When I was an editorial intern at Ranch & Coast Magazine back in 1983 my editor, Steve Marshke, would fill my inbox with press releases he’d sorted through; my job was to edit them down to the bare bones, just the facts, six to a dozen lines at most, and then give the corpse a clever turn, a fresh take, an effervescent tone, something like a cocktail in words. It's called radio copy in the magazine trade.
Afterwards, Editor Marshke would go over them and make notes in the margin, where he suggested alterations, and after a couple of rewrites, he would select enough to fill a two-page spread of what magazines call a “shopping column” featuring the new products and services Marshke felt our readers, the affluent denizens of Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla, would be interested in.
My column was called ‘A Cut Above’ to assuage the superiority complexes of our readership, and after a few months of re-writes and tune-ups, I developed a set of skills that have stood me in good stead ever since. But my new facility also brought me new problems. This was due to an assumption which even Marshke suffered from, which is to say that the prospectus of a slick regional monthly for the affluent presumes a standard of sophistication, a reasonable amount of enlightenment on the part of the readers that, unfortunately, most rich people are seriously lacking in.
Certainly, the prescient and the recondite had to be kept to absolute minimums, but even an occasional phrase of high school French proved too much for our readers to take without irascible letters of complaint to the editor. The publisher, Ruth Giffen, was Barging Through Burgundy at the time, and sending in reports and photos from France which she wanted me to go over and add a little pizzazz to before publication. My efforts were met with hostile censure from the readership; especially those who knew Ruth personally, and didn’t believe for a minute she would ever use a phrase like le Coeur a ses raisons, “she [Ruth] doesn’t even like raisins,” one woman blustered impatiently.
But far and away the most touchy thing about the readers was the Interview With A Distinguished Personage feature-length article. You could never do one of these to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all the interviewee’s. The problem arose from the simple fact that for most of these people, the only thing that distinguished them from anybody else was their money. And yet they themselves honestly believed that they were inherently special, and that it was the fault of the interviewer that this quality of specialness didn’t come through in the interview. It was simply impossible, for me at least, and after a couple of attempts I refused any further such assignments.
Nowadays, of course, the interview is a very popular form of writing and we have locally a good many people plying their talent at the trade. The best in the business, I suppose, is NPR’s Terry Gross, but Radio Curious producer Barry Vogel is also quite a hand at interviews, not to forget Dave Smith, and Marilyn Davin, both whom have published recent interviews printed in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. But whether it is about Jerry Philbrick or Larry Judson Butler all I have to say is, “That’s nice.”
In fact, that’s about all I can say for any of Terry Gross’s interviews. All I can remember from at least a hundred I’ve heard over the years, is a phrase from Johnny Cash praising Ms. Gross: “What you do, you do really well.” That’s it. Nothing else was memorable enough for me to retain it. And the same can be said from all the interviews I’ve read of famous people in magazines like The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire and Vanity Fair. Oh, wait – I take that back: I recall Norman Mailer said in an interview that he kept his writing hand on a green silk pillow. That’s all.
What other people get out of the plethora of interviews that fill magazines and newspapers – to say nothing of the internet – I can’t begin to guess. But I get very little, if anything, out of reading or listening to the darn things. And I have come to think that the form itself is what makes the interview so forgettable.
First off, you have to be awfully nice to get people to submit to an interview. And niceness, like icing, never lasts. An anecdote of James Thurber’s recounts the time when he was at the New Yorker; Time editors wanted to do a profile on him but couldn’t find the right person for the job, so Thurber suggested he do it himself. “We wanted a favorable piece,” the editors said by way of rejection. In his early newspaper days Thurber had done a lot of interviews himself, including Thomas Edison, Eddie Rickenbacker and General Pershing, so he couldn’t have been entirely brutal in his approach as a cub reporter.
But by the time Thurber was in his 30s and 40s his trenchant sense of humor was too scary for the publishers at Time. And what does that tell us about the form of the interview? That it’s a very humorless business? That it is by definition favorable?
I’ll leave those answers to the discerning readership, and close this précis of the Art of Portraiture in Words with my own observation that the interview is more like ad copy than radio copy; that is to say it is the complete opposite of the way I learned to write as an editorial intern, parsing press releases down to the basic product or service, stripping away all the flattering adjectives and sugary adverbs, skimming off the syrupy enthusiasm, distilling it down to its 180 proof essence and then serving it up in a parfait glass with a twist of verve and a rime of salty wit on the brim – which would never do in an interview.