LG: I have a general list. I made that list just because there was a time when I had to go to New York to interview Morgan Fairchild and she couldn’t make it because she got sick so we ended up finding someone to replace her and it was Charles Grodin. I wasn’t prepared for it. It was a television interview we were doing so we had a camera crew and we’d rented out a theatre. It wasn’t a good interview, I wasn’t happy with myself. It’s not my fault though because I didn’t know it was happening until that morning. It occurred to me that there is a way to always be prepared and that was to write generic questions. I said for actors and for writers, I made a list of 200 odd questions so I would always have that. If you would call me this morning and say, we have an interview with Michael Douglas can you go do it? Even if I couldn’t prepare for him I had these questions which I could ask. That was my safety net. Interestingly enough, I have never ever had a use for those questions because I usually have enough time to prepare so I always try to prepare individually for whoever I’m talking to. I don’t look at those questions it just sits in my files [laughs].
I have a similar list to that which I started making instinctively before I even knew about your list. I gather questions from all kinds of places.
LG: Yeah well sometimes you’ll see what works. A friend of mine will always ask, when is the first time you dealt with death? That was his question to get into it deeper. He asked every single person he interviewed the death question. Other people have other questions they ask. You can see what works; you can see what brings emotion to people. Usually most people you’re going to ask about their parents, their siblings and growing up – some of them had an easy life and have funny stories and others have had a tough life and it’s more difficult. If they’re a little older and their parents died obviously that would be something very emotional. There are certain triggers that are obvious that you can ask people. The real gold is when you get someone like James Garner the actor who starts telling you that when his father remarried and his stepmother was such a nasty woman that she used to dress him up in a dress and make him go outside and walk around. It got to a point where one time she said something to him and he attacked her and smacked her and tried choking her on the bed. The father comes and if he didn’t stop him, he would have killed his stepmother—that you don’t get to often [laughs]. When you get it you realise wow! We’re going into another place here. Those are the kinds of things that make you wanting to keep going back, people are strange and different and you’re always looking for the differences and not the similarities.
Do you think being curious is an important quality for an interviewer to have?
LG: I think so. I have friends that have very large egos. They look at me and they don’t understand how I can talk to all of these people. After a while they’re like, ‘why are you talking to all these people?’ They want to be talked to, they don’t want to inquire about and that’s okay, that’s an A Type personality. You have to sublimate your own ego if you’re an interviewer. I don’t know if you get Piers Morgan in Australia?
I’ve seen it.
LG: For the longest time when he first started coming on it was all about him. It was all about ‘how am I doing?’ he would say.
Thank you for saying that, I felt the same way when I first saw him do the interview with Oprah (I’d love to chat with him about his interviewing style).
LG: Yeah, you watch it and… I just cringe when I see that! I would never ask a subject, how am I doing? Am I asking a good question? Do you like the way I’m handling this? It’s just crazy. He would rather be interviewed than do the interviewing basically. He’s trying to turn that into his own star vehicle, which he has done. I’m not going to knock him for that. I’m just going to say I don’t feel as comfortable with what he does. It kind of amuses me to watch it. Certain interviews I watch on television and I’ll think they’re good, they get good responses. Otherwise I’m saying am I paying more attention to Piers Morgan, Barbara Walters or the subject? If I am that’s not a healthy interview, that’s not the way it should be. You really want to put the limelight and the spotlight on your subject and let them run with it or fall with it, that’s really what you’re there for.
I read an interview with you where you said that with your students as an early exercise you get them to pair up and interview each other. One of the things you mentioned was they’re allowed to ask anything that they like but the other person can’t get angry at the questions.
LG: That’s the very beginning of the class, the first week there. I’ll pair them up with whoever is sitting next to each other or sometimes if there’s an even amount of boys and girls I’ll do one boy with one girl. Most of them have never done an interview before and they’re already confused about it like, what am I going to say? And, on top of that there are raging hormones that carry on when you’re in your twenties – what’s on most people’s minds? Sex, drugs and rock n roll right?
LG: But are they going to ask about it or are they going to be polite about it and be like, oh maybe the professor wouldn’t like this or maybe it’s impolite to ask it. I tell them no question is out of bounds so don’t worry about that but on the other hand the person being interviewed does not have to answer everything asked. They can say they pass on that. You can say, are you a virgin? They could go, maybe I don’t want to talk about that, it’s uncomfortable for me. They could say, I don’t want to get into sex with you right now, I don’t know you well enough. The thing is you asked and you tried and the answer was there. The question and answer may not appear in the final interview but at least you have the right to feel comfortable in asking anything, that’s really why I did that. It always seemed to work, it allowed them freedom. I think you need to feel free when you are doing an interview.
I’ve read also that you try to discourage your students from a writing career?
LG: Nowadays yes! [laughs] I don’t know how you feel in Australia? But right now… if you’re going to be a writer you write no matter what, it’s inside you and it makes you feel good, it makes you feel incomplete if you’re not writing. If you’re indecisive about it don’t even think about it, have a profession and write on the side. Right now the whole ballgame has changed as far as writing goes. Everything is out on the internet; criticism is out on the internet. It’s very hard to judge what is good and what is bad. There are fewer and fewer places to do interviews. Magazines are folding right and left. Just five years ago I wrote 17 articles for major magazines and I made over $100,000 in doing that and I make a decent living at it. Today I’m writing for a magazine in Poland, I’m writing for a magazine in New Zealand and maybe the occasional magazine here in the United States. Why? because most of the magazines I’ve worked for I’ve lost my editor, it’s folded and gone online, people have owed me money and they can’t pay me anymore. You don’t get paid up front for your articles; you get paid after they get published. What happens when you write an article and the magazine folds? A magazine in Bulgaria named Ego magazine had me do six articles for them which I did and they paid me, then they had me do another five or six which I did and they didn’t publish them – they changed the whole nature of the magazine. They owed me $25,000 which they never paid. What am I going to do? Fly to Bulgaria and sue them! You go on trust. You get to a point where you’re like, pay me advance, and nobody is going to pay you in advance. The nature of it has changed so much.
I always thought freelancing was the greatest job in the world. You’re free. You pick your own subjects. People are paying you to do this work. That’s how I lived! Today starting out it’s a much, much harder and more difficult field to make your living in. I don’t encourage it because I think it is so difficult. If I can discourage you, then you shouldn’t be in it in the first place. If you say, to hell with you I’m going to do it anyway – which a number of my students have God bless them, they’ve gone on and done it. I have a student now who just got a job at the L.A. Times; he won Student Reporter of the Year in the whole of the United States for an article he wrote for my class that I encouraged him to do. I am so proud of him. I see that he is going to have a career. It is a very, very hard time now to decipher how one makes a living, even in publishing right now.
I’ve had eleven books published and it’s very hard for me to get a new book published. Nobody cares about if you write fiction anymore. I have a whole bunch of new ideas for non-fiction but nobody bites at it. I am about to go put everything I do online, e-books and let them go around the world and let’s see if people buy them online on their Kindle or their iPad. It’s a brave new world. I don’t know how it’s going to work. I don’t know how I get advertising for that except to go on Facebook and tell people I’ve got this book out and hopefully they’ll go and buy it and take a look at it and tell your friends—word of mouth. It’s like we’re starting out all over again. It’s going to be an interesting journey.
I can relate. I have done over 100 interviews this year and been paid for maybe ten of them!
LG: It breaks my heart to hear that. On the other hand you’re building up a lot of resources. You’re putting them out on a blog, maybe one day if enough people hit on your interviews you’re going to get a little advertisement interest—that to me seems like the way to do it. You’ve got to put the work in first, that’s where you have to have your own self-determination. You seem to have it which is wonderful! A lot of people can get very discouraged by that, those are the people that I advise—don’t do it! [Laughs].
Thank you. I really believe in the in-depth interview with all my heart. To me it’s a lost art form in a way. I think people still want to read them.
LG: I would like to think so too. I just did a story for a magazine in the States with Sharon Stone (pictured above) and it was 35,000 words, I talked to her for six hours. They wanted a 2,200 word story. I was like, why am I doing this? Then they want you to interview other people and get quotes for it. You talk to five other people and if you put 200 words each of those people there’s 1,000 words and now you’re down to 1,200 words of the interview you’ve done and you’re not doing it as a Q&A you’re doing it as a profile, you do some of your own writing in there so maybe you’re going to quote 500 to 600 words from a 35,000 word transcript – it’s really pathetic. I believe in the long interview but I’m not getting the space I want to show it.
I spoke to another interviewer and writer I love recently who also loves the long form interview and we were talking about how one of the only places in print for a long form interview now is Playboy.
LG: Well the Playboy Interview was always known for that but if you really look at it, my early Playboy interviews with Barbra Streisand, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino ran 25,000-30,000 words – that’s a half a book. Today’s Playboy interview runs about 5,000 words. They’re one sixth of what they used to be and yet they are still considered the ones you remember now or talk about because they’re still longer than what you see in most magazines. You don’t see the in-depth Q&A anymore; it doesn’t exist anymore anywhere unless you do it in book form. What’s considered to be in-depth now is nowhere near in-depth to what it was when I was doing some of those big interviews in the 80s and early 90s.
I’ve read that you kind of ‘fell into’ interviewing when you were working at a publication called Newsday. You’re first interview for them was with Mae West. What significance did that have for you?
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