Media: Listen up, it's Hunter's turn: Hunter Davies reveals the secrets of his interviewing style, honed over more than 30 years of celebrity interviews with the rich and famous
Personally, I don't see such difference between the sexes, but most Famous People are men, most editors are men, so these sexist notions persist. Let's send a girlie. She'll get him.
What I have noticed is that women interviewers work harder than men - and almost all use a tape recorder. I'm a notebook man myself. Always have been. I did once use a tape recorder, back in the Sixties, when I interviewed W H Auden. It was huge and ungainly - the machine, not Mr Auden, though he was heavy going as well - and the interview never appeared. It was probably a rotten interview, but I blamed the machine and never used one again. I've stuck to little red-lined notebooks since, the soft sort that can be carried unseen.
The big advantage of a notebook, as opposed to tape, is that I am editing as I go along. I jot down only the good stuff, the flavour, people's speech mannerisms. If they come out with something particularly outrageous, I might not write it down, not at that moment, but simply nod and look sympathetic. I wait for them to tell me something truly banal, about how they love children, always help old people across the road, at which stage I write down the previous outrageous remark. I jot down details of their clothes, their face, the setting, conversations with other people, any interruptions, especially interruptions. All interviewers are dying for the unexpected, to give us colour, show the subject in a different light.
When I was younger, I stayed until I was thrown out, on the principle that you never know when something good will come up. Today, two hours is max. After that, it's diminishing returns. You've either got an interview or you never will.
I always ask to see people at home, but don't always manage it. You can double your information, treble your insight, the moment you step through someone's front door. No wonder people like Ken Dodd never let interviewers in. Not stupid. Offices are usually rotten, putting you, the interviewer, at a disadvantage, as the subject is always in control with you on the periphery, unless, of course, they are total extroverts, like Alan Sugar, who don't give a damn.
I prefer it when there is no angle to the interview, in the sense that they are not on a promotional tour, doing the rounds, talking to everyone. I like them best when they are lying fallow, out of the news, with time to contemplate. I suppose I prefer writers, judging by the selection in the book, but I also like doing people from walks of life I know nothing about.
I usually start off with something soft and soppy, about the house, the surroundings, getting there, the news of the day, or perhaps some person or some interest we have in common which I have gleaned from the cuttings. I hate arriving with a photographer, but I don't mind them coming in later. Colour photographers are death to interviews. They take over with their lights, their assistants, their potty requests. You might as well go home.
I don't have a written list of questions. Only in my mind. It's topics, rather then questions, I want to bring up, things that have puzzled me, or theories I want to try out on them. I have read every major interview with them beforehand, checked facts in Who's Who or other reference books.
Then I might settle down into their childhood, early days, early struggles, always good fun, always safe ground. But I stop - once they are famous. It is a truth, not universally acknowledged, that all Famous People are the same. Once they've made it, they tend to react in the same sort of way, with similar emotions. It's all in the cuttings anyway, and you're trying not to let them bore you and themselves by repetition. I then like to jump to the present day, getting them to look at themselves, to question what it's all been about. Aren't they a failure in a way, still doing the same thing? If they're so rich, why are they still working so hard?
I've recently started discussing the interview with them, after I've closed my notebook, asking why they gave certain answers, why they reacted in a certain way. This is a trick. With luck, some extra revelation will come out, then I'll get my notebook, and ask if I can use it. There is a lot of low cunning involved. Curiosity, empathy and fluttering eyelashes are not enough.
With FPs, one of the hardest but most profitable things to do is to put yourself in their shoes. I try to imagine sitting where they sit. I wonder what their disappointments have been. I wonder who in life is still bugging them. No one is too famous or rich not to have worries. I never realised this when I was young, but with age you ask different questions anyway. At one time I asked about their children, who got up at night. Now I ask about their health, how's the bad back?
I try not to start writing the interview on the day I do it. I like to sleep on it, thinking what my intro will be, how I'll get into it. Very often it's the first bit I tell my wife when I come home, the daft bit of information which lodges in the mind. 'Guess what, two hours, and the mean bugger never gave me a cup of tea]' I've always held it against Arthur Miller for making me sit at one end of the room while he and his wife ate and drank without offering me a thing.
I need six hours to write it - and I spend the first two hours not opening my notebook. I write the first half out of my head, setting the scene, or setting up a good quote. You can always remember the best quotes. I never begin with a quote, as I consider that the mark of an amateur. I try for a first paragraph that will be interesting, arresting, amusing or teasing. I like to drop hints early on of things to come, or set up the questions and notions I hope to pursue. I don't like going straight into the person, but approaching elliptically, having some fun. This is bad journalism, I'm sure, as young journalists are still taught to get the best stuff up front.
Now I come to the Big Confession. I always offer the interviewee the chance to read the interview before I hand it in - but only to correct any factual mistakes. My opinions and observations will be mine, which can't be changed. If I say they are fat and they think they are thin, hard luck. But any real errors, then fine. I want it to be correct.
I don't know any other interviewer who does this. They all think I am a traitor to the craft, an encourager of something that should never be allowed. It is a drag, from a time point of view, but in 30 years I can't remember a vital bit I've lost. Fifty per cent make no changes, agreeing they said what they said. The rest request minor alterations. Once you've found out what's upset them - and usually they don't tell you at first - then it's easily altered. In the Salman Rushdie interview, I expected him to want out the suggestion of masturbation. All he asked for, as a favour, was the omission of his weight. Pure vanity, he said. Michael Winner had hysterics, offering me double whatever I was getting paid not to hand in my interview. I made some changes about his voice, altered some tenses, but that was all. He still didn't like it, but had the decency to write afterwards and say his friends enjoyed it.
An interview is in many respects a work of fiction. It didn't happen in the way you write it. The order of events has been changed. Quotes are concertinaed, simplified, made grammatical. You create something out of an hour in someone's life, give it a meaning that might not have existed. It's a minor piece of artifice, meant to be enjoyed.
Hunter Davies's interviews appear every Tuesday in the 'Independent'. His book 'Hunting People - Thirty Years of Interviews with the Famous' is published this week by Mainstream, pounds 7.99.
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