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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

16 OCTOBER, 2013

What Makes a Great Interview

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“True storytellers write not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.”

Perhaps because it blends the transfixing allure of voyeurism with the intricacy of introspection, the art of the interview is among the most elusive of journalistic feats. In How to Read a Novelist (public library) — a magnificent collection of conversations with 55 literary icons, including David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood — celebrated writer and book critic John Freeman showcases the interview’s most commanding incarnation as he sets out “to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of conversation.”

Freeman, who belongs to that generation of “silent” interviewers ushered in by the Paris Review revolution, frames the appeal of literary interviews against the backdrop of a necessary caveat:

It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer, or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.

And yet he speaks to the peculiar mesmerism of so breaching a writer’s privacy in particular:

I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists. It isn’t like running into a celebrity, where your eye readjusts to the true physical contours of someone seen primarily on-screen. It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood.

Freeman, however, is wary of the observer-expectancy effect that inevitably filters into each such conversation as the interviewer, being human and thus an embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson’s contention that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism,” inevitably bends it through the prism of his own experience:

An interview [is] a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life. In order to work, fiction must abide by a set of rules it defines for itself, even if invisibly, and if an interview is to flow like a chat between two people it, too, must follow a set of conventions, some of them quite contradictory to how we are taught to interact naturally. Namely, that the interviewer asks all of the questions, offers pieces of information only for the purpose of stimulating more from the subject, and, primarily, that neither party calls attention to the artificiality of what is happening.

There is, however, a powerful antidote to this peril, one that sets the masterful interviewer apart. One thing Freeman’s fantastic interviews reveal, by virtue of contrast, is the insidiousness of online Q&A masquerading as interviews — those formulaic exchanges, most often conducted via email, that attempt to fit their subject into a template of compulsory questions, portending to reveal something meaningful about the complexity and inner workings of a singular mind while squeezing it into this one-size-fits-all model. The richness of the truly revelatory interview, of course, comes from those unplanned meanderings between planned questions, which unfold through the art of conversation and not though the dutiful adherence to a template.

Indeed, Freeman found himself with a gradually dwindling list of prepared questions as he began to really listen to his subjects, rather than dictating the course of the conversations:

I began arriving at interviews having read the books but without a single question in hand. This forced me to listen to people’s answers, and it meant we could have an actual conversation, with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one.

In a way, then, a great interview abides by the third of legendary artist Richard Diebenkorn’s 10 rules of painting: “Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.” It is perhaps no coincidence that we find a beautiful symmetry between the art of the interview and the art of fiction — this supremacy of the intuitive over the intentional is also something Freeman finds as a steady undercurrent beneath all of his subjects’ work, the answer to the quintessential question of why writers write. He puts it beautifully:

True storytellers write, I believe, not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.

Of course, specific motives and inclinations differ across authors. (Though, arguably, they all comply with Orwell’s model of the four universal motives.) Freeman writes:

For some novelists, like Toni Morrison or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Louise Erdrich, this task of telling stories about a place has a political dimension; it is about making visible a history, a sensibility, which history has repressed or occluded. For other writers, like David Foster Wallace, the need to write grew from an obsession with language, and further dimensions of their work all developed from that originating fire. Some of these novelists, like Mark Danielewski or Susanna Clarke, were so new to publishing that what haunted them was still developing and they spoke of it warily, revising and thinking aloud. Others were so near the end of their career—such as Philip Roth or Norman Mailer—they had already begun to try to curate how their work was read after they stopped writing or living.

The one recurring theme of psychological drive, however, appears to be the impulse for unity and integration, for “making the disparate parts of the world, and [the writer's] experience, whole.” And so, once again, we arrive at Freeman’s mastery of the interview and insight into the form’s true role:

An interviewer’s job, I found, was not to close that gap — between here and there, between what was broken and what was whole — but to make it more mysterious.

His own role, however, he sees as one of necessary invisibility, made visible only through its steadfast implicit sensibility:

It would have felt grandiose to include much of myself in these pieces. I am there, I suppose, in the questions I ask and in the things I note. I am there in the tack I take through their books, and the quotes I chose to give the narrative of our encounter sail, as all interviewers must do, but the self I live in, the one made by factors accidental and chosen, remains, I hope, discrete. I have done this with the goal of making it easier for readers to step into the frame and imagine themselves there.

In this regard, the great interviewer is a sort of curator* of conversation, both absent and present. (* Suppose, for a moment, the word weren’t made as vacant of meaning by way of misuse and overuse, and still stood for something — stood for what it once used to designate, as in a museum curator who gently guides you along a theme of importance and interest.) This is something that sets apart not only today’s most exceptional interviewers, but also our time’s finest cultural “curators” — take, for instance, Andrew Sullivan, who highlights notable ideas from other publications, yet whose voice and sensibility are very much present and absolutely unmistakable even as his own extensive commentary is absent from most of his selections.

Freeman is also mindful of the novelist’s ever-fluid self — something Anaïs Nin articulated beautifully in 1946 — and this awareness informs his approach:

The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud. These are not meant to be definitive life profiles but rather glimpses spied through a moving window. Writers are always evolving, publishing, and they are also in constant direct or indirect dialogue with another.

(Coincidentally, at the recent New Yorker Festival, Jonathan Franzen affirmed this sentiment by noting, “I should have more conversations like this in public because it actually forces me to organize my thoughts.”)

One of Freeman’s keenest insights touches on the same immutable insecurity that drives writers’ notorious penchant for productivity rituals (“I have a theory [that] if you lead a very repetitious life, your imagination works very well,” Haruki Murakami tells Freeman), the famous writerly self-consciousness which drives even the greatest literary virtuosos to see their completed work as “a kind of miracle”:

Whether they have a Nobel or a Pulitzer, or a first novel ten years in the making, all of these novelists are still shocked, each time they finish, that it gets done at all. Perhaps that is why chance remains, aside from sheer effort, the most cited factor in how they discovered their voices.

Ultimately, however, it is at this interplay between doggedness and serendipity — something successful scientists welcome as “chance-opportunism” — that anchors writers to themselves:

In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the two forces from one another, just as it is so difficult, but necessary, to separate writers from their work. Their bodies are their bodies of work, and even the most prolific of them, like Updike, are driven against a dying of the light.

How to Read a Novelist goes on to employ this intricate art of the interview in unraveling the secrets of the craft and the essence of the writer’s soul, in all its uncontainable, template-resistant complexity. Complement it with the collected wisdom of literary greats.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Janis Joplin on Creativity and Rejection: Her Lost Final Interview, Rediscovered and Animated

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“You are what you settle for.”

On September 30, 1970, four days before her death, Janis Joplin gave her final interview, a profound conversation about creativity and rejection with Howard Smith of the Village Voice, found in the altogether fantastic The Smith Tapes Box Set — an archive of Smith’s restored interviews with such icons as John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jane Fonda, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, and more.

Smith and Joplin had been scheduled to speak in mid-August, but Janis, distraught over an eviscerating piece Rolling Stone had run about her — which included the assessment that her bountiful jewelry made her look like a “Babylonian whore” — canceled. When they eventually did speak, however, what emerged was a portrait of Joplin as a complex person brimming with the sort of inner contradictions that make us human — at once insecure yet full of conviction, opinionated yet concerned about offending, fierce yet tenderhearted.

Now, the fine folks of multimedia nonprofit Blank on Blank — who also gave us David Foster Wallace on ambition and Maurice Sendak on being a kid — have brought this bittersweet final conversation to life in their signature style of visual storytelling.

You are what you settle for. You are only as much as you settle for.

The interview was aired four days after Joplin’s death.

Complement with Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (public library), the excellent biography of one of our era’s most influential musicians and most tragic cultural icons. Also of note is the memoir-biography Love, Janis (public library) by Joplin’s younger sister, Laura.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Milton Glaser on Art, Technology, and the Secret of Life

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“You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.”

Few things today are truly iconic, but the I♥NY logo is among them. Its beloved creator, the inimitable Milton Glaser — who also co-founded New York Magazine in 1968, and who is one of my most beloved creative and spiritual heroes — is an icon in his own right: often considered the greatest graphic designer alive, a remarkable educator who has shaped lives for more than half a century, a man of uncommon wisdom on art, integrity, and the kindness of the universe. In this beautiful and wide-ranging interview from The Good Life Project, Glaser offers an unprecedented tour of his magnificent mind and singular spirit. Transcribed highlights below.

On where the seed of his creativity originates:

I have no idea where it comes from. The thing that I do know is that after a while, you begin to realize, A) how little you know about everything and, B) how vast the brain is and how it encompasses everything you can imagine — but, more than that, everything you can’t imagine. What is perhaps central to this is the impulse to make things, which seems to me to be a primary characteristic of human beings — the desire to make things, whatever they turn out to be. And then, supplementary to that, is the desire to create beauty — which is a different but analogous activity. So, the urge to make things is probably a survival device; the urge to create beauty is something else — but only apparently something else, because, as we know, there are no unrelated events in human experience.

Glaser echoes Tolstoy’s timeless conception of art as a mechanism of human connection and Robert Henri’s notion of art as a brotherhood of mankind, reminding us that the creative impulse is integral to what makes us human:

There is something about making things beautiful, and we sometimes call that art, that has something to do with creating a commonality between human beings so that they don’t kill each other. And whatever that impulse is, and wherever it comes from, it certainly is contained within every human being. … Sometimes, the opportunity to articulate it occurs; sometimes, it remains dormant for a lifetime.

On his own unrelenting expression of that profound human characteristic:

I imagined myself as a maker of things from the age of five. I realized that to make something was miraculous, and I never stopped.

Recounting the formative moment in which he awakened to art, when his older cousin drew a bird for little Milton on the side of a paper bag and it suddenly came alive for the young boy, Glaser reflects:

I suddenly realized that you could create life — that you could create life with a pencil and a brown paper bag — and it was truly a miracle in my recollection. Although people are always telling me that memory is just a device to justify your present, it was like I received the stigmata and I suddenly realized that you could spend your life inventing life. And I never stopped since — at five, my course was set. I never deviated, I never stopped aspiring or working in a way that provided the opportunity to make things that, if you did right, moved people.

On how being the “class artist” in his childhood, constantly creating on-demand drawings for his friends, shaped his sense of purpose and belonging:

I always saw myself as being a facilitator of other people’s needs, in that very primitive way. I liked the fact that I had status, I had a position in life, and I could also be of service. … That designation was a useful one to me in terms of developing my own sense of who I was.

The story of “how 20 seconds can change your life” he relays at 12:22 is an extraordinary testament to the power a single moment of kindness has in profoundly changing another human being’s life:

When I was in junior high school, I had the opportunity to take the entrance examination to either Bronx Science, which is a great New York school, or the High School of Music and Art, another great school. … And I had a science teacher who was very encouraging for me to enter into science — I was very good at science — and he wanted me to go to Bronx Science. And I was evasive about that, because I didn’t want to tell him that it ain’t gonna happen.

But the day of the entrance exam — they occurred on the same day — I took the entrance examination to the High School of Music and Art. And the next day I came into school, he was in the hallway as I was walking down, and he said, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “Uh-oh — the jig is up, he’s going to find out I took the ‘wrong’ exam.” He said, “Come to my office… Sit down.” And, as I was sitting there, he said, “I hear you took the exam for Music and Art.” And I said, “Um, yes.” And then he reached over, and he reached into his desk, and he pulled out a box of French Conté crayons — a fancy, expensive box — and he gave it to me, and he said, “Do good work.”

I can’t tell that story without crying, because it was such a profound example of somebody — an adult, authority figure, sophisticated man — who was willing to put aside his own desire for something, his own direction for my life, and recognize me as a person who had made a decision. And he was, instead of simply acknowledging it, encouraging it with this incredibly gracious and generous gift. … The thing about it that always astonishes you is that moment — it couldn’t have taken more than two minutes — was totally transformative about my view of life, my view of others, my view of education, my view of acknowledging the other.

Echoing Joss Whedon’s fantastic Wesleyan commencement address on embracing our inner contradictions, Glaser reminds us that the art of life is not in choosing between opposites but in reconciling them:

You learn more and more that everything exists at once with its opposite, so the contradictions of life are never-ending and somehow the mediation between these opposites is the game of life.

Much like philosopher Daniel Dennett argued that “the chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself,” Glaser counsels that the first step to making better life choices is acknowledging the bad ones you’ve made, and drawing cultivates mindfulness and the essential art of seeing that doing that necessitates:

The first step is always, in the Buddhist sense, to acknowledge what is — and that’s very hard to do. But, incidentally, drawing — and attentiveness — is one of the ways you do that. The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time. And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.

On how welcoming the unknown helps us live more richly and why we should try to, as Rilke put it, “live the questions” and cultivate the “negative capability” that Keats insisted was essential to creativity:

I can sound as though I know the answers to these things — I don’t know the answer to anything. You have to constantly be attentive to what you deflect in life, and what you pay attention to, and all the things that you can’t see, and all the preconceptions that you do have about everything. Those preconceptions basically blur your vision — it’s very hard to see what’s in front of you.

On how technology is changing us:

Everything changes everything. There are no independent events. … The virtual world has created a very different kind of nervous system for people who spend their lives in that world. And it produces different sets of appropriateness — of time, of morality, of ethics, of behavior. … [But] we don’t know what this is doing to the human psyche or the human behavior or any of it — we know it’s changing, we know it’ll be a profound change and it won’t be what it was, but we don’t know what the nature of that will finally be. It will probably have some benefits and significant drawbacks, but it is just emerging. [We] are creating a new kind of person.

On how we can ensure technology enhances rather than enslaves us:

The computer is dangerous because it shapes your capacity to understand what’s possible. The computer is like an apparently submissive servant that turns out to be a subversive that ultimately gains control of your mind. The computer is such a powerful instrument that it defines, after a while, what is possible for you. And what is possible is within the computer’s capacity. And while it seems in the beginning like this incredibly gifted and talented servant actually has a very limited intelligence — the brain is so much vaster than the computer. But, the computer is very insistent about what it’s good at, and before you know it — it’s like being with somebody who has bad habits, you sort of fall into the bad habits — and it begins to dominate the way you think about what is possible. … [Counter this] by doing things that are uncomfortable for it to do.

On always harnessing the gift of ignorance and never ceasing to expand oneself:

Professional life is very often antithetical to artistic life, because in professional life you basically repeat what you already know — your previous successes. It’s like marketing — marketing is the enemy of art, because it is always based on the past — not that art is always based on the future, but it’s very often based on transgression. So when you do something that basically is guaranteed to succeed, you’re closing the possibility for discovery.

Reflecting on art education and the cultural tension between art and business, Glaser adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

You have to separate making a living … from enlarging one’s understanding of the world, and also … providing an instrumentality for people to have a common purpose and a sense of transformation. … That is what the arts provide — the sense of enlargement, and the sense that you haven’t come to the end of your understanding, either of yourself or of other things.

Echoing Maira Kalman, who herself echoed Freud when she said that “in the end … it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?,” Glaser ends by reflecting on the meaning of life:

The things that I think are important [for a good life]: the friendships that I have with people I love; a marriage that has endured and continues to endure; teaching, which I’ve been doing for well over half a century; and feeling that whatever you know has a possibility of being transmitted and shared.

Complement with this superb interview with Glaser from How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and Glaser’s own 2008 classic, Drawing Is Thinking.

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