"The New Yorker Profile: People and Place"


Larissa MacFarquhar

The New Yorker


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

November 17, 2003



I thought I would begin by trying to give you a sense of how writing profiles for the New Yorker is different.


I didn't start out there. I started out freelancing for publications like Premier and Harper's Bazaar. Writing a profile for those publications is a very different business. It's very undignified and quite embarrassing a lot of the time, because you are paired up, usually, with some not-very-famous movie star. And what you have to do is come up with some fake activity so it seems as though you are buddies and just hanging out. So you come up with some fake activity. For instance I interviewed Leonardo DiCaprio when he was not yet that famous, and he said he liked animals so we decided to go to the zoo. And the pretence was that Leonardo and I where just buddies hanging out at the zoo together -- and I just happened to be there and just happened to be writing about it. It was a very embarrassing situation.


What editors all really want, if your writing about a movie star for a magazine like Premier, is to know about a movie star's sex-life. I hate asking about it. The movie star knows the question is coming: "How did you lose your virginity?". And if you can imagine asking a total stranger this question when you are pretending to be a professional adult, nothing is more humiliating. So thank God I now work for the New Yorker.


To give you another example, once I was supposed to be writing about Elizabeth Berkeley. I don't know if you've heard of her. I was writing about this movie "Showgirls," and it was a point in her career where either this was going to be her huge break or not -- as it turned out, not. She had just come from TV where she'd been on a kids show called "Saved by the Bell." And she was just on fire with ambition and so excited. It was a very strange situation. We were at this casino in Tahoe in the middle of the night, about two in the morning, and she is wearing nothing at all except her g-string and covered in body glitter. And I'm sitting there with this tape recorder asking her these stupid questions. On the set with me the next day was another woman, about 30 years older than I, who was there for Vogue. And I thought, "You know if I am interviewing naked movie stars when I am thirty years older than I am now I will absolutely shoot myself." So for all these reasons, I hoped I would no longer have to do those things.


One advantage of these kinds of show-biz interviews is at least things are usually very clear. They are a pro, you are a pro and they know that your job is to get a certain amount of behavior from them -- which you concoct into your silly article the likes of which they've read 100 times before. And they know exactly what the situation is. There's no illusion that you guys are actually hanging out. But with a New Yorker article things are not quite so clear. I want to start with a Janet Malcolm quote you may well have read before. She starts a book called The Journalist and the Murderer:


"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of themselves to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He's a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness. Gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous will talk about freedom of speech and the public's right to know. The least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living. The catastrophe suffered by the subject is not a simple matter, [but rather] an unflattering likeness or misrepresentation of his views. What pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives to him to vengefulness is the discussion that has been taxed upon him. On reading the article, he has to face the fact that the journalist, who seems so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things, never had the slightest intention of corroborating with him on the story but always intended to write a story of his own. [The subject must then] try to pick himself up and walk away, relegating his relationship with the journalist to the rubbish heap of love affairs that ended badly and are best pushed out of consciousness."


There are some things in this that I agree with and other things that I don't agree with. And that's what I want to talk about for the balance of my presentation.


 The first thing is that it is a kind of love affair. At least for me. Even before I meet my subjects, I immerse myself completely in their work. If they are writers I read everything they've written. If they make movies, I will see all their movies. I will try to learn as much as I can about them. I'll read everything that's been written about them. Little by little I become genuinely obsessed with them. I will be thinking about them all the time.


For instance, I was writing an article about Judge Richard Posner, a federal judge in Chicago and also a legal theorist. He's written about 40 books, but I read a good number of them and I very much disagreed with his views. He's very conservative and a radical critic of the way justice is currently perceived in this country. I was so immersed in his reading and his writing that I became actually terrified to meet him. This man was Satan, this man actually wants to destroy our country. I worked myself into a kind of near-hysteria and I was quaking when I rang his bell. As it turns out, he's a lovely person, very amusing and we got along great. But, that fearful reaction is the kind of hysteria I can work myself up into because I'm so immersed in the person. I try to open myself to them in a way that you don't usually with the people you meet.


Once you start spending time with them, I find that, just as when you're in love with someone, you become intensely interested in every aspect of their physical presence. I want to know what it feels like to be in the same room with them. I watched how they moved. I watch. Are they an opaque weighty presence that pushes through objects, or are they transparent and lightweight? Are they self conscious about their own bodies or are they sort of calm and comfortable in their skin? I observe how they look different from day to day. Are they tired today, or are they agitated, or are they calm, are they happy? Do they seem to have gotten enough sleep? How much attention do they seem to pay to their clothes? All these things will become incredibly interesting to me. It is the same as if you're looking at someone through a lighted window from a street. Even the most banal things they do -- how  they pick up a mug from the table -- because you are looking at them through a window, it becomes fascinating to you.


In many ways, when you interview them, it feels like a date in a very strange and sometimes creepy way. Often you'll be talking to them over a meal, and often -- at least, with The New Yorker, though a lot of other publications who don't have the luxury of this -- I have the luxury of spending a lot of time with someone. I will sometimes spend five or six days non-stop in their company. That's a lot of time; you almost never do that with anybody. Most importantly, you are asking them the type of questions that are only socially acceptable to ask on a date or in an interview. You are asking them to really evaluate their life in a sense. You are asking them what horrendous mistakes they've made, what they regret, how they feel about their families, what their beliefs are, what they were like when they were young and how they've changed since then. Do they feel that they've abandoned their younger self? You are asking them really to examine themselves in a way that people don't usually do when they are with each other. All of which makes for a very intense interaction. Meanwhile, I will be just hanging on their every word, riveted by everything they say -- because somehow for that time that I am writing about them, I just find them utterly fascinating.


And, in the same way as on a date, the conversation is not quite a normal conversation. You don't want them to think that it is just a regular, friendly conversation because it's not. I want to keep them remembering that I'm not their friend. I may like them, but I'm not their friend. Right now I'm a journalist, and I may become their friend later, and I have in some cases. But I'm not there because I'm enjoying hanging out with them. I have something that I want to get from them. When I feel that they're forgetting that, I'll jiggle the tape recorder around in front of them, just to remind them.


So interviewing is not a normal conversation. You want them to talk. One of the ways that you can do that is by training yourself not to do what you would usually do. Say a silence falls; you might try to fill it. Silences are awkward and hard to take, especially if you don't know a person very well. I first thought about this when I heard a story about Joan Didion, a very famous journalist who has written for the New Yorker in the past. She is incredibly, paralyzing shy. She's also very tiny. And when she meets a stranger, she is just struck dumb and totally terrified. And apparently, the effect this has on her subjects is that, because she is so nervous, they will blurt out just anything, just to fill the silence. And I thought, "Oh, that's interesting". And it's true. It's almost as though there's a sort of equilibrium that has to be found. If you shut up, they have to speak. Otherwise, it's unbearable, it's too uncomfortable. And I really began to learn this when I started to read transcripts of my interviews. I heard myself making the most idiotic mistakes. They would say: "And then I took the ax and was about to ---", and I would break in with, "What's your favorite color" because I wasn't listening to what they where saying. I was just thinking of something else. I wasn't shutting up.


Also, I don't talk about myself, which is partly to remind them that this is not a friendly conversation. I am not their friend. In that sense because it keeps them aware of what is going on. In another way, it also gives me an advantage, I've discovered. The less I talk about myself, the more mysterious I become. It becomes more like therapy. Because they don't know anything about me, and because I'm making them talk about themselves, it's as though I'm a sort of blankness they have to fill. There's a term called transference, they start to project all kinds of emotions and authority on me which would not be there normally if I would be more forthcoming. So I am aware that while the part of not talking about myself to make it clear that this is not a friendly conversation, it also does give me an emotional advantage as well.


There's this story I love about V.S. Naipaul, who is a wonderful writer but, from what I hear, a questionable human being. What he used to do is this: At the beginning of an interview, he would not take notes. He would start asking questions and would just sit there without any notebook. Just sit there, listening, nodding, asking them questions. And then, some way in the interview, he would say, "Just a minute" and he would reach into his briefcase, take out his notebook, and say "Could you repeat that?" and he would write it down. Where upon the person would become obsessed with saying something so interesting as to make him take another note. And they would want to please him and were desperate for him to write something else down. So it definitely was kind of manipulative.


At first people are reluctant to talk about themselves, especially the kind of personal questions I might ask. But after a while it becomes, I find, almost addictive for them -- it is a rare situation when a person is so intensely interested in what you have to say. And I genuinely am, I'm not faking it, I'm obsessed with them and everything they say is fascinating to me. And I'm asking them all about their lives and they want to talk more and more and more. And  at the same time it's as though the opposite is the kind of addiction for me. I become blanker and blanker, saying less and less and becoming completely and totally absorbed in the other person.


Everything about reporting leads to that. From the minute you step on a plane and take a generic seat, or check into a generic hotel room, you go sort of blank. You're leaving your home and all the people you know that give you your identity, and it's as though I get more and more attached to that blankness as my interviewees get attached to projecting onto it.


In a similar way, when I sit down to write about a person, I am very aware that I failed to capture this person completely -- because they are a complex human being and I've spent only a few days with them. What on earth can I possibly know? And I find myself jealous of the position of the fiction writer who knows everything about the character -- or at least everything he needs to know.


If you use the first person, and put yourself in the article, it immediately becomes obvious to the reader. I feel that even one use of "I," the first person,  interrupts. My editor thinks I'm a little nuts on this topic, but I think of it in terms of a film. At a regular feature film, you are immersed in the story. But it only takes one blunder, for example the director leaning in front of the camera or someone rearranging a prop. At that moment, it becomes a totally different kind of film. And a totally different mood. It suddenly becomes a movie that is aware of itself, that's aware of the director. It has broken the illusion. And that's just what I don't want to do.


To return to Janet Malcolm's assessment, I feel that the love affair is not just one way, it's mutual. Also, she seems to assume that the defeat goes only one way. I don't think that's so. Many things are weighed against your betraying the person in a way that she described. I, for one, don't pretend to get to their deepest self; I'm interested in a person's image and the myth of self invention that they use to show themselves to the world. So I will often take what they choose to present to me, and that's what I want to present in the article. I'm not trying to get underneath and go against what they are saying.


In the same vein, I find that I have kind of a weak stomach. If you look around, 99 percent of all journalism is favorable, or reasonably favorable for the subject. They have a pretty reasonable gamble that the article will go the way they like. For me, certainly, if the person is not famous, there is absolutely no point in ripping them apart. So I think Malcolm is wrong. On the whole, it's a good bet for the subject to be written about, and the love affair definitely goes both ways.


I've remained friends with most of the people I've written about. But the interesting thing is it's a very strange emotional dynamic -- because there's this kind of therapeutic feel to our conversations. I'm not saying anything about myself, and they're saying everything about themselves. Almost everyone desperately wants to have lunch with me after and ask me about myself. It's a kind of taboo they want to breach. So we have our lunch at the end of our time together. I don't hide, I'm not coy, I answer whatever questions they have -- but I can tell that they're never satisfied. And I think that it's because there's something about the interviewing dynamic. The magic is gone, the love affair is over. And they didn't know that until we had lunch together afterwards. And they realized I'm just an ordinary person. We may get along fine, but it can never be what they hoped for. They're always very very strange lunches.


Thank you for your kind attention. Now I'd be happy to answer any questions you have.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to gender differences.]


I haven't had experience with interviewing there, but I'm sure that's true. And I'm sure that that's one reason why journalism is one occupation that's good to women on the whole. One of the strange things again is that I've found a lot of the times I go out to a meal with the person I'm interviewing, and they're an older man, they will not let me pay. Why not? Letting a younger woman pay, they can't stand it. Definitely, I notice a difference.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to overly rehearsed answers.]


Yes, it happens all the time, but it's not their fault. They get asked the same questions and they can't have a different answer every time. I think that it's my job to come up with better questions. And sometimes if someone has been interviewed so many times, it's just impossible. You just try to do the best you can with the same material and hope your readers haven't read those other articles. But, yes, there's nothing you can do about what I think.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to whether she or her editors come up with story ideas...and how long each piece takes.]


It's about 50/50 coming up with subjects. I wish it weren't that ratio, but I find I'm dreadful coming up with story ideas. It's the single hardest thing I find about my job. And so I end up taking their ideas. In terms of time, it's basically two months for each story, of which about usually a week is spent with the person, not necessarily interviewing them, but watching them lecture or watching them in meetings or whatever it is that they do. And about three weeks will be preparing, reading their books if they write books, whatever kind of stuff is relevant. Sometimes even a week is spent transcribing tape, which is a ridiculous amount of time, but I really don't see anyway around it. And then about, a stupidly small amount of time, about four or five days, to write.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to her favorite writers.]


One of my favorites is Kenneth Tynan, who is an English theatre critic who wrote profiles chiefly of theatre people, first at the New Yorker in the 60's and 70's. He's just an amazing, amazing writer who I'd recommended to anyone. In terms of novelists, I don't know. There are so many that I admire. Some novelists are more effecting than others in terms of how you write. I definitely find that with Henry James. He gets in your head so much so, that if I've been reading a novel by Henry James, I will find myself writing sentences with 600 clauses in every sentence -- and I think, "stop!". It definitely gets into your brain the way that other novels don't.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to the power of withholding information about herself.]


It's a strange thing because it's a source of power not to tell someone about yourself. And it can be weirdly addictive. I've never been a therapist, but I imagine therapists feel something like that. And you know, sometimes I do so because the unbalance feels so grotesque that it feels almost inhumane. And certainly if subjects ask you directly, I will try to deflect it somewhat, but I don't want to be rude or absurd about it. That would be ridiculous, especially since I am spending so much time with these people, and they are being very generous with their time. I don't want to be selfish. But I do get addicted to that kind of power. It's just a weird thing.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to "getting behind the faŤade".]


I'm not an aggressive questioner, because I have the luxury of spending a great deal of time. And it's not in my personality to be hostile. Also, when I say that I don't attempt to go underneath, I don't mean that literally. I just don't think that there is such a huge disjunction between someone's self presentation and themselves. And I think it's important that they always remember that I'm not getting at the truth of someone in two or three days. I may, but I really won't even know if I do. You need to be aware of the limitations of what you're doing, otherwise you get ridiculous. I find, it's much better to let the conversation go naturally and things will come out little by little. And if you are questioning them aggressively, do it last. Do everything first, and then if you need to rip the mask off, do it at the end. I don't know, I don't do it very often. I'm quite uncomfortable with being overtly hostile with someone face to face. Which is probably not very good for a reporter, but that's the way I am.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to favorite interviewee.]


They are all incredibly fascinating to me. It's very hard to say. Probably the most interesting person I've interviewed is Noam Chomsky. But he was definitely not the easiest subject because I could get nothing out of him. He was so incredibly complicated. He has a side that's incredibly sweet and gentle, as sweet as the most wonderful smile you ever saw, and then he could be so cruel. I've never been more aware of how little I could understand somebody.


Question: [Inaudible, but related to career advice.]


The thing is to get your work into places where other journalists will see it. I was asked earlier what I knew that I wish I'd know when I started out.  What I know now is that it is definitely better to work for a smaller place which lets you write or edit or whatever you want to do rather than perhaps the most impressive place possible. On the other hand, you don't want to go somewhere so small that no one is going to see what you're doing. You want to go somewhere that is read,  and -- most specifically and strategically -- read by journalists. For your purposes, those are the people whose attention you are trying to attract. The publications that editors read.




Copyright 2003 Larissa MacFarquhar. All rights reserved.