Eventually, Miller got tired of just taking photos. He’d always considered himself a writer—he wrote about the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for a student news blog at Fordham—and when a volunteer Wikipedia editor suggested he check out the fledgling Wikinews, Miller decided to broaden his journalistic repertoire. He had already begun contacting minor public figures, such as First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and BBC America’s “Punk Professor” Vivien Goldman, offering to take free, quasi-professional portraits of them for Wikipedia. It seemed a natural step to interview them.
Miller put out dozens of cold calls. He called people like Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell because he considered them “cultural icons,” and others because he found their line of work interesting. (He interviewed German-American folk singer Antje Duvekot, for instance, simply because he wanted to interview a folk singer, and she was available.) Although Miller has managed interviews with a few high-profile subjects like Peres, he’s relatively unknown outside the Wiki community. Some of his pieces have page views in the single digits.
Miller’s interview style is conversational. His opening gambit is often arbitrary—for instance, he started his interview with Gay Talese by asking if it bothered him that his name has come to mean “homosexual.” (“No, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Talese responded.) Miller will often talk about himself. He says it’s soothing to share his experiences, particularly his sense of failure after dropping out of law school—and it seems to encourage his subjects to open up. “I’m telling you stuff I never said to anybody,” voice actor Billy West, who provided the voices for Ren & Stimpy and Bugs Bunny, told Miller after speaking about his alcoholism and being beaten by his father. Miller doesn’t play “gotcha,” but he does ask unusual questions and will push a bit—but not too much. “If I’m being combative, they can just end it on me,” he said. He once allowed Senator Sam Brownback to assert but not support his claim that God has a problem with homosexuality. “To really pin Brownback down,” Miller told me, “that’s a job for Chris Matthews.”
Not that Miller asks only softball questions. Here’s an exchange from his interview with Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of PETA:
David Shankbone: Do you have any regrets?
Ingrid Newkirk: Professionally? Because that’s what we are talking about . . . .
DS: Or personally.
IN: I’m not going to talk about personally!
DS: Just in general—in your life.
IN: These are just terrible questions!
DS: Sometimes terrible questions birth wonderful answers.
IN: Oh, pwah!
At their best, his interviews can make for juicy, revealing reads. Take this example from his interview with gay author Edmund White:
David Shankbone: You have an open relationship?
Edmund White: Yes.
DS: Do you think that’s a necessity in order to have a successful relationship?
EW: I wouldn’t preach for anybody else; I mean, everybody’s different. But for me, yes.
DS: Where do you tend to find your sexual partners?
EW: Online, now. Silverdaddies.com; daddyhunt. That’s where you go if you’re older. Or Manhunt and gay.com. Or slavesformaster. Those are all sites where I’ve met people.
DS: Are you a slave or a master?
EW: A slave, but I’m not much of one.
Miller is no provocateur or interrogator like Oriana Fallaci, who opened an interview with Yasir Arafat by asking him his age, twice, and who once asked the Shah of Iran if he would have thrown her in jail had she been Iranian. Miller prefers Terry Gross or James Lipton and cites them as influences. He wants to indulge his subjects, and delve into their personalities. He can be gentle and accommodating. He wants them to talk about their ideas and their craft. He typically tells a subject, “We don’t have an angle. It’s more of an information thing, just to get your thoughts and feelings.”
Miller told me he usually doesn’t do much research on his subjects. He credits his general knowledge for getting him through many interviews. Sometimes he’ll just read his subject’s Wikipedia profile to prepare. Still, he says, “I try to come off as someone completely knowledgeable.” He reads The Economist and checks Google News reflexively at work. He has e-mail alerts for keywords related to his idiosyncratic interests: rocker “Peter Doherty,” “Chinese credit,” and “world economy 2016” (interestingly, he told me early last year that he was convinced there will be a global economic collapse in eight years).