(John C. Behrens, Alex Haley)
The Magazine Writer’s WorkbookHow To Get The Most From The Interview
Within his August 1967 introduction to this work entitled: Memo To A Would-Be Writer, Alex Haley opens with how he paid his dues as a writer.
“You want to be a writer? I am one—yes, which is why Prof. John Behrens asked me to write an introductory note for this workbook. “Kind of a memorandum for beginners,” he said. It flashed my mind back to that time for myself. It was about fifteen years ago. I would have qualified, I think, as the most “beginning” writer there ever was. There’s just nobody reading this who could have known less about the craft. Indeed, if you’re reading this the odds are that as of now you know more than I did, because my beginning actually was without any idea then of ever trying to be a writer. I was just writing letters, long ones.
“I was a sailor, in the U.S. Coast Guard, on a ship in the South Pacific. I was a cook on a ship that spent plenty of time at sea. There was nowhere I could go, nothing particularly to do on evenings when the day’s final pots and pans had been washed; and so, for lack of anything more interesting to do, I would write these long, long letters, to friends about whatever came to mind. Sometimes, I have reflected that really the fundamental reason I am a writer today is because then I happened to have a portable typewriter on the ship with me.
“I really couldn’t begin to tell you … I haven’t really the adequate words to truly express to you, what all has occurred in those fifteen years since. The ‘paying of the dues,’ as jazzmen express the trials and tribulations, would fill the whole book to which this Foreword is attached.” ~ Alex Haley
How To Get The Most From The Interview
PLAYBOY interviewer Alex Haley butted the cigarette, glanced over the questions I had scrawled on the legal pad and nodded his head affirmatively. I turned on the tape recorder and we began a marathon, two and a half hour talk on how to succeed at interviewing by not showing how hard you’re trying.
Successful interviewing has been Haley’s stock and trade since he started selling to the top magazines about five years ago. He became an international personality as the writer of the as-told-to book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
It was confidence in his ability as an interviewer that led Haley, a Black, past khaki-dressed storm troopers to talk to the late American Nazi leader, George Lincoln Rockwell. The interview, which Rockwell later commended, was called one of the most unusual of the PLAYBOY features.
But Haley’s talent wasn’t always so well known. The youthful-looking, 44 year old author spent eight years writing more than 200 articles before his first story was purchased by a major magazine. “When it comes to sacrifice, I paid my dues,” he says in describing the years of frustration and rejections.
Here’s how Haley feels about the art of interviewing.
Behrens: Alex, would you describe how you prepare for an interview—say with subjects like the late Bishop James Pike or Adlai Stevenson.
Haley: When you talk about these two we’re talking about interviews for PLAYBOY, of course. By now, having done a lot of them, there’s a fairly standard approach. The usual rule is the editors will telephone me and tell me who will be done next. Sometimes I have suggested people who were accepted. My loyalty to a subject generally will last until the editor says no, whereupon I will forget that subject and go to something else. This is through no lack of admiration for the subject. It is a business, the practical business of writing. I want to be assigned, I want to be working on something real. In terms of preparation what usually happens is that George Sims (Haley’s researcher) hears of the assignment as soon as I get it. George ranges in literature and he will come to me with clippings about these people from newspapers, more frequently magazines, or, if they are people who have written books or appeared in books, he brings those. When we have selected enough material we sit down and talk about the person. Then a list of tentative questions is put together which we send to PLAYBOY. The questions are not expected to be the only ones or the final word on what I ask the person, but it gives the editors a chance to vicariously interview the person. They circulate the questions in the office and the list may come back with something like 200 questions that they would like to know about. This gives them the satisfaction of asking this guy what they want through me. Beyond this, I personally don’t get too involved. I am interested in abstract questions. I do this because I value being able to go to the subject almost ignorant of him. Then, I have a feeling I represent more nearly Mr. Average Reader who doesn’t know much about this person. I want to meet him, form an impression of him—which I hope will be fair, honest and accurate—and try to communicate this to the reader. I have never ‘known’ anybody beforehand. One thing that I have found important when interviewing celebrities or prominent persons: it is usually very good to try to find idiosyncrasies that they wouldn’t expect you to know. Some harmless way of getting the person’s interest quickly. One time, I was about to interview the late Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and I found out that he was absolutely nuts about tomatoes—eating them. I was prepared to sound like a horticulturist when I went in there because this is the kind of thing that will reach through layers of problems in getting to a person.
Behrens: How do you determine whether you will use a tape recorder, pencil and pad or some other method of recording the interview?
Haley: This is something you kind of arrive at intuitively after studying the subject. Usually we make an appointment for a whole week of interviewing. We normally ask for three sessions—good sessions meaning at least two hours separated by a day each—and this sets up the framework. Now I can get an interview in this time if I have to, but it forces me to keep pumping. But what I really want to do is get there with that much time agreed upon. I have never yet seen it happen that I didn’t double or triple the time. Again, this thing of working for a magazine which is known for depth interviews gives you more reason for more of the subject’s time. A PLAYBOY interview is about nine full pages which, if it was in color ads, would be around $200,000 worth of space, so we’re not going in there for some fluff.
After the appointment is made I merely go to see what I’m after. Persons see interviewers in different ways. Sammy Davis, Jr., not long ago watched me like he thought he should have sixteen guards around to make sure I didn’t trick him. I just acted like I wasn’t aware that I was going to interview him. Sammy was tight, cautious and too ready for me. I would say something and he would answer maybe four words. This is real, real tight for Sammy because he’s a talker. So, something had to be done about getting him to open up. First, the way he was going I saw a pad and pencil possibility. But then, a little device presented itself—you work these things by ear—and I gave it a try.
All performers are egocentric. They can’t stand somebody upstaging them. They are very, very sensitive about what people say and think about them. Sammy has an entourage of about six or seven people and I would get in a physical situation where I would talk to a few of these individuals where Sammy could see us but not hear what was going on. I’d tell them a funny story guaranteed to make them laugh suddenly. Sammy would hear and see this laughter and, being hypersensitive, he thought we were talking about him. Now he’s paying these people and this bugged him no end. Finally, one day he came over and asked, in a less than pleasant way, when I was going to ask him questions. We started and he began rolling. I turned on the tape recorder and he was on. I have a beautiful tape of Sammy because of that incident.
Most of the subjects I have interviewed I’ve been able to get on tape but some people just aren’t at their best with a recorder. Others can’t relax with a tape recorder on. I spent a really intensive one year and another on and off with Malcolm X in the course of writing several magazine articles and a book, and, regrettably, I do not have one millimeter of tape on him. The reason I don’t is because I noticed that with other people or a recorder, he changed. One day we were talking about the Black Muslims for a piece I was doing for READER’S DIGEST. I watched him talking to me explaining his point of view. I wasn’t taking notes, I just wanted to get the ‘feel’ of the man. We were interrupted by a broadcaster who came with a recorder for an interview. I was permitted to stay and I watched how Malcolm, who with me had been going on and really flowing, sat down at the mike and gave the appearance of being on and emoting for the tape. Actually, he was very carefully editing what he said and saying only about half as much of what it sounded like. His pattern was one of saying something and then almost paraphrasing what he said. I could see that he was thinking what he was going to say next. It made an impression on me so that when we got to the book—I had a year to get from him the fullest, most natural flow which, if I got the right tool—and it’s true of any tool—would increase as it went on and he became more familiar with it. Malcolm had a particular caution about anything irrevocably recorded because he was one of these people who felt that a few words can mean a lot—good or bad—to other people.
Generally, given my choice, of course, I would rather use a recorder. The advantages are obvious. You can tape a long interview, give it to a girl to type and you have it as it was. But if it is a vital interview, you do well to feel out this person beforehand. By now, I have determined that there is a point at which you can have a good interview and then there’s another level just beyond that if you get the subject on you’ll get the really outstanding interview. You’re working not to be a good interviewer—you are being paid to be that and ergo you are a good interviewer—but you always are trying to get that other inch. That’s why the choice of instrument is important. It’s like being a surgeon. You have the diploma which makes you good to most everybody but you strive to be better.
Behrens: From what you’ve said I gather that you approach the person quite informally. What are some of the things that help you get the substance—the meat—of the interview?
Haley: I like to go to the subject—the ideal way at least—with 25 good body questions. And I usually do my question on 3 by 5 index cards. I sit and shuffle them so that my hands are doing something. This helps lull the person to rest and what you do is ask questions and then listen carefully what comes from phrases or words and then you have an idea of what areas to move into. You feel your way into the interview. If it is a critical or difficult session, you interview by day and study what has been said by night. Listen to the tape and you learn what to explore the next day and you know more about the type of question which evokes more response from the person. You can get a subject—a famous person or hard-to-interview subject—to the point where you can play on them like a harp. You know what evoked what from them. Lull them, make them a little mad, back away—really, it is like conducting an orchestra. The approach is not determined by me, it’s determined by the person. It is what you infer from your meetings with this person. You let them set the pattern.
Behrens: Do you seek help from other people—persons close to the subject—when you go to the interview?
Haley: If a man has a secretary, particularly if she is the older, trusted secretary genre, I will always go in and work on her like Rudolph Valentino in a quiet, subtle way. My expense account in such situations invariably is around $100. I will wine and dine them as long as I can keep it just this side of overt courting for a purpose. I buy lots of flowers and perfume—sometimes I go out with her. From my standpoint, if I had the choice to get friendly with the wife or the secretary to get information, I’d take the secretary every time. They know much more about the man—for the interviewer, anyhow. What I’m looking for is not the court secrets, I don’t want to know that this man, no matter how great he is, slips in the back door to take a nip of wine every half hour. That kind of thing doesn’t interest me in the least. These women know the idiosyncrasies of the man which are important to me. And they are glad to contribute. They can also tell you how best to approach their boss—how he flows best.
Behrens: What would you say is the toughest obstacle in interviewing or the actual interview session?
Haley: The biggest problem is at the outset. It may take you two hours; it may take you two days, but there is always a point where the interview actually started. You can always look back and figure it was right there that we got this thing going. Something happened—some little incident—where this subject relaxes and you can tell it. I had interviewed Malcolm X for two months before the night I knew he was flowing and I wrote about it in the book. I asked him one question: ‘Would you tell me something about your mother?’ and it deflated him. From that moment forward he would tell me almost anything about himself. With Dr. Martin Luther King it took me two weeks. I spent a week with him in Atlanta and I didn’t get a word worth using out of him. He was so busy I couldn’t get to him really. I went back again another week and as eloquent as he was on stage, off stage he was like the sphinx. When he would say something it would be a torrent of brilliance but when I got back to the motel I found he hadn’t really said anything that I could use. The last day I still didn’t have anything and I had been there two whole weeks. I stayed over at the advice of his secretary, Dora Williams, who said that he had to go to a picnic the next day. I went to the picnic and we stood there with paper plates and barbecue and chitchatted for a few minutes. He was surprised I was still there. Finally he said, ‘Look, let’s go over to my office’. When we got there he put his feet up on the desk—something he just doesn’t do—and I think we talked for four hours or so. That’s when I got the interview. There is no clinical skill really. I just use all the things I can think of from my experiences. I want to get them relaxed. I have had a lot of experience playing by ear how to get people to talk—getting conversation started.
Behrens: Some interviewers believe it is difficult to keep interviewees on the subject. How do you handle this?
Haley: My first remark to that is that one of the best examples I can give you of the truth of this is what you’re doing right here because I wander all over a lot. My answer to this is a lot of tape or paper. I love to let them range all over. I’ve had Melvin Belli, the attorney, talk about legal subjects after starting out telling me about how to cook eggs in the mountains. He likes to cook eggs in the mountains. Bishop Pike and I were talking about everything but the questions I asked at first. Unless you’ve got so much time in which to do the interview let the person talk about what interests him. Out of that you can pick what you need. It’s always inhibiting and constricting when you are trying consciously and obviously to say to a person ‘Now look, I don’t want to know that, what I want to know is what I asked you.’ It has all kinds of overtones and you don’t usually get results. If you have time, take an extra reel of tape or take six reels to be on the safe side.
Behrens: How do you deal with a person who is defensive on a particular question or who could react quite negatively when the subject came up?
Haley: This is where the index cards come into the picture. I shuffle them about. About 10 questions are nice, lulling questions guaranteed to keep the subject at ease. You soften him, while you prepare for the tough ones. I may put the tough questions to him in a different setting. We go for rides or go to lunch. These people are busy—sometimes I go with them when they make speeches or that sort of thing. We exchange stories—the editors sometimes send clippings and material about me. This helps keep the interview on a personal level because these people become interested in what other people have done or what you’re doing.
Along this line, my interview with Bishop Pike brought a situation where I learned something in dealing with such things. His son had committed suicide rather recently. We were setting by the pool at his home in Santa Barbara when I kind of moved into the area of talking about his son. I could tell that Bishop Pike wasn’t his usual flowing self when we started on it. I began to back away—it wasn’t what he said but a kind of psychic thing. I could feel he was tightening up. Then came a change in the tape on the recorder. Soon after I had put a new reel I continued this line of questioning and said something like ‘Now we should say something here about Jim, Jr. The machine is on so you just go ahead.’ He started to get into it and I suddenly realized that I was out of cigarettes. I excused myself and hurried to the car, leaving the recorder on. I started to run back when I saw him, from a distance, bent over the mike. He looked like he was communing with it—and suddenly I realized that if you leave a person with a question and a recorder, after he is used to the machine and used to you, you’ll get from him something he perhaps wouldn’t say to you or even to himself. I played back that section later and I was so moved by the way he went into that answer. He was feeling into himself. It was the kind of thing that came from his being—not his intellect. The best answer then is catch people in soft moments. Whenever you’ve got a really touchy point, approach the subject carefully. Dispense with whatever you’re using to record the interview visibly before you go on. If you are writing notes, put down the pad and pencil so that the person can see it. Try to approach it in a relaxed way. He may tell you he doesn’t want to talk about it. I have had that happen. Later, you may find that they may bring it up themselves and tell you more than you expected. It depends on how you feel them out.
(The above interview of Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was published in the August 1967 issue of Writer’s Digest. © 1967 F+W Media, Inc. © 1968 John C. Behrens. © 1972, 1974 Grid, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)