Something Instead of Nothing
1 For the first twelve years of my adult life, I sustained a professional existence by asking questions to strangers and writing about what they said.
"Why did you do it?" I would ask these strangers. It did not matter what it was. "What were you thinking while you did that? Did it satisfy you? What does it mean to be satisfied? Do you consider yourself to be famous? How does it feel to be famous? How did this experience change you? What elements didn't change? What will never change? What drives you? Are you lying to me right now? Why should I care about what you are saying? Is this all a construction? Are you constructed? Who constructed you? What was their purpose? Does God exist? Why or why not? Thank you very much. It was great meeting you in the lobby of this unnecessarily expensive hotel."
This has been a tremendous way to earn a living. Who wouldn't enjoy getting paid for being curious? Journalism allows almost anyone to direct questions they would never ask of their own friends at random people; since the ensuing dialogue exists for commercial purposes, both parties accept an acceleration of intimacy. People give emotional responses, but those emotions are projections. The result (when things go well) is a dynamic, adversarial, semi-real conversation. I am at ease with this. If given a choice between interviewing someone or talking to them "for real," I prefer the former; I don't like having the social limitations of tact imposed upon my day-to-day interactions and I don't enjoy talking to most people more than once or twice in my lifetime.
2 For the past five years, I've spent more time being interviewed than conducting interviews with other people. I am not complaining about this, nor am I proud of it -- it's just the way things worked out, mostly by chance. But the experience has been confusing. Though I always understand why people ask me the same collection of questions, I never know why I answer them. Frankly, I don't know why anyone answers anything. The obvious explanation is that the interviewee is hoping to promote a product or a concept (or the "concept of themselves," which is its own kind of product), but that's reductive and often untrue; once a media entity makes the decision to conduct and produce an interview with a particular somebody, the piece is going to exist regardless of how the subject responds to the queries. The interviewee can say anything, even if those sentiments contradict reality. They can deliver nothing but clichés, but the story will still run. On three occasions I've consciously (and blatantly) attempted to say boring things during an interview in the hope of killing the eventual article. It only worked once. But this type of behavior is rare. Most of the time, I pretend to be interesting. I try to frame my response in the context in which the question was asked, and I try to say things I haven't said before. But I have no clue as to why I do this (or why anyone else does, either).
During the summer of 2008, I was interviewed by a Norwegian magazine writer named Erik Moller Solheim. He was good at his job. He knew a lot of trivia about Finland's military history. We ate fried pork knees and drank Ur-Krostitzer beer. But in the middle of our playful conversation, I was suddenly paralyzed by an unspoken riddle I could not answer: Why was I responding to this man's questions? My books are not translated into Norwegian. If the journalist sent me a copy of his finished article, I could not read a word of it. I don't even know what the publication's name (Dagens Naeringsliv) is supposed to mean. I will likely never go to Norway, and even if I did, the fact that I was interviewed for this publication would have no impact on my time there. No one would care. The fjords would be underwhelmed.
As such, I considered the possible motives for my actions:
1. I felt I had something important to say. Except I did not. No element of our interaction felt important to me. If anything, I felt unqualified to talk about the things the reporter was asking me. I don't have that much of an opinion about why certain Black Metal bands burn down churches.
2. It's my job. Except that it wasn't. I wasn't promoting anything. In fact, the interaction could have been detrimental to my career, were I to have inadvertently said something insulting about the king of Norway. Technically, there was more downside than upside.
3. I have an unconscious, unresolved craving for attention. Except that this feels inaccurate. It was probably true twenty years ago, but those desires have waned. Besides, who gives a fuck about being famous in a country I'll never visit? Why would that feel good to anyone? How would I even know it was happening?
4. I had nothing better to do. This is accurate, but not satisfactory.
5. I'm a nice person. Unlikely.
6. When asked a direct question, it's human nature to respond. This, I suppose, is the most likely explanation. It's the crux of Frost/Nixon. But if this is true, why is it true? What is the psychological directive that makes an unanswered question discomfiting?
Why do people talk?
3 Why do people talk? Why do people answer the questions you ask them? Is there a unifying force that prompts people to respond?
Errol Morris: Probably not, except possibly that people feel this need to give an account of themselves. And not just to other people, but to themselves. Just yesterday, I was being interviewed by a reporter from the New York Observer, and we were talking about whether or not people have privileged access to their own minds.
EM: My mind resides somewhere inside of myself. That being the case, one would assume I have privileged access to it. In theory, I should be able to ask myself questions and get different answers than I would from other people, such as you. But I'm not sure we truly have privileged access to our own minds. I don't think we have any idea who we are. I think we're engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are. I sometimes think of interviews as some oddball human relationship that's taking place in a laboratory setting. I often feel like a primatologist.
Do you feel like you know the people that you interview? Because I feel as though I never do. It seems like a totally fake relationship.
EM: I don't feel like I know myself, let alone the people I interview. I might actually know the people I interview better than I know myself. A friend of mine once said that you can never trust a person who doesn't talk much, because how else do you know what they're thinking? Just by the act of being willing to talk about oneself, the person is revealing something about who they are.
But what is the talker's motive? Why did you decide to talk to the New York Observer? Why are you talking to me right now?
EM: Well, okay. Let's use the example of Robert McNamara. Why does McNamara feel the need to talk to me -- or to anyone -- at this point in his life? Because there's a very strong human desire to do so. It might be to get approval from someone, even if that person is just me. It might even be to get a sense of condemnation from people. Maybe it's just programmed into us as people. McNamara also had this weird "approach-avoidance" thing: He agreed to do the interview because he assumed I was part of the promotion of his [then new] book. I called him around the same time his book was coming out, and he thought it was just part of that whole deal. When he realized it was not, he became apprehensive and said he didn't think he was going to do it. But then he did, and it went on for well over a year. In fact, I continued to interview him for a long time after that movie was finished, just because I found it very interesting.
But why did McNamara keep talking?
EM: He said he enjoyed talking to me. That was his explanation.
2A While working for newspapers during the 1990s, I imagined that being interviewed by other reporters would be fun. I assumed answering questions would be easier than asking them. This proved completely untrue. The process of being interviewed is much more stressful than the process of interrogating someone. If you make a mistake while you're interviewing someone else, there is no penalty (beyond the fact that it will be harder to write a complete story). But if you make a mistake while being interviewed -- if you admit something you'd prefer to keep secret, or if you flippantly answer a legitimately serious question, or if you thoughtlessly disparage a peer you barely know, or if you answer the phone while on drugs -- that mistake will inevitably become the focus of whatever is written. As a reporter, you live for those anecdotal mistakes. Mistakes are where you find hidden truths. But as a person, anecdotal mistakes define the experience of being misunderstood; anecdotal mistakes are used to make metaphors that explain the motives of a person who is sort of like you, but not really.
4 "The people who come on This American Life have often never heard of our show, or have never even heard of NPR, so they have no idea what the conversation is going to be. It's very abstract. And we're on the frontier of doing journalism that's so personal, no normal journalist would even consider it. That's part of it. It's hard to resist whenever someone really wants to listen to you. That's a very rare thing in most of our lives. I'm a pretty talky person who deals with lots of sensitive people every single day, but if someone really listens to me and cares about what I say for ten minutes in the course of a day -- that's a lot. Some days that doesn't happen at all."
[These are the words of Ira Glass, host of This American Life, the tent-pole program for most National Public Radio stations. It was later turned into a television show for Showtime. Glass has an immediately recogniza...