Saturday, August 07, 2010

The interview and the interviewer

On, Laura Fraser looks at the sometimes troublesome relationship between novelists and interviewers. This caused me to recall the James Thurber story "The Interview," in which a newspaperman (as journalists were called in the mid-20th century) visits a famous writer, who leads him by the nose up a number of conversational blind alleys before getting almost too drunk to talk. Thurber treats all the characters with characteristic compassion and understanding, and even better, has the reporter do the same with the novelist, despite how the novelist treats him. (The story, published in the Feb. 25, 1950 New Yorker, is reprinted in the collection "Thurber Country.")

The whole topic reminded me of some of the early interviews I tried to conduct as a student journalist at the Daily Texan in Austin during the mid 1970s. The first was when I was assigned to go backstage at a concert venue, the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters, to interview a touring rock guitarist. Unfortunately I was utterly unfamiliar with the work of this very famous blues-influenced player and I knew I would have absolutely nothing to ask. To my utter relief, I was turned away at the backstage door: I wasn't on the list. I wrote up the experience in a kind of New Journalism way, putting myself in the article and writing mainly about my anxiety about the whole situation. I wish I still had that clipping.

The second was a couple of years later when, still a student, I interviewed David Bromberg, another rock musician; he isn't remembered much today but he was in the same crowd as Ry Cooder, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Townes Van Zandt. Unlike the first attempt, I was very familiar with the work of David Bromberg and I was looking forward to talking with him. But when I got backstage, I utterly froze. Absolutely tongue-tied, I could not think of a single goddamn thing to ask. It was a complete fiasco, but he was actually very polite about it, and I wrote it all up as nicely as I could. But to tell you the truth, the first piece was better.

Since then, I've interviewed several people, including the novelist Yiyun Li -- I interviewed her by Google Chat, which is a great way to interview people, because you don't have to transcribe the result -- and founding editor Annalee Newitz. I interviewed filmmaker George Romero. I even learned how to interview people whose work I didn't really know or understand, by becoming an ISO 9000 auditor at the software company I worked at in the 1990s. Basically this meant that I, who knew almost nothing about software, went around interviewing people who did. This was a good job for someone who, like me, is very good at pretending that the 1% they do know is sufficient for about 50% of the work. And I've been happily out of my depth ever since.

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