“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.” —Janet Malcolm
Interviewing people is an odd business, as Malcolm so acidly pointed out. For half an hour or an entire day, you are in an invented cocoon of coziness, in which the journalist’s job is to convince the subject to reveal more than he or she is normally willing to reveal to a stranger with a tape reorder, and the subject tries to parry and thrust and escape without giving too much way but still being interesting enough to sell his or her project.
The best interviews, needless to say, involve both parties pretending the situation in which they find themselves is not a bizarre power play, in which interviewer and subject hit it off in a friendly way and do their jobs with pleasure and wit.
However… things get complicated when someone points out the underlying structure of the interview. Recently, I was on my way to a restaurant with an actor and a press rep. I was starving and had planned on paying for lunch for both of us, but ahead of me the press rep warned the actor that whatever he ate would find its way into the story I would write. At the time, for some reason, I thought the rep was reminding the actor that fans might snap pictures of him eating. Only later that night did I understand that it was a circumvention.
I find this distressing for several reasons. One of them being that I would never stoop to using a meal as a window into a soul—or even as color. Nothing is worse than reading a writer who relies on food to set a mood. Hacky. Another reason is that suddenly, he’s on the defensive and thinking ahead to what I will write alone at my desk, which even I don’t contemplate in advance. If I know the story I want to write, I’m not doing my job correctly or even honestly. This doesn’t exactly create a comfortable situation for either of us. And, you know, I really wanted an expensive lunch that I could expense away. Instead, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich alone at home. Thanks.