Writers Talk About Writing
The Art of Interviewing
The Visual Thesaurus is very excited to support WNYC, New York Public Radio's The Leonard Lopate Show, part of our commitment to sponsor public radio across the country. For those of you outside of Gotham, Leonard Lopate is a radio legend, a masterful interviewer who holds captivating on-air conversations with eclectic guests -- actors, writers, artists, sports heroes, chefs, even ex-presidents. We thought it would be fascinating to turn the tables on Leonard: Interview him about the art of interviewing. Here's our conversation:
VT: What's the key to a good interview?
Leonard: There has to be some kind of a thread to an interview. In an ideal world you would create a build up. I generally don't start at "the beginning" of a subject because I think that that's kind of boring. You want to start off your conversation just like you would in a movie: at some exciting place, not the climax but at some exciting place. Then you go back a little bit, and then you take listeners near the end to where the real hot stuff is, and then you do a kind of close up. It doesn't always work that way but when it works out well I think an audience really appreciates it.
VT: One of the things that strikes me when I hear your show is that you're really listening to your guests.
Leonard: There has to be a feeling that there's a connection. This is a conversation, after all. We've all seen a lot of interviews on television, where there are time constraints, where a guest will give an incredibly provocative answer but the next question will just ignore it and move on the next thing because the host feels they have these five points to hit. I've done this a few times too, unfortunately, when time is running out but I really do try to respond to what they're saying.
Also, I always prefer eye contact. In the old days we used to insist on it. That lost us a lot of guests because some people just didn't want to come to the studio, even if they were in Manhattan. Then we just decided we had to make allowances. If we wanted to talk to somebody who's in Burma, you've got to do a phone call, of course.
VT: One of the things that makes listening to your show so much fun is that you can make fascinating conversation with a basketball legend one day and a woman who wrote a book on diagramming sentences the next. Do you have a common approach to this wide variety of guests?
Leonard: To me, the whole show is about process. When I'm speaking to a basketball player I'm, in a way, asking the same kinds of questions I would ask of a writer or a film maker. How do you do it? What are the key things?
I remember once interviewing a great relief pitcher and I said, you know, when I watch pitchers throw it looks like they're throwing exactly the same each time. But one pitch comes in at 95 mph. The next one comes in at 93 mph. How much in control are you? The pitcher talked about all the things that were important to his pitching. But he also talked about how you don't always have control. An accident is an important part. Sometimes an accident is the good thing.
Well, writers will tell you the same thing. Painters will tell you the same thing. An accident sometimes turns out to be the great moment. In talking to people about how they do what they do or how they came to this decision or how they came to write this book about an obscure 19th century poet, you're pretty much doing the same thing. But of course you don't want to make it sound like it's the same thing.
VT: Tell us more about the thinking behind your questions.
Leonard: I look at questions that often are the obvious. "Why did you write this book," is probably the most common question that's asked on talk shows. I made a vow many years ago to never ask that question. But there are times when you have to ask it, so you have to find another way. If you go a little deeper and think it through, you can come up with something that's much more provocative and much more exciting to the guest than the standard questions that they're so used to hearing.
VT: Is this how you avoid, for example, the standard locker room answers sports stars usually give interviewers?
Leonard: I do this with athletes all the time. In almost every case when I've spoken to an athlete, they've left and said, gee, that wasn't like all the other shows. On sports radio they're going to get the same six questions. If you ask Walt Frazier, the New York Knicks legend, what the team can do to improve next year, he already has the answers. He's prepared. So you've got to find other ways. You do want to ask that question on some level -- but you don't want to ask it in the usual way because he's going to give you the standard answer. If you find another way to ask it you may even get something surprising.
VT: How do you do it?
Leonard: I use details. I'll say to Walt Frazier, well, Eddie Curry [a Knick star] is shooting below 50% on the foul line even though he's the most dominant player on the team. What's going on there? If you give your guests details that let them know that you know what's in their book or in their movie or whatever, then they're going to be much more open. They've already had a fair number of experiences where people have interviewed them without the faintest clue.
In fact, a guest once came on my show and said he just came from doing one of those TV news shows and -- no name mentioned here but it's somebody you know -- the anchor threw her arm around his shoulder as she led him to the set and asked, so what's your book all about? His heart just sank.
I try before we go on the air, even, to say something that would connect. But not say, I read your book, although guests often ask me if I read their book. I say, tell me what you think afterward. The fact is I often haven't read the book. But they invariably say afterwards, you did read the book, thank you so much. But once in a while somebody catches me.
VT: What else do you consider in an interview?
Leonard: You have to keep in mind why your guest is here. They come on the show to promote something or to talk about something. They've thought a lot about it. But I bring in the other things because that's what will make it relevant to the audience.
VT: So there has to be something for both of you in an interview.
Leonard: They know when they come on the show that I'm going to talk to them about their full career. If I have a movie star here who's promoting a movie and I don't talk about the fact that they once worked with Alfred Hitchcock, well, I'm an idiot, right?
But if I only talked to them about having worked with Alfred Hitchcock and ignore the movie at hand, well, then I'm insulting them. Maybe there's something interesting about the new movie and maybe it connects to Alfred Hitchcock or maybe it's so different from Alfred Hitchcock. Or I could ask what's the difference working with this kind of director as opposed to that kind of director? There are millions of ways you can do it.
VT: Any other advice for readers who want to become better interviewers?
Leonard: I really do think that the listening is the key, and not interrupting anymore than is necessary to keep the conversation going. If you give the guest the chance to say what he has to say then you're actually fulfilling your responsibility as an interviewer. What I see too often is people trying to show off. They start talking about themselves. It's really not about the guest. I think that an artful interview involves a lot of sacrifice. You have to bite your tongue sometimes.
If you were having dinner with this person you'd be telling them about yourself. But the interview isn't about you. A certain amount of prompting using personal stuff is fine. But when it starts becoming you and not the guest then you're in trouble. I've seen so many television interviews where the camera is on the host of the show, and the host is going on and on and on. Then the camera cuts to, say, Mick Jagger sitting there. And I think, wait, who do I want to hear from? The host I see every day or Mick Jagger?
The Leonard Lopate Show airs on WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 weekdays from noon-2pm. It is also available for streaming and podcasting at www.wnyc.org.