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Words only got in the way

Reading Nathan's interview with Frank Oz yesterday brought up a lot of memories of an interview I did a few years ago for Post. If you haven't read the interview, Oz often cuts Nathan off and comes off as condescending with certain responses. At the same time, Oz takes the blame about various matters in his career. It's an interesting read, but at the same time I felt weird reading a totally competent interviewer be berated because he doesn't seem to use the right words.

In my case, the person I was interviewing -- who will be unnamed here -- is a major, major person featured in the book and I was thrilled he agreed to do an interview. He seemed very approachable and accommodating via e-mail correspondence prior to the interview, but things were a whole lot different once I got him on the phone.

One of the first things he said to me was, "I don't know why you're interviewing me for this." Gulp. Deer in headlights. Make your stand now or you're going to lose this, I thought. I had to explain a lot more about my book with just a few sentences. It was tense from there until the end of the interview. I quickly realized this would not be the kind of interview I normally like to do. I like interviews to be conversational and not a cold question-and-answer. So I had to change things up on spot. Every question I had was carefully worded, but that didn't seem to matter since I was often cut-off because I used a word he disagreed with. It was a long 55 minutes and transcribing the answers was painful.

When it was all said and done, I found myself with a lot of great material and quotes, but also felt my ass was handed to me. All that time studying up on the guy's background and hoping to ask some questions he hadn't been asked everyday of his life didn't seem to matter. At times, he was very nice, generous and encouraging. Other times, he came across as cold and uncaring. It was weird and I've never had an interview like it since. (As a side note, when talking with friends of mine who have done way more interviews over the years, some of them had almost the exact same experience with this guy. I guess it's a rite of passage.)

Something I decided early on with doing Post was that I would take on whatever growing pains it took to get this done. Be it constant edits or awkward interview moments, I saw a greater good worth fighting for. Never before or since have I felt that way about something, but it was something I wanted to see come to fruition.

Back to the matter at hand, what I have learned with this kind of interview is how I don't want to be during an interview or conversation. It helps me when I'm the interviewer and when I'm the interviewee. As slightly annoying/strange it is to be asked the same questions over and over, I have to give the interviewer the benefit of the fact that this is our first conversation. How can a person know more about me other than stuff on the surface? Besides, I don't have to give the same answer every time. I say flex those creative muscles that helped you accomplish what you accomplished. The same applies when I'm asking the questions: let the person talk and don't coldly cut him or her off for using the "wrong" word.

I will add this, it's really flattering when someone says, "Wow, you've done your research." On the flipside, it really sucks when an interviewee makes you feel like all that research doesn't mean squat. So my words of advice: give people room to make mistakes and allow them to not know everything that you know.


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