Robert Musil opens his interview-profile of the essayist Alfred Polgar with a joke:
One day I said to myself that the interview is the artform of our time. Because the mega-capitalistic beauty of the interview is tha the interviewee does the whole mentla labor, and gets nothing for it, while the interviewer does actually nothing, but pockets the honorarium.
The joke contains an important truth. Interviews are definitely built around a peculiar economic arrangement. Most of the time, we read the interview for the interviewee, not the interviewer, who is nevertheless given the byline (as Musil was for the Berlin paper for which he interviewed Polgar) and the fee. Mostly, the attraction is the better known interviewee – Musil was less known, in 1922, than Polgar, who was as well known in his day as, say, Roger Ebert is in ours.
The joke does not contain the whole truth however. Musil walks it back a bit in the next paragraph:
Other than this it is charming that one may, in an interview, ask a person questions in a manner that would otherwise be offensive. One must naturally get out of the moronic “how do you like our city” and “did you sleep well on the trip” . One must terrify the interviewee, shake him up; for one must successfully put questions, in the name of cultural duty, for answers that of his own free will he would never surrender.”
This is the whole matter of the interviewers art. Or no: I say this having done more interviews in my freelancing days than I can count, from the high – for instance, William T.Vollman – to the low, as for instance some mid level clerk in charge of the erotic comics section at the local comix store. I had no previous training when I was thrown into this work; I very quickly learned that what you read is not eactly what the interviewee said.
But more of that in a moment…
Just as Musil suggests, moronic questions are only good for softening the victim up. Or at least that is how it should be. In fact, as any faithful reader of the NYT Magazine knows, the moronic level is often the alpha and omega of the interview. For instance, there is the old standby, where do you work? This question is always being thrown at writers, for reasons that puzzle me. Would we ask an accountant where they account? Yet, it is an inexpungable bug in the system of which interviews form a part. The place a writer writes has some strange attraction, it has become a tourist destination of the mind, yet I don’t know what the there is there. What does the question even mean, given that it is a rare writer whose head doesn’t suddenly fill, on the most unexpected occasions, with solutions to plot problems, phrases, rhymes, and the whole business.
However, while Musil says some excellent things about interviewng in this essay – I must get back to a few of them at some other time – he doesn’t say, no interviewer ever says, that there is a gap between transcript and copy. Transcript isn’t copy. After the interview is done and the tape recorder is turned off or the writing peters out in your notebook, where your unintelligible scribble has been lunging through the pages like a troop of drunken monkeys, you have to then take it all home, or to your office, or whereever, and make sense of it.
Americans in particular are not raised in the kind of conversational milieu that made interviews, that 18th century invention, possible. There’s a certain inabilty to form obiter dicta spontaneously as the ocassion arises. In the 18th and 19th century, all these figures, these Goethes and Samuel Johnsons, cultivated the pronunciamento like little dictators. It was as if a part of their brain snapped on and they could give a speech. This cerebral state hardly exists in the general population. Instead, there is a constant segue between half starts, riffs that deadend, rap that becomes air time, and the like. And – one hopes – in the midst of this, one will encounter some beautiful conclusive sentence, the kind that the publishers love, because their ;publication designers (whose firm belief is that nobody reads any more) can use it as a ribbon in bold, large type scrolling across a dense, three or four column page. Unfortunately, most of these glorous sentences wilt into mere platitudes once they are awarded big font size.
I love American speech; it is the glory of the country. It just doesn’t conform to the old strictures of the interview.
Thus, the relationship of the transcript to the interviewer becomes something like the relationship between a DJ and a stack of tunes. The DJ has to find, among the disparate sounds and songs, some common threads, as well as abrupt changes. He has to create a consistent soundscape.
Similarly, the interviewer has to recontext the context. Usually, for nstance, that beautiful sentence is nested in among a bunch of banalities. It needs to be lifted out. Other sentences need to be pared back, supplied with the verb that was dropped in the moment, pruned of the repetitions. The question answer format has to be straightened out too, as many interviewees tend to give the most satisfactory answer to question 1 when answering question 3.
In a way, Musil is right. The end product is the kind of simulacra mega-capitalism thrives on. The interviewee, in my experience, is often delighted with one’s work.
Here’s an exercise: watch a tv talk show interview of Youtube, and try to take notes on the Q. and A. Then turn it off, read the notes and see if they make sense. Then make them make sense. Then watch the interview again.
Voila: the interview experience.