I’ve been interviewing someone for a magazine, and it was an unusual interview to conduct because the person I talked to is my friend and longtime pen-pal, Sacha Mardou. She’s a comics artist—she draws under the name Mardou—whose work has lately gotten some good critical attention. Interviewing her this way was interesting for me for a few reasons. First, because she’s interesting, and we found ourselves talking about lots of different things, including 90s indie bands, the idea of “acting” in comics, Neil Diamond, the Woody Allen story “The Whore of Mensa,” and the way Sacha discovered comics—through music magazines, like Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl on the cover of the UK’s now-defunct Deadline magazine. These topics kept us in an engaged conversation for over a week. It was nice for me to get to know my friend better this way.
But what was most useful to me, I think, was what this experience taught me about interviewing—or, if not taught, encouraged me to consider. I have always found interviewing people to be inherently awkward, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. It’s an unnatural set-up. This isn’t how conversations are supposed to work, with one person interrogating the other, and both people pretending to find the whole thing pleasant and ordinary. There’s a huge power imbalance too, because the interviewer has made the interviewee vulnerable, which is easy to forget when you’re the one conducting the interview. (This became much clearer to me once I’d been on the other side of the table, so to speak, and had my first experience of being interviewed. It’s too bad every journalist isn’t forced to play that role at some point.) As the interviewer, you’ve got your list of questions, things you want—and in some cases, need—to know in order to write the article. But they’re not always easy questions to ask, and many times they’re things that would violate all ordinary rules of politeness if you asked them in any other social situation. As a person who possesses politeness at a molecular level, this was a big hurdle for me to get over. But honestly, the thing that bugs me the most is the falseness of the interview process. It’s supposed to look like a conversation—and indeed it works much, much better the more like a conversation it goes—but it’s not a conversation, not really.
Turns out, interviewing a friend is a conversation. What a treat! Sacha and I blathered back and forth, and I didn’t feel obliged to hold back my own commentary the way I would in a more formal interview with a stranger, and this made things flow a lot more smoothly. Anything extraneous, or that went too far into the realm of the personal, I simply left out of the finished piece. (The interview will run as a straight question-and-answer format.)
I have a feeling that this is closer to how I should conduct all my interviews, but I wonder if that’s possible. How comfortable and chatty can you be with someone you’ve just met? If the person is an artist, having an encyclopedic knowledge of their work is a necessary first step—it’s as close to knowing that stranger as you’re going to get. I knew a great deal about Sacha’s work and artistic background before I started the interview, but that was from knowing her personally. And as she hasn’t been interviewed a ton, I don’t think I could have found much of this out through research alone. So it’s tough. Maybe we arts journalists should only ever interview people we know. Maybe it’s like the idea I gleaned from The Wild Braid, a book of interviews with the poet Stanley Kunitz (which was published the year he turned 100!): In order to deeply understand a poem you must know something of the poet’s life and circumstances. I can’t remember exactly what he said now but this is the gist I got, anyway, and I felt confused by it and disagreed with it at the time. But now I’m reconsidering it. How useful is my opinion of Sacha’s art if I know nothing about her as a person? It might be good enough for me as a casual viewer, but it’s surely not enough for an article on the work that offers any real insight on it at all.
I’ll post a link to the interview when it runs.