I was informed that journalist and author Robert Caro, known for his biographies of US political figures, had just dropped his new book called Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. As a writer, researcher, and someone who had conducted a number of interviews myself, I have always been fascinated by the idea of interviewing/talking to people from different backgrounds, as well as the practice of making the interviews as comfortable and efficient as possible.
One of the challenges that I faced while conducting interviews — on top of familiarising myself with the pluralities of the (interesting) backgrounds of my interviewees to the point of over-researching and over-preparing my questions — is how to fill in the gap when the silence hits between your interview. This is usually the moment when you have asked your question, and your interviewee takes some time to articulate their answers (which is why I often send their questions a week early so they can also prepare!). Should I rephrase my question? Should I add more information on top of the question? Or should I just, wait? Another challenge is concerning brevity, efficiency, & being friendly. There were some instances when I wanted to chime into the anecdotes shared by the interviewees, but over the years I think I have learned to read the room and remind myself that the interviewee is the focus, not me, so they should be the one doing most of the talking. So far, FT Tech Tonic podcast conducts interviews with their guests really well in my opinion — with a good amount of asking and chiming in ratio. It is definitely something I need to learn more.
In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.
Then, there is also an excellent interview with Caro in NYTimes, on the means and ends of power:
During all these years I did come to understand stuff about power that I wanted people to know. You read in every textbook that cliché: Power corrupts. In my opinion, I’ve learned that power does not always corrupt. Power can cleanse. When you’re climbing to get power, you have to use whatever methods are necessary, and you have to conceal your aims. Because if people knew your aims, it might make them not want to give you power.