From the newsroom
Interviewing an interesting subject might seem the easiest task in the world, but the apparent simplicity of the task can be a nasty trap. A reporter who walks into an interview complacent about his task can quickly be exposed by a prickly subject, and it might then take weeks to recover his self-esteem.
Here are some useful ways to approach an interview:
Don’t be overawed:
The best thing about a journalist’s profession is the access he has to interesting personalities. A reporter often runs into celebrities, and the initial reaction is usually of awe. That’s the worst kind of mindset for an interview, for you have already reduced yourself in front of your subject. From then on, it’s hard to set any ‘objective’ questions – the reporter becomes a fan, eager to please the celebrity or massage his ego, and thus asks no searching questions.
To avoid this, remember – your subject is a human being with frailties, and your job is to do an interesting interview. An effective way to approach it is to be curious of his life and his craft – treat him as you do another competent professional.
One can’t overstate this. There is no substitute for preparation. As a reporter on a beat, you are expected to be ‘on top’ of your subject, and that does give you ready material for an unexpected interview. If you have time to prepare, read up whatever you can about your subject, and write down a list of questions that you seek answers to. Talk to friends and associates of the subject. Don’t ask questions that might elicit monosyllabic answers such as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Ask open-ended questions. One of my happiest memories is of interviewing an accomplished theatre artiste at the City Railway Station, and at one point, she asked me: “How on earth did you know that?” It was a compliment to the preparation I’d put in, and she was surprised that I knew more than she’d expected me to know.
Observe your subject:
Notice the way your subject carries herself – her clothes, her hair, her voice. Clothes say much about a person. Notice her accent; her turns of phrase. All these sidelights can liven up your story. Quoting the subject in her own words, with her inflections, will make it more lively and accurate. Take Tom Wolfe’s profile of Muhammad Ali in the piece (‘The Marvelous Mouth’): “Then he plays the part of Cassius Clay stalking across the floor with his finger pointed at Sonny Liston and saying, ‘You big ugly bear,’ ‘you big ugly bear,’ about eighteen times, “I ain’t gonna fight you on no September thirtieth, I’m gonna fight you right now. Right here. You too ugly to run loose, you big ugly bear. You so ugly, when you cry, the tears run down the back of your head. You so ugly, you have to sneak up on the mirror so I won’t run off the wall,’ and so on…” Wolfe’s authentic reproduction of Ali’s voice is what makes this piece so engaging.
Use a voice recorder:
There is nothing more irritating to a subject than to find the reporter looking elsewhere when she is responding to a question. Reporters were expected to take notes, but I found it cumbersome. I found it easier and more accurate to let the recorder do its job, while I could engage in a conversation with the subject, instead of worrying about keeping pace with her and wondering about the next question. Taking notes of a fast-talker can be nightmarish; one might miss entire sentences.
Jog his/her memory:
Your subject might sometimes be a reluctant talker, unwilling to commit herself to long replies. This might have to do with her comfort level at talking to a stranger – for, as a reporter, you are a stranger the first time. One way of breaking the ice is to jog her memory – ask her about her childhood years, or her school or college years. Nostalgia always brings out the best in people, and you will be surprised at how they open up once they’ve warmed up to you.
Truman Capote uses this technique effectively in his path-breaking book ‘In Cold Blood’. Entering the mind of his subject (through extensive interviews), he writes: “And as was not uncommon when he was thus afflicted, he dwelt upon a possibility that had for him ‘tremendous fascination’: suicide. As a child he had often thought of killing himself, but those were sentimental reveries born of a wish to punish his father and the prospect of ending his life had more and more lost its fantastic quality…”
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