Interviewing can be the best part of my job
One of my favorite parts of my job also is one of its most basic tools: Interviewing people.
Not every interview is fun, but when it is, and it’s going well, it’s one of those times that I marvel that I get paid for doing something I’d willingly do for free.
It gives me a chance (maybe an excuse) to get into somebody else’s life, to find out how and why they do what they do or are what they are.
Obviously, interviews can be abused, like anything else. It’s fundamentally a power relationship and while that often doesn’t enter into the situation, every once in a while it does. One has to be aware of the ethical minefields. It’s true that an unscrupulous, skilled interviewer can manipulate a person into saying anything, especially if the subject isn’t used to being interviewed. An interviewer has to be mindful of that, lest they do it even unintentionally.
And I also realize that being interviewed can be really scary for people, especially if they’re not used to it. That’s true even if the subject of the story is relatively innocuous. I wish I had a nickel for every time I finished interviewing somebody and they said, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” It’s like they thought I was going to hook them up to a car battery before I talked to them about their stamp-collecting hobby.
A lot of interviews are similar, but every one is different to at least some degree.
The best ones, though, are the ones that are less an interview than a conversation. Such interviews aren’t just me firing questions and taking down answers. They’re exchanges of ideas and experiences. They’re an exercise in human connection. (And for some reason, classical musicians generally give the best interviews.)
I’ve interviewed everybody from those celebrities to murderers to politicians to artists to little old ladies.
The hardest interviews are celebrities. They’re so used to it, and the answers are often so canned, that sometimes it’s hard to get a good quote, or at least a spontaneous one.
I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrities and I have a specific technique I use. I usually try to open the interview with a weird question just to kind of get them off their canned answers.
I once interviewed James Taylor, which was great because I’m a huge, lifelong fan. The story was in advance of him playing Fargo, where I was working, for the first time.
Taylor had once made an appearance on “The Simpsons,” and did the voice himself. My first question was, “So, what’s a bigger thrill: playing Fargo or being on ‘The Simpsons?’” He chuckled and replied, “Well, I don’t know yet.” The interview went well; lovely, and very humble, man.
It’s fun to read stories about what jerks celebrities can be, but in my experience, 99 percent of them are very nice people. The one exception I can think of in my case was Doc Watson, who is sort of a legend in country music. He was a surly, grouchy old jerk. Peter Fonda was OK, but he was quite obviously stoned and really couldn’t have cared less about doing the interview.
And really, it’s not the interviews with celebrities that I remember the most. It’s the interviews with everyday people who have done something cool, or who have faced tragedy and come through the other side. They let me, as a reporter and writer, say something about the human condition.
One of the most memorable interviews I ever did was with a man who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s one of the worst ways to die; your body slips away bit by bit, but your mind stays perfectly clear about the horror you’re enduring.
I interviewed the man, his wife and their two sons. They all were—and this is the only word I can use—amazing. They were facing one of the most tragic and awful things life could throw at them and did it with courage, grace and even humor. There was nary a trace of self-pity. There was only gratitude for what they had and what they had left. I walked out of their house thinking that I had just been granted a great privilege.
Of course, not all interviews are a privilege. Sometimes, it’s a very adversarial situation; you’re trying to get information out of someone who won’t give it, or is actively hostile. Politicians are, obviously, the worst interviews; if you ask them their favorite color, they’ll tell you it’s plaid. Still, even those are fun in a way, because it’s like a chess match. It tests one’s skills.
But most interviews fall somewhere in between fun and stressful. And truth to tell, most are more toward the fun end of the spectrum.
So if you happen to get a call from me asking for an interview, it’s likely it’ll be painless, and maybe even fun for you.
You only need to worry if I show up with a car battery.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org