Quotes from Grobel’s The Art of the Interview

In an earlier post, I compared two books both titled The Art of the Interview, based on their Amazon reviews. I said that I’d prefer Perlich’s book to Lawrence Grobel’s. But Grobel’s [The Art of the Interview: Lessons from A Master of the Craft] was recently published, so it’s been easier to get ahold of. I’m happy to report that it’s a page turner. I’m still digesting some parts of it, especially the differences between the magazine interviewer for print and my interest in interviewing, an interview with a family member for history’s sake, for “getting the record.” But Grobel has some lovely metaphors about interviews which I’ll quote here.

After recounting an interview with a friend that ended the friendship (it began with highly personal, confrontative questions), Grobel says,

Why tell the story then? Because it illustrates what an interview is not, and that is, it is not just a series of tough, point-blank questions. An interview is more like a massage: You cover the entire body, you find knots and work those out. It’s like a dance, where you lead and your subject hopefully follows (And, at times, the subject leads, and you follow until you can regain control). [p29]

In the context of drawing out someone who’s unwilling to talk about himself:

Interviewing is the art of capturing and shaping smoke; it’s holding up a mirror and hoping you’ll get a true image and not discover you’re talking to a vampire who shows no reflection. [p360]

Grobel’s interviews have primarily been for print: magazines.  In his final chapter, he interviews himself (with some amusing repartee!). But this exchange gets at the heart of what someone who wants to interview family can get from his book, besides the fascinating celebrity anecdotes:

Q: A Lot of the anecdotes deal with celebrities, but most people who might be curious abou innerviewing won’t be interviewing celebrities. Why didn’t you devote a chapter to how to talk to farmesrs, pharmacists, salesmen, teachers and others who might make interesting stories for local newspapers and such?

A: Because there’s no difference: you prepare for a papermaker or a geologist or restaurateur the same as you do a movie star. It really doesn’t matter who you interview, the procecss is the same: you do all the research you can, you look for ares of interest, you aim for originality, you write down questions or topics, you try to keep your questions concise and to the point, and you listen. And always remember that you’re in charge. If you lead, your subject will follow.

Q: What’s the difference between a conversation and an interview?

A: A conversation is something people do when they open their mouths and talk to each other. An interview is a conversation that is edited, structured, put together like a jigsaw puzzle, and focused more on one person than the other. …[A straight transcription of who ordered what at the restaurant is] mostly boring, as most conversations tend to be. Interviews, hopefully, are conversations with the boring parts edited out. An interview is not a true dialog, but a prompted monologue. Someone is asking someone else questions and eliciting answers. [p345-355]

At a discussion on writing for character and dialog (i.e., screenwriting), someone made a similar observation: A movie is about life, with all the boring parts cut out. Here, “movie” refers to the finished form, the script, the story, the finished form on the screen. What is meant by “interview” is a tad more ambiguous, since it refers to the process of sitting down and having that structured conversation, as well as the finished form that appears in print.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on April 25, 2006 in • Interviewing
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