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Interviewing a Biographer

Have you ever been interviewed, either for a published article or in a live, videotaped setting? As someone who has endured both experiences and also watched other biographers being interviewed (mostly under the auspices of the Leon Levy Center for Biography in New York), I have a lot to say about this subject.


I say "endured," because my experiences have run the gamut from annoying to downright frightening. As someone who thinks best with her fingers on a keyboard, I prefer being able to type my responses to questions rather than being quoted as I speak. Writing allows me to formulate my replies at leisure rather than suddenly have to deal with some topic I've never even considered.


Over time, I've learned to "manage" interview questions that I have no answer for, by swerving into a somewhat allied topic that better reflects my interests. But, although I have given talks about my books, my ordinary life does not involve lecturing (I'm not an academic) or otherwise addressing the public. So being interviewed is always stressful.


I think the problem mainly has to do with my interviewers' assumptions.


Because I've written about women, interviewers who apparently haven't read my books tend to assume that my subjects were staunch feminists. In fact, none of them were, which (inevitably to the annoyance of the interviewer) did not lead me to criticize them. It is axiomatic that people have diverse and often contradictory drives and personalities. Some accomplished women have acted with a sense of self-determination but shied away from identifying with a "sisterhood."


While I do point out obvious instances of patriarchal domination, I do not write from a theoretical standpoint. My interest is in the complicated tissue of a life, not in reducing it to a category.


Then there is the question of "greatness." In a live interview about my biography of Elaine de Kooning, my interlocutor asked me whether I thought Elaine was as great an artist as her husband Willem, one of the titans of twentieth-century art. I was taken aback. Of course she wasn't his equal as an artist, I replied, to the discomfort of my interviewer. Elaine was an interesting artist in terms of her range over various subjects and styles, and her portraits are her best work. But what fascinated me were the ways she made a career and life for herself apart from her famous husband.


I would not write about anyone whose work did not strike me as unique and worth considering, but I care nothing about "greatness," whereas I absolutely must be assured that a person's life was eventful and can be documented in personal as well professional detail.


With the bright-eyed demeanor of someone who has devised an amazingly creative question, interviewers are prone to ask what I didn't know about my subject when I began researching her. When I truthfully reply "everything," that does not go down well. Also inevitable is the question about the most surprising thing I learned, also a nonstarter. I start researching without any preconceived notion about my subject, so nothing I learn is particularly surprising. I guess another author might simply make up plausible answers to these questions, but I feel exasperated at their fatuity. These are lazy questions, people! Another space-filler is to ask about "my favorite" biographies, or artists, or writers. I balk at this; I'm not interested in providing lists.


So what do I want? If an interviewer hasn't read the book, how about open-ended, yet directed, questions like, "Tell us about her early years," or "Tell us about how she coped with a difficult time in her life," or "How difficult was it to find the documentation you needed?" If the interviewer has read the book, she should—rather than harping on tiny issues that are mostly intended to show how clever she is—consider how best to make the book's contents vivid to an audience who hasn't yet opened the cover.


My worst interview was about my biography of the novelist, short story writer, and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick. My interlocutor, whose nasty demeanor may have been colored by his recent firing from a major editing position, seemed hell bent on impaling my book on a skewer of his own devising. As a private and quiet person who is not accustomed to being in a public spotlight, I expected the normal sort of Q and A, not a mean spirited grilling.


On the other hand, the friendly back-and-forth style of interviewing can too easily devolve into a vapid mutual appreciation society. What I don't want is to see two good friends (author and interlocutor) exchanging fond compliments and giggling over great moments in a book the audience has not yet read. Nor do I want an interviewer who has covered a stack of papers with niggling questions that she seems determined to keep asking, regardless of the directions in which the interview is going. At the other extreme, interviewers who simply cede the floor to the author are also failing to do their job properly.


Ideally, the interviewer's goal is simply to have the author tell the audience about the book in the most accessible, lively way possible. "Tell us about the time when X" is a great question, allowing the author to present the anecdote.


© Cathy Curtis 2024



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