Last week, I gave a seminar on “making the ask,” the art of the interview. My first question to the students in Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing program was, “Are you shy?” I asked them to raise their hands if they are. Some were too shy to do so.
The art of the interview, so necessary to master for nonfiction and fiction writers alike, requires asking difficult questions, and shyness can of course be an impediment. But so can many other things — lack of preparation, not knowing how to make the subject comfortable, inability to listen and to react with follow-up questions, etc.
For this seminar, I knew I could relate many lessons learned from the thousands of interviews I’ve done over the years — they were conducted, after all, by a person who once considered himself terminally shy — but I also wanted to get the perspective of Morley Safer, whose work as an interviewer has been very high profile. He’s been correspondent for 60 Minutes almost since the program began, and has profiled some of the most famous people of our time including many who’ve had a lot to hide. So I asked him to sit with me at his home in exurban Connecticut, where he has tended the gardens for more than 30 years, to talk about talking to people he doesn’t know, and how he is able to ask difficult questions.
Some of his points surprised me for their candor. But then the 12-time Emmy Award winner has always been outspoken, and has shown very little regard for consequences of his work — as first demonstrated by the episode that put him on the international media map.
It was his dogged and epic coverage of the Vietnam War that spurred President Lyndon Johnson to single him out as having “shat on the American flag” because of his reportage from the hamlet of Cam Ne, where U.S. Marines had burned every dwelling as an act of revenge. “But even back then,” he told me, “I made mistakes all young reporters make, by not doing enough, by being superficial. Doing the real work can be very tedious. The digging is hard. But the more you do the more you feel on top of the story. Gives you much more confidence.” This view prompted a discussion of immersion, and the need for immersion in any project that a writer (as reporter, novelist, memoirist, biographer, etc.) undertakes.
I asked him what it was like to interview General William C. Westmoreland (Westy), the square-jawed and highly starched commander of U.S forces, who had also been my boss during the war. “I was really banking on my own experience when I spoke to him. He had never been in a firefight. He never waited in a remote area for a helicopter of water bags that don’t come. I knew about the war in a way that he didn’t. He knew the big picture. I knew a lot of small pictures. “Westmoreland wasn’t a particularly articulate guy. And he was bullshitting almost all the time, but you still had to treat him with a certain degree of respect. He was, after all, in charge of a lot of lives. He was the plaything of pols and the president. He couldn’t say, ‘This war is a fuck up and we’re losing it.’ ”
Even then, Safer understood what he was up against. “When you go into an interview like that, or actually into any interview, you have to understand that the interviewee is going to lie to you. Somewhat, anyway. He has one purpose — to make himself look smarter than he actually is. What the interviewee is seeking is to propagate an idea or a program or theory, or create sympathy for himself, or herself. And what you’ve got to do in those situations is maintain the balance between the guy saying his piece and questioning not in a particularly aggressive way what he’s saying.
“The most important thing is listening. If a guy is talking, don’t be thinking of the next question. Listen. That’s where you get your next question. And, also don’t be afraid of introducing and maintaining a certain amount of silence. There’s nothing quite like silence to make people talk. They’ll fill that gap, and often when you do that you’ll get pure gold. Interesting how many people don’t like silence. They have to fill it.”
I asked him about celebrities, because he largely made his mark by probing for intimacies among the glitterati. “They are the most difficult to interview,” he said. “With actors, I never know what to ask them. They are two people. They are in the business of creating another person. And some are incapable of being themselves.”
There were exceptions to this rule. Safer found Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Paul Newman to be exceptionally bright and articulate on matters that had nothing to do with them. Safer’s best interviews, he said, are with the “great brains — people whose ideas have made a difference. I’m doing this piece now on David McCullough, the historian. He’s the easiest man in the world to talk to, so full of wisdom, and so articulate. Those are the kind of people who really impress me. Really smart people, not household names.”
I asked him to talk about interviewing needs for fiction and nonfiction writers. He said, “For fiction writers, the intense research is used in the context of unleashing your own fantasies. But even if you’re writing nonfiction you’re applying your own imagination to the piece. Just giving the facts is the most tedious way to communicate. I’m a great believer in the use of irony and humor, and applying judgment. You get all this from being prepared — and the interviewing process helps you get that sense of authority and confidence.”
I asked him if he’d ever been intimidated in an interview. He said that any time he goes to the White House he feels that way, no matter who the president it. But he has sat with many criminals, or suspected criminals, and many hostile witnesses. “You pretty much know what they’re going to say.” So it isn’t that difficult. The difficult part is coaxing people to say what they don’t want to, and that works against their interest. Safer may say something like, “We’ve got these allegations. Are you sure you don’t want to set the record straight from your point of view.” Or, “I’m putting this story together, and we really need to get a better balance.”
He does what almost every seasoned reporter does — try to soften the interviewee. Begin with non-threatening questions. Get the person to relax. But more than that, be prepared. Do your homework first. His biggest criticism of much of the work he sees is a result, he says, of laziness. Writers don’t dig enough. Or they’ll rely on canned information. “I call them Wikipedia or Google books, when you can see the research being lifted. They don’t know how to use the research. They’re taking Google, and just adding the adjectives.” The rewards of working hard, he says, are obvious. He can’t imagine a better way to make a living than asking people questions about themselves.
As to publishing books — his 1988 memoir, Flashbacks, of going back to Vietnam, was a bestseller — he says, “It’s without question the most satisfying form of communication. Nothing quite like looking up in the bookcase and seeing your name on something. It more than feeds the ego. It feeds that sense of accomplishment in a way that no other form of communication does.”