Tuesday, November 01, 2005

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should have worked for the FBI.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous watercat said...

There is so much great art in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, that I thought I would mention some of my current favorites.
1 - East Meets West, an exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art comparing Eastern and Western art.
2 - The Crow Collection of Asian Art, in the Trammel Crow building. They have an amazing collection of Asian artwork. The last time I was there, the rotating exhibit was of Japanese kimonos.
3 - The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth has a very large and diverse collection of work, including some new Mayan acquisitions that I have yet to go see.

Anyone know of some good exhibits that are up in some of the smaller galleries?

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're into photography, the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth has its Richard Avedon "In the American West" exhibit running through January 8. Amazing stuff. I highly recommend going.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I was an interviewer I would deliberately not ask people questions about the things they are most famous for (they would be tired of talking about it.) I remember a reference to it in passing by the bloke who played Father Dougal on "Father Ted" when he said he wanted to interview Neil Armstrong and not ask him about the moon landing.

I am going to see the "Colour Factory Award" exhibition that I entered, but didn't win at the Centre for Contemporary photography in Melbourne, Australia on the weekend.

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Roberta said...

I was supposed to marry Peter Tork. Only trouble was, no one ever told the ex-Monkee about this monumental decision I'd made for us both. That, and I was 12 at the time, which was all of four decades ago.

While on long-wknd vacation a few years back, I read that Peter Tork was giving a concert nearby; indeed, I passed him on the street the day he was to perform. I stopped him and politely asked for an interview. He politely declined: "No offense, but I've never been asked anything interesting or new in any interview, and I just don't have the time to waste."

Ach. No sweat. I simply wrote a column about the many interesting and new questions I would have asked my one-time love, had he only let me.

Hey, c'mon. I was on deadline...

8:42 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

I met Micky Dolenz at a party at Fox for the debut of "That '70s Show." (Not sure why he was there.) But I could check "Monkee" off my list of celebs I wanted to meet when I was 12.

As for art exhibits: the DaDa-ism exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art is pretty amazing. Try to catch the theater piece they're doing along with it -- a performance about an hour long and thoroughly Duchamp-y.

12:42 PM  

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