Interviewing Myself (The Art of the Interview)

Q: Is it true that Pacino has asked you to act in his movie Wilde Salome, about the making of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome?

GROBEL: Yes. The film is in the editing stages now. It was quite a surprise for him to ask me to play myself in the movie. He wanted me to go with him to Ireland, England and France, to follow Oscar Wilde’s trail—where he was born and educated, where he lived and where he died. Then we went to the desert to film some scenes there. I’m not in it all that much, but you do see me in all these different places. And at the end, I’m the one who tells him the film he’s just shot doesn’t work. It’s funny.

Q: So will we start seeing you in the movies now?

GROBEL: No, unless it’s playing myself. I’m not a very good actor. But I was asked to be a “Talking Head” for a documentary about J.D. Salinger. That one’s been in the works for years and after Salinger died it was announced that it was going to come out. I’m still waiting to see it.

Q: What other celebrities have become friends of yours?

GROBEL: Not that many. Elliott Gould and Diane Keaton are friends. I’m phone friends with Kim Basinger and Sharon Stone—meaning that we stay in touch by phone, but I don’t see them that often. I keep in touch with Oliver Stone and Christopher Walken. And I trade e-mails with Anthony Kiedis, whom I’ve known since he was a little boy.

Q: Is there a conflict in becoming friends with the people you interview?

GROBEL: Absolutely. And you have to be up front with your editors about that. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while you will click with someone, and then you will find yourself wondering what you can or cannot write about. It’s agony.

Q: How’d you get to know Anthony Kiedis?

GROBEL: I took an acting class at UCLA with his father when we were both at the university. So I got to know his parents. Then we lost touch for some years and when I ran into his father again he told me about Tony being in this band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers and how they got naked on stage and just went wild. I went to some of those early concerts and reconnected with Anthony and we’ve stayed in touch. He comes to my house for dinner once in a while and I go to his concerts whenever he performs in our area. He’s had a remarkable life, full of highs and lows. He lost his best friend and band member to drugs, he got hooked on drugs himself for a long time, but he’s managed to survive. He’s one of the most decent people I know.

Q: A lot of your anecdotes and examples deal with celebrities. How different is it talking to them as compared to interviewing farmers, pharmacists, salesmen, teachers, and others who might make interesting stories for local newspapers and such?

GROBEL: They’re different only in your mind. And they’re different because celebrities are more used to being interviewed. Otherwise, there’s no difference: You prepare for a papermaker or geologist or restaurateur the same as you do a movie star. It really doesn’t matter who you interview, the process is the same: You do all the research you can, you look for areas of interest, you aim for originality, you write down questions or topics, you try to keep your questions concise and to the point, and you listen. And always remember that you’re in charge. If you lead, your subject will follow.

Q: Is there any way to interview someone you don’t know much about?

GROBEL: Sure, as long as you have a curious nature and are up to date with current events. If you need help, there are dozens of books out there that list questions you can ask—you can check those out, see what questions stir your interest, make a list. Or you can just think about what’s going on in the world—if you look at a newspaper, there are sections about your hometown, about the country, the world, about books, sports, obituaries. Surely you can come up with questions to ask someone to find out what they are interested in

Q: What was your first published interview, who was it with, and what do you remember asking?

GROBEL: That would have been with the West African sculptor Vincent Kofi, which I did for African Arts magazine back in 1970, when I was still in the Peace Corps. He was a fascinating artist who had trained in England with Constantin Brancusi, and he gave me one of the best answers to my question: What is the truth in art?  “Truth,” he said, “is like the color turquoise. Under natural light, it’s one color, under artificial light, another.”  We all have our own truths, and it’s based on how we see things. My first celebrity interview was the one I mentioned with Mae West.

She told me the secret to her longevity and good health was that she had taken an enema twice a day since the early thirties, when she had to wear a corset on stage and didn’t have enough time to take it off to go to the bathroom between acts.

Q: When Diane Keaton came to your UCLA class, she said that she wouldn’t talk about her relationships with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty or Al Pacino. Is it OK to let a subject limit the interview so severely?

GROBEL: It’s not a matter of it being OK or not OK—if someone sets a parameter you either accept it or challenge it. If Diane didn’t want to talk about past relationships, what choice was there, other than to ask her why she felt that way? And with someone as multitalented as she is, you shouldn’t feel limited because she didn’t want to talk about Woody, Warren or Al—she’s a director, an actor, a fashion trendsetter, a mother, a dog lover, a writer, a photographer, a collector; she’s published books dealing with advertising, salesmen, clowns…there’s plenty to talk with her about besides failed relationships.

Q: In your class you once read a passage written by Norman Mailer about Muhammad Ali concerning ego.  Some students felt that Mailer was writing more about himself than about Ali. As a reporter/ biographer how do you keep your own personality from clouding that of your subject? Is transparency always desirable?

GROBEL: If you’re Norman Mailer, you’ve learned how to make yourself as interesting as your subject. Mailer may have inserted himself into his work, especially his essays, but he wrote with a novelist’s eye, he was perceptive, his metaphors are often dazzling. It takes guts to put yourself into a story about Muhammad Ali or Madonna and I wouldn’t advise it, but Mailer could get away with it. In general, yes, transparency is desirable—the journalist shouldn’t intrude in the story. But there are times when your personality can make the piece more personal and enjoyable, and in those cases, jump in!

Q: Does talking about yourself, even if you’re not going to use what you say in the final copy, make the interviewing process smoother?

GROBEL: Only if you have interesting things to say. Some people love to hear stories; others prefer the sound of their own voice. It’s not hard to figure that out once you get going. If the person you’re interviewing gets a blank, glazed look when you start talking about yourself, stop your story and get back to why you’re there.

Q: Do you ever make something up about yourself to get an interviewee talking on a certain subject?

GROBEL: Have I ever lied to get someone talking? Probably. I’ve been married a long time, but I’ve been known to bring up sexual dalliances in my past that I might make sound as if they happened just the other day, if I’m trying to get my subject to share some intimate stories about his or her life.

Q: Do you laugh at a subject’s attempts at humor even if you don’t think it’s funny?

GROBEL: It’s hard to fake laughter, but I try. Why offend someone by not laughing at his joke?

Q: Why do you often focus on bests, worsts, and favorites?

GROBEL: My brother-in-law accused me of this. I don’t focus on it, but I do find that people are often interested in someone’s favorite movie, book, CD, video, and so on. If you like the person you’re reading about, you’re interested in what they like…and you’ll probably check out what they recommend.

Q: What happens when your subject asks to see the transcript? Or your final draft before you submit it to your editor?

GROBEL: I say no.

Q: Because…?

GROBEL: Because it will turn into a nightmare if you do that. I went through it with Barbra Streisand. Streisand went around me and got to my editor. She didn’t make any major changes, though she managed to add her own ending—but dealing with it is just too great a hassle.

Q: When writing a biography like The Hustons, how do you know what to leave in and what to cut out?

GROBEL: I was criticized in a New York Times review for leaving nothing out in that book, which wasn’t true. I wrote twenty-two hundred pages in manuscript and had to reduce it by eight hundred pages before it was published. I tend to write long, to make sure I’ve covered all bases, quoted everyone involved, and then I put it away and go back to it with, hopefully, a fresh and critical eye. You begin to sense what quotes are important and what aren’t. Editing is tough. They say that there is no such thing as writing, it’s all rewriting. The more people you interview, the more dialogue you work with, the more you develop an ear for these things. If you have a tin ear, you’ll find that out when your editor starts marking up your copy.

Q: Do you ever worry about asking a stupid question?

GROBEL: No, because even stupid, or uninformed questions, can lead to interesting answers. You just don’t want to make a habit of it.

Q: Have you interviewed everybody you wanted to?

GROBEL: No, that would mean there were no more interesting people left on the planet. As long as there are people writing books, making movies, making breakthrough medical and scientific discoveries, leading countries, breaking athletic records, then one has something to look forward to as an interviewer.

Q: Who do you regret not having talked to?

GROBEL:  I regret not doing dictators like former Uganda president Idi Amin and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. I would have liked to interview artists like Picasso, Matisse, Andy Warhol. Writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Tom Wolfe. I’d like to interview the American president, the English prime minister, the Israeli head of state. World leaders in general. If  Marlon Brando was still alive, I wouldn’t mind going back to talk to him.

Q: He was 80 when he died. Why would you want to have returned to him?

GROBEL: Because Brando had a particular take on things that bordered on brilliance and paranoia. I like talking to accomplished people in their eighties or nineties because they have a different perspective than they did when they were younger. That’s why I enjoyed going to see Henry Moore, Henry Fonda, John Huston, James Michener, and the Dutch artist Jan de Swart. They gained wisdom with age. Editors rarely call me to interview octogenarians; they prefer hearing what the current hot generation has to say. That’s just the way it is. But do you have any doubt that an interview with someone like Brando or Margaret Thatcher or Mikhail Gorbechev at the end of their lives would be far more interesting to read than one with Keanu Reeves or Lindsay Lohan?

Q: What type of environment should you set to talk to someone?

GROBEL: That’s not always up to me. If I’m meeting the person at their home or a restaurant, the environment is already there. If the person is coming to my house—and I’ve done quite a few interviews in my living room or office—then I can affect the environment. I can make sure my dog’s been walked, so she doesn’t bother us. I can have fruits and vegetables cut up, water in the kettle ready to be boiled. I can make sure my answering machine is on to cut off any calls. And if my wife is in a good mood, she might prepare some food, which always warms people up.

Q: How does your wife deal with you hanging out with so many different people?

GROBEL:  I was very lucky when I met Hiromi. She’s an artist and a textile designer and lives in a world very different from mine. That’s probably why we get along so well. We’ve been together now for 40 years and my feelings for her have only grown over the years. She’s a very special woman: she loves to cook, she weaves her own clothing, she makes the plates and cups we eat and drink from, she shames me into exercising with her, and she doesn’t care about celebrity.  She’s also very secure in who she is, so she knows that no matter who I’m having lunch or dinner with—be it Nicole Kidman, Dolly Parton, or Angelina Jolie—I’m always coming home.

Q: You have two grown daughters, what did they think of you when they were growing up?

GROBEL: For a long time they didn’t think I worked. I was home when they went off to school and home when they got back. Other fathers went to work. I walked upstairs to my office and sat at my desk. When they were young they had no idea that Al Pacino was a famous actor. They just thought he was a guy I knew who came to visit. I remember when Al was doing Dick Tracy and he asked them if they wanted to meet Madonna. My girls were six and nine at the time and they thought he was joking. So I took them to the studio one day and Al was disguised as his character Big Boy—they didn’t recognize him at first. Then he took them to see Madonna, and suddenly it became very real to them. When Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was popular Al told my older daughter Maya that he knew Springsteen. She didn’t believe him. It just so happened that Springsteen had given Pacino his satin jacket when they met in New York and Pacino mentioned it was his birthday. Al told Maya he would give the jacket to her. She still didn’t believe it. Until she got it.

Q: You mentioned you were in the Peace Corps—what did you do there, and for how long?

GROBEL: I went into the Peace Corps right after I graduated from UCLA in 1968. The Vietnam War was still going on. I knew if I was drafted into the army that I would probably move to Canada or go underground because I agreed with Mohammed Ali when it came to that war. We just shouldn’t have been there, and I couldn’t see losing my life for an unworthy cause. The Peace Corps seemed a better alternative.  I wound up teaching at a school of journalism in Ghana. It was such a wonderful, friendly country. I still keep in touch with some of my former students. And I got to travel quite a bit throughout Africa in the three years that I was there. They were very important years for me. I did a lot of writing, and when I left I spent eight months traveling to Kenya, India, Kashmir, Nepal, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan before returning to the U.S.

Q: What projects are you working on now?

GROBEL:  I’ve been busy with some writing projects and with my teaching.  It’s now been ten years since I started teaching seminars on interviewing and about journalism and memoir writing at UCLA and I truly enjoy that, though with the current budget problems the university is having, I suspect that I won’t be teaching there much longer.  I have started two works of fiction, but it’s too early to talk much about them: one is based in Africa, the other in Hollywood. I’ve just finished writing a short story that I sent out to some literary journals. I’m writing a few profiles for some magazines. And a screenplay I wrote with my daughter has recently been optioned, so who knows, maybe something will come of that.

Q: So, have we exhausted the subject of interviewing with you?  Are there still questions left to ask?

GROBEL: Of course there are, but let’s save them for another time. I’m exhausted.

Q: You mean we’ve silenced the “Mozart” of interviewers?

GROBEL:  As Brando once said to me, sometimes the best conversations happen in silence.

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