Interviews are used in countless contexts and serve many uses. Researchers interview subjects to get first-hand accounts. Reporters interview people in the news as well as regular folks on the street. Sometimes people are quoted and named, other times what they say is used as background or tips, and aren’t named at all.
A magazine writer might have question-and-answer segments, or Q & A, in the middle of a profile of a famous or not-famous person. Historians take often transcribe interviews as an oral history, using the subject’s exact words and phrasing to evoke the speech of the time. Still other interviews might encompass only the words of its subject, often cleaned up for clarity, rearranged and compressed for readability.
This list could go on and on.
What follows is an taxonomy of some of the different published formats interviews take. We’re going to talk about some different interview styles as the semester goes on, both conducting the interview as well as looking at finished products.
If I were to come up with a common ground for these disparate formats, it is this: interviewing is an art and a craft. Interviewing, first and foremost, means paying attention—a large task for many, to be sure. It also means that the interviewer plays the believing game with what he or she being told.
This doesn’t mean not disagreeing; it means letting the person outline the best version of their idea, or rant, or story. Disagreement or playing devil’s advocate comes later, if at all. This means, in part, that we may sometimes listen to things they may disagree with, or agree with, are confused by, or are even repulsed by. More often than not, the interviewer needs to keep things closer to their chest than, say, an Entertainment Tonight interviewer may do.
For many, I’ve given these formats their names, which might explain their relative clunkiness.
The Heavily Edited and Condensed Interview
Runs on the short side, no more than 1,000 words. Usually without an intro or headnote.
You could say, and you would be right, that all interviews are heavily edited and condensed. But then there are the ones that actually come out and present themselves as such.
It depends, as it often does, on context. Take last April’s Women’s Health “5 Juicy Questions for Zac Efron.” These five questions and answer these might come from a longer conversation, and so qualifies as “heavily edited.” But who cares about Zac Efron? In a more weighty publication, however, ones with interviews with, say, leaders or state, the obviousness of a Q&A being compressed, edited, rearranged, and otherwise heavily edited has to be pointed out.
Deborah Solomon’s “Questions For” interviews, perhaps most infamously, in the New York Times Magazine [link]. The successor to this feature, called simply “Talk,” with interviews conducted by Andrew Goldman, has the same heavily edited feel, with the “This interview has been condensed and edited” tag after each one.
The “It’s Also About Me” Interview
Short and sweet. Headnote or fact list as intro. 1,000 words max.
This might be my favorite to read. And to write. There are many examples of this kind of interview, in which the interviewer herself becomes just as much about the piece as the subject(s).
In this format, you will be changing your questions just a bit to take care of some of the more expository duties of your introduction. This is done often in the Magazine interview. For example, you may ask your subject his or her age throughout the course of your interview, but you would include that in the edited version of your question as it appears in the interview.
One example: a couple years ago, I interviewed prize-winning poet John Ashbery, and I knew he was about to turn 80. He didn’t need to be reminded of that, but my readers did, and so when I asked him about whether he sees himself retiring or continuing writing. I included the sentence “You’ll be turning 80 in July” to help readers both to tell them this fact and also know why I was asking the question. I also asked him about his adopted hometown of Hudson, NY, and how it was “once the red light district of the Northeast.” I got to tell readers he lives upstate, and talk about some town lore as well.
You will do this in many of the editing styles of interviews, but you will do this far more often in the introduction-less interview.
This type of interview might also seem a bit more confrontational and more about the interviewer and what he or she says. You might add a thought or observation you say to your interviewee before your question—“that’s crazy—did you hear those sirens outside?”—before asking what you might think is the substantive question—“do you like your neighborhood?” Whereas the latter is your “proper” interview question, the conversational observation provides a set-up and a rationale for your asking the question.
There’s also more room for dialogue-type exchanges, since your introduction isn’t taking up any room. This is because in part this editing style makes the interview more about the pace of conversation than the substance of the conversation. You will also find more “stage directions”-type commentary, which conventionally appears in [square brackets like this], either to indicate what someone does or who is saying what, in the case of interviewing more than one person.
You know, as a playwright, you need the dark space for the artificial to thrive. It dies in sunlight. Hey, the feng shui chart. [Tomoko brings out a pastel-colored drawing of their apartment.] [Tomoko] I didn’t even care about it when I was in Japan. [Joshua] One reason my desk is in that corner of my office. She ascertained where the best energy is. Really, the best spot is where the radiator is. [He consults the chart indicating the pink ray beam as separate from the blue.] There was a big kabuki festival last summer at LincolnCenter. Tomoko was an interpreter. They’d come here, go to the beer garden across the street.
My favorite personality-driven interview practitioner is Toni Schlesinger, who from 1998-2006 interviewed (mostly) ordinary people in New York City, ostensibly about their apartments, in their apartment. These ran in the Village Voice as a regular feature called “Shelter.” New Yorkers love to read about apartments, sure, so there was that hook to the feature. But Schlesinger takes it to another level, engaging in the conversations not only as a journalist, but as active, often chatty, often kooky and endearing participant. She becomes part of the story as much as her subjects.
Here is a list of specific ones I want you to read. I’ve added some words after the link to remind us who the subjects are. Warning: Do take note that the rents specified in these interviews do not reflect the current prices for apartments in New York City!
Two-Story 1800s Wooden Back House [link] Supercute retired nuns!
The Oral Office [link] Supercrazy lady!
Log Cabin Francais [link] Couple in Park Slope.
Ghost Powder [link] Group home.
Au Pair Confidential [link] Seinfeld building!
Loft in Former Warehouse [link] Right after 9/11.
83 Years Here [link] Retired lingerie buyer.
Diversity, Equality [link] Councilman Liu’s chief of staff.
One-bedroom apartment with terrace in 1960s Mitchell-Lama regulated high-rise [link] Retired hat-maker.
The Substantial, In-Depth, Extended Q and A
Examples range from Paris Review to Rolling Stone: Steve Jobs, Mick Jagger, John Lennon. Word count of introduction could be 200-1,000 words; word count of interview itself might be 1,000-8,000 words.
This is the type of interview you might see in scholarly publications with a particular interest or field of study—an interview with a historian in a journal dedicated to history, for example. The introduction usually outlines the particular occasion for the interview—a new book by the subject is out, or there has been a new finding that the subject is uniquely qualified to comment on. Another reason to use this kind of interview is if the subject is a “good interview,” that he or she speaks in complete paragraphs and can translate what he or she says to the page.
These are rare occurrences, however, and the interviewee who can hold forth for hours at a time isn’t necessarily interesting. When I interviewed cultural and literary critic Camille Paglia, for example, she seemed to have whole pages of readymade responses memorized by heart. Her answers, while interesting, needed some sort of balance of responses by the interviewer. I tried my best. Paglia is a formidable conversationalist, and so you have to find a balance between interrupting someone and trying to point the conversation in a different direction.
The Magazine-y Format
Includes headnote that describes subject, reason for interviewing this person at this time, setting of interview as well as a tease for what is about to come in the interview [100-150 words]; Interview Q and A [700-750 words]. Heavily edited. Short questions, continuity-friendly sequence of questions.
Time Out New York‘s The Hot Seat feature is a perfect example. The headnotes seemed to have disappeated in recent years. That’s a shame. Here are a couple with with a nice headnote set-ups. Read them: Kristen Stewart; Alanis Morrissette; RZA; André Leon Talley; Justin Long. My favorite headnote of recent memory is this, from a TONY interview with Kristen Bell:
News flash: Kristen Bell is short. It’s easy to forget, since she’s always going toe-to-toe with giants like Josh Duhamel—a foot taller than the diminutive Bell—or a figurative rom-com heavyweight like Meg Ryan. As the marriage-spoiling other woman in December’s Serious Moonlight, Bell has to romance Oscar winner Timothy Hutton and go mano a mano with Ryan, all while trussed up in duct tape (it’s a comedy). Clearly, Bell never takes a break; she followed this fall’s Couples Retreat with a stint on the Starz show Party Down, continues to narrate Gossip Girl (“Be as sassy as possible,” she says of the voiceover process) and cheerleads for her canceled show Veronica Mars: “I truly feel that [show creator] Rob Thomas and I will shoot a movie, even if it’s in his backyard with my video camera,” she says. With a work ethic like that, we guess we can skip the 5’1″ jokes.
The headnote is funny, punchy, and gets more expository information than is humanly possible, and even has some choice bonus quotes.
The Adapted Oral History, or “As Told To”
Short, magazine-length feature. Byline reads as “As told to [your name here].”
Another example is The “What I’ve Learned” Interview, in which all interviewee’s words, separate subjects, topics bold at beginning to signal to reader. Heavily edited. Find Esquire magazine’s examples here.
The “Fixed Question”/Questionnaire Confession Book Format
Often a back page feature in a magazine (Vanity Fair or gossip magazines).
You will find this type of interview most often as an ongoing feature in a publication. The set of questions are pre-determined, often attributed to someone or have some sort of history or context outside the world of the interiewee.
One example is Vanity Fair magazines’s “Proust Questionnaire,” for example, is inspired by French writer Marcel Proust. The format, while not requiring a rigorous back-and-forth, nonetheless requires an interviewer’s editorial skills often to make work. This kind of interview may recall the several set of fixed-question survey notes that make their way through social media sites like Facebook (“My first times,” etc.).
Vox Pops, People on the Street
The stuff of newspapers, short and sweet, almost a caption.
Sometimes called a “vox pop” (short for vox populi, or voice of the people), you will see these in magazines where a couple people answer the same set of questions. It’s often accompanied by each person, often–you guessed it–standing near, or on, the street. It might be a single person and it’s a proper interview conducted cold, right then and there. There many scenarios when someone interviews a person on the street or other public place. A writer might want to hear what the “common man” has to say about something in the news, and will quote them in a story. You will see these on local TV shows, either in the context of talking about the extreme weather (it might even might go viral).
The published format of a vox pop takes several forms: a round-up-style feature with the question at the top, with pictures of each subject and their answer; a feature or hard news story could have a vox pop section, in which someone from the community is asked about a specific issue; an “as told to”-style feature from a person directly affected by a specific issue. This is sometimes given titles that signal the voice-of-the-people element (examples: “My Turn” or “Community Corner” or “Voices”).
An “On the Street” Interview might have a short (100 or fewer words) headnote that includes just the facts: name, age, occupation, hometown of interviewee; location of interview. The Q and A part is punchy, off-beat, even semi-confrontational, and come in at something like 400 words.
Time Out New York‘s On Fashion feature has some pretty great “on the street” interviews, taking as the starting point what the person is wearing, often moving further afield subject-wise.