In the Interview Game, Candor and Adroit Performances


Edited by Christopher Silvester

W.W. Norton, 640 pp., $30

The modern interview, now a staple of broadcast as well as print journalism, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In his introduction to ''The Norton Book of Interviews,'' Christopher Silvester credits Horace Greeley with virtually inventing the format and opens this chronologically arranged collection with Greeley's widely published interview with Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1859.

Establishing a precedent that would be followed by many subsequent celebrities facing inconvenient questions from the press, Young flatly denied allegations later proved to be true. The tug-of-war between interviewer and interviewee had begun.

Early critics denounced interviews as bad journalism. ''The joint product,'' one called them, ''of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a newspaper reporter.'' Some interviews seemed to be based on too much collusion between the journalist and his subject. Others, however, seemed like intrusions on the subject's privacy. Some critics claimed interviews over-personalized and thus trivialized current events. But still other readers appreciated getting to know the person in question.

The format offered prominent persons a ready-made forum to express their ideas and package their public image. Although many found ways of using this to their advantage, others resented the intrusiveness of the interview and the power of the interviewer to shape the final product.

Silvester's informative introduction examines the history of the interview and the ways it has been used as well as abused. He notes the two opposite extremes of interviewers: those who ''go for the jugular,'' like matadors with a bull at their mercy, and those so overwhelmed by meeting a famous or powerful person that they produce pieces that are horrifyingly sycophantic.

The 80-odd interviews in this collection are well chosen and remarkably varied in subject and style, beginning with Greeley's encounter with Young and ending with Richard Stengel's devastating account of his attempt to interview the deeply unresponsive journalist Paul Johnson in 1992:

Stengel: ''In 'Modern Times,' you talk about moral relativism ... in the twentieth century. What examples of moral relativism do you see now on the world scene?''

Johnson: ''Don't know.''

Stengel: ''Um .... Certainly not on the scale, perhaps, as the examples that you used before, but do you see any, uh....''

Johnson: ''No.''

Stengel: ''Okay.... Are these questions not up your alley?''

Johnson: [Eyes closed] ''Don't know.''

The subjects we hear from are writers, statesmen, dictators, film stars, inventors, and artists. They include a veritable gallery of personalities: Karl Marx, Emile Zola, Pablo Picasso, Theodore Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Thomas Edison, Bette Davis, Otto von Bismarck, Margaret Thatcher, and Oscar Wilde.

Some of these encounters are real glimpses of history-in-the-making: W.T. Stead's 1884 interview with British general Charles George Gordon led to Prime Minister Herbert John Gladstone's decision to send the general on what proved to be a fatal mission to defend Khartoum. Henry Brandon's 1960 interview with candidate John F. Kennedy revealed the young politician's keen intelligence and grasp of the issues.

Some subjects, like Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock, play their parts with admirable aplomb. Others, like Tallulah Bankhead and Montgomery Clift, seem on the verge of collapse before the interviewer's very eyes. On the lighter side, Mae West shared her beauty tips: ''Well, I never needed clothes to make me feel sexy,'' and Evelyn Waugh mocks the whole genre in ''The Gentle Art of Being Interviewed.''

Under the thoughtful questioning of interviewer George Sylvester Viereck in 1930, Sigmund Freud offers an impressive summation of his mature world-view, while in 1897 Henrik Ibsen, famed for his proto-feminist play ''A Doll's House,'' expressed male chauvinist opinions that clearly surprise his interviewer, R.H. Sherard. French journalist George Belmont scarcely speaks at all in his 1960 interview with Marilyn Monroe, eliciting a revealing, self-reflective monologue from the star.

Introductory headnotes to each interview helpfully set the stage, offering background on the interviewee and, often, a brief bio of the interviewer. Regrettably, there are no footnotes to explain some of the more obscure references that crop up in the articles. Only a reader well-versed in South African history, for example, would be able to understand all the details in the interviews of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes or Boer leader Paul Kruger.

Although the heart of these interviews usually lay in the exchange between subject and interviewer, we can also appreciate the descriptive gifts of many of these journalists. Edmund Garett, for example, offers this vivid impression of Kruger in 1895: ''How stolid he looks! How ox-eyed! (And the comparison Homer meant as a compliment to a goddess may be permitted for the President of a pastoral Republic.) How mildly ruminative! But give him one little opening for the point he wants to make, and down he comes ... flashing and relentless as a rapier.''

One waggish journalist in 1895 offered potential ''celebrities'' this tongue-in-cheek advice on protecting their privacy: ''Nothing conceals one's real self better than an interview, except more interviews. Vary the information you give to the interviewers; never tell two of them the same thing, and never tell any one of them anything approaching the truth.... In this way, by the careful disposal of the dummies supposed to be you, you will detract ... attention from your real self and attain the privacy ... your good taste demands.''

Adroit performances, candid disclosures, shocking exposes, thoughtful ruminations, and lively dialogues: The interviews in this splendid collection provide, on the whole, a good deal of truth and insight into their subjects, along with that special sense of a person-to-person meeting that has made the interview an enduring feature of modern journalism.

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