Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, Mike Meranda, Ruth Unger, and a host of others bid farewell to the 2018 Summer Hoot in Ashokan with Jay’s haunting ballad, “Ashokan Farewell.” The song gained fame by being featured as the theme song of Ken Burns’s Civil War series.
Back in 1985, the brilliant Martin Short captured the weasel-like quality of certain political figures with his portrayal of Nathan Thurm, uncontrolled liar. As a bonus, in this comedy sketch Short also appears as the character Irving Cohen, a 90 year old vaudevillian who gets called before the House Un-american Activities Committee.
You’re at the starting gate with your guest, and the time has finally come to do the interview. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) I don’t pre-interview, because I want a sense of spontaneity during our time together.
There are a few things, however, that I remind my guests of before we begin. First, because it will be an edited interview for later broadcast, I remind them that they can stop if they need to repeat or correct themselves. I just ask them to start their sentence over from the beginning, so that it will be easier to make edits. If we are on the phone, I ask again to make sure that they are not on speaker phone. I also do a voice level check by having them spell their names slowly, asking them to speak louder or softer accordingly, as I adjust my recording equipment. (Once you have set the volume control on your recorder, don’t touch that dial!) As I’ve indicated previously, I check to see how the guest would like to be addressed. Most people are fine with being called by their first name, and that is certainly what is most comfortable for me.
When I’m interviewing guests whose ideas I may take issue with, I say nicely that I hope they don’t mind if at some points I challenge some of their ideas; I try to put it in a friendly, non-threatening way. Finally, I tell the guest I am beginning as I am about to start the recording, and say that after the short introduction he or she should feel free to respond.
There is, of course, nervousness and the whole matter of ego to deal with—both mine and the guest’s. While my interview aesthetic is not to be some faceless interviewer, on the other hand, I don’t want to be obnoxiously intrusive. As I have become more experienced, I find myself more able, somewhat paradoxically, to allow myself to stay more in the background. The ideal for me, and I think the most interesting for the listener, is for there to be an intelligent conversation between two intelligent people; but the focus has to be on the guest, not the interviewer. The interviewer’s main job, in my opinion, is to create the conditions that permit the guest to speak as interestingly as possible. I find that if I keep that goal in mind, the ego issue on my side tends to lessen.
How the conversation goes depends a lot upon the personality of the guest. Of course, you will have your interview outline in front of you. (I bold it, and print it in large 14-16 pt font, because I want to be able to scan it without fumbling.) You will soon get a feel for the guest’s speaking and conversation style. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: there will be the guest who speaks too slowly, the one who speaks too much and too fast, and the one who is just right.
The slow talker, immortalized by Bob and Ray, has thoughts and speech… which… come… at… an … agonizingly… slow… pace. As an interviewer, you are just dying to jump in and finish the sentence for the guest, but you need to have patience. Fortunately, you will be able to tighten up all those pauses when you get into the editing room. Also, those long pauses do give you a chance to re-direct the line of questioning onto topics which the guest may feel more more excited or passionate about.
The other side of the coin is the guest who talks very quickly, with barely a break for a breath. In those cases it can be very difficult to get in to ask the next question. If the guest is focused and articulate, for the most part, I do let the guest speak for a while, trusting again that in the editing room I will be able to trim back to the essentials. But still, you have to assertively find the places to jump in and get your questions asked, or the whole interview will go by, and you won’t get to ask your most important questions. It can be challenging.
For me, though, the most difficult problem is with guests who have a set script—either internally or written—from which they will not budge. No matter what questions you ask, they twist the question into the scripted response. Some guests will do it charmingly, some will do it not so charmingly. It’s kind of like a train going down a track that can’t be diverted. As an interviewer, I want to get beyond those kinds of scripted answers. That’s why it’s important here to grab an opportunity to ask one of your more unusual or personal questions. You want to gently knock the guest off course, to give them a little signal, that no, this isn’t just about formally reciting a press release, this is an actual conversation with someone who genuinely wants to know about you. Sometimes this will get them to loosen up and actually engage with you.
When the chemistry is right between you, however, and the guest wants to have a good conversation, it’s a pleasure. It may take a little while to warm up, but as the interview goes along, many guests, if made comfortable, will loosen up and play ball if they sense you have done your homework. You have to be a little careful, however, of the guests who get too familiar—sometimes when you ask them what they think of such and such, they will craftily evade by turning the tables and asking you what you think of such and such. It’s important to resist temptation. I generally reply with a quick answer of my own position, but follow up with, “But this interview is about you, not me. What do you think of such and such…” and continue from there. After the interview, I edit out my reply.
You Must Make The Path
All through the interview I am scanning my interview outline, and I am mentally checking off which questions have already been answered by my guest, even if I haven’t asked them. This means that you are actually listening to your guest. Nothing worse than being a Komodo Dragon Interviewer, as per the great Bob and Ray again. If a guest has already answered a question that I had planned to ask, that’s fine. I fill in with questions on my outline around that and continue making the path.
At times, a guest will start speaking early on about something I had planned to ask about much later. If I sense that that will take us in a direction which will make it hard for me to return to my earlier planned questions, then I ask the guest to hold off a moment with that thought, re-direct them to the general order of questions I had planned, and return to that thought later.
If you are really listening and really curious about what your guest has to say, then it’s only natural that a guest’s response could well prompt another question from you. I don’t think you should jump in with every thought you have, but as a representative of the listening audience, you should ask clarifying questions when a response doesn’t seem clear, and you should not be afraid to ask the follow-up questions which you think your listeners would ask themselves or like answered. Sometimes the most powerful question you can ask is a simple “Could you say more about that?” The unplanned turn off the road can be fruitful. But do find a way back.
The goal again is to make it seems as if it’s a natural conversation with one question leading into the next, all the while directing the interview into the general shape that you had outlined.
Take A Penny, Leave A Penny
After doing this for a while, I began to appreciate how interesting, difficult, and artful interviewing can be. After you try it for a while, you’ll never again listen to interviewers in the same way. You will begin to pick out models for yourself, interviewers whose aesthetic sounds right to you, interviewers of whom you’ll say to yourself, that’s what I want to achieve. Steal from them, imitate them, and then make your own path.
Next week, we’ll talk about beginning to edit the raw audio that you’ve just created.
As summer winds down on Monday, a voice behind you pleads, Stay…just a little bit longer.
Maurice WIlliams, who wrote the song at age fifteen and sings lead on the shortest #1 pop song on record, said in an interview that they deliberately kept the song short so that it would get more radio play. They figured that the DJs would use it as a sign off before a commercial break if it was short enough. They were right.
As I mentioned last time, nothing so determines the final shape and content of your interview as the questions you ask and the order in which you ask them. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) Here’s how I have been going about putting together a question outline.
At first, I don’t worry at all about the order of the questions—I am more interested in brainstorming questions. Before I do any research at all, I draw on my initial curiosity about the guest that prompted me to do the interview in the first place. I’ll open a Word document just for questions and enter them. I like to keep the mindset that I probably will never have a chance again to speak to this person—so I remind myself not to hold back on whatever it is that I’ve always genuinely wanted to know about the guest or his or her work. There are some questions that I find that I repeatedly ask of my guests, because they are issues that I am obsessed about, and that I am genuinely curious about when I meet someone well known or unusually productive. I like to understand people’s lives from the inside, from their perspective, so I often ask about the guests’ working process, and what they consider to be their most important understandings about their work. I am also curious how an artist’s working life changes with age, and I am often apt to ask questions about that.
But the bulk of my questions come as a result of research into the guest’s work. As I am reading about a guest, or reading a guest’s book, I have my computer file by me, and I am typing into it both salient points that are made, as well as points I would like to understand further. I will also make note of places where I disagree with the guest, places where there could be fruitful further conversation. If I am seeing a film or a theater piece that my guest is involved with, then I have a pad with me and I am taking notes as I’m watching. At a minimum, I become familiar with the guest’s latest project. But, really, ideally, it is much better when I am able to become familiar with a much wider range of the guest’s work, and can situate what the guest is doing within the context of his or her own work, and within the work of his or her contemporaries.
I double space each question, and through experience, I know that when I have about a page and a half of 14-pt type questions, I have enough for a 30-minute interview. Once I have all the questions down, I start moving them around into the order I want. Here, for example, is the final question outline I used when I was preparing to interview playwright and actor Wallace Shawn (I’ve included the intro [which was cut considerably in the editing process] and the outro):
Intro: Hi, I’m Jack Shalom. Actor, playwright, essayist Wallace Shawn has been provoking thought from audiences for over four decades. His memorable film roles have included co-starring in My Dinner with Andre, and his comic turn as Vizzini in The Princess Bride. His work as a playwright includes the Obie Award winning Aunt Dan and Lemon, The Fever, and The Designated Mourner; and his essays include the recently released Night Thoughts.
His 2015 play, Evening At The Talk House has been released as an audio drama, with a fine cast that includes himself, Matthew Broderick, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry, and Claudia Shear. It can be found gratis on the website of The Intercept online magazine. I’m happy to be talking with Wallace Shawn. (WAIT) Hi, Wally.
Tell us about Evening At the Talk House.
The play was originally done in London, then opened in New York. Did you see a difference between the London and NYC reception?
How did this audio version come to be, and how did it land at The Intercept?
How much did you have to change the play for audio production?
Many of your plays deal with a similar theme: The dark apparatus that it takes to maintain a privileged society. How is Evening At the Talk House different from your previous plays in its working out? Does it represent an evolution in your thinking about these matters?
The characters in Evening At the Talk House keep insisting that they are just trying to have a pleasant evening. In a sense, the play is what it costs the rest of the world for those people to have their pleasant evening. Do people give up their own comfort willingly?
It’s often the self-absorbed artists in your plays who are the people who seemingly can only relate to their own needs. You seem to target artists in particular in your works. Can you speak more about that?
Because this play shows the problems the privileged have in trying to square the contradictions of their wish to appear benign, I could imagine that some might complain that this work is in some sense privileging the problems of the privileged. Is that a fair criticism?
As complex and layered as your plays are, I find your essays on the other hand, remarkably transparent and lucid. When I read your essays, I say, well of course, why hasn’t anybody else explained it so plainly? How do you decide whether something is going to become a play or an essay?
I really enjoyed reading Night Thoughts. It’s like your communist manifesto. A short simple book that anyone can understand. Rather than talking about owners and workers, though, you speak of the lucky and the unlucky. Can you talk more about that?
You are not just someone who is interested in both politics and theater, but you see the two subjects as intimately entwined. A few years ago you wrote a wonderful essay called “Why I Call Myself a Socialist: Is the World Really a Stage?” Could you talk about some of the ideas in that essay and what in your view is the relationship of acting to the necessity of socialism?
What’s the most important thing you know about playwriting?
Anything else you’d like to add, Wally?
I’ve been talking with Wallace Shawn whose play Evening at the Talk House is now available as a free podcast at Theintercept.com. Thanks, Wally. (WAIT) This has been Jack Shalom with host Prairie Miller.
By looking at the outline above you can see how I structure the order of my questions. I generally want the guest to feel comfortable, and I want to situate the listening audience, so I start off by asking questions about the guest’s most recent projects. Next, I’ll move onto other projects I’m interested in, and then I use those projects as a springboard to ask about overall process and more personal questions. If I feel that the guest is amenable, at this point I’ll bring up disagreements or questions which might be a little more challenging. How far I go with that depends on the kinds of responses I get. Finally, I’ll tend to finish up with asking about future projects and where one can obtain more information about the guest’s work. I’ll also ask at the end if there’s anything else they wish to add—surprisingly, often the guest takes a thoughtful breath, regroups and comes out with some of the most interesting material here.
When the interview actually happens, do I stick to this outline?
But that’s for next week, when I talk about actually conducting the interview.
You’ve made it this far and now you’re ready to prepare an outline. (For the previous installments begin here and then follow the links at the end of each installment.) An outline is not a hard and fast script, but it is a road map. It’s what allows one the freedom to improvise during an interview, knowing that there’s a safe place to return to if the conversation wanders about or goes South. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine doing an interview without an outline. It would be like trying to navigate in a strange city without a GPS. An interview outline will determine—more than anything else—even more than your audio editing—the final shape and content of your interview.
The three parts I have in my interview outline are the intro, the questions I want to ask, and the outro. Let’s take each part, one at a time.
In the intro, I want to intrigue the audience, introduce the interviewee with his or her project, and begin my first interaction with the guest. To begin, I also always first want to introduce myself to the radio audience. While it’s very important to be able to hang up your ego as an interviewer (more about this in future installments), I don’t believe in the aesthetic of a faceless, generic questioner. As the interviewer, you are in some sense a proxy for the curiosity of your audience. It’s important for them to know who you are, so I get that out of the way at the very beginning. For me, it’s just simply, “Hi, this is Jack Shalom,” at the top of the segment. Others do it more artfully, pulling a teaser quote first from the guest, for example, and then working in their identification, but I believe that if you don’t do it, or wait until the end, the audience will be left with an annoying unanswered question.
After introducing myself, I try to give a hook and teaser for the audience, setting up my introduction of the guest. Here’s an example of an introduction I did for an interview a while back:
“Hi. I’m Jack Shalom. Public education in the United States has historically been a segregated affair, and today that segregation has taken on a new and sometimes disguised form. Author Noliwe Rooks explicates that history and analyzes that new form in her new book Cutting School. Ms. Rooks is the director of American studies at Cornell University and for ten years was the associate director of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is also the author of White Money/Black Power and Hair Raising. I’m happy to be talking today with Noliwe Rooks. (WAIT)”
So you can see here, I’ve first introduced myself. Next, I’m setting the context by talking about public school segregation, and then I segue into introducing my guest and her book. I also include some of the guest’s most interesting or well-known credits.
Sometimes people jump into an interview and record the introductory material at a later (or earlier) time than the actual interview. I like to speak my introduction while the guest is with me, or on the phone, because I want the guest to know up front that I am not some berserk maniac. When they listen to the intro, they know I have done my research, and I am appreciative of their work. While I often ask my guests challenging questions, I don’t want them to think that the interview is going to be some kind of confrontational set-up. I want them to feel that I am on their side. Part of my job is to build trust.
You’ll see in the intro above that I have the word WAIT in caps in parentheses. That is because I am an idiot and I always need to remind myself that at that point in the intro, I need to…well…WAIT for my guest’s reply. It’s the guest’s first chance to speak, even if it’s just “Hi,” or “Thanks,” but you don’t want to step on that by talking over them. Sounds silly, but I’ve messed that up many times. Don’t worry if you have to wait a while while the guest figures out that it’s their turn to speak—you can edit out the pause later. Typically now, just before I start an interview, I’ll tell the guest that I’ll be doing a short intro and that they should answer after I say, “Hi, [guest’s name]” or “Welcome to the show.”
By the way, the other thing I ask my guests beforehand is the proper way to pronounce their name, and how they would like to be addressed e.g. Noliwe? Ms. Rooks? Dr. Rooks? Professor Rooks? I think every guest I’ve spoken to has always opted for first name, but I think it’s an important courtesy to extend beforehand. Again, it helps to build trust and to relax the guest.
The introduction should last no more than 45 seconds. The listeners are waiting for the guest to speak, not you. You don’t want to lose the audience before the interview even begins. I’ll often read out my intro out loud beforehand, watching a clock to time how long it goes. If it’s over 45 seconds, I will ruthlessly cut some of it from my outline. I never wing the intro. The intro and the outro are the one thing that I read verbatim from my outline. I want to make sure I get all the details correct.
The next part of my interview outline is the list of questions. The most interesting questions to me are those that the interviewer genuinely does not know the answer to, and has a curiosity to know more about. I think it’s very important that an interviewer does research beforehand. I know there are interviewers who feel that they should be as blank a slate as their audiences are with regard to the guest and his or her project, but I feel that is a mistake, and for me, at least, unsatisfying. I think it always shows when the research has not been done, and the guest will not be as open to someone who is not familiar with the guest’s issues. Moreover, without research or prior knowledge the interviewer becomes subject to the guest’s agenda, and the guest ends up controlling the direction of the conversation. With a brilliant, dynamic speaker that might be okay, but the more likely result is that the guest will be repeating the same canned words that s/he has given to many other interviewers before. I think if an interviewer is doing the job right, in the best possible case, both the interviewer and guest are surprised and happy about the spontaneous turns of conversation that result. That is very unlikely to happen without a fair amount of preparation.
I see the interviewer as bridging the gap between the audience and the guest. My interviewing stance is that I am an intelligent layman who enjoys knowing more about my guest and my guest’s work, and I want to get my audience to join me in my exploration. That requires that my questions set up an introductory context and then lead into more interesting areas. All of that requires familiarity and research.