Wednesday, July 09, 2003

I place a high value on the interview. I regard it as a relationship, even if you never see that person again. By interviewing them, I take on the responsibility to accurately reflect their meaning. I take that responsibility seriously. And by doing so, I allow the story to grow organically out of what people say, and what I observe.

As I recently realized, this priority of responsibility to the person I interview has made me very popular with the people I write about. But it has not always made me popular with editors. We've recently seen some high profile scandals of reporters who faked stories in small and outrageously large ways. They were able to do so because they were meeting their editors' desires, and secondarily because interview subjects are so used to shoddy treatment that they didn't complain when they were misquoted or distorted, because they thought that was normal.
Pleasing editors, including their competitiveness and their prejudices, is the path to success. Interview subjects are fodder to a lot of them, and therefore to a lot of writers.

Not to me. I am very often impressed about how much people know about their jobs, how sincere they are, how hard they work, and what good stories they represent that seldom get told. Either they and the work they do is ignored, or certain aspects of it are ignored.

Celebrities of one kind or another are examples of the second category. A lot of famous actors, for instance, are quite serious about acting, about storytelling, about theatre and theatrical tradition, and about the various issues they might advocate. But mostly what you read about them is gossip. Check out Bravo's Actor's Studio interview series. Sure, there's a certain amount of silliness and pretension and show biz, but I defy anyone who has seen a reasonable selection of those programs to continue believing the only thing these actors care about is salary and stardom, or more to the point, that's the only interesting thing about them.

And of course, the first category includes just about everybody who isn't a celebrity. The only kinds of work that get covered are politics---mostly Washington politics---and sports. Business gets covered on an entirely different level, along with a lot of political coverage: a level that is hard to describe except as abstracted and coded to the point of being
delusional. Science is covered superficially except in specialized publications. Law, justice, government---only scandal, superficial coverage of crime, gossip. Which means there are millions of stories not being told, that are actually much more important to our common life than a lot of the here-today, gone later-today reportage of politics, the economy, etc.

I've done stories that involve setting contrary views against each other, and I've quoted people to their detriment. But most of the time I've done stories that profile people or a process and explain what they do, and something of what it means. I place people and processes in various appropriate contexts--- often historical in some sense.

One of my guides is my assignment (or basic idea, if it originated with me) but my chief guide is what the reader would want and need to know.
The question," what is the story?" is in part a question of narrative form, in part a question of "news" or otherwise a journalistic question, in part a question of getting at the essence, and in large part is a question of what will attract, inform, entertain, enlighten the reader.

So that's the process I'm in the middle of for an assigned story. It has other difficulties at the moment, including a lot of people on vacation, and a number of agendas that are supposed to be addressed in a short time and a quite limited number of words. So we'll see.

My other project is different in one major respect: both of the people I am writing about cannot be interviewed on account of their mortal coils having been shuffled off some time ago. An agent is interested in my idea for a series of biographies for young readers, the subjects being figures in science fiction and fantasy, and the gimmick is that I'm approaching them in pairs. Can't give away more than this, but I have done a draft of a sample chapter for the first proposed book. Suffice it to say that it was weird to have a semi-real excuse to be writing about Star Trek. CONTINUING

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