“It’s my style, and I do it on purpose,” he says. “But it’s instinct also. I think it’s kind of funny and it’s what people want, [for me] to totally, narcissistically tie everything back to my fascinations and my life and my interests.”
He suspects that if he wrote a book that grandly declared it was about “the power of words” it just wouldn’t work. He’s always envied Jon Ronson, whose books like The Men Who Stare at Goats, or the ahead-of-the-curve So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed take an issue and dig into it.
But Safran feels he can’t write that way: he needs a story: “Like my book Murder in Mississippi was about a murder in Mississippi”. When he’s got a theme – in this book, the power in the simple act of re-labelling things – his instinct is to complicate things.
“I use the tools of journalism, and I use the tools of op ed, and maybe the tools of activism, and I apply that to storytelling,” he says. “Which is a different thing. In storytelling, you want people to read between the lines.
“Like my last book was about white supremacists, but there’s no point where I go ‘well, white supremacy is bad’. When you’re into storytelling and that area of comedy and fun, it’s like you’re dabbling in ambiguity; you’re toying with your reader and I much prefer that.”
Why? Part of it is self-doubt.
“I don’t think anyone would accept me doing it the other way,” he says. “They’d just be ‘shut up John’, if I was starting to be whiney.”
It’s a two-edged sword, when you’ve become lodged in the public consciousness as that sarcastic, funny guy from Race Around the World.
“People who like you like, it, but the other side is you come across like a bit of a jerk, so you’ve got to be so careful. People don’t accept any whining, any complaints from you because it’s like, ‘f— you; you’re such a smart arse you deserve to be punched in the eye by that Philip Morris person’.
“I wouldn’t get away with doing what John Oliver does, or Jon Stewart. It’s really weird; people don’t accept me whining about anything because I’ve whined about things occasionally and people just don’t listen.”
He struggled with it between drafts of the book. Parts of it disappeared that he felt were too nakedly activist, too firm in their convictions.
He wanted to be forthright – “you just think ’oh, for f—‘s sake, it’s Philip Morris, it’s a f—ing cigarette company, they kill people, right? Surely Safo can just whine a bit about them or be a bit judgy?’ But it just didn’t work creatively. I had to figure out how to write it.”
It worked to do more “floundering around” at the start and “talk a bit harder at the end”, he says.
And he’s not complaining about not being able to complain, honestly.
“I’m obviously privileged. I get a book deal, I get to have my say, but there are conditions on that and probably good conditions. And screw me, most people don’t get the opportunity.”
His last three big projects have been books, now, “so I guess I’m a book writer because that’s what the facts suggest”, and he’s happy with that. He really enjoys the process, getting to “wander into the world” (pandemic allowing), not having to convince people to be on camera and worry about microphones, the ability to go way further down the rabbit holes that present themselves. He even likes the end bit, when he takes his notes and interviews and locks himself in the flat with a deadline looming “and I just go crazy for a few months”.
“And if my thing is ‘you just have to be funny, you have to put yourself in danger and you can’t whine’, then so be it. I mean that’s still a pretty good job.”
Puff Piece is out now from Penguin Books