Interviewing people is hard. It’s not easy to talk to someone to try and understand who they are and what they’re about. In journalism, you’re trying to get interviewees to say interesting things too—things that hold up on the page, sound good to the reader, that get the subject to provide a kind of forensic self-examination. The result is that the best interviews are elevated to an art form.
But interviewing is also a skill that can be learned, and it’s not limited to speaking to somebody on the record as a journalist. You probably do interviewing a lot, whether it’s on either side of a recruitment process, when you’re dating, when you’re talking to prospective clients, having coffee conversations with friends-of-friends, or hanging out awkwardly with strangers at parties (although nobody goes to parties any more, of course, whether they are populated by strangers or not.)
Since I enjoyed and linked to the NYT magazine’s recent interview with children’s author Mo Willems, I figured I’d read up more on how David Marchese sees the task of interviewing.
Turns out his main tenets are pretty straightforward. Be prepared, but not too prepared. Be open. Do lots of interviews.
But here he is giving a particularly salient piece of advice that shows what makes journalistic interviews different from all those other kinds.
One clarifying event was a long interview I did with Lou Reed, who was known for being combative in interviews. I sat down with him and he was insulting and aggressive, and not only did he not really answer my questions but he took issue with the premise of a lot of the questions. I finished it thinking, “That really went badly.” But afterward, when I was putting it together, I could see that while I was bearing the brunt of a lot of his aggression in the interview, the piece actually hadn’t suffered journalistically. It turned out very well. I think it’s a natural human desire to want to feel that a person liked you after you’ve had a conversation with them, but in terms of what an interviewer is supposed to be doing, that’s not always the goal. It’s important to keep that in mind.
You aren’t trying to get the subject to like you: you’re inquiring about their essential character. That’s easy to forget in the moment.