Tagged: interviewing

The artlessness of the interview—Mark Twain

PBS Newshour, courtesy of the Mark Twain Foundation, recently brought forth a previously unpublished essay by the good Mr. Clemens, “Concerning the Interview.” Twain was not what you’d call positive about the experience:

There are plenty of reasons why the Interview is a mistake. One is, that the interviewer never seems to reflect that the wise thing to do, after he has turned on this and that and the other tap, by a multitude of questions, till he has found one that flows freely and with interest, would be to confine himself to that one, and make the best of it, and throw away the emptyings he had secured before. He doesn’t think of that. He is sure to shut off that stream with a question about some other matter; and straightway his one poor little chance of getting something worth the trouble of carrying home is gone, and gone for good. It would have been better to stick to the thing his man was interested in talking about, but you would never be able to make him understand that. He doesn’t know when you are delivering metal from when you are shoveling out slag, he can’t tell dirt from ducats; it’s all one to him, he puts in everything you say; then he sees, himself, that it is but green stuff and wasn’t worth saying, so he tries to mend it by putting in something of his own which he thinks is ripe, but in fact is rotten. True, he means well, but so does the cyclone.

I simultaneously wince at and love “can’t tell dirt from ducats.” Twain also wrote:

Yes, you are afraid of the interviewer, and that is not an inspiration. You close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything: and when you see it in print, it makes you sick to see how well you succeeded. All the time, at every new change of question, you are alert to detect what it is the interviewer is driving at now, and circumvent him. Especially if you catch him trying to trick you into saying humorous things. And in truth that is what he is always trying to do. He shows it so plainly, works for it so openly and shamelessly, that his very first effort closes up that reservoir, and his next one caulks it tight. I do not suppose that a really humorous thing was ever said to an interviewer since the invention of his uncanny trade.

Sourpuss.

When writers talk to scientists

My friend and faculty colleague, science writer Ann Finkbeiner, is part of a trio who maintain a lovely little blog called The Last Word on Nothing. Her most recent post is a gem, about being a writer asking questions of scientists. I love this:

My problem is made worse because I write about the physical sciences which, with the exception of gravity, are rarely part of an English major’s life experience. Nevertheless, on the whole, scientists are tolerant of my questions. Maybe they understand the unfathomable distances between their education and mine. Maybe because they usually teach undergraduates, they are used to such questions. Or maybe they don’t expect much from me in the first place:  like the dog walking on its hind legs, they think, the wonder is not that she does it well but that she does it at all.

And there’s this:

The all-time best was over a nice business dinner full of wine and charm, and the astronomer said philosophically, “You could almost say that the future is a Taylor expansion of the past.”   I said, “What’s a Taylor expansion?”  And he said, “Oh you know, you take the first derivative and then the second derivative and so on.”  And I couldn’t help myself, I said, “What’s a first derivative?”    He said—poor guy, it just slipped out—”How did you get so far with so little fuel?”

Ann has a new book coming soon, A Grand and Bold Thing. It’s about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and I guarantee you it will be good.

Janet Malcolm

From her recent New Yorker piece “Iphigenia in Forest HIlls”:

Journalists request interviews the way beggars ask for alms, reflexively and nervously. Like beggars, journalists must always be prepared for a rebuff, and cannot afford to let pride prevent them from making the pitch. But it isn’t pleasant for a grown man or woman to put himself or herself in the way of refusal. In my many years of doing journalism, I have never come to terms with this part of the work. I hate to ask. I hate it when they say no. And I love it when they say yes.