Q&A: Susan Orlean on the art of not prepping for interviews

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Susan Orlean, author and staff writer at The New Yorker. An edited transcript is below.



Jesse Thorn: When you go out, like let’s say you’re writing a magazine piece for The New Yorker. Do you go out interviewing people with the idea that you are going to get a particular thing out of each person like, “Oh I need this piece of my story from this person,” or do you go out first and sort of see what the fishermen bring?

Susan Orlean: I mean the answer is yes to both. But in a very particular order to begin with I’m throwing the net wide, and I happen to believe deeply that it’s a big mistake to have a punch list of what you’re trying to achieve particularly in the beginning of a story where presumably you’re entering it in part to learn. And if you begin by simply having a list of questions that you’re checking off, I don’t think you’re really learning certainly not in the context of the kind of stories I write. Later on there will be the need to grab certain people for certain parts of the story to to respond to a question you have or to perhaps balance out something that you got earlier in the story. But, to me that’s such a different part of the process. So in the beginning, I will very intentionally go into each interview as open as I can I’ll interview people who seem very tangential to the story because the whole process for me is something has stuck in my head that I want to understand. And to me the only way to truly understand it is to be really open and cast myself in every possible direction rather than having a thesis that I’m looking to support.

TRENDING: Controversy brewing within Wall Street Journal

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Jesse: Give me an example of a piece that you wrote and where the first, who the first person was that you went to to talk.

Susan: I’ll give you an example, probably an extreme example because the story itself was so diffuse in its purpose — and this was many years ago in the wake of the Tonya Harding scandal. If those of you listening recall, Tonya Harding disgraced figure skater who had been known to orchestrate an attack on Nancy Kerrigan her greatest Olympic rival, and then she went completely underground. You know it was a it was a crazy, crazy scenario, and people were desperately trying to think of a story to write about it particularly because she wasn’t talking to the press at that point. And I had the idea that it would be interesting to look at where she was from. She was from Clackamas, Oregon which is not exactly a suburb of Portland but as sort of exurb. Having lived in Portland, I knew that some of the news reports said Tonya Harding is from Portland, Oregon and I thought well first of all she’s not. And secondly there’s a huge difference between being from Portland which is one very particular kind of place, and Clackamas which is essentially a rural white conservative town that had, in a sense, no connection to the Portland, Oregon, that we know.

Having read in these news reports this this quickie shorthand of saying that Tonya Harding was from Portland, and I thought no no no ,and it’s not only an error in fact, it’s an error in concept. So I just basically proposed to the New Yorker to go to Clackamas and spend time roaming around and trying to cobble together some, some sense of Tonya Harding through the lens of the town she grew up and which I happen to feel strongly gave you a better idea of who she was because she really was an outlier in the world of figure skating. She wasn’t this pretty little princess. She was a kind of rough and tough girl from a trailer park essentially. I flew to Portland and drove to Clackamas and having lived in Portland for four years. I can also tell you that I had spent very little time in Clackamas and simply.

And there were a lot of things that were interesting but I simply wandered and talked to anyone and everyone that I could find some of it was to talk to them about Tonya, some of it was just to talk to them about Clackamas. And, I went to talk to a real estate broker. I went to a thrift shop because I thought well I wonder what people in Clackamas give to the thrift shop. I didn’t have an agenda. To be honest with you it’s a tough kind of story to do. But I really felt that I could only do it if I didn’t have an agenda except to say I have some sense of what this place is. I have some sense that it actually tells you more about Tanya, and maybe I need to go into that and basically immerse myself. You know, be an embed in Clackamas, and I actually spent time with the Tonya Harding fan club which was in something of extremists. At that point feeling fairly defensive and and besieged. So that’s an example of I thought I have no I don’t know where I’m going to find the good material. And I like the fact that I don’t know. Even though while you’re working on a story like that it can be really scary because you’ll be in a thrift shop and you think what am I doing in a thrift shop. I’m trying to write a story about an Olympic figure skater. And, you have to accept it. I think the best model to compare it to is thinking of traveling. And if you go to Paris and say I’m here to see the Eiffel Tower. Go see it check it off your lists and leave. I don’t think that’s what most of us feel. That’s not why we travel. And it’s the serendipity, it’s the unexpected conversation that you have with someone you run into. It’s sitting and watching people walk by as you’re in a cafe. That’s where you begin getting a sense of the experience you’re having. And frequently the big ticket item, the Eiffel Tower is kind of a let down. The way the big ticket interview often those people are not only less interesting than you would like them to be but if they are the big interview, they’re also very prepared and guarded and they look at you the way you look at them which is: How can I protect myself and only reveal what’s comfortable for me. So those are, in my experience, rarely the ones that make you think Ah-ha! I got my story.



Susan: Well the number one thing is to go into it understanding or holding close to your heart the realization that most people actually enjoy being listened to. So as much as it feels like this embarrassing intrusion and request to be given something for nothing in return, you are giving something in return. People actually like to be heard. There are plenty of people who won’t and who will simply say “Go away.” But it is impressive to look back at, you know the number of people that I’ve approached that way and remember how many of them even the ones who are at first who very resistant rose to the experience of being listened to.



Susan: I’m the person telling the story. I’m the fancy journalist. I’m you know invading your space and having the arrogance to do that. Suddenly the table turns and they’re basically saying, “No! Why should I talk to you?” So your power is suddenly undercut. And I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s a moment where that person rather than feeling intimidated or off kilter by you approaching them suddenly is all, “No I’m in charge I’ll decide if I want to talk to you or not.” And you, and that’s why I go into interviews generally, very unprepared which might come as a shock. And any journalism teacher listening to this would probably suddenly turn it off and say, “Oh my god! I don’t want my students to hear this.” But an authentic meeting requires a certain equality.

The dynamic that I prefer, rather than I’m the journalist asking you questions is: I’m the person who doesn’t know about something you’ve mastered, will you teach me? And this is where that, that sense of pride where a person can think well, “I do know about my story and my life and my subject and maybe if I feel comfortable with the authenticity of your curiosity, I’ll teach you a little.” I did a story many years ago, it’s actually my favorite piece, where I traveled with a black gospel group down south for a couple of weeks before I went.

A lot of people said to me, “Did you read this definitive history of gospel music?” and “Did you read that?” And, you know and people were telling me about all these different you know important encyclopedia reviews of know gospel the history of gospel music and I said, “No, I’m going to go live this life with these people for a couple of weeks, and now they’ll teach me. And at the end if there still things I need to fill in, I can go look it up I can go get dates or you know more background if they haven’t provided it for me.” But, I felt that it undercut my privilege as the journalist, as a white person, as a person with a job at a fancy magazine. You know because I often write about people whose socio-economic position is less privileged than mine. So to me it’s really important to change the the the balance of power and to say, “Look you know your story. I don’t, I’m here to ask you about it, and then I’d like to share it with other people.”

Jesse: It seems really important that that curiosity be very sincere. Seems like something that people would sniff out in a second.

Susan: Yeah. And I think they absolutely do. I think people sense immediately if you’ve already made your mind up about who they are and what they’re like. Having been on the other side of interviews, I can say that I can usually tell, and I’m discomfited if somebody interviewing me trots out facts about me and rather than me thinking, “Oh good you did your homework.” Instead I feel like EW! You know it feels unnerving. So you know and there are situations where you’re given a very short amount of time to talk to someone and you do need to know what you’re going to use that time for and be purposeful. But, as much as you can replicate that experience with them which is you have a story. I am here to hear your story even if there are a famous person. I think that’s where you start getting to a real connection.



Jesse: What’s the difference between talking to someone that’s a public figure, where it’s set up, and talking to the kind of person who you talk to when you look up someone’s phone number in the phonebook and call them at their office or walk into their diner and talk to them at the counter.

Susan: Night and day, they could not be more different. First of all, the public figure, the celebrity has skin in the game. They’re getting something out of you. A private person really has no clear takeaway from, except for you saying to them wouldn’t you be happy to see your story told.

It’s transactional the way it isn’t with a private person. Because they really don’t. I mean sure you sell the option to your story and a movie gets made and their life rights are bought. But that wouldn’t even occur to most people. So that’s not, that’s not a real fact in this transaction. Number two, the public figure, no matter how much they will lean over and say to you wink wink I’m telling you this special thing because I feel really connected to you, unless they’re really dumb and reckless, that isn’t happening. They’re very careful about what they’re telling you. They’re strategic and they’ve told it to a billion people.

Jesse: Do you feel nervous about interviewing public figures ever?

Susan: Oh yeah. I do. Because usually there’s a limited amount of time. Usually you know they’ve been asked these questions a million times so you feel to begin with just unoriginal and kind of dumb because you know you’re going to say something they’ve heard a million times before and they’re always- I mean I’ve never interviewed a public figure who wasn’t pleasant and engaging.

Jesse: Really?

Susan: And actuallyI shouldn’t say that. Let me correct that. I have. Now that I’m thinking about it, I definitely have. But my level of nervousness has nothing to do with their behavior. It’s more with feeling like trying to think can I think of an original question although frankly it doesn’t even matter. It really doesn’t. If you came up with an incredibly original question, chances are they would deflect and get back to the the answers that they’re more comfortable giving anyway.



Susan: I think in broadcast your subject is the storyteller, and it’s your job to help just sort of gently guide them to doing a good job telling the audience their story. For me as a writer and you know certainly in the particular way that I write I am the storyteller. And it is much more the better equivalent is to say let me tell you about this amazing trip I had. If you look at my stories people always say to me your oh god you always have so many great quotes. And I think well you’d be surprised. Go back and look at my stories.

First of all they’re all fake in terms of actual quantity of quotes. I don’t use that many. What I want is for you to feel that you were there with the people I’m writing about in the place that I’m writing about. But quotes are often not that useful for that. So the actual number of quotes I use is much less than you think. What it’s doing these interviews. Their chief purpose is to teach me about someone’s story because then I’m ultimately the narrator telling it and guiding you so that you the reader have the feeling that you’ve gone on that same journey. So it is such a different you know you if you were interviewing someone for broadcast you’re not going to say to them you know what year what year were you. I mean there’s there’s just so much information that I’m gathering that’s just going to be that I’m going to digest and process in my own voice as opposed to delivering it in a quote.



Susan: I mean part of what I do is to spend a lot of time with people where I am not interviewing them. I mean I find it very difficult to do a story if I don’t have a lot of time where I just was hanging out with someone. Doing errands with them observing them as they’re going about their business. Much less the Q and A part of it. So in a setting like a television interview where you have three minutes, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I mean seriously it would I would find it completely awkward. And not I don’t feel that I have I don’t feel my skills actually translate to that. I mean could I be trained? I suppose so. But I don’t think that they actually are a there’s no equivalency really between you know when I was writing about this gospel group I was traveling around with them I would when they had errands to do, I’d go do errands with them I’d hang out. 90 percent of what we were talking about had nothing to do with the subject of the story. It was like making friends. It was the difference between an organic friendship versus speed dating. Where you sit and you have three minutes and then you move to the next person. I don’t know that my intellectual metabolism is at that speed. I’m much more of the three days in. We’ve been hanging out, I’m beginning to figure out who you are.



Jesse: When you’re doing interviews, do you prepare questions in advance?

Susan: I don’t. I never do. Probably the only time I’ve ever done it is interviewing a well-known person with a set amount of time. And I want to I don’t necessarily think I’ll stick to the script exclusively, but I feel like I need to have it in case I get flustered or you know if there were certain things I really need to ask. Otherwise, no I don’t.

I’m not saying that not preparing is the right way for everybody. I think it depends. It’s so dependent on who and what the situation is. I think if you’re going to interview someone who is rarely interviewed who is rarely in the media I would advise against preparing questions because I think it exaggerates the divide between you as the journalist with power and this person who’s not part of this world. And I really urge that. It also means you’re forced to listen more. I’ve been interviewed by people who asked me the question and then basically don’t listen to me because they’re just getting ready to ask me the next one. And it’s the worst kind of interview that- They’re just going through their list. They don’t they’re literally not listening to me. It’s very uncomfortable and you’re not getting a good. That’s not an interview. It’s a it’s a checklist.

Jesse: Do you interview people with like a reporter’s notebook in hand or a tape recorder or what?

Susan: I use a reporter’s notebook. I’m a great believer in the value of handwriting. I subscribe to the theory and are happy to say there is science backing me up now, that writing things by hand embeds it in your head in a far deeper way than using a tape recorder or even then typing. It’s not easy if you’re trying to get long long long quotes. It’s pretty difficult.

Jesse: Do you write in longhand or..?

Susan: I write in kind of a shorthand and there are a lot of times where I look back on my notes and think ugh, I wish I understood what I meant when I made that squiggle. So it’s not foolproof. I think the number one thing for a writer to do is to listen. Facts can always be checked later. Listening is so much more important than anything else that the obsession with a perfect notebook of notes to me is missing the point. But recently I decided when I started working on my current book I thought I wonder if there is some happy medium here and I got a pen. I now use a different brand but this is the one I started with is called Livescribe. And they’re these very space age pens that have a tiny micro camera in the tip of the pen that’s recording the pen strokes. It also has a tiny micro recorder in the pendant self. So I take notes by hand, but a recorder is running so if I ever have to go back and think I don’t actually understand what I wrote I have the tape.

Jesse: Do you use quotes verbatim?

Susan: Oh yeah. Yeah. I think-

Jesse: Some people don’t. I was like I didn’t know I was a non-real journalist. I was astonished that some people think it’s cool to like sort of use them verbatim.

Susan: Well I cannot state strongly enough that that is utterly totally unethical. It’s a lie. If you put a line in quotation marks and attribute to someone something they didn’t actually say it’s a lie. It’s an absolute lie. If you didn’t quite get all the words of the quote down then paraphrase it. If you feel sure you know the intent of what they said, but the quote isn’t you don’t. Didn’t get all the words down: paraphrase it! But I mean I feel really strongly about it. It’s a lie if someone put words in my mouth it would be like if you cut tape and piece together words or use somebody who sounded sort of like the person you were interviewing and made the tape it’s just wrong.



Susan: I’m thinking oh my gosh yes this is improv. It’s improv journalism. It is taking a notion and seeing where it leads. And some of those are dead ends of course. But one of the things that I think that I’ve been good at is even when I hit the dead end figuring out OK it feels like a dead end. But some of them are really dead ends but a lot of them if you turn a little. There you go and there’s the other way of approaching this. And being good at thinking on your feet is is essential because you’re diving into something you don’t know what you’re going to encounter. Sure if you call certain people yes you’re there to ask specific questions you know what it’s about. But so much more of what I do is entirely here I am now what? And I have that feeling a lot where I think what was I thinking why did I want to do this story. I don’t even know. And I have to scramble and I’m sure that must be what improv is like. You’re on the stage you’re given a banana, and you’re told OK come up with the scene, and you think think fast. This happens to me that is the guiding principle of of the majority of my work. And certainly in the case of doing a specific profile of somebody. It’s a little bit different, but much of the time it’s “I have a little bit of a notion, I’m kind of curious about it.” I would say most of the stories that I do end up not being at all what I thought they were going to be. I take that as a good sign. They I go into it thinking well I’m going to find out about about X. And actually if I’m really open and really listening and really paying attention, the real story emerges. The one that I kind of anticipated and that’s what I’m following.



Jesse: What is the secret pro tip tool to interviewing all interviewers that you’ve learned through your hard fought experience that I haven’t asked you about already?

Susan: Be a listener. Be a good listener. And sit with your discomfort. Which is part of what listening requires. Those long silences the moment where you aren’t exactly sure what you’re doing or or a person isn’t responding right away. It’s not easy but you have to learn to live with that and listen and be in the moment.


The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Susan Orlean for Grub Street / New York Magazine

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.