Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stupid Interview Tricks

Here's an excerpt from the Sarasota Art Review's impolite 1997 Writers' Style Guide. The interview part. Stupid interview tricks. That interviewers shouldn't do. Unless they want to be stupid. 

Just ask the question.
Don't tell us your theoretical framework behind the question, your reasons for asking it or a multiple choice series of possible answers for the subject to choose from. Just ask the damn question.

Don't cut the subject off. 
Let them finish their train of thought, OK? You're interviewing them, remember? One of these days, someone nice will interview you. How'd you like it if the dude with the press badge and cassette recorder never let you finish a sentence? Do unto others, pal. Don't kill the quote.

For God's sake, don't kill the quote when the subject is on a roll.
Every now and then, the person you're talking to gets really fired up. Doesn't always happen. When it does, in the name of all that is holy, don't break their flow. Two good clues? When they really come alive and launch into a string of examples. (English majors call these "parallelisms.") Let them get to the end before you pipe in.

Avoid "Me Too" statements.
Don't jump in and say "Yes! That reminds me of a wonderful thing that happened to ME!" Shut up. LET THEM TALK. You're not the subject of the interview. Keep your ego on a short leash.

To illustrate  ...

Right way:
Subject: The 60s? Aggh. "The 60s." When people say that, they're imagining a clip from the Woodstock movie .... this cliche, happy hippy-dippy thing. But the real 60s was loving and nurturing, brutal and violent, experimental and fearful, interesting and boring, new, old, hyped, manipulated ...anything you want. There's complexity and nuance and contradiction that just gets edited out of the official media picture.

Wrong way:
Subject: The 60s? Aggh. "The 60s." When people say that, they're imagining a clip from the Woodstock...
Stupid Interviewer: Yes! I know exactly what you mean! I almost made it to Woodstock" but ... [90 more words no one cares about.]

Don't try to look smart.
Chances are you know more about the topic than the reader. Huzzah. So what? Humble yourself. Keep it to yourself. Don't show off. Avoid inside baseball.

If the subject says something you don't understand, make them clarify it.
Don't be afraid of looking stupid. If you don't know what the subject is talking about, there's a damn good chance the average reader won't know. ASK. Make them spell it out.

Make them clarify the obscure stuff, even if you happen to know it.
If the subject uses an arcane technical term, get them to define it even you'd win that Jeopardy question. If the subject mentions a name that, of course, YOU have heard of, get the subject to clarify who this person is for the reader out there who hasn't. You're afraid that'll sound like a stupid question? Glad you brought that up ...

Ask stupid questions. They're much more fun.
Yes, you're Mr. Knowitall. Once again, kick your ego to the curb. Ask what the cognoscenti in your inner circle might consider to be a stupid question. Stupid questions go to the heart and that's what's interesting. (As a corollary, smart questions are usually boring.) To illustrate ...

Smart question: Considering the deconstruction of text in a matrix of signifiers which signify no-thing to a code not necessarily encoded, does your use of such signifiers signify a strategy...or does it simply signify nothing?
Stupid question: Why do you care?

Go to the heart.
Don't dance around the edges. What's the heart of the matter? What is the most important thing? Ask the most basic questions and keep zeroing in until you draw the subject out. Go to the heart! Get them talking about what they care about. That's what we care about. And that's the point.

Who cares?
This is also known as the 6th W. Who, what, when, where, why ... and WHO THE HELL CARES? Does anyone care about what you're talking about -- or is it boring? This is another way of saying ...

Avoid dull topics.
I realize that sounds obvious. Kinda like "Don't hit yourself in the head with a rock." Based on a long list of previous interview submissions, this principle is not as obvious as it may seem to a good many writers. It's a lot like the obvious premise behind this edict. You're not just letting the talk happen. It's your job to ...

Steer the interview.
Steer away from dull talk, steer into interesting talk. How will you know? Your gut will tell you if your head doesn't. If you need a good rule of thumb ...

If the interview bores you, it'll bore the reader.
The subject is talking. You're smiling and nodding. Are you fighting yawns and the urge to roll your eyes in the back of your head? The reader will have the same response. Have mercy on the poor reader, OK? Move away from this damn topic. As a corollary ...

If the subject is bored with the topic, their words will bore the reader.
Is the subject going through the motions but not really into it? Chances are, they're bored. Ask yourself what's interesting about this person and their situation -- then zero in on that. If you're bored, the reader is bored.

If the subject deeply cares, their words will catch fire.
Yeah, I said this already, but it's important. Get them to talk about what they care about. That's the good stuff. Most of the time. But you will run into some subjects who care about really really dull stuff. Exception to the rule, OK? Watch out for it ...

Steer the conversation away from laundry lists and strings of facts that mean absolutely nothing.
There are important facts and dull facts. Dull specifics, the names of committees, the years things were started, ended, how long, how much, who went where when....
Sadly, there are boring interview subjects who get into this stuff.
Subject: Well, originally I lived in Cincinnati, we lived on this little street by the laundramat--it was the WASHYWELL laundromat, it had this little door that was shut all the time, it had a sign that said SHUT. So we went there only when it was open. That was back in '64. I was working as Sub-assistant Director to the Adjunct Director of the Cincinnati Sub-Committee Workshop on Urban Studies, CCUS we called it, they later changed that to CUS, Dr. Bedford was head of that, he came out of NYU in '69. There were 26 people on the committee..."
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Who the hell cares? Get off the topic!
This doesn't mean you have to shut the subject up the instant they start saying this boring stuff. Move away as fast as you can without being rude. Put up with it in the meantime. Sometimes you have to suffer. But you don't have to put it in print.

God didn't hand you the list of questions on Mount Sinai.
Yes, you have a list of questions. You did your research and worked very hard on them. Good for you. If your subject starts saying interesting stuff that isn't on your list DON'T STOP THEM and fight to get back to your sacred questions. Let them talk! Your mission is not to "work your list" like a robot. Your mission is to get the subject to say interesting stuff. When they do, let 'em. Go with the flow when the flow is hot.

Keep the subject off balance.
Don't be too damn predictable or polite. If something's funny, laugh. Make jokes. If an off-the-wall question occurs to you, ASK IT. Don't let the subject think they can sleepwalk their way through. Be interesting to THEM.

You are not necessarily "on their side"
They have to sell you; they have to convince you. Let them know.

Don't be afraid of conflict.
No. I'm not saying attack the subject and make them cry. I'm saying find the conflict in their story. Conflict, tension, struggle, and disagreement are what makes things interesting. Don't let the interviewer sit there and gush. (A lot of them see this as free advertising, OK?)  Don't let them get away with giving you a happy-happy press release. This shining success they're talking about? Don't accept it at face value. Everything was wonderful and everyone was nice? Don't buy it. Dig in! Question the press release narrative they're handing you. Hold on. You're making it sound easy. It wasn't, was it? There had to be problems, right? Surely somebody fought your vision and you had to fight back? Sniff out the struggle. Draw that out. Every story has a conflict, just like your high school English teacher said. Notice the implication?

An interview lets the subject tell their story. 
If it's a good interview, it's a good story. It's their words, their story. But you still have to write it.

Edit the interview.
You heard right. The raw talk is like a block of marble. The story's in there, like one of Michelangelo's statues. It's your job to find it. Chip everything else away. That's how it's done. If that upsets you, go back to J-school.

You're a writer, not a court stenographer.
A half-hour interview is 3,000 words or so on tape. Maybe 900-1000 should make it into print.  Find the words that tell the story. Leave the dull ones out and put the good ones in.

Separate the wheat from the chaff.
Just because the subject said it doesn't mean we have to print it -- especially if it's dull. Your job is to select, to cull the good stuff out of the steaming mass of verbiage. If you can stand it, the more you have to cut from, the better. Let someone talk long enough, chances are they'll say something interesting ... eventually. Although it's an interview, you're still writing it and putting it all together. Think of yourself as a film editor: splicing bits and pieces together out of hours of raw footage to make a 10-minute film. Think of your subject's words as bits and pieces of an implied essay or narrative. (Their story.) Ideally, you've asked the right question and gotten it out of them. Now put it all together. Two helpful organizing principles? The implied story usually boils down to either a sequence of events (The legislature voted money, so we did so-and-so, and then...) or an argument (Art good. Censorship bad.). People bounce around when they talk. Reshuffle the order so the implied timeline or argument makes sense.

Keep the flavor. 
Edit for length and change the order. Don't refine it so much you lose the subject's voice or the feel of natural conversation.

Don't make stuff up.
You can change "imply" to "infer." Anything else, call to check the quote. If there's a hole in the interview, call to get the missing stuff. If you don't tape the interview, take notes. If you take notes, take good notes. Don't lose them behind the bookcase.

Don't promise the subject you'll let them see the interview.
Never ever. They'll kill all the good stuff and turn it into a press release. Always.

Great interviewers break all these rules.
I know. But even then, it usually sucks.