The Scariest Words In World: Can I Interview You?

Published January 25, 2012 by jrm17

So having spent from 9:55 until sometime very close to 8:00 doing nothing but homework with only a roughly 2 hour break (Yes, I’m two days in and already that far behind.  Can you spell overwhelmed because I can–J-E-S-S-I-E), I decided my brain needed a break from all that Law and Social Statistics stuff I was working on yesterday.  I had originally intended on watching 90210 last night but I broke down and bought Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman a few days ago (Don’t judge me.  He’s my favorite author and it’s got the word dinosaur in the title…I like dinosaurs).  And once again, I’m one chapter in and he’s provoked more thought out of me than any of my classes (Way to go, college).

So his first chapter is about why we answer questions when asked and he reaches the conclusion (or at least, this is the conclusion I think he came to) that we do it because it would be weird to do otherwise.  But he talked about interviews from both the perspective of the interviewer and the interveiwee for quite a few pages and I started thinking about it.  He’s absolutely right.  No matter which side of the questions you are on, it’s scary.

Okay, so maybe it’s not as scary being the interviewer.  Your main concerns are getting enough information to write your story and with any luck, it will be information that is either a) thought provoking or b) entertaining.  But some of us (ahem, me) have a little more issues with interviewing than this.  I find making the initial contact to set up an interview one of the most daunting things ever.  You have to approach someone who you have never talked to before (This may just be me and my social anxiety) and then you are in charge of asking the right questions.  You have to ask the right questions to make your story all that you want it to be.  And you better hope that you have all the right background knowledge to preface your questions or expand on stuff.  But you’ve already got your questions and you’ve got the background information you need (Hopefully, it’s all correct and still in your head).

I remember the first time I interviewed someone who I’d never talked to before–Mr. Casolo, a math teacher in my high school.  Since he started teaching after I had taken all my math classes (okay, I was only in the math world of statistics by this time), I’d never talked to him.  I’d only heard stories (And looking back I’m not sure why I believed the people who told me that stuff).  But I was writing an article about noise issues for classrooms near the cafeteria and needed his input.  Mustering all the courage I had (which isn’t all that much) I went in…and meekly asked if I could ask him a few questions.  I’m pretty sure I asked so quietly the first time that I had to ask again but he was really nice about it.  The interview went awesome and I was happy with where they story went.

Doing it in person was one thing, but what’s even scarier than that for me was when I have to conduct phone interviews (There’s not much I hate more than talking to someone I don’t know on the phone.  I kind of sound like a dude over the phone, which really bothers me).  The first time,I had to call the baseball players that the Orioles had drafted this past June and get an interview as soon as his name was announced.  Talk about terrifying.  I was pretty sure none of them would want to talk to me.  They would want to be celebrating with their friends and family.  Plus, I was working for a really small publication that absolutely none of them had ever heard of.  Why would they care (Okay, I know they really wanted press and wanted to talk about it but that wasn’t going through my head at the time).  But you know what–I don’t think it was as scary as it was for me as it was for them.

At one point in the chapter, Klosterman talks about how scary it is to be interviewed.  You have to actually come up with answers to the questions and you are put on the spot.  And on top of all that, you want to come off as interesting and intelligent.  Good luck trying to do all that when a question is just thrown at you (I’m basing this on the idea that the interviewee isn’t used to being interviewed.  We aren’t talking about like Neil Patrick Harris here.  We’re talking more Mrs. Goldstein down the road).

That’s where the boys I was interviewing come in.  I could hear the fear in all their voices.  They all wanted to sound like the best baseball players ever (And one of them actually made it pretty far into the College World Series.  I watched one of his games and I liked what I saw on the field) but not sound overly cocky either.  They all also wanted to seem like they knew a lot about the Orioles.  Who are we kidding here?  Unless they were from around here (Only one that I was supposed to interview was and he never contacted me back), they didn’t know a whole lot other than Cal Ripken.  They were all hoping they were getting drafted by the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Rangers or the Giants…not my beloved Birds.  I’ve done the same thing.  After hitting a game winner, I was interviewed by the local sports writer.  He asked me what I was feeling at the plate and what kind of pitch it was and being completely honest, I told him I had no clue.  I remembered being nervous at the plate but knowing that I always hit very well against the pitcher and was great under pressure.  And as for the pitch, while I can identify pitches, I never liked doing it as a hitter.  I just got up there and hit.  Luckily for me, he was nice enough to work with what I gave him and made me sound way more intelligent than what I should have (If he would have used exactly what I said, there’s a good chance I would have been kicked out of the National Honor Society because they would have thought I cheated my way to good grades).

However, a few of my baseball draftees were very articulate (My favorite was the southern boy who kept calling me ma’am.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was younger than him).  And Klosterman has the reasoning behind this figured out as well.  When the person interviewing you really cares about what you are talking about, you are more likely to keep talking and come up with some brilliant answers.  I’ve never heard baseball players sound so smart as some of them did (Trust me on this one.  I’ve had more than my share of experience talking to baseball players).  His idea is completely true.  Why do we talk so much to our friends and family?  Because we know they care (or are at least supposed to pretend they care).  Klosterman used the concept of dating and intimate relationships.  That works as well.  We talk to our partners (potential ones and ones we already have) about everything because you know they want to know.  That’s what prompts us asking questions as well–because we actually care to know the information.

One of my favorite things out of the entire chapter though comes from his interview with Ira Glass.  Glass says that when he is interviewed, he actually tries to help the interviewer by coming up with good answers and that he is editing what he says in his head as he speaks “That’s not going to work.  That’s not going to work.  That’s not the lead,” he said he thought during an interview.  Well…I do the same thing.  Last semester, my non-journalist friend was taking a news writing course for her PR minor.  Having taken the course before, I knew what the article was supposed to focus around.  When she asked to interview me, I was glad to help.  But then as I was responding to her questions, I found myself trying to give her as much as I could so she could write the article with ease (She was really scared and isn’t all that great of a writer).  I even specifically said, “You can use that as your lead,” after one really good quote I gave (Heck, I would have written the article for her because she looked like she was about to cry).

I have one minor thing to add to Glass’ comment, though.  As I was reading his words, I got the feeling that he did it out of relating to the dilemma the interviewer was facing–same thing I was doing for my friend.  But that’s just it, I was partially doing it because she was my friend.  And I’ve seen this happen before with me being the interviewer.  You see, before that interview with Mr. Casolo, I always just interviewed my friends (We didn’t have a school paper so the articles were only turned into my journalism class for a grade.  My sources didn’t really matter).  My friends always tried to give me really good quotes.  Camille did it naturally because she’s one of the most articulate and eloquent people I know.  Brittany did it with ease through her humor.  Darby did it with her .  Jess would always ask, “Is that good enough?  Do you need more?  Give me a second and I’ll think of something if you want.”  They were doing it because they wanted me to do a good job.  Sometimes there’s just an urge as an interviewee to help the interviewer because you don’t want to see them crash and burn (Trust me, these girls were not worried about their images in my articles.  And, trust me on this too, I would have totally taken down their images if needed and they knew it…luckily, the occasion never arose).

I’m sure in almost every profession there’s fear on both sides.  A patient being scared of surgery and the surgeon always having that looming fear of messing up in the back of his head.  Okay, I can’t really think of any other examples at this moment but I’m sure they are out there.  I know there are a lot of scary words in the English language but I’m pretty sure the scariest sentence that can be uttered, sending chills up and down the spine of all those near including the person asking, is, “Can I interview you?”

Side Note:  I found this interview with Klosterman about the book.  Have fun with it!

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