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The Etiquette of Interviewing

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Damian Corless

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Damian Corless, author of You’ll Ruin Your Dinner, the ideal gift book for anyone with a sweet tooth, reveals his tips for the perfect interview, and just what can go wrong…

My first big name interview was with Howard Jones, who, the 1980s being the most dismal decade in the history of pop music, was a very big name at the time. The editorial staff at Hot Press clearly weren’t 100% confident that I was ready for it, so I was accompanied by a seasoned member of staff who sat at the back of the room passing judgment on my performance. Happily I passed with flying colours and embarked on an interviewing career that continues today. Over the course of 25 years I’ve learned through experience that interviewing is a minefield of dos and don’ts.

Do be prepared

If you haven’t boned up on your subject you might get lucky and get an interviewee that just prattles on regardless of any questions you might put. The trouble with this is that even if the interviewee doesn’t spot you’re faking it, chances are your editor (if he or she is any good) will spot that you haven’t done your homework. I can only recall turning up for one interview totally unprepared, but it wasn’t my fault…

One Saturday many years ago I got a phone call from one of my bosses. They’d set up an interview with a young woman who’d just released a movie soundtrack album, and then completely forgotten about it. Since I had a key to the office, they asked, would I hop on my bike and meet her there? And hurry, because she was already there.  So hopped on my bike and rode like the wind, and when I arrived I found a young woman called Enya huddled in the doorway sheltering from the rain.

So I interviewed her, not knowing the first thing about her. She was no chatterbox, and the interview appeared as a longer-than-usual photo caption. Some years later when she was a global star I interviewed her again at length, but getting her to say anything was like getting blood from a stone. You can be prepared to the hilt, but some people are just naturally reticent.

We’ve all heard the phrase “lazy journalism” and over the years I’ve had my well-prepared interviews piggybacked by hacks who just haven’t bothered to do their homework. Once, when I turned up to interview the veteran actor and director Richard Attenborough, another journalist arrived hot on my heels. She explained that she hadn’t a clue who Richard Attenborough was, and would it be okay if she sat in with her tape recorder rolling while I asked the questions. I thought she had a hell of a cheek, but I agreed.

On another occasion, myself and three other hacks were in Germany for an Iggy Pop show and interview. It quickly became apparent that the other three didn’t know a thing about the legendary singer, as they sat silent, again with tapes rolling, while I asked all the questions.  Lazy journalism. Just say no.

Don’t do a Phil Collins.

I turned up at the Shelbourne Hotel to interview Phil Collins. He was running late, so I was put in an ante-room of his suite. There I listened as he talked for 30 minutes to the man from the Evening Herald.  I had done my homework, but Phil ignored my intelligent, probing questions and rattled out exactly the same interview he’d just given to the Herald man.

Annoyed, I wrote up the interview in the style of Viz comic, concentrating on the fact that this middle aged man liked to play with his huge model train set.  A couple of days after the interview appeared, Phil’s management in London were screaming down the phone to my editor demanding my head on a plate.  In retrospect I should probably have foreseen that outcome.

Keep a straight face.

This is one of the most regular challenges facing the busy interviewer. I did a long interview with Michael Caine, throughout which he was most charming and forthcoming. He was well up on his Irish history and current affairs, and ventured that he expected to see a United Ireland one day. But there was one major distraction.  Someone in the room kept farting, and it wasn’t me. Silent but deadlies, I believe they’re called.

I did manage to keep a straight face, and after some time he lit up a large cigar. Problem solved.  It was far more difficult to keep a straight face when I interviewed a man who’d made the switch from being a pub bouncer to operating a profitable business as a faith healer at the side of a country road. I was alerted to his existence by a free sheet which ran a front page story headlined Local Man Cures Aids.

I tracked him down, but found it hard not to crack up when he started to boast about his recently discovered powers.  He said: “Finbar Nolan and them, the most I ever heard of them curing was bronchitis or a skin allergy or something like that. Faith healers have actually been with me here and they reckon that I am the best faith healer, King of the Faith Healers.” He went on to explain that he’d been told of his healing powers by the Virgin Mary who appeared to him after a crash caused by invisible hands grabbing the steering wheel.

And there was more. He informed me: “I’d welcome death with my open arms. There’s no fear because I know what’s on the other side. I’ll tell you what it’s like. Did you ever go over a hill in a car real quick, and your stomach goes up? It’s a thousand times worse than that.”

It was in response to another front page headline that myself and my colleague Liam Fay went to a modest semi-d in Coolock. The lead story on the Evening Press claimed that an image of Jesus was currently appearing in a bedroom door there and that long queues were forming at the door to have a peek.  We turned up on spec and were greeted by three middle-aged women and a priest. They brought us upstairs and showed us the door. There was indeed a pattern in the grain, but it could just have well been Kurt Cobain as the man upstairs.

We behaved with impeccable politeness, and they showed us their latest discovery which they hadn’t made public yet. In an airing cupboard they’d found an image of the Virgin Mary.  Again we resisted the temptation to collapse in a heap. We did wonder, however, why we had been favoured with a preview of the Virgin in the airing cupboard. As we left, we discovered why. We weren’t asked if we were trainee priests from the seminary, we were told that we were because we had that look about us.  We didn’t disagree. We just said goodbye and thanks.

Our experience in Coolock provided the inspiration for the episode of Father Ted entitled Kicking Bishop Brennan Up The Arse. The writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan are good friends of mine (in fact, I introduced them to each other). They borrowed the idea and had Ted and Dougal paint an image of Jesus low down on a skirting board in order to get the Bishop bending over for his kicking.

Do be extra careful with phone interviews.

Face to face, you can usually get a measure of the mood of the interviewee, and therefore of how far you can push the boundaries with your questions. Over the phone that becomes far more difficult.  A month before his death, I did the last print interview with Phil Lynott. It was over the phone and it was only as it wore on that I came to realize that he was in a stinking mood. (Understandably, in retrospect, since he was clearly very ill.)

I made a jokey comment about his wealth, and he exploded. He calmed down after a while, but then exploded again at another remark of mine which I thought innocuous.  A good friend of mine had phone trouble of a different nature a few days after interviewing Donny Osmond, the well-known singer. She was thrilled to meet the Seventies heart-throb, and told everyone about the encounter.

On a Sunday morning some days later, her mother called her to the phone. In an American accent, the voice at the other end said: “Hi, this is Donny Osmond.” “F**k off Aiden!” she replied, assuming it was a hoax. The decidedly taken-aback caller protested: “No, it really is Donny Osmond. I just wanted to clear up a couple of points we discussed.” Doh!

Do always arrive a few minutes early.

I ran up Grafton Street to the Westbury Hotel, knowing I was running about five minutes late to interview the legendary actor and raconteur Peter Ustinov. I arrived in the lobby in a sweat, apologized profusely, and watched in horror as he stood up, walked past me with a scowl, and disappeared down a corridor. He eventually returned and gave me a good interview, but it’s not an experience you’d enjoy.

Do have a sensible exit strategy.

One Hallowe’en I had an interview set up with ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones who was playing that night with his new band, Big Audio Dynamite. I turned up in the afternoon at the appointed time. The guitarist didn’t. After a long wait, the promoter turned up. He said Jones had better things to do, but he’d talk to me after the show finished that night.  I informed the promoter that I wouldn’t be doing that, because I had a party to go to that night.

I turned up at the office the following Monday, and my editor told me that he’d received a complaint from the promoter, who was a big advertiser. The editor’s counsel was that if you don’t want to do an interview, the last thing to say is that you’re blowing it out to go to a party. Sound advice.

Don’t accept bribes, and if you’re forced to, don’t tell anyone.

I once interviewed a ballroom owner (no longer with us) who’d been through hard times because his ballroom only had a license to serve alcohol on six nights of the year. Then along came rave culture and his ballroom was suddenly filled with bright young things grooving to trance music and making alternative lifestyle choices to drink. I met him in a café and we had a great chat.

As we got up to leave, I put out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand with one hand and with the other shoved a pile of notes into my palm.  I protested that he didn’t need to pay me to write the story. I said it was a great yarn in its own right.  But he was of old show band stock, and that was the way things were done back in the old days.

After something of a good-natured physical struggle, I left with the money, which was the equivalent of two week’s pay to me.  And then I made my big mistake. I told my editor what had happened.  He informed me sternly that I had to return the money.  I knew he was right, and complied.  But I still wish I’d just said nothing.

Always check your recorder is recording.

When I turned up at a London studio to interview Kirsty MacColl. A young man with a friendly smile answered the door, told me she was on her way, and asked if I’d like a tea or coffee. He looked about fifteen and since he was making coffee I assumed he was the studio gopher. So I made small-talk, asking if he liked working in a studio and so on.  Kirsty entered and kissed the boyish gopher and I learned that he was none other than her husband Steve Lillywhite, the renowned producer of U2, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and Morrissey.

This charming couple took me to a nearby restaurant for a meal. I plonked my recorder on the table and let it run for the course of a delightful interview.  I got back to my hotel and played it back. It was blank. Nothing. The batteries were dead, and I’d fouled up on one of the most basic rules of interviewing.  So I did what any sensible journalist in my position would do. I bought the NME, Melody Maker and any other music mag where Kirsty was plugging her new album, and cobbled together a composite interview.  The perfect crime.

About the author

© Damien Corless, December 2011.

Born in Dublin some time ago, Damian Corless stacked supermarket shelves, pumped petrol, taught school kids and failed to become a rock star before falling into journalism. He joined Hot Press on a Fas course and ended up staying for six years. He moved on to take the Editor’s seat at In Dublin, when it was good. He joined Magill as Stand-In Editor, later becoming Political Editor, Managing Editor and Former Editor.

He has written television comedy sketches for BBC2’s Big Train and RTE’s Stew. His acclaimed books include Loose Talk (Wolfhound 1995), GUBUNation (Merlin 2003), That’s Ireland (with Michael Nugent, Blackwater, 2004) and Party Nation (Merllin 2007).
Published in 2010, his book The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket In The World (Gill & Macmillan) told the bizarre story of the mostly illegal super-lottery that was the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes. The Sunday Times described it as “a brilliant piece of forensic work”. The Mail On Sunday praised it as “fascinatingly readable”. The Sunday Business Post called it “most perspicacious”.
His latest book, You’ll Ruin Your Dinner, stretches back to the start of the 20th Century, recording the Irish people’s love affair with sweets, chocolate and ice-cream. Expect the unexpected.

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