The writer behind the hit movie, 'Philomena,' shares his secret to storytelling

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Let me make a holiday movie recommendation: 'Philomena.' It's the one featuring Judie Dench and Steve Coogan. Dench plays an aging Irish woman who had a child out of wedlock when she was a teenager. That child was sold by nuns to an American family. It's a dramatization of a true story, and Coogan plays the journalist Martin Sixsmith who wrote the 2009 book that the movie is based on, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee." Martin Sixsmith joins me now from London, not to talk about the book, specifically, or the movie, but about stories and storytelling. Great to have you on the show, Martin, thanks.

Martin Sixsmith: Thanks, Marco.

Werman: I mean, you're no slouch. You were the BBC's Moscow correspondent for several years, followed the last years of the Cold War there, also based in Washington, covered Bill Clinton, you reported on politics and policy and big events. Did you ever find yourself, as a BBC correspondent, telling many human stories? Did you want to? Did your editors ask for them?

Sixsmith: Well, a little bit. I did mainly hard news, it was international news and then British politics. But human interest stories did crop up from time to time. But as a journalist, you know that that's the sort of story we tend to sort of turn our noses up a little bit at. Human interest stories are something we think probably would figure in the glossy magazines rather than the hard news programs. But this was a human interest story which I just really couldn't turn down.

Werman: I mean, there's a moment in the film that I think is kind of instructive for journalists, right at the beginning. It's attention our own program has wrestled with as we try to dig into meaty world issues. And the scene is, you're at a cocktail party, or rather Steve Coogan is at a cocktail party, going on about your plans to write a book about Russian history, which itself becomes kind of a recurring side gag in the film, and then a waitress pouring wine at the party tries to pitch you a story, a story she knows pretty well. Let's hear that.

[clip begins]
Waitress: I know this woman, she had a baby when she was a teenager. She's kept it secret for fifty years.

Coogan: You're talking about a human interest story. I don't do those.

Waitress: Why not?
[clip ends]

Werman: And Martin Sixsmith, your response, or rather that of Steve Coogan's, was, "Because 'human interest' tends to be a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people to fill up the pages of newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people." So this is the only "did you really say that" question I'm going to ask you: did you say that, or did you believe that at the time?

Sixsmith: No, I certainly didn't say it, I didn't believe it, that little bit of the film is dramatization. The situation was absolutely true. I'd lost my job, I'd worked for Tony Blair as a communications director for the British government, and we'd fallen out in quite a big way in 2002, so I was a little bit down on my luck. I didn't have a steady job, so I was casting around for something to do. And it is absolutely true that I met this woman at a party. It was a New Year's Eve party, in fact. And she did indeed say, "I've got a great story for you; you used to be a journalist, perhaps you'll be interested." And my reaction was not quite as scathing as that of Steve Coogan in the film, but I did think a little bit before I plunged into it.

Werman: So where in the Philomena story did you start saying to yourself, "Wow, why did I not give this human interest thing more consideration before?"

Sixsmith: I think it was as soon as I met Philomena herself, actually, because she was such a tremendous person. She's a real life force, she's full of folk wisdom. She's a little bit as Judy Dench plays her in the movie. I think Judy Dench plays her a bit more simple than she really is in real life. But as soon as she started to tell me her story, it dawned on me that this was a fantastic story. And it wasn't just the story of one individual. Of course, the individual story of Philomena and her lost child was a tremendous story in itself, but it did have a much wider significance in that this terrible thing that the church did to fallen women who had babies out of wedlock in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s happened to probably hundreds and thousands of people. So yes, it was a human interest story, but it also had this wider political and social significance as well.

Werman: What did you discover about storytelling as you wrote the book in 2009? What does it do that writing about history cannot?

Sixsmith: Well, I think there's a difference between writing a factual documentary account, and that's what you and I as journalists have done over the years, but turning it into a book, I had to make a decision whether to make it a dry, factual, historical account, or to write what Truman Capote called a "factual novel." So I went for that. It was broadly factually correct, but it did have characters in it, it had dialogue in it, it had scenes which were extrapolated. So I filled in the gaps, as it were. It is very much based on historical evidence, I got a lot of firsthand accounts from people who were there, I found diaries of people who were involved in the story, I found photographs, I found newspaper reports, and I spoke to people who had known the participants in the story. The basis for it, that structure, is absolutely factual. But putting the flesh on those bones was the way that I approached it by making it into a story. It becomes a detective story, it becomes a mystery, and it becomes, as I said, a factual novel.

Werman: Have you seen the effects that that story did to this whole issue of the nuns selling children for adoption back in the '50s? I mean, do you think if you had written a dry account, would the results have been different?

Sixsmith: Well, what I have seen is the tremendous emotional response from the people who are still in Philomena's position, because when the book was written, I had a whole stack of letters coming in from mothers saying "Yes, I'm so pleased that someone like Philomena has had the courage to allow her story to be told, because I'm still in the same position. I'm having my baby taken away from me in the 1950s or the 1960s, and I'm still looking for my lost child." So the fact that this story is now written as a book, and even more so now that it's out there as a film, has been validating for the women in that position. And also, I have to say, we've had letters from children who were taken for adoption and have been, ever since, looking for the mother from whom they were taken away. It's been validating for them, it's been validating for Philomena, she was indeed worried about her story being told. But I think the fact that so many people have come forward and praised her for having the courage to allow her story to be told has really made it a worthwhile experience for her.

Werman: What do you think gets lost when a journalist constantly turns to pundits and talking heads for explanation, as opposed to digging up stories?

Sixsmith: Well, it's two different forms of journalism, isn't it? I mean, over the years, I've done my share of talking to pundits and talking heads. I had twenty years as a BBC foreign correspondent, so I did plenty of that. And there is, indeed, a place for that in the spectrum of news. But I have to say, being involved in the story myself, being a participant in this sort of detective story that I embarked on, is much more exciting. And it was very different for me, because all of those years at the BBC, I've had that BBC ethos of objectivity, not becoming emotionally involved in the story, journalism was always "on the one hand, this," and, "on the other hand, that," and let's try and draw an impartial conclusion. This has been quite liberating in a sense, because I've been involved in the story; I've had that visceral, emotional involvement in the story. And I was very moved and very angered by the injustice that was done all those years ago.

Werman: Did you get emotionally involved in the story of Philomena Lee? Because Steve Coogan, in the movie, certainly does at the end.

Sixsmith: Yes, Steve Coogan in the movie gets more involved than I did in real life. The difference, I think, is that Steve Coogan himself is a Catholic, he's from a family of Irish background. I'm neither of those two things. The anger that you see in the movie and that cathartic scene at the end where all the pent-up emotion that's been building up during the course of the movie is then released onto the screen, that anger and that passion really comes from Steve Coogan much more than from me. As I say, I was moved and angered by the injustice, but I didn't feel that great personal passion and anger that Steve Coogan clearly feels.

Werman: Clear up something for us, Martin, and it's something that's eluded to mostly in passing in the film: you were working for the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001, you got caught up in a small scandal that you wanted to write about in a book later. It would have been your first book after leaving the BBC. Am I stating all this correctly, and did the government try to gag you from writing that book?

Sixsmith: Yes, that's absolutely correct. The argument was over, essentially, the importance of telling the truth, and I thought it was quite important, whereas some of the ministers I that was working with and some of the political spin doctors really didn't think it was very important. And that was the source of the argument. When I left the government, they spent quite a long time trying to say it was all my fault, but in the end they had to apologize, they made an apology in Parliament and they paid me compensation, and the minister involved, himself, had to resign. So I was vindicated in that sense. And I was very tempted to write a book about it, it was something that was quite close to my heart. But as you say, the government put a gagging order in place to ban me from writing about anything I'd learned during my employment in the government, so I didn't write that. But what I did do was write a novel, because they didn't put a ban on fiction. And it is a bit of a [xx], it is about spin doctors and it is about dodgy politicians, so in that sense, I was able to write about it.

Werman: And the scandal, in brief, was an email that was attributed to you that you had not sent?

Sixsmith: No, it was an email that I had sent. I'd sent an email advising a minister not to try to bury bad news. You may remember, in Britain, there was a scandal on the day of 9/11 when a minister tried to bury some very trivial bad news on the day of the tragedy of the World Trade Center, and a few months later, the same minister tried to do something very similar. I sent an email warning against it, and the government decided that they wanted to say that none of this had ever happened. However, it had happened, and eventually they were forced to acknowledge it. It's very convoluted, it's very complicated, but at the time, passions were aroused by it, and I think what came out of it was that politics suffered, because the politicians were seen to be not very worried about telling the truth or not telling the truth.

Werman: So you did not write that book, but you did write a novel, as you say, and a book about Russia. Do you think these writing experiences were markers or counterpoints that led up to your taking on the story of Philomena Lee?

Sixsmith: Yes, I think so. I enjoy having a rather eclectic range of subjects. I've written factual books, I've written novels, I've even written a comic novel, which was a most enjoyable experience. And during the movie, during Philomena, there's a running gag about Martin, the Martin character, wanting to write a history of Russia, which, everybody says to him, "nobody will be interested in that at all." In that sense, I did have the last laugh, because I did write a very long history of Russia which accompanied a fifty part BBC radio series about the history of Russia, and it became a bestseller. Even at the end of the movie, there's a little note which I think says, "Martin Sixsmith did go on to write several books about Russia, and they did quite well."

Werman: Let's end with a story, Martin, and how about a story about Russia, because so much is going on there these days. What's the best tale, say, about the now-released Mikhail Khodorkovsky that you can tell us?

Sixsmith: Well, that's a tremendously complex story, and I did actually write a book about that as well. It was called 'Putin's Oil', and Russia and the Yukos scandal. Yeah, it's absolutely a surprise that Putin should release Khodorkovsky, because they were sworn enemies, absolutely hated each other with a deep loathing. It went well beyond politics, it went into that personal vendetta between the two of them. It will be very interesting to see what Khodorkovsky now does when he's released, because he's always sworn that, were he to be released, he wouldn't go abroad. He would carry on, he would stay in Russia and he'd keep up his interest in politics. I think if he were to do that and to continue to be a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin – Khodorkovsky's even said he would consider standing for the presidency – I think there could be fireworks if he does that.

Werman: What's the one thread of the Khodorkovsky story that we don't know about, that you think is a really rich one?

Sixsmith: Well, I think it's about the man himself. He was Russia's richest man, he had the opportunity to go abroad, everyone kept warning him that Putin was going to come down on him like a ton of bricks in 2003, and Khodorkovsky kept saying "no, I'm not going to go abroad, I'm not going to be intimidated, I'm going to stay here and fight." They were really the archetypal two men in a bar room brawl, and their friends keep saying to them, "back off, back off, it's not worth it," but they keep going hammer and tongs at each other. So the real interest in the Khodorkovsky story for me is what made a man who was a multi-billionaire - who could've gone abroad, he could've saved his family, he could've been a very rich, very happy man living outside of Russia, and he could have avoided what turned out to be ten years in a Russian labor camp - what made that man stay in Russia and continue to fight? For me, there's something Shakespearean about that.

Werman: Martin Sixsmith, the former BBC journalist and the author of 'The Lost Child of Philomena Lee', thank you very much, great to speak with you.

Sixsmith: Thank you.