The interview: The license to ask virtually anybody in the world

INTERVIEWS come in many ways.  Some regard it as a battle — others call it a theater piece, even as a delightful minuet. But the disdain shown for what is called “showbiz interviewing” which tends to elicit mere entertainment, not information, is a contempt shown, however, only by those who clearly would be considered as “news people.”

The license to ask virtually anybody in the world is a great opportunity as it gives one the chance to let the subject come in.  That moment is available to you to inquire about the whole universe of a person’s life: their pains and sufferings, their joy and struggle.  You can learn from it and take with you their doings, loves, poems, goals, music, meetings, films, millions, and misfortunes. Their popularity is so vast, so glamorous, that it can exasperate and suffocate us.

The power of the interviewer staggers the mind.  It is a breathtaking way they get to walk into peoples’ lives, and ask them anything they want.  If the interviewer had his way, he would sit with them for hours just so they can bare their souls.  The interviewers are surrogates who think and listen for us, and ask the questions people might ask if they were on the spot.

What makes a really good interview and what kind of person makes an excellent interviewer?

I have spent fifty percent of my professional life asking questions.  I’ve also learned to shift gears with the subject’s response, or that a good serve in tennis does not ensure that the ball will come back where it is expected, and you have no idea how our expertly prepared questions will be answered.

Interviewers have different goals, different time limits, different settings and unique personalities, just as our subjects.  Nobody is a snapshot. We are all complicated people.  But while journalists are free to ask the question in the way they like, politeness and civility always worked better than hostility and prosecution.  And in their headiest topics, they get the truth through their interviewing. But when is that truth liquid, and when is it solid?

In my earlier years as a novice crime reporter, a police general whom I greatly admired and revered, gave me a tape recorder and made me believe I could write police stories. That tape became my Excalibur through the years of interviewing.  However, rather than an interview, they are conversations recorded on tape, then transferred into written dialogues — actually monologues provoked by my questions and opinion.

With the presence of a microphone, knowing it was there, like feeling spied or judged, it was not uncommon for my interviewees to grow pale, red or mutter haltingly or simply fall silent.  Sometimes they jumped around, especially when asked open-ended questions. I have always thought that letting people talk and faithfully reporting what they might say contribute to written profiles.  But the subject would down the microphone in a chaos of words. 

After a taped interview comes the worst moment when I would listen to silences and torrents of talk, for me to transpose into conversation, profiles. Thus for the sake of clarity, we find it necessary to put more order into the answers we receive, but not to destroy the beauty and color of the language.

I like dramatic questions and responses, written eloquently and colorfully.  Listening to someone talk isn’t at all like listening to the words played on a machine.  At times a flashing glance or a movement of the hands will make the blandest remark acceptable, just as a disagreeable nose. A humble attitude can, at times, distract from the value of the richest remark.  Reported remarks are not enough to give an idea of who is speaking, the shape of his features, the gestures they make…the complete profile.

Some of the characters I’ve interviewed are my friends, or almost friends or possible friends. Possible enemies are those who condemn for not having the good sense to censor the remarks they did not have the good sense to refrain from making.  The loud protest of betrayal could be deafening, but it’s cleansing if you’re brave enough to write it.

Now, in my twilight years, I’ve always realized that I haven’t said everything about them, but now I will. I’ve decided to be fearless with a conscience as clear as a baby.  I will no longer be keeping anything back.  Now, I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my heart — I feel fresh and clean, ready to fly up to paradise  — in the event that one of them challenges me to a duel and is quicker on the draw than I am.


E-mail Mylah at [email protected]

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