Andrew McMillen on interviews (Ed’s note: mandatory reading for any media student)
Andrew McMillen is one of the best journalists around. He’s also one of the best resources, one of the best hustlers, and one of the nicest guys in the biz.
I know this because I am a weary old hag, and I’ve watched McMillen go from one success to the next with nary a stitch or strain. Earnest, reliable, skilled and ubiquitous — my praise could carry itself far, far away. So back when I proposed an interview series, I immediately thought of Andrew. Though his city had just become submerged in floodwater, he agreed to answer my questions and did so in a timely fashion. Then I moved out of my house and found myself stranded, for actual months, in a world of no Internet, so those answers were hidden in the musty dungeon of my inbox. I’ve freed them this morning. Here’s what he had to say:
What were the circumstances behind your best interview?
I’d wanted to interview Robert Forster – he of the Brisbane pop band The Go-Betweens, who were active between 1977 and 2006 – for a long time. I didn’t have a particular ‘hook’ or currency peg, though. Except that the man is a total fucking legend, and not just for his music: he’s also one of the highest-paid music critics in Australia through his monthly column for The Monthly (note: highest-paid is not to be confused with best). So since Mess+Noise, a website dedicated to Australian music, have an irregular section named Icons, where significant contributors to the Australian music scene are interviewed at length, I eventually figured out that Forster would be perfect for it.
I pitched the story to my editor, and he was keen on it, so I asked Forster’s manager for the interview – on the condition that we’d speak at length, about his whole career. We sorted out a time to meet at a bakery near his house. I spent many hours reading and watching everything I could find about Forster and The Go-Betweens online. I arrived with three double-spaced pages of questions. Forster answered them all, thoughtfully and at great length. By the two-hour mark, he was late for a meeting, so he gave me a lift across town in his old Volvo. (The interview was over at that point, and we chatted casually.) I called him two days later and we spoke for another half-hour. So around 2.5 hours all up, and around 15,000 words on paper. Not once did he give me anything less than his full attention, or act impatient, or attempt to avoid a question. It was brilliant.
I was paid $100 for the article, which ran in three parts on Mess+Noise. I generally outsource interview my transcriptions. It cost me around $140 for the transcription, so I was effectively operating at a loss. Which is not something I tend to do. But it was such a great opportunity – to ask a hugely influential artist many questions about his whole career – that I was happy to wear the cost.
Another interview of note was a five-minute conversation with the American hip-hop artist Big Boi for The Vine, in a crowded ‘green room’, upstairs at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney. In no way was this interview representative of my ‘best’ work, but it is an example of how certain situations require the interviewer to think on their feet, and adapt to the mood of the room. I wrote the interview up in a way that blends my inner monologue with Boi’s answers to my questions. It’s here.
Also: I am reasonably proud of my interview with Tool singer Maynard James Keenan. I think I did as well as I could have possibly done, considering I had 15 minutes on the phone with one of the least talkative guys in rock music.
I liked your Big Boi interview. When I read it my first thought was, “I wonder if any of his prepared questions got in there?”
How about I just open up Google Docs and show you the questions I had prepared to ask? (These were then written, in note form, on a small piece of paper, which I carried into the interview.
Big Boi Questions
How did this gig come about?
Are you a gamer?
Fave game of all time?
Frustration that it took three years for Shutterbugg to come out?
Ever hear The Vines’ version of Ms Jackson?
Feelings on radio edits? Yelawolf’s verse in ‘You Ain’t No DJ’
Cee-Lo’s ‘Forget You’
You seem to put more effort into your videos than most artists. Do you see video as a big part of album process?
Censorship / logos in videos
What’s the next material we’ll hear from you?
Consider yourself more of a performer, producer, songwriter? Actor? Label boss?
Touring with Vonnegutt this time? If not, who you got singing ‘Follow Us’?
What other outrageous demands were you able to make for this one-off show?
Is this the first video game launch you’ve played?
“The key to this album’s thrilling ride lies within this approach: by taking advantage of the freedom to flit between several personas, the rapper can both shrink and exaggerate his true self. It’s less a schizophrenic episode than a tactic to unlock new songwriting ideas and it’s one that works beautifully.”
Interesting. And on to Maynard: The interview looks shorter than 15 minutes.
During the Maynard interview, there was a minute or two when he was speaking with someone else nearby. ‘Off camera’, if you will. I think it was a plumbing contractor asking him what needed to be fixed. Evidently he didn’t know, and said a couple of times, “I’m on the phone to Australia”. (Also: how do you think I felt, having my already-brief interview cut down even further due to an external distraction? Yeah.)
How much of your interviews do you throw away?
The answer is, it depends. If it is a relatively well-known/famous person who a lot of people will be interested in reading an interview with, I am a firm believer that the absolute entirety of your conversation (on the record) should be published. Why? Longevity. So that when someone’s Googling “(person’s name) interview” in 10 years’ time, your interview will show up. And not necessarily on the first page of results, or anything like that; just that it exists is very important to me.
If I’m conducting a bunch of interviews with several different people for a feature story, those individual interviews probably don’t deserved to be published beyond the quotes I pull to include in a story. There is a reason why journalists pull quotes, and it usually comes down to two things: a) word/space restrictions, or b) the majority of the interview was unremarkable, irrelevant, or otherwise not worth publishing.
The rule of thumb is: if it’s a famous person, I keep it all. If it’s not, I toss the unusable/uninteresting stuff.
Another element of this is, let’s say I’m writing an 800-word profile of an American visionary artist named Alex Grey. I email him around 20 questions, which are answered in reasonable detail and at length. I have to spend most of the word count describing the artist, telling the reader why they should care, paraphrasing the artist, and – finally – including a few choice quotes.
What happens to the rest of it? If it’s someone of interest to the public, like Grey, I put the whole transcript/Q+A up on my blog as a ‘conversation’. (There are 50 on my site at time of writing.) The only problem is that it takes a fair bit of concentration to edit those conversations into blog form, with relevant photos etc – I like to do a good job of it; again, longevity – so at the moment, I haven’t gotten around to blogging the Alex Grey conversation. But it will come [ED: It took me so long to publish this that it has come].
This is something I’m passionate about: allowing interviews to exist outside of the spatial restrictions of print media. (I don’t think I’ve written to a word restriction for a web publication, yet.) This passion arose when reading street press. I’d read a 400-500 word profile of a touring band/artist, which included maybe 100 words of quotes, and wonder: what the fuck else did they talk about for that 15 minutes? I find it’s a real shame that such conversations are lost into the ether, never to be heard or read. So I try to buck that trend. Is it worth it? Hard to say. Probably.
What is your goal in an interview?
To discover facts, opinions or stories that would otherwise remain unpublished. It’s not that I necessarily aim to ask questions that haven’t been asked before; it’s more that I want to get more out of a subject than other interviewers.
A big part of it comes down to researching enough to ask the right question that’ll allow you to step out of the way, while the subject’s brain ticks over and they’ll (hopefully) unspool their thoughts through their mouth. This is tougher in phone interviews, where either party can be easily distracted by their surroundings.
In face-to-face interviews, the goal is to keep up the momentum of a conversation in a manner that’ll make the subject feel at ease, to the point where it doesn’t feel like an interview at all. This is not to say that I wish for them to forget that a recorder is running, so that they tell me all of their secrets (though that is nice, when it happens).
How do you define a good interview?
A good interview is when both parties walk away with a feeling of satisfaction. In my experience, this generally occurs when the interviewer researches the subject as well as possible, so as to minimise the potential of asking questions that have been dealt with before. When the interview subject hangs up the phone or shakes my hand after an interview, I want them to be thinking: “That guy knew his shit”. Or: “That was a good conversation”. I don’t want to let them down, and I don’t want to let myself down.
What about going into an interview with a mental script? I was talking to some documentary-makers the other day, and they were telling me how thoroughly they’d researched all their interview subjects—they essentially knew how each conversation was going to go. How do you feel about that sort of thing?
This is fine. This shows that the interviewer feels confident in their research. However, an interviewer should never get complacent. Never assume that a conversation will go as-imagined. An interview is an intricate mental dance. You have to be willing to change it up at a moment’s notice. This is a skill that can only be learned, not taught.
I’m seeing a strong love of research here, so I am sure I know how this is going to play out, but tell me: How do you prepare for an interview?
Wherever possible: hours, if not days of research online. This generally starts with Wikipedia, if the person is well-known enough. And then Googling “(subject’s name) interview” and reading all relevant results. I ask questions almost entirely based on their past responses to interview questions.
Because being unprepared for an interview is at best foolish, and at worst disrespectful. I’m wasting both of our time if I’m not bringing my A-game to our conversation. I loathe the thought of feeling unprepared for an interview. I haven’t felt that way before, and I hope to never.
Many people are taught that an interview is just a conversation. You seem to have just used “interview” and “conversation” interchangeably. I’m curious about your response to the theory.
This theory is correct, in part. It is a conversation, but preferably, it is an unevenly weighted conversation where the interviewer comes prepared with as much knowledge as possible about the subject, so that they can react appropriately to any topics that are raised in the course of the conversation.
The reason I don’t like to think of an interview as a conversation is because conversations are social—they’re dictated by social mores and expectations, which are innately limiting. “Conversations” have uncomfortable questions, but “interviews”—as a different entity altogether—have no inherent social standards. They just have positive responses and negative responses. Are there any questions you find it difficult to ask?
Money questions, I still find tough. I’ve never asked an interview subject what they earn, because I find it incredibly rude and prying [ED: This is what I mean—that is a social law, but if approached from a journalistic perspective of public interest or whatever, it is not strictly inappropriate]. I remember reading an interview with a journalist named Dan Baum – who is excellent, and who you should study closely – where he spoke about asking people’s salaries. I was shocked when I first read it. I guess I still am, because I haven’t quite broached that topic yet. I have quoted him below.
I’ll ask, What do you earn? And you’ll see this kind of shock of recognition on the person’s face. Sometimes people say “Well, that’s none of your business,” but rarely. I can barely think of a time that’s happened to me. Usually you see the shock of recognition when the person goes, “Oh, that’s the level we’re talking on”.
Do you ask them anyway?
See above: not yet. Money questions are the first ones that come to mind. Sometimes I dance around certain issues in an interview that I perceive to be ‘touchy’, and then later admonish myself for not asking the direct question when the subject eventually reveals themself to be open to talking about it [ED: Word. When I interviewed Bettina Arndt, I was reluctant to ask her about all the controversy surrounding her later books and commentary, but when I finally went there she was happy to grumble about it. Then I asked her if she was a rape cheerleader, a hypocrite and a chauvinist in the space of about 90 seconds, we thought that was funny and had some water, and everything was dandy!].
What makes a good interview question?
Generally: pithiness. In most interviews I do, time is precious. I try not to spend more than a few moments speaking at a time. My feelings are that the reader is less interested in my comments than the person I’m interviewing. But this is me thinking in terms of 15-20 minute interview bursts, which make up the majority of my published interviews. If it’s an interview without a fixed time constraint – again, say, if I’m investigating a particular topic or industry for a feature story – I’m able to take more time to tease information out of people. In that case, it’s fine to veer off course a little, and indulge some of my thoughts/opinions/presuppositions on the matter at hand, in order to invite comment from my subject.
But still, pithiness is good. I generally aim to make an insightful observation about the subject’s work/career, and then follow it up immediately with a question relating to that observation. If an interview is going well, and the subject appears talkative/comfortable, I’ll ease off on the second part, and try to just make statements as much as possible.
If you were told by the God of Interviews that you could only ask five to 10 questions in all your interviews from now on, what would they be?
- What would you like to be remembered for? (Answers to this question reveal how a person views themself. I find that there are really only two options: modesty or egotism.)
(I can really only think of one on the spot. You can either publish it, or scrap the question entirely [ED: Why, thank you, sugar!]. It’s a tough one to answer properly and I suspect I’d need probably half an hour to be happy with my response.)
What are your thoughts on follow-up questions?
Incredibly important. Clarification is key, especially in news-style writing. You don’t want to call them back to confirm facts (and in the case of scheduled interviews, like musicians doing a block of promotional calls, it’s pretty much impossible). You need to get them to confirm or deny while you can. You want to remove any element of doubt. Even if it breaks the flow of the conversation, it’s something that has to be done. I’ve found that there’s nothing wrong with pausing a moment, telling the subject that you don’t understand, and asking them to explain something in another way. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
You’re for follow-up questions during the interview, but not for calling/emailing the interviewee back after transcription to build on the questions you’ve already asked?
Correct! Get clarification while you can. Make your life easier.
Okay. How do you know you’ve got everything and your interview is finished?
When I have exhausted all of my questions, and can’t think of anything else that I’d like to know from my interview subject.
Curiosity is a trait inherent in good interviewers (and good journalists). Above all, you have to want to know the answers to certain questions.
Agreed on curiosity — once you’ve got those answers, that restless ‘hmmm?’ in your stomach goes quiet. I guess they call that ‘sated’. Do you see any shortcomings in your approach?
I can’t answer this at the moment. I’m too close to my work to judge. I’d need an external judgment.
I always expect that relying so heavily on research, rather than focusing on organic and systemic in-the-moment enquiry, will backfire. I think both need a hefty role in the process. But the thing is, we rarely find ourselves interviewing people about whom we have no information anymore. What process would you engage in to get an interesting story out of someone in a bar, or on the street?
Don’t ask big questions early on. Don’t go for things like “What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?” or “What was the best day of your life?” straight away. Share information about yourself, so that it’s not a weird one-way conversation. Keep it mundane at first – their surroundings, their day so far, their plans for later that day or that weekend – and gradually become more curious. Don’t make it feel like an interview. Don’t react like a journalist would. React like a human would. Continually elevate and direct the conversation to your desired endpoint, but be patient. Conversations with strangers are pretty confronting for most people. Respect that.
What other advice would you give to someone looking to become a good interviewer?
Know when to shut up. It’s a terrible thing to interrupt another person mid-sentence, regardless of whether it’s an interview or not. It’s rude. It infers that what you have to say is more important than what the other person has to say. And 99% of the time, the interview is not about you. Remember this.
You’ve given us a “do”, can you give us a never, ever “don’t”?
Never give any less than your full attention to what they are saying. Treat every interview as if it’s the most important thing in the world, just for that 15 minutes or half hour or hour, even if it’s not. Boring interviews are still boring on paper.
Alright, three things before we wrap up: What is your role in an interview?
To facilitate a conversation. To ask questions that provoke the subject’s memory, feelings, or opinions. Memories are where facts are kept. A big part of my role is prompting the subject to return to particular events in their lives. Not everyone enjoys revisiting the past, so this is not always an easy task.
What is your all-time favourite interview by someone else? Why?
I just spent 20 minutes going through my Delicious ‘interview’ tag and I don’t really have an answer, so I’m going to go with the most recent example. ‘The Worst Story I Ever Heard’ by Rich Schapiro, for Esquire. It’s written in a feature style, but read it and consider that he only really speaks to two people for the story. Consider the depth and intensity of Schapiro’s interviews with those two people in order to get that level of detail from them. It is nothing short of extraordinary, and it’s one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever read.
And finally, what would you have done differently if our roles were reversed in this interview?
Interviews in text are hard. You’re asking me to react to some words on a screen. It’s tough to invite extrapolation through a medium where most questions can generally be dismissed in a few sentences, if the interview subject is not in a sharing mood. Which is why email interviews generally suck.
So this interview was always going to be handicapped in some manner. The benefit for me is that I’m able to think things through before responding, which is not generally what would happen if you and I were to be in conversation on the phone or in person. While on one hand, this allows me to phrase and edit my responses until I’m happy with how they sound/read, it also kills a lot of the spontaneity. Which is probably the most exciting part of interviewing. (“What will they say next! They could say anything! How exciting!”)
What would I have done differently? My questions would be entirely different from yours, because we are different people with different curiosities. But question specifics aside, I’d have done very little different, because there’s only so much that can be done through the medium of the email interview. Maybe one day, we’ll have part two face-to-face and you’ll have the joy of transcribing [ED: This almost happened in February, except I had a series of hysterical breakdowns over the prospect of moving all my possessions interstate and couldn’t make time for something so productive as an interview!]. Or you could just film it, and save the trouble. (Bad for SEO though! Oh no!)
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