Writing Workshop Lesson 11: One Last Question
Some of the best stories I ever wrote made it into print because of something I learned long ago. It's this: that an interview doesn't end until you're in the car, tape recorder off, driving away from your subject. Remember, if you're talking to a reporter, you should assume you're always on the record, even if you're standing in the parking lot after the formal part of the one-to-one chat has ended. A reporter is always in "record" mode, even if he or she isn't even taking notes.
Making sure to ask that one last dumb question has resulted in some of the best answers I've ever gotten. Like the time I was assigned to interview a longtime anchorman on a local TV station. He didn't give a rip about doing it and had scheduled only a 12-minute chat in the lobby of the station. We didn't even sit down. I kept my overcoat on.
Clearly, the guy was suffering career burnout after 30-something years on the air doing the 6 and 10 newscasts. Whatever I asked about his career, he ended up moaning and groaning about the work habits of his co-workers, whom he considered lazy and sloppy. He hated that they called a newscast "the show" and he grumbled mightily about budget cuts by the station's network owners. The whole biz had gone to hell in a handbasket, as far as he was concerned.
As he steered me toward the door, all I could think was, jeez, what could I get out of this? The story was meant to be a tribute to the man and all he'd done was complain. Almost reluctantly, I resorted to my usual "one last question": "Is there anything you'd like to tell me that I didn't ask you about?"
It's as ham-handed and sophomoric a question as any journalist can ask. But you'd be amazed sometimes... like, this time. Retiring Anchorman paused a moment, visibly relaxed and answered, "Well, I only cried twice on the air in all these years."
OK, now we have a story. Tape recorder still running, I merely said, "Tell me about those times." And what he told me made for the entire 50-inch piece the next day. First instance, he visited an American military cemetery in France to do a live report on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He couldn't help choking up in such a place. The second time was more dramatic. He'd just started co-anchoring with a 23-year-old journo-grad. It was her first job and she was trying hard to succeed. She showed up early every afternoon to prep for the 6. So when in her second or third week she wasn't at the station by 5 p.m. one day, the anchorman and the news director were concerned. They sent a staffer to her apartment to check. Tragically, she'd suffered a cerebral hemmorhage and died. The staffer found her body and called 911. Word came back to the station just moments before airtime. It was left to the anchor to explain to viewers what had just happened. He openly wept as he shared the sad news.
And with that, I had a real story, one that humanized the guy and made viewers really sorry to see him retire. He had the send-off he deserved.
One last question can make all the difference. Don't be afraid to ask the dumb question, the obvious one, the "Is there anything I haven't asked you about?" question. I think now that the veteran anchorman had really wanted to tell me those things and that last question was the opening he needed. Since I hadn't lived in that city at the time of those incidents, I wouldn't have known to ask about them specifically.
The "one last question" gambit has worked in interviews I've done with Julie Andrews, Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Burnett and so many others. And with celebs, that final shot is often the toughest question in your arsenal, the one you've built up to during the entire interview.
Do you have a "last question" story to share? I'd love to read about it in comments here. Or if you have a question about asking questions, please post that, too. I'll do my best to answer in a timely manner.
Next week, I'll share the surefire template for how to write an interview/profile story. From People mag to The New York Times, it's a recipe that never fails when you have lots of quotes to juggle and no idea where to start.
OK, more later. Keep reading! Keep writing! And go see some art, wherever, whenever.