Writing Workshop Lesson 9: The Art of the Interview
"A good interview comes down to secrets." -- Honour, a play by Australian dramatist Joanna Murray-Smith.
A good interview is like a good first date. There's chemistry. Information is shared. A relationship is built. You get to know a person. If you're lucky, some secrets spill out.
But an interview, though it may feel like a seduction, is really a one-sided affair. All the information (or most of it), all the secrets, come from the interviewee, who then hopes he or she doesn't end up getting f-ed over for the effort.
The art of the interview lies in the skill of the person doing the interviewing. There's a hoary old maxim among reporters: "Treat stars like nobodies and nobodies like stars." But in today's media-sodden world, everybody acts like a celebrity when they have a microphone in front of them. The canned answer abounds. The empty prounouncement spews forth. Now it's a struggle to get anyone to sound "real" and unrehearsed.
The interview is the most basic skill new reporters must master. You hear about the five W's (who/what/where/when/why), but unless you're gathering facts for a news brief or a police blotter, those W's just aren't enough. A "profile" story must also explore how, how much, who else, why not--and much more.
We're taking baby steps here, so I'll just hit on a few of the elementary ways to prepare for an interview.
1. Research. Learn as much as possible about your subject before the interview takes place. Google and Wikipedia are starting points, but don't rely on the info you find in an online search to be accurate or up-to-date. Read previous stories published about your subject; read his or her book (if you're interviewing an author); get a resume or CV and read between the lines. You don't want to go into an interview and have the first question be: "Where were you born?" or "Where did you go to school?" You should know those things going in. With facts in hand, you can move past the W's and into the really good stuff that will reveal your subject more fully to your readers.
2. Prepare open-ended questions. The yes/no question will kill an interview. You want anecdotes from your subject, expansive answers (if that's the sort of story you're writing) that capture personality and authenticity. (Ditto first-date convo, by the way.)
3. Get your tools in order. Tape recorder (or digital thingy, if that's what you like), pen and paper (for noting details such as gestures, wardrobe, tics, twitches and belches), watch (don't overstay your welcome).
4. You dress nicely for a first date, so do the same for that interview. Don't show off your fanciest accessories. Remember, the interview puts the focus on the other person, not on you.
5. Shut up and listen. Don't step on answers. Try not to weigh in with your opinions. Don't fill all the silences (that's a Baba Walters tip). Be patient, particularly with subjects who haven't been interviewed before. And if you hear the words, "I shouldn't be telling you this..." or "I've never told anyone this...," then hold your breath and keep the tape rolling; you're about to strike gold.
Following on the courtship theme, a nice follow-up to either an interview or a social assignation is a thank-you call or a written note (never an email, which is just too impersonal). Just a few lines will do: "Thank you for making time in your busy schedule for the interview. I really enjoyed talking to you." Yadda, yadda.
If you're doing an interview for publication, it's not kosher to promise the subject a first-read before the story comes out. You can promise to fact-check. But even if a celebrity's PR "flak" threatens you with bodily harm (and you don't want to get into fisticuffs with a Peggy Siegal or a Pat Kingsley, two of the snarliest flaks in all of flakdom), you do not give anyone but your editor the right to cut or add things to your story.
OK, baby steps make me tired. So that's all we'll do today. For reading purposes, here are two of the best celebrity interviews I've read in a while. The first, "Strange Love," is the infamous profile of Courtney Love by expert interviewer Lynn Hirschberg for Vanity Fair. This was the first big piece about La Love and it prompted Kurt Cobain to threaten a "hit" on the journalist. The second is a more recent piece, and one of the few really revealing profiles of a celeb that I've read since the rise of the flak-catchers made real journalism in glossy mags almost extinct. The W magazine sitdown with Katie Holmes this summer gave a startling insight into what being Tom Cruise's girlfriend is really like. Katie sounds like a pod person. This story is a case of getting the real story from what isn't being said.
And if you'd like to link us to other good interviews you've run across, please do so in the "comments" section. Questions are welcomed also. Post a question and it automatically is emailed to me. I'll answer asap.