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The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight : Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution

Gay Talese: "I learned [from my mother]...to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments...people are very revealing. What they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them, or what they regard as too private or imprudent to be disclosed to another person at that particular time." (p. 60)

A Bad Interview

Feb 6, 2006: A would-be author emailed me a couple of weeks ago wanting to interview me about my childhood. She seemed nice but unskilled. I replied to her that if I had time down the road, I'd do it.

She was persistent. We finally met at Starbucks Monday morning. She was courteous but a bad interviewer.

I've been interviewed hundreds of times and I have interviewed thousands of people.

I will list some of the interviewing mistakes that occurred today because they are so common:

* Trying too hard. Once someone sense the effort you are making to be trustworthy, professional, interested or whatever quality you strive for, it's jarring. You should never explicitly state that you are trustworthy, telling the truth, etc. You should simply embody the trait.

* Trying to have a conversation. An interview is not a conversation. Most interviewees, about 98% of them, are not going to be interested in the interviewer or in what other interview subjects have said. As I listened to her stories, I felt bored, restless, and resentful. I slumped and stared around the coffee house and wondered how quickly I could get away.

A guy from FrontPageMag.com called up Heather MacDonald to interview her. He spent most of the hour blathering about himself. She had no interest. Then he finally said, "I guess I should ask you some questions." She replied that she didn't have time and moved on.

* General questions are not as effective as specific ones. She asked me for stories from my childhood. That's like asking a comedian to be funny. It doesn't work.

* Don't give your interviewee (unless they ask) a list of your questions or topics you want covered (unless it is a television interview for a particular topic). It robs the event of spontaneity. When someone gives a good interview, they do it out of some primordial urge. A good interviewer has to tap into those strong emotions that drive a person to speak passionately.

As I answered the rote questions, I slumped in my seat, stared into space and listlessly recited material I've already posted on my website. You should read an interviewee's relevant work and then ask interesting and specific questions rather than have him repeat himself.

* The most important thing in conducting an interview is to establish rapport with your subject. The next most important thing is to not get in the way. Don't talk about yourself or anything but the person at hand unless the interviewee asks you specific questions that convey true interest.

* The shorter the question, the better.

* "How did that make you feel?" questions are great. Men in particularly rarely feel like they can unload how things made them feel.

* Having therapy should improve one's interviewing skills.

* Read Janet Malcom's book The Journalist and the Murderer.

* Be charming without trying. Give genuine compliments. "Few people are immune to the implied flattery of rapt attention."

* Your questions should flow out of what the person has just said. This makes them feel that you are listening and are interested. If you can't ask such a question, then have good fall-back questions at hand.

* When interviewing someone, you should jot down inconspicuously your impressions of your subject. What is his body language? What is his tone? What does your intuition tell you about what he is saying? What are your next questions? (It's usually a bad idea to interrupt.)