The Melbourne Writers Festival kicks off today. And if you see an author or publisher looking grey this morning, it’s likely because they stayed too late, drank too much or both at last night’s Text Publishing party, an annual pre-MWF tradition.
KYD editor Rebecca Starford left early to read over her questions for an interview with DBC Pierre today (for KYD Issue 3). Which led to a wine-fuelled chat about interview techniques, and more specifically, Robert Coleman’s interview with Bret Easton Ellis for Three Thousand, which is set to become a cult classic of journalism, sort of in the ‘so bad it’s good’ school. And no, I’m not being mean – Coleman freely admits it. And he’s a very good sport indeed to have published the interview, in which Easton Ellis, after having busted him for not really knowing what he’s talking about, proceeds to (very amiably) ‘teach [him] a lesson’ and turns the tables on him, becoming the interviewer. Despite not having researched his interview, he’s obviously a smart guy – and canny enough to know that this trainwreck of a profile is also a compelling read.
B – Be yourself, be your unclever self. Why can’t you just let go of the irony!? Let go of the ‘I’m with Bret Easton Ellis’ kind of vibe?
R – Okay, here we go … I’m going to put something out there.
B – Put it out there…
R – I haven’t read too much of your stuff.
B – GOOD! Finally! Finally, a journalist tells me this! Do you know how much more relaxed that makes me? Good!
R – Okay so I’ve read about three-quarters of Less Than Zero and I’ve watched American Psycho…
B – That’s your preparation?
R – Yep. So I’m not even close to the gushing.
Easton Ellis tells him, towards the end of the interview, ‘This, this right now, happens very rarely, and this is the only time it has happened in Australia. You get the more real me than anyone has gotten so far.’ And it’s true. It says a lot about the author, I think, that he responded so well to this kamikaze interview (in which he was asked what his ‘sex face’ looked like, among other things), yet bamboozled some of his more polished, professional ‘literary’ interviewers. He was famously scolded by Ramona Koval onstage at Byron Bay Writers Festival after he evaded her questions to talk instead about his crush on Delta Goodrem. And observers at the Wheeler Centre event (where he began by admonishing the crowd with ‘what are you doing here on a Friday night?’) reported that he didn’t make the job easy for onstage interviewer Alan Brough.
The Coleman interview reminds me of one of my favourite writers, Jon Ronson, who once told me that his secret weapon as an interviewer was that he looked so ordinary and unthreatening. That sometimes it’s useful when people underestimate you, because they relax around you, they let you in.
While I am a preparation fanatic, I’ve always remembered that advice, because I think there’s a grain of truth in it. It can be easy to, as Easton Ellis alludes, be so concerned with looking clever and professional that you don’t leave space for the surprising.
This can happen when, while madly swotting over an author’s book, you come up with theses for why they did certain things, or what life experiences are embedded in the text, and you ask overly leading questions that – if you’re honest with yourself – are designed to show what a clever reader you are, to elicit a response like, ‘I’d never thought of it like that, but you’re right’. (Yes, I’ve unwittingly done it, and I’ve cringed afterwards, whether I got the money shot or not.) Of course, it can be great to draw on buried themes within the text – but it needs to be because you want to know more about them, or you want to know the answer to a question you have, rather than because you want to point them out. And the other problem with too much reliance on research, or familiarity with the subject, is that you can assume too much – focus on the obscure but leave out the basic facts.
Too-clever syndrome can also strike when you’re over-attached to the questions you’ve prepared, using them as a guide rather than a script. The best interviews run like conversations – and like a good conversationalist, a good interviewer relies on the chemistry of a conversation at least as much as the content. Sticking to the script when the flow of the conversation beckons elsewhere is like the old joke of bringing a pre-prepared set of conversation topics to a date or a dinner party – stale and awkward.
The great thing about the Coleman interview with Bret Easton Ellis is the surprise factor – what it reveals about both parties, and especially Easton Ellis. It’s something you haven’t read before. I’m by no means an expert on the art of the interview, but I do think that surprise, or revelation, is key to the best ones.
The trick, I think, is to balance preparation (which shows respect for the author as well as helping to produce a good interview) with a shot of fearlessness – allowing the possibility of looking foolish by diverting from the script if the interview opens in an interesting direction, or asking a question that you might know the answer to, but your audience won’t. Or simply letting the interviewee talk (if it’s interesting, of course), watching to see where that thread takes you.
Which is how I found out that Jon Ronson (author of Them, a bestseller about extremists and conspiracy theorists and Men Who Stare at Goats) once thought that supernatural forces were moving his cat dish around his house. And following an unplanned and not-entirely-relevant side-conversation led ALP court jester Bob Ellis to tell me, of a One Nation gathering he observed during Pauline Hanson’s campaign, ‘They were ordinary bloody decent people, some of them wearing sandals and socks, some of them obviously in need of a FUCK, and none of them much under 40. But they were not an insubstantial movement and they were not a contemptible movement either.’
I’m glad I took time out from cramming for the MWF sessions I’m chairing this weekend to go to last night’s party. It’s just possible that the chance conversation I had – reminding me of the value of the unexpected, the need to wear my preparation lightly – might have saved me from some common traps. Here’s hoping.
Jo Case is Associate Editor of Kill Your Darlings.