentration.

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