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December 18 2010


Public Radio International’s Lisa Mullins on interviewing for story

Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” spoke with Storyboard by phone last week about taking a narrative approach to interviews. We included some of her comments in an earlier post on “Interview as story.” While we don’t want to present this as her carefully considered interviewer’s manifesto, she said a lot of interesting things about how she approaches interviewing for story, and we thought we’d pass some of her tips along to readers.

Whatever your medium, if you interview people for your stories, there’s probably something here for you. These excerpts from our conversation have been edited for clarity and structure.

Some craft tips for pulling narrative from daily news Q-and-A’s:

I tell them ahead of time what I might want. If we’re on deadline, and the person we’re going to be talking to is what we call a kind of “normal person,” maybe part of a couple in Dublin who is talking to us about how the seismic financial cuts are affecting them personally, they may be reluctant, they may be shy, they may be reticent to reveal too much. If I say, “What I’d like to leave the audience with is an idea of what your life is like right now,” then they will start telling me the information I need in the form of a story.

Then I become the person who teases them along and directs them in terms of questions, who fleshes it out. They become much more relaxed, so they’re going to make it more of a narrative. They’re not on edge, thinking that I’m going to ask them a question they can’t answer or that’s beyond them. They know that what I want is just a personal tale. It’s much easier to elicit from somebody when you give them a heads up that it’s not a gotcha interview.

On the other hand, if it is a gotcha interview, if it’s a government representative, or the foreign minister of Finland, or a State Department official, you can still have a narrative, and you can plan for the narrative, but it’s easiest in the execution when you can get the subject disarmed enough to just have a conversation. Sometimes that means interrupting a bit. Sometimes that means saying, “Hold on, I want to ask you about that in a few minutes, but let’s get back to this other point.”

Then people will speak more naturally to you. They’re not going to talk sound bites. You have a conversation where you can take yourself out or leave yourself in, but the idea is to get them on the bicycle with you and pedaling. And then, even if there are significant challenges, or even if you take a little side route, you can easily come back, because they understand the thrust. You can intentionally move someone off to the side and then move them back in when you’re engaging them more easily.

In terms of a long or more documentary-style interview:

Again, sometimes I give people a heads up on what I want to get out of it. Usually I’ll speak to them off the top of my head, so they can get an idea of the natural cadence in my own voice as I’m talking to them. We like to have our introductions written ahead of time, something like: “OK, we’re rolling tape in three, two, one:  I’m Lisa Mullins. This is ‘The World.’ In Uruguay a group of high school students has been learning a lesson in finance…”

With that kind of intro, suddenly things become arch and uncomfortable. I want to have set the tone prior to that, so that someone knows my regular conversational style, and they’ll get in sync with me as soon as I ask the first question. I’d like to keep that conversational tone going. That’s how you get the narrative; that’s how you get someone to start from the beginning, to tell you the story, and not just give you what they expect you want to know.

When they’ve practiced or repeated so much of what they have to say that they’re speaking on automatic pilot, that detracts from the interview. When I can get them speaking in terms of chronology, in terms of a thought process, in terms of watching a story unfold and then maybe bringing it back to the beginning, that’s when the audience is naturally going to listen. People have an ear for storytelling, and everybody wants to hear a good story.

I find Q-and-A’s incredibly intriguing, written Q-and-A, because they’re easy to follow. There’s a logic to them. I’d say the same thing for Q-and-A’s that you hear on the radio, even more so, I think, than on television. You get nuance, you get meaning in silence, in pauses, and sighs, in tension. You can hear conflict when there’s nothing on the air.

If there’s a sense of conflict in the interview, very often listeners will listen even more carefully, and they’re surprised there might be a resolution at the end. “Gee, the person was taken aback,” or “Maybe someone was drawing the wrong conclusions.” And “Hey, at the end, it wasn’t as bad as all that.”

So, look! You were transported somewhere. There was a different end to the story from what was expected, based on not just what was said but what wasn’t said, where the silent irritation was, where the withdrawing was on both sides. I think that’s as much a part of the narrative of the story as anything.

Ideally, I would love to have listeners come into an interview and feel intrigued, maybe projecting where they think the interview might go. And then at the end not even being aware of how much time has elapsed, thinking, “Wow. Where did I just land?” That usually happens when you’ve taken them on a mini narrative journey.

Generally speaking:

I want the producer to find everything that he or she possibly can about the subject that we’re going to be talking about. I read as much as I can and have time for, but if the interview is bearing down on me, I just start a mind purge and write down questions immediately with the ones that are most obvious to me. Those are the ones our listeners will probably be most interested in.  I will type out several questions of my own. I get everything in front of me, and sometimes don’t even look down again after the first question. I do like to have a solid launching point for the first question, though, and I try to figure out where I want to go.

How many angles are too many angles? When is this going to be watered down because I’m putting too many hats on this person? The job for me is to contain information and to keep it on a straight road, almost putting blinders on. You remain open to any slight turn or twist, but you have to be as disciplined as possible to know when you’re letting yourself go too far in one direction or letting the interviewee go too far, for a bunch of reasons:

One, it doesn’t serve the audience. Everything’s being diluted if you don’t have the trajectory. Two, my producer is going to kill me, because the piece is going to be cut down to 4 1/2 minutes regardless of how long we record. Also, because I want to have a story, a nugget, from that person that people will listen to.

If I’m disciplined, and they kind of know what I want, then they’re not flailing around. A lot of the fear in interviews happens when the interviewee doesn’t know if he or she is giving you want you want, and there’s a lot of meandering and uncertainty. Even the most kind of squidgy seemingly open-ended interview really has to have a certain amount of discipline around it to be successful. It’s a lot harder than doing a “What did the White House say today?” interview.

Narrative doesn’t mean arduous planning necessarily. Narrative means having your path cut out for you, but not necessarily where exactly it will take you, just knowing that you want a place to touch down. By the way, that end point may lead you to infinity – to more tension or some nonresolution. Everything doesn’t have to be tied up in a bow, but I want us to be able to land somewhere at the end.

December 16 2010


Interview as story: on radio, online and in print

Insane Clown Posse

Whether they use full-on storytelling or just crib a few literary devices, interviews have their own narrative arcs and angles. From political drama (think the Frost-Nixon standoff or “The Fog of War”) to Studs Terkel’s cultural layering, interviews create a kind of permanent present-tense experience for viewers.

Two recent magazine interviews underline the narrative potential of the form. The first, “Insane Clown Posse: And God created controversy,” runs through a dizzying talk with the rap duo on The Guardian’s website.

The conversation jumps off with the acknowledgement that despite their ultra-violent lyrics, the pair are evangelical Christians. Reporter Jon Ronson moves on to reveal that the performers suffer from depression. As the story unfolds, even those who contest the importance of hate-spewing clowns may find the interview compelling, funny and disturbing, and perhaps not in predictable ways. Here’s an excerpt of Ronson’s dialogue:

Violent J shakes his head sorrowfully. “Who looks at the stars at night and says, ‘Oh, those are gaseous forms of plutonium’?” he says. “No! You look at the stars and you think, ‘Those are beautiful.’ ”

Suddenly he glances at me. The woman in the video is bespectacled and nerdy. I am bespectacled and nerdy. Might I have a similar motive?

“I don’t know how magnets work,” I say, to put him at his ease.

“Nobody does, man!” he replies, relieved. “Magnetic force, man. What else is similar to that on this Earth? Nothing! Magnetic force is fascinating to us. It’s right there, in your f**king face. You can feel them pulling. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. But there’s a f**king force there. That’s cool!”

Shaggy says the idea for the lyrics came when one of the ICP road crew brought some magnets into the recording studio one day and they spent ages playing with them in wonderment.

“Gravity’s cool,” Violent J says, “but not as cool as magnets.”

The struggle between interviewer John H. Richardson and actor Christian Bale in Esquire’s December issue is more convoluted. As Richardson attempts to build a narrative that illuminates Bale as a person, the temperamental actor throws up roadblocks, refuses to participate, and ends with an insult to his interviewer’s efforts to reveal anything at all about him.

The narrative builds and destroys itself, eventually piling up a kind of story:

BALE: Why are you questioning those things?

ESQUIRE: Just curious.

BALE: Why are you putting all that muddle in your brain thats not needed to be there?

ESQUIRE: I guess you just look at the choices people make and wonder, Whats up with that?

BALE: But why are you worrying so much about everybody else? Lets start looking at you for a minute, all right?

A standoff ensues not unlike the scene in Antonionis The Passenger when Jack Nicholson is interviewing a witch doctor who clearly thinks hes an obnoxious idiot. “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers will be about me,” the witch doctor says, turning the camera around so its pointing at Nicholson. Major existential moment as Nicholson stares into the abyss between sign and signifier. But we have seen this movie, and it does not turn out well — the spell must be reversed.

BALE: It should just happen. It should just happen. If somethings true and sincere, it happens regardless of marketing. The more I talk about it, the more Im telling people how they should react. And that is an asshole.

ESQUIRE: Not to argue, but that’s not really true.

BALE: Are you calling me a liar? Am I lying?

ESQUIRE: Sometimes the ground needs to be prepared. And youve laid down these onerous rules on me — all I can do is a Q&A.

Actually, these are forbidden words that you are reading right now. Bale is in the habit of requesting that his media interviews be printed in a Q&A format. He also prefers to conduct them at the same five-star luxury hotel in Los Angeles, and makes it known that he dislikes personal questions.

Both these interviews end up far afield from straight transcription. The interviewer’s after-the-fact insertion of connective tissue between segments of the Q-and-A shape the story arc and set the tone.

Very long long-form

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of a Hedge Fund Manager” a book-length series of interviews, falls into an even longer-form category. Keith Gessen, editor of the political and cultural journal n+1, conducted a series of interviews in which a financial player chronicled the economic collapse and its aftermath.

In a phone conversation last month, Gessen described how in small and large ways, events in “Diary” began to take a narrative turn not just in chronicling the meltdown but in the hedge fund manager’s outlook and life. Asked to what degree he imagined the book as narrative during the interview process, Gessen said,

I was very much thinking of it in terms of Studs Terkel, and there’s another book that I read some years ago, an updating of Studs Terkel called “Gig.” That book is amazing. These people have these crazy jobs, and as they talk about them, details of their lives emerge.

With “Diary of a Very Bad Year,” initially, I just wanted to find out what was going on with the financial crisis. I knew I didn’t know what was going on, and I had this sort of acquaintance who I thought could explain it. After I did the first interview and transcribed it, I was surprised. It had a lot of information. He had a very charming way of explaining the financial system. Some very talented financial people need to be able to tell stories about what they’re doing – that’s just part of him being good at his job. He was so good at explaining it that you could see how he thought, his mind at work. I thought that was exciting.

At first, I just thought we’d put the interviews in the magazine. Halfway though, he became very frustrated with his job. At the end, he quit. I didn’t know for sure where we were going initially, but when he decided to quit, we had a whole narrative arc.

Contrasting doing long-form interviews with the kind narrative features he’s written for the New Yorker, Gessen noted the different goals of the interviewer:

I’ve done a fair amount of traditional journalism where you’re interviewing people. There’s a very specific way in which quotes are used in a New Yorker article. They’re partly there to be informative; they’re partly used to reveal the character of the person who’s being informative.

When you do those interviews, you’re looking for a particular thing, a particular moment, from that person. You more or less know what you want from your subject. And I wouldn’t say it’s manipulation – that’s too strong a word – but because the frame that you’re putting on the story has so much weight, your subjects become characters in the story and have particular roles to play in it. When you’re doing those interviews, you’re waiting for them to say a particular thing, as if they were fictional characters who were uncooperative.

With the hedge fund interviews, I wasn’t waiting for anything. I was waiting for him to be interesting. I wasn’t waiting very long. In a way, it was more pressure doing those interviews, because I wasn’t going to be able to write around him. So he had to be the one who was interesting.

Gessen was pleased enough with the hedge fund interviews that he searched out people from other fields, only to find not everyone was as engaging when it came to talking about work. But with the right interviewee, “to hear a live and intelligent and very particular human voice,” Gessen said, “that’s very exciting to a reader and very immediately accessible – as accessible as anything.”

Radio Q-and-A’s

Though they have a long tradition in print, interviews own a sizable share of other media, as well, and many of them are narrative. Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” makes it a goal to frame real-time narratives as she interviews subjects. Talking by phone last week, she outlined her approach:

When I’m preparing an interview, I want a beginning, a middle and an end. It may not stay that way when I actually execute the interview, but it always helps to have an arc to the story and have some kind of a narrative. Sometimes that narrative centers on a subject – meaning the issue that we’re talking about – or sometimes the narrative unfolds from the person’s own thoughts and history. It can go either way, but I like to have a start and a finish and then a takeaway – something that the audience will come away with at the end.

I honestly don’t believe that we always need a neat and poignant ending. We need some kind of end that doesn’t sound random. It has to be something that makes the interview whole, that gives it a sense of direction and gives listeners a sense they’ve taken a mini journey someplace, even if they haven’t gone anywhere, even if it’s just a Q-and-A on the telephone.

Mullins doesn’t employ storytelling out of a sense of duty to tradition. Her motives, she admits, may be a little more selfish:

One of the reasons I really cherish the practice of interviewing as narrative is, frankly, ego. A lot of what we do is to convince people that they will be interested, entertained and edified by whatever we’re presenting. But it’s not a given. I don’t take that interest for granted.

So my goal is to give them what I know is going to attract any listener, a really interesting story, especially around an issue they didn’t know they could be interested in. By working with this rubric of storytelling and narrative, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to get a much better interview for yourself, you’re going to have a more cooperative interviewee, and you’re going to get the listener paying attention. It’s not like they’re being spoon-fed; they’re just being informed and entertained in the most natural way of all, and that’s through storytelling.

Mullins also emphasized the real-time role of the interviewer and the importance of discipline when a Q-and-A is going to be the final product – not to block spontaneous surprises from emerging, but to string a narrative thread that the audience can clutch, giving listeners “a place to touch down.” Interviewers have a narrative role to play, even when they’re not the ones telling the stories.

[Check back tomorrow, when we'll post a list of tips for doing narrative interviews.]

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