The Interrogation Room

Image © Amy Li — 2015 

By Jessica Gross

A week after the journalist and critic Deborah Solomon visited the Museum of Communism in Prague, she spoke about it in a workshop on how to conduct interviews. “They have something there called an interrogation room,” she told the couple dozen of us, mostly women and mostly journalists, clustered around the table. The interrogation room was a Soviet-era recreation, and Solomon was curious what she’d find. “I looked, and it was just a desk and a chair,” she said. “No water boarding instruments or weapons. And I thought, well, whoever was sitting behind that desk must have known how to ask great questions.”

I’d received a press pass to the event, part of the PEN World Voices Festival, and entered the Public Theatre’s lush, dark-wood Library sheepishly. I am a young writer, and have contributed a handful of interviews to the New York Times Magazine’s weekly Q-and-A column — the column, that is, that Solomon penned for close to a decade. When I walked in and sank into a chair, Solomon, perhaps noting my furrowed eyebrows, smiled brightly, dimples showing. Step one: put your subjects at ease.

It turned out, however, that Solomon was our subject for the duration of the workshop. We spent two hours interviewing her about interviewing. Prepare, she advised: “You cannot go into any interview uninformed or you’ll just let the person weave circles around you.” Compliment the person you’re interviewing up front. Save the hard and sensitive questions for the end. Carry a digital audio recorder with you all the time, and save all your interviews on your computer. Do not be shy about follow-up questions. “We always think of the best question after we leave,” she said. “You can’t be afraid to go back.”

The advice was not mind-bending. Actually, in a couple of recent how-to-interview workshops I’d given, my own had been much the same. I left the workshop grateful for Solomon’s advice, but also disturbed that it had been so close to my own — was interviewing simply a matter of common sense? What effect could an individual interviewer have on an interview?

In her 1983 book The Journalist and the Murderer, the masterful Janet Malcolm indicates that, well, the individual interviewer may not have much of an effect at all. She writes of receiving the interviews another journalist, Bob Keeler, had previously conducted with her subjects. (The book as a whole is a fierce inquiry into the ethics of journalistic practice, but I will leave that aside here.) Malcolm is, at first, hesitant to leaf through the transcripts:

An interview, after all, is only as good as the journalist who conducts it, and I felt — to put it bluntly — that Keeler, with his prepared questions and his newspaper-reporter’s directness, would not get from his subjects the kind of authentic responses that I try to elicit from mine with a more Japanese technique. When I finally read Keeler’s transcripts, however, I was in for a surprise and an illumination. MacDonald and McGinniss had said exactly the same things to the unsubtle Keeler that they had said to me. It hadn’t made the slightest difference that Keeler had read from a list of prepared questions and I had acted as if I were passing the time of day. From Keeler’s blue book I learned the same truth about subjects that the analyst learns about patients: they will tell their story to anyone who will listen to it, and the story will not be affected by the behavior or personality of the listener; just as (“good enough”) analysts are interchangeable, so are journalists.

Solomon had made the comparison between journalists and analysts repeatedly, as in: “I often feel like a failed shrink,” or “Everyone has their own style” of interviewing, just as “every shrink has his or her own style.” She described her approach as “biographical,” her goal as seeking “the correlation between the work and the life.” She asks her subjects to look back: “It’s always very important to me to ask about their childhoods,” she said. “I think where you’re from does shape what you’re doing now.” She wants to know what her interviewees’ parents do for a living, if they followed their families’ paths or rebelled, if they were closer to their fathers or their mothers.

So, does the individual interviewer matter? The analyst analogy sheds light on the answer, but perhaps not in quite the way Malcolm suggests. I agree that an interviewer, like an analyst, need only be “good enough” — not perfect, nor even near it — to succeed, and I imagine Solomon would too.

But Malcolm’s passage brushes off that “good enough” as if it’s nothing, as if it can be assumed — when in fact being “good enough” requires intentional practice and effort. The difference between an analyst, a journalist, or a mother who is “good enough” and one who is not quite good enough is everything. Being “good enough” means having the requisite awareness, introspection, and empathy to meet the needs of your patient, interviewee, or child. Tuning in to the person you’re interacting with, listening well enough to actually hear the story she’s telling you (even if she would have told it to any dolt), and well enough to respond with care, is the whole thing.

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