Literary Voices #1 (June 1980)
Within his foreword to The Magazine Writer’s Workbook: A Worktext of Instruction And Exercises For The Beginning Magazine Article Writer by John C. Behrens, Alex Haley, on giving advice to writers, ends off with the following:
“And that is—it’s you who want to write. It’s you who want to be a ‘success.’ So, it’s squarely up to you. I can tell you absolutely that I know personally there isn’t an editor, a publisher, anybody who buys writing, in the business, who isn’t searching, hoping, even praying, that he, or she will be the lucky one to ‘discover’ that obviously truly able newcomer professional writer. That’s what you want to become. I can tell you, again, in one word, how to become one among that couple of dozen or so who emerge into this new status each year. As hard as you can, as faithfully as you can; and with every good-luck which I can convey, sincerely to you; you work.” ~ Alex Haley (1968).
Jeffrey M. Elliot (1948 - 2010) was professor of political science specializing in American politics and government, international relations, and civil rights and civil liberties. He is also known for a series of “Conversations with” a variety of writers.
In the first volume of this continuing series of interviews with the great writers of our time, Alex Haley talks about the genesis of Roots and how it changed his life, Christopher Isherwood discusses writing as autobiography and the persecution of homosexuals in modem society, Jessica Mitford expounds on The American Way of Death, Richard Armour delineates the nature of humor and humorous writing, and Robert Anton Wilson talks about Illuminatus! and writing as hedonic-controlled schizophrenia.
Alex Haley was not only interviewed by Jeffrey M. Elliot within Literary Voices #1 but he also wrote the following introduction:
Introduction By Alex Haley
When asked by Jeffrey Elliot if I’d write an introduction to his new book, I felt pleased to share with its readers my accumulated impressions of Jeff the person as well as the interviewer. Also I felt that the illustrations which Literary Voices offers of a fine interviewer at work should serve many writing students as excellent teaching examples. And I think that people who enjoy the armchair study of authors will gain further insights into the myriad facets of the craft of writing.
My initial acquaintance with Jeff came as his subject for one of the interviews contained herein. Being interviewed intrigued me, because years ago, seeking some writing niche for myself, I’d had the luck to initiate the Playboy Interviews, which for years afterward were my principal activity. So with Jeff across a coffee table with his tape recorder I made a private game of trying to guess his next questions, and of now and then deliberately throwing him a curve answer to see how he’d recoup. During that long interview session’s experiencing of Jeff’s facile mind at work, I came to enjoy both the notably able interviewer and the highly sensitive, humanistic person.
Conducting a good interview is nowhere near as simple as a good practitioner of the art, like Jeff, will make it seem. To do so ideally requires a quick mind, a commitment to truth, a sense of fairness, a natural curiosity, and a personality and manner which subtly encourages the subjects’ disclosure of facets of themselves which otherwise they likely wouldn’t.
I know of few things more guaranteed to turn off a busy interview subject than an opening query such as, “Well, here we are, now tell me about yourself!” But anyone with whom Jeff has an interview appointment can be certain that he will have researched them in advance—so thoroughly that he queries them with an apparent ease. And here or there, sensing new questions, Jeff picks his spots for them, designed to evoke the subject’s seeming volunteering of always further insights into their qualities, philosophies, and whatever other facets may render them unusual among we fellow human beings. Plumbing with any success into these areas can’t be planned in advance; it always occurs as an interview is in progress, usually by some unexpected question which triggers the subject’s own curiosity about themselves: i.e., yes, what is my self-searching answer to that? Yes, what does make me tick?
Jeff Elliot’s equipment as an interviewer encompasses that he is both a trained scholar and a trained journalist, his academic skills and tools thus complemented by his good reporter’s instincts. The results can be seen in this book’s interviews. Jeff’s advance research is evident within his average questions. It can be seen how, as each session went along, Jeff was both structuring his interview while developing increasing rapport with his subject. In the end, after his necessary editing and tightening, the material is clear, readable, and intriguing. What has required sometimes several long sessions of querying and responding has been neatly distilled into an intriguing half hour or so for readers to enjoy.
Focussing his intelligence, warmth, and sensitivity upon five professional authors for this first Literary Voices collection, Jeff Elliot has captured the essence of five very different writing techniques and personalities—from the Jessica Mitford of the hard-hitting exposes, to the Richard Armour famed for trenchant humor, to Christopher Isherwood’s poignant recollections, and Robert Anton Wilson’s futuristic insights, and my own historically-oriented efforts.
Why do people read interviews? One poll, by a questionnaire, divulged as the predominating reasons: to be entertained and / or enlightened; to find a new personality; to understand better the “real” person behind the public image; and lastly for their potentials of gossip and small-talk. So to judge from what readers say they want, the compleat interview should supply at least some of all these things. But the interview’s basic foundation should be an increased understanding, appreciation, and sense of awareness of the interview subject. In this Literary Voices case, if Jeff has done his work well, you the reader should feel the want to read afresh, or maybe for your first time, some of the works of the authors whom Jeff interviews.
Jeff’s interviews—stimulating, provocative, entertaining—are, in final sum, just plain good reading. I know I’ve found myself intrigued with four colleague authors’ subjective views, not only of themselves but of our profession, as well as of our world and human society in general. It’s my guess that through Literary Voices, you’ll feel you’d also like to be interviewed by Jeff Elliot. ~ Alex Haley Los Angeles, Calif. August, 1980.