Monday, January 16, 2006

Shouldn't it be an holistic conversation?

The best interviews I've conducted are the ones that sound the most like a holistic conversation. By "holistic conversation", I of course mean "naturally developing", as opposed to a conversation that involves organic foods, solar energy, and that whole gaia business. Although when you're at the closest public radio station to Sedona, you get a fair number of those conversations, too.

The irony is that the conversations that sound the most natural are the ones that involve the most prep work. It takes a certain amount of research to be familiar enough with someone's work that you can converse at a level that doesn't make it seem like you just scanned the executive summary of his or her life before you came into the studio. ("So, how did you come up with the title of your book? You are an author, right?")

So after a fair amount of prep, I went into a weekend interview with a well-known piano player feeling like it shouldn't be tough to pull together something interesting.

The problem with prepping, though, is it doesn't usually take into account the possibility that your interview subject will meander into, um, strange answers (say, a love for rhinoceroses) to seemingly straightforward questions. Or that the subject will veer the conversation in a truly unexpected direction (from, say, music to the Zapruder film).

[On a side note, a variety of conversations with other people since then tells me that you don't even need to ask what someone thinks about the Zapruder film - just that fact that someone would bring it up tells you everything you need to know. Unless, I suppose, the person brings it up in a conversation about amateur cinematic technique. But you never hear someone say, "Hey - how about that Zapruder film? That really put the whole Kennedy assasination to rest, didn't it?" But I digress.]

So, as it turns out, there was enough material in the 41-minute interview for a finished product that ran 5 1/2 minutes, including a two-minute harmonica piece.

This was actually a better ratio than the result of my worst interview ever, a 1996 exclusive with former Minnesota Senator Rudy Boschwitz, who was attempting to get back into politics. His campaign people set up the interview shortly after a southern Minnesota fundraiser. Thirty minutes and dozens of contentious answers (most of which began with the phrase, "I disagree with the supposition of your question...") I had exactly one usable 25-second sound bite, which may not have been the media splash his campaign had been hoping for (which, of course, wasn't my problem).

Rule of thumb for people about to be interviewed: Bring along a harmonica.

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