David Marchese on the Art of the Interview

From a story on CJR’s The Media Today by Ayodeji Rotinwa headlined “David Marchese on the art of the interview”:

In September, David Marchese, a journalist at the New York Times, interviewed Jann Wenner, the cofounder of Rolling Stone, who was about to publish a book compiling his interviews with seven rock “masters,” all of them white men. In the introduction to the book, Wenner wrote that performers of color were not in his zeitgeist, but Marchese told Wenner that he found this implausible and asked him to articulate the “deeper explanation” for how he picked his subjects. In response, Wenner suggested that women and performers of color whom he could have included were not “articulate” enough at “an intellectual level.” The backlash was swift. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation removed Wenner from its board. He ultimately apologized.

Marchese’s conversation with Wenner may have been contentious, but that isn’t always the case with his interviews. His interview style is a kind of art. The way he is able to elicit unexpected, entertaining, revelatory answers. The regularity with which famous and (presumably) guarded people open up in ways they haven’t before. Quincy Jones, for example. Or Erykah Badu, or David Letterman. Vice once compared his interviews to “therapy sessions.”

The Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School invited Marchese to discuss the “art of the interview” and how young journalists might learn from his approach. Among other things, he advised meticulous preparation—in his case, spending up to six weeks reading everything there is to read on a subject, including material that isn’t easily Google-able. After the Delacorte event, I spoke with Marchese about navigating deference in interviews (especially with famous people), negotiating access, and disagreeing.

AR: There are certain figures you obviously are really interested in, or a fan of, and also really want to interview. But you talked during the Delacorte event about not being deferential to anyone when interviewing them. How do you reconcile those things in your work?

DM: I don’t see what you’re describing as something that needs reconciling, because, in my view, the way to show someone the most respect—that you’re taking them seriously—is to ask them questions that aren’t always easy. I think sometimes people can construe or interpret a non-deferential line of questioning as being disrespectful or combative. I don’t see it that way. I don’t think that not showing deference means that I’m somehow risking or setting aside my own personal interest in a person or my respect for them.

I read a New Yorker profile of Jay-Z by Kelefa Sanneh, written twenty years ago, which is critical—scathing, even—of the artist. Some observers have suggested that such a profile would be very unlikely these days because of access, because journalists want to speak to their subject again. Is that ever a concern for you, or do you feel like, because you work for the New York Times, they’re going to come back to you anyway?

I do sometimes have a concern that if publicists and managers and celebrities give too much weight to the interviews I’ve done that have a more critical balance to them, then it will be hard for me to continue to book celebrities as subjects. The thing that I try to remind people is that I’ve done somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred and thirty, a hundred and fifty of these interviews for the New York Times Magazine, and somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five have some real tension or argument to them.

Publicists and managers are concerned about the perception that people have of their clients; they might focus too much on what they see as those negative examples, and they’re not remembering that there are the hundred-plus examples where I had a conversation with someone that went great. I do think about that misunderstanding or misperception becoming the dominant one. And I don’t want that to be the case.

The hope is that people understand that if somebody says something that I disagree with, I’m going to tell them that I disagree, or [if] there’s something in their recent or distant past that might be problematic, it’s fair game. But I’m never starting from a place of trying to trip someone up or make some bad news. As we move forward, celebrities are more interested and comfortable in sharing their voice without the middleman of a journalist. I think doing my kind of work is not going to get any easier.

Do you think your job will be extinct in, say, five years, when everyone just has a TikTok? Beyoncé, for instance, doesn’t do interviews anymore. She writes her own profiles now…

I’ve been very encouraged that a lot of the pieces I do with subjects who are not famous at all attract just as many readers, if not more, as the interviews I do with very famous subjects. If you can get the right person talking about the right thing, and if you can frame the headline and frame the conversation in the right way, you can have a piece that a lot of people want to read. I’ve increasingly come to understand that there is an audience for those pieces.

In 2018, you did this interview with Vice where you said, “I actively wish I had more opportunity to interview people whose behavior and philosophies I disagreed with.” And I wondered, why haven’t you?

I’m curious about people. I want to be sympathetic to them. I’m interested in talking about ideas. I would much rather talk about ideas where they are shared. I just find that more fruitful and engaging and enjoyable for me. Obviously, there’s an important place for pushing at ideas that you have disagreement with. I interviewed this popular Catholic priest, this guy named Father Mike Schmitz, and he has ideas about things in the culture that I disagree with. But he was willing to have the conversation in an honest, open, authentic, good-faith—no pun intended—way.

I did an interview last year with Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosopher, who wrote a book about how we should think about animal rights and what we owe animals from a moral and ethical standpoint. [There were] a number of things in it that I disagreed with, but she was so willing, and I was eager, to actually have a discussion about why she thinks what she thinks without it turning into an argument or [her] getting offended that I was questioning the premises of some of her arguments.

Those kinds of exchanges are ones I do like to have, where I feel that you’re having a meaningful intellectual discussion about ideas. The kind that I don’t want to have is where I would just feel kind of performative—like I have a subject who I fundamentally disagree with about something, and the only reason I’m having that interview is to shine a light on what I think is their bad thinking, and they’re probably not actually open to criticism of their thinking. Then it’s like you’re just butting heads. I’m just not interested in that.

Have you ever changed your mind about something because of an interview you did?

It will be less an instance of, like, I used to think this was blue and this person has convinced me it’s green, and more about someone explaining their thinking to me in a way that opens up some sympathy on my part where maybe I used to feel very much like I disagreed. The most recent column I published was with a hospice nurse [named Hadley Vlahos] who wrote a book that was a bestseller. She talks about her belief that sometimes, as patients approach death, their deceased family members actually come back and shepherd them into the afterlife—which, of course, suggests that there is an afterlife and that something happens to people after they die; they don’t just disappear. I don’t believe that happens at all. But I can have greater respect for her belief that there is an afterlife and other people’s belief that there is an afterlife because I found the way she expressed herself so moving.

At the Delacorte event, somebody asked what you want your audience to take away from your interviews, and you mentioned, among other things, that you want them to be entertained. It seems like the mark of a successful interview these days is the subject revealing something viral-worthy or something controversial. What do you see as the mark of a successful interview?

Maybe “entertain” is not the most accurate word I could have used in that moment. Maybe something like “engage” would have been better. Maybe they find the piece engaging because it’s funny. Maybe they find the piece engaging because there are ideas in it that they find interesting. Maybe they find the piece engaging because there’s gossip. Maybe they find the piece engaging because they disagree with it. And all of those reasons would be fine to me. All those reasons seem to be valid ones for people to want to read an article. My hope would be that within that, people can take away some sense that the engagement is not arrived at cheaply.

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