The Art of the Interview: Lorin Stein

Lorin Stein is an award-winning critic, editor, and translator. He has worked as an editor with such authors as Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Sam Lipsyte. He is the editor of The Paris Review.

Characterize for me, the cultural importance of the Paris Review’s “Writers at Work” interview series.

Sort of by accident, over the last 60 years, it has become the canonical archive of writers talking about what they do. I think the reason it’s become that was George Plimpton, who started the magazine and conducted the first interview, came up with a formula that was very unusual. The idea was to make what he called, “an essay in dialogue, in technique.” Practically, that meant that the interviewer would sit down often many, many times with a subject, come up with a transcript, and then the subject and the interviewer would sit down and work on the transcript together and try to preserve the voice and the spontaneity of the interview, but really come up with a definitive statement. The subject always had veto power, which meant it was easier to get writers to say yes to it than they would to other interviewers. Within the first few years, they had Faulkner and Hemingway and Ralph Ellison and Dorothy Parker. Once you had that certain critical mass of very famous writers, it became something that writers really wanted to be part of. It became a kind of lifetime achievement prize. Every once in while we’ll interview a younger writer but over the years it became more for those who’d had very full careers.

By virtue of using the Q&A format, and calling it an essay in dialogue, it’s saying that conversation on a page can make some kind of argument and get somewhere that a traditional essay can’t.

That’s absolutely true. We all know how much easier it is to answer a specific question than to answer a general question, and how much easier to answer a general question than to answer no question at all. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The Paris Review interview style was invented at the same moment that so many writers and editors were in psychoanalysis. There are many different kinds of interviews, we’ve done with different sounds and rhythms. If there is a typical house style, it’s to cut the question down to a nub, and to let the answer unfold and unfold, which I think comes really from a sense about an idealized session in psychoanalysis would sound like – little questions unlocking big answers.

Is there a right balance of life and craft that you want out of a subject in a Paris Review interview?

The two questions that we’ve always wanted to ask are: How does the writing get done? And, how did you come to this technique? And usually that involves a certain amount of autobiography. But sometimes it doesn’t and that doesn’t bother me. Some writers don’t want to talk about their work and that can be really interesting too. In the interview with Hemingway, the face-to-face interviews were kind of a disaster, because Hemingway refused to talk about the work. A lot of writers are very superstitious about that. Plimpton barraged Hemingway with a series of letters asking for clarifications of Hemingway’s refusal to talk. This is why you should always lawyer up, because by the end of the exchange he had a lot of material to work with. More recently, we did an interview with the poet Frederick Seidel, who a couple of times in the interview just refuses to talk about his own work. I don’t think that’s a failure. I think that’s actually pretty interesting.

On the other side – when a subject knows they’re going to be interviewed for The Paris Review, I think many go in with a sense that it should be taken as an art form, in way that most interviews are not. They take it no differently than they take their craft as a writer.

It sometimes makes the revision time hard. Terry Southern held on to his interview until he died. We only found it decades later because he was still working on it. Right now, I’m waiting for an interview that’s being revised by the author, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to get it into the magazine, but you only get one of these. And there’s a good chance that it’ll be quoted in your obituary and we have hundreds of thousands who read them a week. It’s really for the record. So people work very hard on it.

You put them all online a few years ago. What service do you feel you were providing?

These are tools that people use all the time, and they’re fun to read. They’re the most famous part of the magazine. In some funny way they’re part of the public patrimony. I don’t know how else to say it. They belong to the world of letters, so why lock them away in a library?

And they belong to the public in a way that poems or stories don’t?

I know what you mean. For some reason my instinct is to say yes. They begin as collaborations. All but one of the interview subjects gave us the right to put these online. We never paid the interviewers very much money. It’s always been a labor of love. Students use them. And teachers use them. And biographers use them. We have almost 300,000 Twitter followers now, and our Twitter feed is quotes from the interviews. They mean a lot to people. A poem or a story is somehow a little bit different. I think of these interviews more as resources.

Do you have a favorite interview from the archives?

One that I love is actually Terry Southern who died with his interview still unfinished. When he was young, he went to England and did an interview with a favorite novelist of mine, Henry Green who was a real cult writer. The whole thing reads like a complete fiasco. Southern implies that Green was drunk when he showed up. They clearly don’t get along. Southern would ask these long, pretentious questions. And green who’s slightly deaf will mishear him. It turns out that the whole thing was written by the two of them, and they loved each other. It’s not that there’s anything really dishonest. Green really was a drunk and hard of hearing. And he says a lot of sincere things. He says some very interesting things about the way he writes. But they understood that the way to do this was to bring out the inherent drama of the situation, of this young Texan coming to visit this aging eccentric aristocrat. And they did it together. It’s an interview that we often use as an example to show our interviewers and subjects, to show them how these things can go.

That’s something that the interview can accomplish that essays can’t. That arm wrestle that happens, that may not be adversarial, but that happens with a good-spirited tension. Conversation becomes competitive. You learn a lot about a subject through that.

I think that’s definitely true.

How valuable is silence in an interview?

Liebling says that the trick of conducting a good interview is being comfortable not saying anything. I find that it’s very useful when you’re doing an interview like a Paris Review interview to be able to sit in silence. I also think it’s useful in a staged interview to be able to sit in silence. And that’s something that I miss sometimes when I go to hear people interviewed on stage. There was an interview that I found very difficult to conduct with the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard who even by Norwegian standards was a man of few words. But as hard as it was, and humiliating to have an audience see that the subject didn’t feel comfortable with me. I thought it made it interesting, to be talking to someone who was anxious and didn’t want to play ball. People are much too afraid of conflict in interviews I think.

When constructing a line of questioning, sometimes it’s prepared in advance; some of it’s on the spot. There’s this maintaining of multiple threads of conversation simultaneously. But you know when you’re on to something. Can you describe the collaborative sensemaking and following of certain paths – that experience?

Sometimes I’m wrong. I think an interview was really productive and then I look at the transcripts and there wasn’t as much there as I thought. One good sign is when the subject gets caught up in his or her storytelling. Or when there’s a lot of emotion in the room. When the subject says something that he or she is surprised by – it’s never come up before. I think it’s easy to get hung up on performance, on whether the interview is going badly or well. Most interviews don’t have much magic in them. That’s okay. It’s not a writing assignment. It’s something that happens between two people. It’s not magic every time you go to bed with someone. If it were, it wouldn’t be magic when it did happen. You try to work with what the other person is giving you and not worry too much about whether it’s going good or bad. One thing I’ve noticed in this job – it’s really liberating if you as an interviewer are willing to look stupid. It allows you to do a lot more. It also makes it psychically less taxing, if you give up on the idea of impressing the subject. Because usually you’re interviewing you look up to. So if you give up on that idea, it just makes everything much less painful. I used to do little profiles for a magazine that I worked for, and I would find it very depressing afterward. I think it was the experience of being in the room with someone that I admired in some way or envied, and to not be noticed for myself but to be just a person interviewing him or her. When you’re young, that can be very bruising.

From the interviewer perspective, it’s amazing to me, the range of ways I’ll feel coming out of an interviewing.

Does it happen to you too, that you can feel down after an interview?

It has happened – in very much the way you’re describing but it’s a range.

Sometimes you feel deflated and sometimes you feel exhilarated?

Yeah. There’s certainly a moment of pleasure, that usually comes out of an unscripted question, where the subject acknowledges that they’ve never thought about that thing before. And then they something phenomenally profound. It feels great when that occurs. It’s rare. Of the last 20 or 30 interviews I’ve done, it’s maybe happened two or three times. So it’s about a one in 10 shot.

It’s funny isn’t it that the unexpected answer is the one that sounds deep to us. Of course it makes intuitive sense but why does it makes sense? Why is there something inherently more truthful about the spontaneous answer than the person has given before? It has a different music.

There’s also the sense that you’re making a contribution to knowledge in that way.

Sure. But that doesn’t really explain the difference in hearing someone saying something they’ve said 1700 times, versus something that’s just occurred to them. You can feel the difference. It’s odd.

It’s something like an ‘aha’ moment or an epiphany. What are the risks and interviewer takes or must take?

Looking dumb. Or looking mean. Of course you shouldn’t look mean. But sometimes you’re subject says more than he or she should. I’ve published interviews where I knew that the subject regretted saying something, and I had it printed it anyway.

Sometimes you really believe the subject is wrong about their regret.

In this case I thought he was right about his regret but I just didn’t like him and I wanted to publish it. I wouldn’t do it now. I thought the guy was a jerk and I thought it was his problem not mine. He was on the record.

If you’re a career interviewer, you only have so many chances to nail someone like that, or no one will talk to you.

I know. I really wish I’d resisted the temptation. I felt good about it for about thirty seconds and then I just felt crumby. Even though I still think the guy’s a jerk.

Do you have a favorite interviewer?

It sounds corny but I always really loved Deborah Solomon’s short interviews in The New York Times Magazine. George Plimpton probably did the most at the Paris Review and he was really good at putting people at ease. There’s this one moment between Charlie Rose and Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., and Charlie Rose says, “Michael, I read that you could never fall in love because you’re too in love with yourself.” And there’s this long, really charged pause between them, and Stipe says, “Charlie, you have such a beautiful smile.” And he was teasing but there had been this long silence that you just don’t see on TV. And you don’t see a straight guy and a not quite straight guy vibing on each other on TV certainly. You just don’t see the erotics of the interview that often.

 This article appears in MISC fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue. For more on the art of the interview: RJ Cutler & Marcia Clarke 

the author

Robert Bolton

Robert Bolton is head of foresight studio at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.