What do you do all day? Interview with Joanna Biggs

28 April 2015

Joanna Biggs is the author of All Day Long, a fascinating exploration of 32 different working days, from that of a ballerina, to a care worker, to a giggle doctor, and everyone in between. Her editor Rebecca Gray finds out how on earth you go about writing a book like this.

In your introduction you talk about how what we do for money seems like the dull but essential part of our lives. What drew you to write about work and why do you think it matters?

When I first came to London for a job after graduating, I shared a flat with two other girls and most evenings we would sit together over a plastic bag of prawn crackers and talk about work. We dissected the workplace like a new world: who sat where, who drank what, what our bosses were like, how often we checked our email. I remember the intensity of that first encounter with the workplace. What we do all day is often mysterious to those we love and live with, but it is how we spend a third of our lives and it deserves attention.

The spread of people you spoke to in the book is very broad – how did you choose your interviewees, and how many people did you speak to in your research?

There were some professions I knew I wanted to talk to from the beginning – a mother, a CEO, a rabbi, a footballer – but the book also grew as I spoke to people about the project and they mentioned a profession they’d always wanted to know about, or a friend who did a worthy or, more often, fantastical job. I also wanted to say something about how work has changed: if we’re now a post-industrial service economy, what does that feel like to its workers? What sorts of jobs are service jobs? What kind of life do they allow us? I was also in the habit of striking up conversations with my window cleaner, hairdresser, taxi driver – they must have found me insufferable . . .

The process of tracking people down is interesting – could you tell us about how you went about finding people to talk to you?

I wrote hundreds of emails, unashamedly Twitter-stalked, talked to charities, unions and organisations, tried to charm friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. I would get tip-offs: did I want to be introduced to the person who composes music for Call the Midwife, or the man who patrols a hawk through the tunnels of the London Underground to discourage pigeons, or the gay porn actor who once worked in a chicken factory? I still regret not following that one up …

Your reviews have been terrific, but tellingly, the Guardian briefly suggested you could have been more political, while the Daily Mail commented that you could have been less so, which we think means you got it exactly right. Could you tell us a bit about how you positioned yourself as an interviewer and a writer?

I’m not an anthropologist or a sociologist, but I did have areas of inquiry that I covered with everyone, and the idea wasn’t to traduce those who spoke to me, but to create a portrait of their working life at that moment in time. I didn’t pre-interview (which is why there was so much waste) and I didn’t censor. I wanted each person to speak for themselves in their own voice, and I was just there to give context or history or to describe their demeanour for the reader.

Did you get a sense that some people still feel a sense of vocation? How does work give our lives meaning?

Very few people in the book admitted they worked purely for money. We are living in an odd time, when theoretically there should be less and less work to do as technology advances and compound interest stacks up, but in reality we now work pretty much constantly. Under those conditions, it’s very hard not to take some of your identity from your work. I didn’t very frequently end up talking about vocation exactly, but I was startled at how often people told me they loved their jobs. Of course, it’s very hard to speak honestly about work when it’s also your livelihood; I constantly admired my interviewees’ bravery.

Who seemed the happiest or most satisfied in their jobs from the people you interviewed?

It felt to me that the people whose jobs had an obvious purpose – the careworker, the rabbi – were most satisfied. The things they do all day have mostly immediate and tangible results. The ballerina, the footballer and the clown, all of whom had achieved their childhood dreams, were happy and sometimes incredulous to have done so, but they saw the downsides to their profession more clearly. The footballer had had to hide from the Sunday papers many times; the ballerina said she would discourage her daughter from following her onto the stage.

From the people you interviewed, which is the job you’d most like to do?

The book is in some degree a record of all the jobs I’ve fallen in love with since I was a child, and I sort of wish I had enough lives to do all of them. In thinking about our work, we’re often thinking of all the things we can no longer be. I work at the London Review of Books and recently one of our contributors teased us when we asked him to check his biographical note: he would have loved to be a black belt in Karate who was revolutionising 21st-century visual art, living in Istanbul, but no, he was still teaching at university.

Did writing the book change the way you feel about your own work, both as an editor at the London Review of Books and as an author?

It made me grateful for good colleagues and good work, but it also made me more wary of letting my job encroach too far onto my life. Wasn’t it Amy Poehler who said recently that we should treat our careers like a bad boyfriend? I think that’s good advice.

Was there anyone who you weren’t able to interview but you wish you were?

This book could have gone on for ever. I became interested towards the end in private companies such G4S who have effectively taken over many of the functions of the state. I would spot the navy and red logo in a courtroom and wonder what these private security guards really thought about what they were doing.

You had to ask some really difficult questions. How did people respond to being asked what they earn?

The people who earned the least knew what they had coming in and going out to the penny; the people who earned the most were reluctant to name a figure even. But that said, more interesting to me than the actual figure was the conversation, which I tended to begin with the question ‘Do you think you earn enough?’ Money is a way of thinking about – the obvious way, admittedly – the worth of our work.

Were your conclusions at the end of the project any different to what you’d expected going into it? Did it change your views politically at all?

It made me more leftwing personally. I see so much that’s wrong with the current system and I feel cheered by the rare unions and people who manage to change things. The only conclusion I came to was that there’s more to life than work, which is odd, I know, for someone who’s thought about work so much for the last two years, but it’s true.

Follow Joanna Biggs on Twitter: @joannabiggs

Find out more about All Day Long