How Not to Interview the Artist

After the first question in his interview with the New York Times, Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and renowned author, is less than buddy-buddy with his interviewer. By the third question, he’s given up entirely.

He only answers the fifth question (“What’s the best book about Kentucky?”) with any amount of faithfulness because it’s about his home, the land he so tenderly writes about. To the questions, “What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?” Berry curtly replies, “A good book in any genre is a good book.”

The interview questions are an artist’s version of characterless small talk, vain butchery under the dull knife of tedium. And Berry is tough tenderloin; The author is notoriously averse to interviews.

I kind of share Berry’s aversion. I’ve seen too many artists try to defend or explain their work only to have it ruined by the interviewer.

I also recently watched an interview with Robert Bresson. The interviewer told Bresson, a devout Catholic, that God was absent from his film Au hasard Balthazar. Bresson just sat there, puzzled, and he then said, “I don’t share your impression that God is absent from the film.” Don’t tell the director what’s in his film, guy.

Or take NPR’s interview of Arvo Pärt: “I asked Pärt how he likes being thought of as a mystic. He laughs. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘that is the last thing I want to be.’” The very thing that artists are known for is not what how they know themselves; it’s a deep trap into which a lot of interviewers fall headlong.

They treat the skill, influence, and conscience of the artist like a compound of geological oddities (or worse, mere information) meant merely to be dug up, labeled, and codified. Or they treat it like a debate (again, go watch the Bresson interview). Bad interviewing is an injustice under which everyone suffers, most of all the artist.

I think part of the problem is that we think artists are “extra,” men whose work is a separate addition to real life rather than something inherently mutual with the ordinary. (Part of this falsehood is due in part to how we think of the “ordinary” only in economic terms).

But, in a certain sense, artists are the most ordinary among us. If art still imitates life, we ought to think that the artist is the best example of life lived well. Whether it is a well-examined life is not on an artist’s list of interests.

What distinguishes artists from other men is the way he/she handles the ephemera of life. Everything has meaning for a good artist. Kentucky is home, but fame is not. The sound of a passing car, that hiss and hum, is potential music, but success is not. Life is the influence. That’s what a good interviewer looks for.

All the reader gets from an interview like Berry’s is the impression that the artist is either impenetrable or petty, but not a human — not an artist. But Berry is willing to go on talking about delight, education, and the companionship of his father’s old KJV Bible; and he’s aware of how incomplete he is, how he’s a man still living, just like other men.

We should assume that the artist is our fellow man, and perhaps that is all that is safe to assume.

Like our fellow man, the best way to get to know him is by invitation — by getting coffee or to your home. Above all, a good interview is about sharing life together. What the artist knows is not as important as who the artist is. And if you want to know who the artist is, you have to make space for the artist to be.

The key to a good interview is hospitality. Hospitality is simple; just look at the way Tom Huizenga of NPR offers Pärt the little bell in the beginning of their interview together. It betokens trust as ease. It creates a space to be oneself.

Finally, you can’t care about your reader too much. You don’t have to tell your reader about what kind of gold leaf lined Agnes Martin’s cranium or what inspired Jayber Crow unless the artist wants to talk about it. They don’t need to know everything.

And there are some things you simply cannot communicate to your readers without doing violence to the artist. As Berry said at the end of his interview, “As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.”

If you care about the artist, that is caring about the reader. Just ask the artist who he or she is. Be up front, and chat about life.