USUALLY WHEN I
tell people I am a journalist (reluctantly, for fear of getting bopped in the nose), they ask me: “So who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed? What were they like?” The other variant is: “What was your favorite interview?” I tend to like the latter question the best because the answer is less obvious and is often disconcerting for the asker.
Fidel Castro, to answer the first question, is perhaps the most famous. Although, if you’re a music fan, it’s Paul McCartney … of the Beatles. Oops, I probably just lost the young crowd. In which case, I should cite Steve Jobs as the most famous -- everybody knows the iPhone and the iPod. My teenage stepdaughters were once impressed that I was working on a Harry Potter story, but when I offered Sting as an example of a pop star I had covered, my allure faded. (They were in their Justin Timberlake, or, rather, ’N Sync, phase.) Oops, I just lost the old crowd.
Stephen King and I shared beers on the driveway of his house once long ago when he was promoting his book It.
Robert Ludlum opened up the world of tax advantages while writing books. (Research Greece and Italy while turning out airport best sellers!) At the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Steve Wynn dismissed his failing eyesight and hooked an arm around my neck so I could steer us on a casino tour. I spent four days with Steve Jobs for a Time
cover story once. I ate vegetarian food (from his garden) at his house and got to know his wife and kids. It humanized him. Afterward, he yelled at me (for my evil story), but that was after my bosses had yelled at me (for writing a story too nice to Jobs). Oddly enough, because I didn’t freak out, we became, if not friends, fellow travelers in life’s funny little journey.
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And that’s what journalism should do: take you to a time and a place or inside someone’s head. To be honest, it’s really hard. Most of us don’t get the time, or the access, needed to pull it off. The stories that seem the most “inside” -- the stories from Hollywood of actors revealing their latest woes -- are the most staged. Obviously, any sane person wouldn’t want to open up his or her life for examination. For instance, I liked Tom Hanks terrifically, but I came away knowing little more about the man after interviewing him for Saving Private Ryan.
In his Eyes Wide Shut
days, Tom Cruise was a doll -- not loopy at all and much better when the tape recorder was turned off. But best buds? Not likely. Russell Crowe was a hoot and totally friendly, too -- until he didn’t get the Time
cover for the movie The Insider.
(Luckily, this was before he started throwing phones.)
I intend to write about all these people in this column, but I’d like to hear from you too. I can’t write in a vacuum. I have to know what you’re thinking. Because, to be honest, I don’t always want to write about famous people. I also want to write about my favorite interviews, some of them my toughest. I think about those people often.
There’s the father of Shoshana Johnson, the Army cook ambushed and taken hostage in the push on Baghdad, Iraq. I can still feel the heat of his anger when I approached him on the street outside his home in El Paso, Texas. It stopped me in my tracks. Every question provided new heartbreak for him. When the Iraq war started, I went to San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center to talk to soldiers who’d come home with injuries. They managed to remain lighthearted about their new prosthetics; they were kids with the wisecracking wisdom of old men.
I think sometimes about Maylen, whom I met in Havana, Cuba, during the country’s “special period,” when even the fat cats in government had nothing to eat. As Cuba was under rationing, it wasn’t Maylen’s year to buy shoes for her barefoot son. He must be a teenager now, and I wonder, Did he get his shoes?
I spent a year or two shuttling between Cuba and Haiti. It was depressing -- and made me sick, quite literally. I wonder about the ordinary people who ran businesses and hospitals in unreal circumstances, in places like Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, where there was a constant threat of violence. What happened, for instance, to the zombie-turned-Christian-preacher I once met? Maybe I dreamed him up in a nightmare.
These are the stories that haunt me.
They’ve also taught me something that now -- as a university professor -- I try to pass on to my students. Everybody has a story, whether it’s the Wall Street moneyman or the car mechanic or the person in the seat next to you. To win back readers to newspapers and magazines, we have to tell those stories. So let me know what you’d like to read (e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
), and I’ll tell you a story or two that comes to mind.