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How to interview

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Tokyo monkey statue by Bantosh from Wikipedia

Can an interviewee ever become your friend?

That’s exactly like asking whether a PR agent can ever become your friend. How do you even define friendship? “I pretty much define it in terms of whether you’ll be exchanging Christmas cards, or whether you’ll ever possess each other’s mobile numbers,” says Arnopp. That’s a lousy indicator – I stopped doing cards when I sent out an elaborately personalised card and got a blank corporate card in return. Back up a bit and think about all the people you actually care about, and you’ll arrive at a number around 150. Call it the Monkeysphere, call it Dunbar’s number, but it’s the approximate number that you can physically keep track of – anyone else is just a sea of faces. Within that circle of fond acquaintances, you have 30 to 50 people who are actual friends, and only three to five of those are close. The thing is, people aren’t in the same place at the same time – the person you think of as your “best friend” probably doesn’t think of you as their best friend, but if they’re Number Four to you and you’re Number Eight to them, you’re not going to notice the difference. It’s when you put someone in your top 50 and you’re not even in their top 150 that the problems arise.

Because of that limit, we’re naturally selective about who we prioritise, and the ambitious person prefers people who can help them in their career. That sounds awful and shallow, but is probably no worse than me surrounding myself with people who make me laugh. You can have each other’s numbers, even talk every day, but because each time someone gets added another person gets bumped, you might have huge numbers of acquaintances that – truth be told – you don’t actually give much of a shit about. Even so, you’re more likely to make the musician’s top 150 than their manager’s. If you ever want to know who your friends are, stop writing for magazines: about 90 per cent of my social circle vanished instantly – yes, some bands, but mostly it was the other industry types were no longer interested. It wasn’t that they hated me so much as they’d never even paused to consider whether they liked me. I was x from x magazine, and if not that, I was nobody. I’ve stayed in touch with some interviewees for years afterwards, but there were a couple of instances where we fell out over something stupid like a row over politics, and that’s when you know it’s the real deal: you don’t make exceptions and just treat them as a regular person.

Alcohol. It’s staggeringly unprofessional to get drunk at any stage, but even though I took that to quite colourful extremes, I was far from alone in my intoxication. My artless fanzine descriptions of interview scenes often included mentions of other (pro) hacks in the room, all of them wobbly drunk. Even though I’ve now cut my intake from five times a week to more like five times a year, I still think WordPress should have buttons that should say “did you mean to end this mid-sentence?” and “we’ll save this for when you sober up”. Pro tip: when you do inadvertently offer a six-pack to the recovering alcoholic, don’t gulp it down in front of them.

Underhand tactics. Again, I disagree with Arnopp here that your loyalty is to your editor and your readers. Your loyalty is foremost to your conscience: magazines change editors almost yearly and readers have no idea who you are (unless you’re Arnopp or Everett True), but you still have to face yourself in the mirror. Do you really want to pull a Vanity Fair-style hatchet job? I don’t think anyone’s ever woken up thinking, “I really wish I’d done that terrible shitty thing to that person”. In my fanzine days, I’d print whatever was said or done without even thinking about it, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that now. For example, when reprinting an old interview in which the drunk vocalist had named-and-shamed the subject of his hate song, I cut that part out, and later spotted her on his Facebook friends list. I also used to run a small gaming forum, and would occasionally delete posts from obviously drunken members. The following morning, they’d thank me. It’s not about being artificially flattering so much as affording someone the same courtesy as you would if they’d emerged from the bathroom with their skirt tucked into their underpants.

Chapter 5: other kinds of interview

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the interview you’ve arranged with their press office just doesn’t happen. In those instances, my aforementioned lack of social skills prompted me to simply hang around with the band until someone told me to go away – which, as far as I recall, never actually happened. It might take hours or even days, but eventually someone would sit down for a chat, and those ad hoc tour diaries turned out to be some of the more interesting pieces. It’s that Almost Famous situation, just sticking around patiently in the hope that the band will take pity on you. The best interview I’ve ever read was one in which no actual interview took place at all.

I’ve treated phone interviews in much the same way I’d treat face-to-face set-ups, and describe everything that was going on – right down to the cat crawling over the telephone lines threatening to cut us off at any moment. Email interviews are trickier still, but if the person uses emotes you can write them up as expression – “she’s smiling again” replaces 🙂 in the article. (Emoticons or text expressions are really important since so much of the context gets lost via email – a brief response can sound curt or angry when no such intention was there.) All of the interviews I’ve done in the past five years have been via email, but I’ve written them up as if they were face to face. Interviewing multiple subjects, I emailed over the same questions and then jumbled the order to make it look as though they were together in the room.

Out of the following big pile of desk toys, which would you fight over?
– Remote-controlled motorbike
Megan: All Erik’s.
Erik: I can think of all sorts of nefarious uses for this.
– Wobbly-headed doll of En Esch from KMFDM
Erik: While I think we’re both KMFDM fans, I fear that my Vault Boy bobble head might get jealous. I’ll take a pass.
Megan: I would appreciate one of these, yes.
[Game designers Megan Sawyer and Erik J Caponi, 2008]

The email thing ties into the PR-being-there thing: you get an extra layer of filtering. In that instance, I fired off the questions to the press department, who sent it onto the designers, who then returned the responses to the press department for approval before it was sent back to me. When I was interviewed about my video game mods, I had the opportunity to run my answers past a friend before sending them over: “Do I sound like a complete prat?”

(continues overleaf)

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