Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Julian Guthrie: author of The Billionaire and The Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed Up to Win Sailing's Greatest Race, the America's Cup

Julian and I became quick friends on the elementary school playground. Isn't that where all great friendships start? Her son and my son are in the same grade, and they both love Lego's. So, we got to talking, and found out that we are both writers.  

Though Julian's success has been far greater than my own, she has always been there to read a chapter, or suggest an agent. She rocks as a friend, a mother, and an unbelievable writer! You go, Julian! 

I love her, and I assure you, after you read this interview, you will fall in love with her too.

The book is due out June 4 by Grove/Atlantic. Ken Auletta, author and New Yorker media critic, has said this of Julian's book:

From the opening scene in this book – and scene is the appropriate word for its cinematic beginning – the reader is swept along on heart-thumping rides on swift, dueling sailboats, past an assemblage of characters worthy of Dreiser, past the shoals of deceit worthy of Dickens, and coming to rest on the formidable character of billionaire Larry Ellison, who has the will-to-win of his best friend, Steve Jobs, and of a mechanic, who made winning possible. Julian Guthrie writes so vividly that the reader is held spellbound, from page one to the end.”

Below are the questions I asked her:

1. What are the three top reasons people need to read your newest book?

You will learn something. You will be entertained. And you will be inspired.

2. How did you land Larry Ellison?

With difficulty. I had interviewed him more than a decade ago for a story I did for Forbes magazine. But since then, he has walled himself off from the press. I would say he's harder to get to now than the president - no kidding. 

I sent emails explaining the great story I wanted to tell. I pleaded my case with the chief marketing officer of Oracle. Still I heard nothing, except that he had stopped doing interviews. I was starting to get extremely anxious (I already had the book deal), when I got an offer from Mandalay Pictures (Peter Guber's film company) to option my book, I sent more emails. I only had a year or so to report and write this, so I had a true, hard deadline. The book needed to come out timed to the start of the America's Cup, which begins the first week of July with the Louis Vuitton Cup. 

Finally, fearful that this wasn't going to happen with his participation, I got an email from Larry. It was all of three words, but it was all I needed to hear. He wrote: "Happy to talk."

3. What's Mr. Ellison like in person? Is he funny? Is he shy? Is he the guy next door, or does he seem untouchable?

He is very different from the public persona, which is almost a caricature, a take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs warrior image. Of course he wants to win. Of course he's competitive. But he wants to win ethically and fairly, and certainly not at all costs. 

He is funny in an irreverent, I can't-believe-you-just-said-that kind of way; brilliant (with a near photographic memory); original in his thinking (in the same way his best friend, the late Steve Jobs was); extremely well read (especially of biographies and military history); and never one to rest on his considerable laurels. 

Forbes recently listed him as the world's fifth wealthiest people (the third wealthiest in the U.S.), with a personal net worth of $43 billion. The amazing thing, considering this, is that he remains CEO at Oracle Corporation, which he co-founded in 1977 (the precursor to Oracle was called Software Development Laboratories), and Oracle remains his number one priority. His life is about the next great chapter, the next big challenge. He always looks ahead.

4. What about the Mechanic? What's his name, and what's he like in person?

The mechanic of this story is a Marin resident (he and his wife live in Larkspur), who runs a radiator repair shop in San Francisco. His name is Norbert Bajurin, and he was commodore of the blue-collar yacht club, the Golden Gate, along the San Francisco waterfront, when he learned that a tentative partnership between the more blue-blood St. Francis yacht club and Ellison's Oracle Racing had fallen apart. 

It was the summer of 2000 and Larry had said he was going to form a syndicate to compete in the America's Cup, the Holy Grail of sailing, begun in England in 1851. You need to be sponsored by a yacht club to race in the event, so Larry had a team but needed a yacht club. Norbert read about the falling out with his neighbor, the St. Francis, and thought, "Why can't the little old Golden Gate be Ellison's sponsoring club?

Everyone told Norbert he was nuts and that he was way out of his league. Norbert refused to listen. Norbert's story is really rich and textured. His life was changed - for the better, and for the worse - by the America's Cup and his partnership with Larry. It's a very personal portrait of Norbert, whom I adore.

5. What are your thoughts on these two most unlikely people becoming friends, and working together?

It says a lot about both men. They have become unlikely friends and great supporters of one another. Larry inspires Norbert and Norbert grounds Larry

Norbert is a kind of everyman who dares to dream and makes that dream come true. Larry was reared in the South Side of Chicago with adoptive parents who liked to tell him he would never amount to anything. 

Larry admires Norbert for the life he leads: Norbert owns a business, he is an upstanding guy, and he's a straight talker. Larry says that dealing with Norbert is like going back into the Wild West, when a handshake was all that was needed to seal a deal.

6. Where's the best place for a cup of Joe in SF?

Zuni cafe. The latte in the bowl is amazing.

7. Why do you write?

I have been a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 15 years. You get to go into a different world several times a week. Some of what you see is really beautiful and inspiring. Some of it is sad or awful. I love learning, and I love bringing what I learn to the public. 

Writing is an art form, whether fiction or nonfiction. Writing books is grueling. I had my full time job at the Chronicle while I was writing this book at night and on the weekends. But just last week I received an early copy of my finished book. Holding the book - which looks beautiful - brought tears to my eyes. Truly. All of that struggle, sacrifice, and work paid off. The book is my little piece of immortality, and I just love the story.

8. You have an agent. Why? How has he helped your writing career?

I have an agent in New York. While there are a lot of people who self-publish and can find great rewards and success that way, my path has been the more old school one, which requires an agent to pitch your proposal to editors at the big publishing houses. 

My agent, Joe Veltre, has been instrumental. He has worked closely with me on my proposals, offering feedback and editing. 

What most non-writers don't know is that it's difficult to even get an agent. Then it's difficult for your agent to sell your idea. But I still think this is the best path if a writer is trying to get the attention of the publishing world. 

Also, my agent is negotiating my film deal. You want someone who knows everything from royalties on e-book sales to what to ask for in consulting fees if your book is turned into a screenplay, and so on.

9. Do you belong to any writer's associations? If so, which ones?

My writer's association is the San Francisco Chronicle :-) I love my colleagues, and feel like I'm always learning from them. And I have great editors at the paper.

10. What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?

While I was working on this book, I got up at 5 a.m. and worked until 7, when I had to get my son, Roman, up and ready for school. I'm a creature of habit for breakfast: coffee, water, vitamins, granola, fruit.

11. What's a day in your life like at the Chronicle?

I worked in the news department for more than a decade. That was crazy, as I'd arrive at work not knowing my assignment for the day. (I learned very early on to keep a pair of running shoes in my trunk.) I could be dispatched to cover a flood (I have floated in a canoe above the flooded streets of Guerneville), or do a piece on a gang shooting in Bayview Hunter's Point. 

Fortunately, I am now in the features department, so I have a set number of assignments I try to do in a week. Right now I'm working on a piece about the Dream Act (immigration reform); a profile on San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon; and a piece on Chris Columbus, a director (who did some of the Harry Potter movies, as well as Home Alone). My son Roman has given me questions to ask him about the Harry Potter films...

12. You've won multiple awards for writing. Is there a special one, close to your heart?

I used to care a lot more about awards. I did enjoy writing stories that exposed corruption and fraud and sending a couple of bad guys to jail (I got a big award for those stories). 

But now I just want to write great stories that people love, or at least that leave them feeling like they learned something or even entertained them for a bit. I want to write beautifully and compellingly, and get all of the facts right :-)

13. Who is your biggest cheerleader?

My mom. She has drawers full of my stories (print copies!). It's interesting to re-read some of the stories and see how inconsistent I was when I started, and how writing is a discipline like anything else. The more you do it, the better you get.

14. You also wrote The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith. What did you learn about yourself while writing it?

That book made me think about the places I hold sacred. I'm not Catholic, but I was writing about a group of Catholics who fought for more than a decade to try to save a place they loved - St. Brigid Church in San Francisco. I treasured the time I had with those amazing people. They were unassuming and humble and yet they took their battle to the Vatican. Their story made me think about where one finds peace and what one holds sacred.

15. What would you say to a newbie writer just starting out?

Write, write, and write. Do everything: journalism, blogs, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and short stories. But, don't expect it to be easy. It's really really hard, but oh so rewarding. 

When Philip Roth, one of the giants in American literature, retired recently at age 80, he happily placed a post-it on his refrigerator that said, "The struggle with writing is over." He was among the best, and writing was still a struggle.

16. When you interview people for your books, are there times when they give up information that they do not want in print? How do you handle that?

This happens a lot in my day job (at the Chronicle), and has come up in reporting for my books. There were a couple of things that both Larry and Norbert asked me to leave out of the book. I think about the request. I will ask why something is off the record. If I feel strongly, I'll fight to keep it in. But in the end, I will always honor the person's request. I feel a big sense of responsibility when people let me into their lives.

17. Do you have to sign a confidentiality agreement before interviewing such highly known individuals?


18. What's the funniest thing anyone has said about your writing?

I get strange emails all of the time at work. But I can't think of anything really funny.

19. How can my readers help you to become an even bigger success?

Preorder "The Billionaire and The Mechanic" on Amazon now. Or, it will be in bookstores in coming weeks. Adopt the book for your book club. Tell your friends about it. Buy copies as gifts. It's an especially great Father's Day gift! Come to one of my events, which will soon be posted on my Web site, and say hi. 

My author Website is

20. Any interesting tidbits you could share, that did not make it in The Billionaire and the Mechanic?

I have a lot of great insider stories of my time with Larry. We have become what I would call friends through this process. He respects my writing and he now trusts me. 

One memorable vignette: The first time I was at his house in Woodside, for my first interview for this book, I draped my jacket over the sofa in his Great Room (the public part of his estate). He was late, as always, so I got up to walk around and look at the breathtaking landscaping. As I turned back to sit down, I nearly stopped breathing. My jacket was draped over a painting that was just casually propped up against the back of a sofa. It was a Monet. I was like ...OMG; my jacket is touching that Monet! Larry arrived just as I was carefully lifting the jacket off the painting. I feared I would be 86'd out of his home before the interview began. Fortunately, he laughed.

21. What one word best describes you?


22. What are you working on now?

Publicity :-) I need to spend the next three to four months promoting "The Billionaire and The Mechanic." It looks like there's a good chance for the book to become a feature film, so that would be fantastic. 

But, I have to confess: I'm already thinking about a couple of ideas for my next book. I must be crazy or a masochist, but I love this process of turning an idea into something tangible. It's a very cool thing.

 23. Any big news?

Fortunately, we have a lot of good momentum around this book. We've been invited on The Today Show, CBS This Morning, and Charlie Rose, among others. (I have to see what Larry is willing to do in terms of publicity.) 

I'll be going on a national tour in June, hitting a city for 2 days, flying back for a few days, then off again. It's going to be fun. We'll also have lots of events around the Bay Area. Parties and readings big and small. 

Writers so appreciate friends who show up to multiple events (hint hint). You spend years toiling away in obscurity until one day, the book is done and making its debut.

(Oh - I'll be there Julian - rooting you on! I believe in you!! Have I told you, you rock?! Thanks for the interview!)


  1. Great interview, and sounds like an interesting book! I love that quote from Philip Roth!

  2. I like to read business books and happily, I had just purchased a jolly good book.