Having done this journalism thing since high school — and now for over 25 years beyond — it's probably safe to say I've done thousands of interviews. In the recent vast cleaning out prior to a move I finally dumped most of the old ones, recorded on 90 and 120-minute cassette tapes, into the bin, a little sad to lose all of that information, yet knowing I would never, never sit down and listen to it again. But the vast quantity of tapes, crammed with 20 and 30 minute chats, largely over the phone, is a life's work.
The future library archive of my materials will just have to do without. Such a loss! (I kid, of course.)
Interviewing was something I taught myself. I love my alma mater, Boston University, but they never taught me how to interview — a skill I feel any good journalist should master, whether in school or without. Early on I would start out with a huge number of questions despite the amount of time we were given — and if I liked my subject's work a lot, I'd get into the seriously nitty-gritty stuff — until one musician ventured mid-question "when are we going to get to the new album?" and, abashed, I immediately went to the relevant stuff. That was a lesson: Be relevant, and know how much time you've got to ask what you need.
I got a very difficult interview as my very first — Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, when I was in 8th grade. It was part of a school assignment (interview someone in the profession you're interested in) and while he agreed to do it, he then either unconsciously or by design decided to teach me what it's like to interview a jerk: Every question I asked got a "yes" or "no" answer, and no elaboration. Perhaps that was his way of saying — without ever saying, by the way — that one had to follow up with "how" and "why" questions rather than just "yes" and "no" questions, but in retrospect, I tend to feel it was just kind of a dick move to pull on an 8th grader.
Still, it wasn't until I was into college that I hit any actual important, difficult interviews — that is, interviews where I had an assignment and I had to get answers, one way or the other. The Stone Roses (a band out of Manchester, UK) sat down with me, en masse, in London when I was probably about 19 and then refused to be anything but irritating lads about the whole discussion. I was bolstered by having one more interviewer with me that day, a man I'd just met that day but who would become a lifelong friend, and both of us kept doing double-takes. As in, why bother wasting your time and ours? But that was their image, and they lived up to it.
And in retrospect, they were good teachers: After speaking, or not speaking, with them I started trying to really learn how to counter the jerk interview. But finding books on how to interview tended to lead me to job-search how-tos; that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to know how to conduct interviews, not be the subject of one for a position, and those were scarce. And in those pre-Internet days, you had to rely on whatever you would find in books. (Today, I reflect I might have tried to get an assignment for an appropriate magazine to pay for my own research, but not then.) I did come across a terrific one, which is unfortunately packed away (the move, the move) and I can't cite here, but it gave me the courage to do interviews properly, providing some of the scripts I needed to counter people who Just Wouldn't Answer The Questions. I'll get into that in another post somewhere, as I'm running out of time to write this morning. But having that confidence to turn the interview into a hybrid conversation … that made all the difference in what became my freelance, full-time writing career.
All of this to preface that I'm interviewing Robert De Niro today. Wish me luck.