When I told my wife that PZ Myers had worked his heathen magic on the Readers’ Choice ballot, she immediately said, “If you win, I hope you’re not going to let the paper interview you.”
Her concern is not just vague, out-of-the-blue nervousness. She knows a little something about writers. During the many years we’ve been together, I’ve spent untold hours interviewing folks for stories in both newspapers and magazines.
Usually, I’m respectful of my subjects. But believe me, if I choose to do so, I know how to make anyone sound like a jerk.
The truth is: all humans sound like jerks when we’re having normal conversations. We stammer, we add empty interjections, and we repeat ourselves. We stop to collect our thoughts and helplessly watch them leaving on a train that chugs out of our head and gets lost. We make odd gestures and ridiculous faces. We mispronounce words, misuse phrases, and accidentally say one thing when we mean something else entirely. We scratch our nose, our ear, our armpit. We fart or belch or sneeze or hiccup or snicker inappropriately.
Normally, when we talk to one another, those kinds of unimportant tics of communication become essentially invisible and inaudible. We don’t notice them in our relatives, friends, and acquaintances unless the idiosyncracies are really, really, really annoying.
A good print interviewer who wants to be fair to his subject leaves all that garbage off the page. Often, in fact, a writer will correct the interviewee’s most egregious gaffes in grammar or syntax. A particularly kind journalist might even phone a subject after the fact, and give the person a chance to correct an error that was clearly just an oral typo: “Did you actually mean to say that Charles Dickens wrote The Voyage of the Beagle?”
On the other hand, if an interviewer wants to present his source in a bad light, he can always find a way to do it.
For example: Let’s say that I’m a reporter interviewing some guy we’ll call Larry Wallberg. At the beginning of the interview, I ask him a few “softball” questions, trivial things about his everyday likes and dislikes. Maybe I feel that he needs to be warmed up, or set at ease. I might want to get to know him a little before I turn to the meaty questions, to see how he expresses himself, to listen to his speech patterns. If I’m fair and unbiased, the paragraph I write about this interchange might look like:
Wallberg always starts his day with packaged cereal. “I’ve been doing that since I was a boy,” he says. He loves the new Chocolate Cheerios because “they’re like a cross between cereal and, frankly, cookies.” On the other hand, he adds with a chuckle, “I avoid Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries because it’s a little too sweet even for me.”
Pretty innocuous, right? But what if I take an instant dislike to my source, and I feel like being a prick? There are sooooo many ways I could make that poor guy look like a complete asshole. Shall I paint him as an undecided semi-literate? Or shall I hint that he’s probably lying? How about making him look like an automaton prig? Or a grown-up child? Or a pretentious fool who’s capable of thinking only about the most mundane subjects?
Wallberg says he always starts his day with “um … packaged … y’know … cereal. I’ve been doing that since … I dunno … since I was … what? … let’s just say, since I was a kid.” He mentions that he loves the new chocolate “Cheetos … no, I mean Cheerios,” which remind him of “a cross between cereal and … Christ, what? … let’s just say, between cereal and … I guess they’re kind of like cookies, really.” He says he avoids “Cap’n Crunch with … what the hell do they call those things? … dingleberries? … I’m kidding … oh, yeah, crunchberries. Crunchberries, that’s them. It’s a little too f**king sweet … even for … hey, even for me. No sh*t.”
When asked how he starts a typical day, Wallberg pauses to collect his thoughts, shifts uncomfortably in his seat, and looks at the selection of boxes marching in helter-skelter formation on top of his refrigerator. Beads of perspiration collect on his brow. Finally, he blurts out, “I always start my day with packaged cereal.” Staring longingly at the front box, which is clearly marked “Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries,” Wallberg claims, “I love the new Chocolate Cheerios.” So why is he caught stealing yet another glance at the cereal that seemingly has pride of place in the parade? As if anticipating the question, the obese Wallberg adds, “I avoid Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries because they’re too fricken sweet.” Even for him? “No lie,” he says, nodding a bit too vociferously.
Mr. Wallberg never varies his rigid morning routine, which — according to him — he has been performing since he was a child. “I always start my day with a bowl of cereal,” he intones, as if the very thought of doing otherwise would upset the cosmos. These days, the cross (his word) he has to bear is the new Chocolate Cheerios. “Frankly, they’re like cookies,” he says, making a face of self-disappointment. Mr. Wallberg may not enjoy his current daily regimen, but he’s unyielding in keeping to it. So he scrupulously avoids other dry breakfasts like Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, the very idea of which elicits an expletive from him.
Larry always starts his day just as every young kid would, with a heaping bowl of highly processed cereal. His current favorite he says, grinning goofily but endearingly from ear to ear as he scratches them with abandon, is the new Chocolate Cheerios. It reminds him partly of [big smile here] “cookies.” But even Larry has limits when it comes to his obvious sugarmania. Making a mock-nauseated face that wouldn’t look out of place on Beaver Cleaver, he says that he avoids Cap’n Crunch “with those things” [Note: Larry means Crunchberries], because that particular breakfast treat is “a little too [schoolyard term] sweet” — even for him [if his giddy hiccups are any indication]!
Mmmm. “Chalk. Lit.” A small dribble of saliva helps carry those two syllables out of the mouth of Mr. Larry Wallberg, and down the side of his chin. Listen carefully as you watch the flow, because Mr. Larry Wallberg is speaking about his creed, the cult of the sweetened breakfast, a religion he has practiced since he was a boy. Rhymes with “oy.” Chalk. Lit. Cheeeeeee. Ree-ohs. Kinda like cereal, kinda like Christ, kinda like cookies. No Crunchberries for him, no way! They don’t hit exactly the right spot on his tongue. No, it’s gotta be Chalk. Lit. Cheeeeeee. Ree-ohs.
Shit, I hope I’m not the interviewer.