US-based writer Larry Grobel is another of my interviewing heroes – up there with previous ConversationsWithBianca.com interviewee Anthony Bozza. He has interviewed the likes of Lucille Ball, Mae West, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, Halle Berry (pictured above), Angelina Jolie, Tom Waits, Miles Davis, Charlie Sheen and so many more. He has authored numerous books including Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel, The Hustons and Conversations with Brando. I first came to Larry’s work while I was working at a university library. Shelving one day I came across his book The Art of the Interview. This book is one of the only books on interviewing I have found to be helpful and that offers any real insight to what it’s really like to be an interviewer. The stories he recounts in the book set my imagination on fire and got me dreaming about the possibilities of where I could take my own work. Recently he was kind enough to give me some time to chat about our mutual passion of interviewing. Like both me and Bozza, Larry believes in the in-depth interview. Larry was the guy that wrote the in-depth, long form interviews in Playboy magazine back in the 80s that people still talk about today. He’s been called ‘The Interviewer’s Interviewer’ and ‘The Most Intelligent Interviewer in the United States’ as well as being a New York Times bestselling author. I’m super excited to give you this conversation…
I find it really interesting that you joined the Peace Corps in 1968-71 and went to Ghana spending time teaching journalism and that you also teach journalism now at UCLA. What inspired you to teach others about your craft?
LARRY GROBEL: I don’t think it was inspiration so much as just circumstance. Initially with the Peace Corps I was avoiding the draft and Vietnam. I knew I wasn’t going to go into the army. I had always believed in John F. Kennedy’s belief in the Peace Corps so I went and did it. They assigned me to that. You don’t know where you’re going to be assigned, they asked me if I wanted to teach at the Institute of Journalism and I said sure. I wasn’t teaching interviewing at that time, I was teaching English and literature, feature writing and creative writing. Interestingly enough I have kept in touch with some of my former students even to this day. That was a very rewarding experience.
When I came out, I wasn’t teaching again for a while. It wasn’t until I got back to Los Angeles that a friend of mine became the director of Antioch College in Los Angeles. He asked if I would be his assistant. I thought about it and I thought it would be fun to develop some programs. So I developed a Graduate Masters of Professional Writing program. I did that for a few years. I stopped in 1980 and for 20 years I was writing, just my own freelancing. I got a call from UCLA from the chairman of the English Department saying, ‘You got your degree from UCLA and you’ve survived, we have 1400 students at UCLA that are English Majors it is the largest English Major in the country.’ He worried about the fact that most of these students that don’t become teachers will be lost because what jobs are you going to get these days as an English Major? He said, ‘You’ve survived, could you teach a course in survival?’ I thought about it for a little while and I mentioned it to Al Pacino who is a friend of mine and he said, ‘Oh you gotta teach, you gotta do it. If you teach I’ll come to your first class.’ I thought it could be interesting.
To go back a little bit, when I wrote my book on Truman Capote [Conversations with Capote] with New American Library the editor at that time (that was 1995) had asked me if I would write a book about interviewing. I said no. I didn’t think I was ready to write a book about it, I hadn’t given it that much thought. It came out of the blue that request. When I started to think about what to teach at UCLA I came up with a whole bunch of different ideas and finally came to the conclusion that I should really teach what I know—what I know is that somehow I learned to talk to people. I saw that you could put it together in a lot of different ways. If you really study interviewing correctly you’re learning about a lot of aspects that could help you in your life not just as a reporter. I don’t know if you’ve read my book or looked at it but I wrote about that part of it. I decided to teach ‘the art of the interview’ and decided to call it Life Skills (that was the real title). As I was teaching it I started to see how it would help students. They would go to apply for jobs and they would turn the tables on the interviewer interviewing them and they would ask the person interviewing them questions and they were getting these jobs. I saw that there was some hope here and that this just wasn’t for reporters.
After two or three years of doing this I wrote a book about it as a text [The Art of the Interview – pictured above]. That book came out in 2004. That was almost ten years after I had been asked to write a book about it that I finally came around to writing it. I’ve enjoyed teaching because I enjoy giving back. You learn something in life and you’re able to lecture about it and talk about it and people can get something out of it. It just became part of my life in the last ten years until this June when the whole University of California got hit with an almost billion dollar debt and they had to cut back all the seminars and classes which mine was among them. As of this moment I am no longer teaching, although tonight ironically I have to go to a dinner with my former students because they like to keep in touch with me [laughs]. They asked if they could take me to dinner so I said sure. I’m going to have a dinner here soon with some of my other students because I like to keep in touch with people. Teaching to me is a never ending thing. I still keep in touch with my students from Ghana; I keep in touch with students from Antioch and I keep in touch with students for UCLA. It’s enriching for me as well, I like to see how they are doing. I like to help them if I can, advance themselves. A lot of times they have questions that they know they can come to me for. It’s just part of my life. Is that a long answer? [laughs].
It’s fine, it’s so good to hear it all, I resonate with a lot of what you are saying having interviewed since I was 15 years-old – the idea of learning life skills from interviewing. I just wanted to say thank you to you for writing your book. You asked if I have read it and I sure have. I used to shelve it so many times a day when I was working at a university library. I know it well, it is one of the only books on interviewing that I have ever found helpful.
LG: I’m glad to hear that.
I used to read it a lot in my breaks. The way you describe interviewing in it is how it really is.
LG: That book is very much like a memoir. It’s not a how-to it’s a how-I-did [laughs]. I know that it focuses a great deal on celebrity and that’s only because I have interviewed so many of them. My intention was that you could really get something out of it that wasn’t necessary just for celebrities; you can interview anybody really or talk to anybody.
The real important thing about understanding interviewing is to be prepared and the other is, to know how to listen and don’t interrupt. To be prepared gives you confidence; confidence is the other very strong thing that you need to have. I don’t think you have confidence if you don’t prepare, at least that was always the case with me. If I ever had a situation where I was asked to do an interview and that I wasn’t really prepared to do it, I just felt uncomfortable.
You have a list of 215 questions for times like that?
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