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How to interview

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Jason Arnopp

Chapter 6: writing the interview

If there’s one pet hate of mine, it’s when an interview consists of just question-answer-question-answer – I rarely bother to read those. Sure, it looks odd if at least some of your interview isn’t presented Q&A style, but a straight list looks like you just published your transcript without bothering to write it up properly. What does your subject look like? What were they wearing? Were they in a good mood? Make me feel like I was in the room there with you. Most of your face-to-face conversation will be non-verbal, so I want to know about them staring at their feet or biting their nails.

“There’s no moral reason why you can’t switch the order of events in an interview, unless it really does somehow manage to distort the subject’s opinion on some contentious issue.”

That’s how I approached my record labels feature. The (identical) questions were emailed to each, and then I slotted the answers in whichever order made the most sense. If part of an answer given to a later question made the most sense in the context of an earlier question, I cut that sentence out and moved it back to where it seemed to belong. Rather than pull a Johann Hari, if the interviewee said it better elsewhere then I’d attribute the quote. You don’t need to be verbatim because people don’t read verbatim – they just take away a general sense of what was said. “He recently told Big Shiny Robot that this is his best album yet” works just as well as “this is my best album yet”.

The longest editing process I’ve been through was my JG Thirlwell interview. It was my first music interview in nine years and I was keen to get it right, so I spent the time between sending off the questions and getting the answers doing further research for the bits between the Q&A. He was mixing HIDE at the time, so there was a 10-week gap to fill, and I was house-sitting our old, empty house while my husband decorated the new one. Trapped alone with just cardboard boxes, an internet connection and vodka for entertainment, my first draft ran to 11,000 words – and that’s before Thirlwell sent his answers back. From my pages of quotes and information from maybe 70 different sources, I whittled away everything that was spurious, irrelevant or just plain unfair. I integrated Thirlwell’s replies, whittled it further in light of things he’d said, and then sent the resulting 8,500 words to a mutual friend for fact-checking: there was absolutely no point putting in all that time and effort just to get it wrong. He cleared up one or two points but was unsure about the rest, so I consulted someone else for a further three stages of rewrites. I found it immensely frustrating, because my neat, Hollywood fable was being undermined by the squishy mess of truth. People change so much over time that they can contradict themselves without being untruthful at any point, so you should never rely too much on 20- or 30 year-old sources for information – and especially not use that information to construct a story before your interview is done and expect it to resemble the outcome. (It’s like trying to draw a sketch of a job candidate from their CV, and then being surprised when they walk in looking totally different.) It finally clocked in at just under 6,000 words, and I’m pretty happy with it, but a lot of lessons were learnt that week.

Editor’s notes. The only specific feedback I have ever received from an editor – for good or ill – was an instruction to ditch the word “gorgeous”. I objected (I felt it was important to the piece) but did it anyway for that publication. Other than that, zippo, zilch and nada. If they keep printing my stuff, I presume they’re happy with it, and if they abruptly stop calling, they’re probably not.

Chapter 7: the joy of it all

There’s something utterly magical about meeting your pop star crush and finding them to be better than you even imagined them.

“When you’re sitting with the interviewee, chemistry is flowing brilliantly between you both and you really feel like you’re effortlessly getting the best out of them, it’s a seriously good feeling.”

Indeed. For me it’s always been about meeting the person rather than getting the scoop, but it is so very gratifying when they’re telling you the things you always wanted to know. Arnopp says it’s a rush, but for me it’s more like having my back scratched. Those points of curiosity are itches and the sensation is one of relief rather than exhilaration – especially when you’ve worshipped the person for years and they spend the whole interview with an ear-to-ear grin, babbling animatedly about all your other idols.

“After Gaye Bykers On Acid, one night we went to see Henry Rollins play in Highbury, when Paul Raven from Killing Joke came up to me and handed me £200. Cash. He said, ‘I really want you to be on the team. Get a plane and come to Chicago.’ So I spent it. A couple of days later, he called and said, ‘I was serious about you coming out here. Get the next flight out.’ I told him that I’d spent it, but a royalty cheque came through, so I ended up in Chicago. Martin Atkins was like ‘Yeah, yeah, come on over’, so suddenly I’m surrounded by people like Andrew Weiss from Rollins Band, En Esch from KMFDM and it’s like, great, I’m in a band with loads of complete nutters.”
[Ian “Mary” Hoxley from Apollo 440 talking about his Pigface days, 1998]

To conclude

Arnopp links to his Formspring account, promising to answer any questions we have. After just 56 pages, I’m sure I’d have many, but he’s done a pretty good job of covering the bases in a very short time. A few examples of good and bad interviews would have been nice, but at least this had the advantage of being a fast, easy read. Perhaps at some point, I’ll prepare some well-thought-out technical questions to ask him on Formspring – but knowing me, I’ll just turn up unprepared and try to keep him talking.

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