What Makes a Great Interview
“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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
Published October 16, 2013