SFWC 2009 Handout: How To Give A Juicy Interview
by Ann Seymour
1. Bag the bird. Be ruthless in using connections to secure an interview. For example, I used my soccer mom daughter who coached Jerry Rice’s daughter to get me an interview with him. If you have no connections, find out if your subject has an agent and/or a PR firm. Contact the pros and convince them you’re a fan of the subject, and as such an expert that you have common ground.
2. Let the subject select the time and venue and advise as to length of time needed – anywhere from an hour to a month depending on the type of story you’re writing. If, as is often the case, the subject picks his office, ask him to hold the phone and close the door to avoid distractions. When the subject picks the time and then keeps you waiting for an hour, remember you’re not alone. The point is, you want the best time for the subject as step one to getting him into a good mood. Always be prompt. When you meet him, smile and look delighted – no matter what.
3. Once you’ve bagged the bird (or before) be clear about what you want to capture in your story. There’s no future in “clip and paste” work that’s been printed before. Then you have to decide how to get at the information. You’re hampered by having to tape the interview for most editors, so you tell the subject but then place the tape in an inconspicuous place where he will forget about it or at least not become riveted on it.
4. When the interview’s under way, you may change course altogether. I was interviewing Nobel Laureate particle physicist Arthur Schawlow for the San Jose Mercury News, and I wanted to find out what he thought of Reagan’s Star Wars shield. Stanford had a course, physics for poets, so I went to the bookstore and bought the required reading. Soon Arthur and I were dancing (the term for good interview communication), and the subject of his autistic son came up. Turns out he gave his Nobel Prize money to found a school for autistic children and teens. We spent a weekend at the school; the story was syndicated in 121 papers and won three prizes.
5. You want to break the ice and establish a friendly tone. Megan Marchack famously brought Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite cookies to an interview, but she was after more than copy. Generally you establish rapport by knowing a lot about your subject. Google whack like mad, then make three phone calls for quotes about the person. A USA Today stringer told me that paper has a “rule of three” for trends. “The latest trend is . . .” then you quote three people in support of the trend.
6. Start out with soft, factual questions, then hit hard, go back to soft, another hard hit- good cop/bad cop all rolled into one. If you want a quick course on how to question people, see James Lipton’s Actors’ Studio Workshop interviews on TV. This man is the ultimate. At the end of the show, he uses the Proust questionnaire, as does Vanity Fair. You can Google it.
7. Back to your interview: notice details of your surroundings and the appearance of the subject, as this will help bring him to life. The human element’s almost as important in journalism as it is in fiction. It’s good to study body language and facial giveaways that a person is lying. When this happens, you may want to change the subject or you may want to pursue it until you trip the subject up.
8. The two most difficult types to interview are the monosyllable people and the filibusterers who will talk you to death so you can’t ask the important questions. A friend interviewed Andy Warhol, who appeared with a number of PR people, handlers, assistants, and I don’t know what all. He replied to questions with silent shrugs or nods. Usually you avoid “yes” or “no” questions, but these seemed to be the only two words in his vocabulary. Finally she asked what his favorite color was. He asked his assistant, who replied, “red.” Andy said, “Red.” She printed the interview exactly as it took place.
9. Sometimes there are other people of interest in the room. I was interviewing NASA’s SETI program chief, Barney Oliver, for the Chronicle, and he introduced me to his assistant, Jill Tartar, who he said would one day take over the program. I said, “Jill, when I’m finished with Barney, how about you?” “Sure,” she said. Barney’s piece ran in the Chron. Jill and I talked over coffee, and she learned I had, as an undergraduate, married a freshman in medical school. She had a fit and said she did the same thing. The agreement was, she would work until he graduated, then he would support her when she got her advanced degree in astronomy. When he graduated, he ran off with someone else and divorced Jill. I gave that story to California magazine (now defunct), and, long story short, it became the movie “Contact” starring Jodie Foster.
10. When the interview is over, give the subject your e-mail so he can add updates, keeping you abreast of what’s new with him until publication. Don’t forget to thank him for the interview, even if he doesn’t really deserve it.
11. Above all, you will make it as a profile writer/interviewer if you have a genuine interest in people and curiousity about them. The Dylan “in my craft and sullen art” is for fiction, not for getting the juice out of a stranger in an hour.