After I finished interviewing James A. Michener for my book Talking with Michener, I asked if he would consider interviewing himself as the final chapter, to cover things on his mind that I might not have touched upon. He was reluctant, but then he read an interview that Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer did with himself. When he later ran into Singer he asked him how that interview worked out. Singer answered, “Fabulously. I covered all the untouched spots. And I could be sure that my answers were reported correctly, because I was doing the reporting.” Michener figured if Singer was comfortable doing it, he’d give it a shot.
This is my shot.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: It meant I had a nice quote to attach to the front or back of a book, but I didn’t take it seriously. How can you?
Q: What’s the difference between a conversation and an interview?
GROBEL: A conversation is something people do when they open their mouths and talk to each other. An interview is a conversation that is edited, structured, put together like a jigsaw puzzle, and focused more on one person than the other. Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine is ironic, because what he published were mostly conversations….you sat in on a lunch and heard what they ordered, you listened in on petty gossip. Truman Capote turned such scenes into art when he was writing Answered Prayers, but in the raw, they’re mostly boring, as most conversations tend to be. Interviews, hopefully, are conversations with the boring parts edited out. An interview is not a true dialogue, but a prompted monologue. Someone is asking someone else questions and eliciting answers.
Q: You wrote a book and teach a class at UCLA called The Art of the Interview. Can an interview really be called an art?
GROBEL: I think a case can be made, but it just depends on how cynical and elitist you want to be about it. After Truman Capote wrote The Muses Are Heard, about the American Porgy and Bess troupe that went to Russia, he challenged himself to see if he could turn something truly plebeian into art, and he chose a celebrity interview because it was, according to him, “the most banal thing in journalism.” He wanted to do it in one day, and chose Marlon Brando as his subject. Brando—who, by the way, didn’t believe that movies were an art form, nor were actors or singers artists–was in Japan making Sayonara, and Capote went there for The New Yorker, spent an evening with him, and then spent a year working on it. “It had to be perfection,” he said, “because my part was to take this banal thing and turn it into a work of art.”
Joyce Carol Oates speculated on the interview as an art form that might emerge as a predominant prose genre in the twenty-first century.
So, is the interview, when done right, more than good craftsmanship? Is there an art to it? I wouldn’t put it in the class of high art, but I do think there’s more than clever editing going on when it’s in the hands of a writer and when it’s not being cut to fit a certain space. I’ll grant you that it’s a stretch to call the genre an art form, but that’s because there are so many mediocre interviews published today. If you weed out the bad and the boring and the space-fillers, there’s some art there. Whether it might emerge as a predominant prose genre of this century only speaks to the dumbing down of what passes for our culture, perhaps.
GROBEL: You’ve got to remember that Donleavy lives in Ireland, so he has probably been spared the parade of youth who have achieved greater fame than those in the past who have earned it. Certain television interviewers have achieved a measure of fame, but they don’t hold a candle to Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton or Mel Gibson, who by their bad behavior manage to knock wars, assassinations, floods, droughts, and crumbling glaciers off the front pages. But Donleavy has a definite take on our times, and if he draws this conclusion, just keep in mind that he has always written with his tongue pressed firmly into his cheek.
Q: Wasn’t it Brando who asked you how on earth you could spend a career interviewing other people, especially actors?
GROBEL: OK, look, here’s the way I see it. My ambition was to be a novelist. I started writing nonfiction as a way of gathering experience—I’d jump from planes, study martial arts, practice Transcendental Meditation, learn archery, drive demolition derby cars, all to get a perspective and insight into aspects of American culture that I wouldn’t normally know about. Then, in 1974, I moved to Los Angeles and was asked by Newsday to interview Mae West. Who knew that would become a life-altering experience? Not that she was so mind-blowing—she wasn’t, just an ageing vaudevillian and movie star who had a ton of life experience behind her—but that led to other interviews, and after a few years of doing these pieces I began to wonder what it might be like to really delve deeply into someone’s psyche. I had glimpses with Lucille Ball, who told me she no longer wanted to live because most of her friends had died and her children weren’t calling; with Warren Beatty, whose phone never stopped ringing; with sculptor Henry Moore, who compared himself favorably with Rembrandt and Michelangelo. If I had more time, if I had more space, how much could I get someone to reveal? Once I started thinking this way, I looked for a publication that would allow me to find out, and in the mid-1970s, that was Playboy. So I focused on convincing the editors there that I was capable of doing a Playboy interview. And once I began doing those, I saw the difference between a two-hour, three thousand-word interview with someone and a nine-month, fifty-thousand-word interview (as the one with Barbra Streisand turned out to be). And so I learned the “art” of the interview. I learned how to shape questions, how to go with the mood of the subject, and how to index and edit transcripts. But I still wasn’t satisfied—I wondered about taking the form to the next, final, stage: a full length book. Could one truly write a biography of someone as an interview? The subject I chose was Truman Capote, and every six months I would fly to New York and see him in Sagaponack, Long Island. But Capote died before we finished, and the book that resulted was, to me, not the book I had hoped for. It was playful, gossipy, at times malicious, often very funny, but my vision for it was much broader. Then I was asked by an English publisher if they could make a book out of my interview with Marlon Brando, so I agreed to that, reworking it, adding material that wasn’t in Playboy, writing about my time with him on his island, and about what happened to him and his family afterward. But, again, it wasn’t a full-fledged biography. My third interview book, with writer James A. Michener, was. At least, it was the kind of book I had envisioned doing. Michener allowed me to interview him over the seventeen years I knew him. We taped well over a hundred hours; I visited him in Florida, Maine, Texas, New York, and California. We had talks that went into the late hours of the night, and I was able to devote individual chapters to the various aspects of his life. The book was quietly published by the University of Mississippi Press in 1999. Michener had told me from the start that he may have been the wrong subject for such a project, since he wasn’t as sexy as Brando or as outrageous as Capote. I think he was right, but at least I achieved my goal. And maybe, who knows, future generations might discover the book.