The Artful Interview

I've been interviewing my fellow improvisers for our Sea Tea Improv podcast (not yet launched-- I'll keep you posted!), and today, I attempted to record a short introduction to those interviews. Let me tell you, talking to yourself, even for three minutes, is not easy. There's no eye contact. There's no give and take. The only voice besides your voice is the voice in your head.  Here's me talking to myself in the podcast: Me: Welcome to the Sea Tea Improv Podcast! I'm Julia Pistell and I'm, uh, going to...

Voice in head: You sound so unnatural. You sound like you're reading the sponsors at the end of something.

Me:... (pause)


Me: tell you all about the short history of Sea Tea!

Voice: Too peppy. Tone it down, stupid.

.... And on and on.

I've never thought too much about interviewing until lately; I've always loved to talk and ask questions. I'm curious about people and I also don't have an excessive amount of dignity, so that makes for some pretty direct questioning.

But now I have t0 learn how to do it right-- I'll be interviewing the amazing Fran Gordon for my work at The Mark Twain House about the early days of the House's restoration, and I'd love for these Podcasts to be high-quality, too. In my panic I decided to get away from the podcasts and hang out and read today.

So of course I'm reading Everyone Loves You When You're Dead by Neil Strauss, a collection of unused interview scraps from Rolling Stone. This book is incredibly well-edited-- the reader gets between a paragraph and a few pages of each interview, then Strauss swerves to someone else whose interview is thematically linked, and then possibly back to someone you'd already met before. He's an artist of the interview, it seems. His primary skill seems to be asking direct questions, and because of that, he gets some unexpected results (sometimes very self-aware, sometimes hilariously unaware) from people.


Strauss: I notice a lot of times you seem to be zoning out.

Aguilera: I'm never zoning out. I told you I was a deep thinker. My mind is always thinking...My life just revolves around putting myself out there for people, and giving and giving. So whenever I get those five minutes in a van or limo or whatever, those are special moments to just zone out and think and dream. I just love being about to do that. It's funny that you notice that.

Another fantastic interview-based book is The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch (thanks for the recommendation, Tom Bissell!). This is an entire book of one conversation about film editing and, consequently, book editing. Example:

M: And as I was removing that scene, at two in the morning, it began to speak to me, as if it were Job, saying: Why are you removing me, me of all scenes who has been so faithful to you, who has tried so hard to accomodate your every wish? And I said, I know what you're talking about, and believe me, I've spent many hundreds of hours on you and yet I'm willing to throw all that work away for the benefit of the whole.

O: It's so similar to editing a book, in those final stages of trying to find the right balance.. It's like pruning trees and you take out numbers 3 and 7 and 9, and once they're gone you realize that--

M: You see a whole different thing.

O: You can see a different possible form and you discover that a whole new set of trees can go, or should at least be moved to a new place.

So, my challenge to myself is to become a good interviewer. A great interviewer. If I'm going to write nonfiction, this is an essential skill. It's not about just taking down what people say. It's about asking the right questions and following up with an even better one.

What do you think, readers? What makes a great interview?