People are scared of Isaac Chotiner, but they shouldn’t be—unless they’re hiding something. Having previously worked at The New Republic and Slate, he now conducts multiple interviews each week for The New Yorker, speaking to writers, academics, politicians—and, most recently, Bret Easton Ellis.
Most of these aren’t like the Ellis interview, or the ones that preceded it with people like Max Boot, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Ian Buruma, in which Chotiner cocks an eyebrow and holds a mirror up to men who seem incapable of self-reflection. Though his regard for their ideas is clear, on the phone he is wary of condemning them: “I don’t want to judge the people I interview,” he says. That’s left to his readers, who love how his line of questioning deflates these big men, however temporarily.
But that’s only a small part of Chotiner’s job. Most of his interviews are perfectly cordial. He brings academic work to a wider audience, lets novelists exist outside of their work, and pushes political figures to explain themselves. I spoke to Chotiner about his philosophy of interviewing, the role of the questioner, and the state of the Q&A today.
Nawal Arjini: In some of your interviews, you’re asking the subject to speak as freely as possible about their work, asking an academic or a novelist to explain their book or research. In others, you’re confronting the person with something that they’ve already said, and it’s more about asking them to explain themselves. Do you prefer doing one or the other? Are those different skills?
Isaac Chotiner: To the degree that culture and politics can be separated, which sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t, I’m interested in conducting different types of interviews. If you’re interviewing a politician, someone in a position of power, who’s making public policy, I think you have more of a responsibility to challenge that person based on what they’re doing. If I’m interviewing a novelist, I’d like to ask some challenging questions, but it’s different than meeting the secretary of defense.
I’ve done interviews, in the political realm, where I thought going in that the person was unlikely to give an honest answer, because they have a history of giving dishonest answers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t always be prepared for that, but in a circumstance like that, it’s worth trying to think through that next step, and figure out what those answers will be and the ways in which they might be dishonest.
NA: Do you think you have more freedom as someone who does interviews, even more than someone else at The New Yorker?
IC: I have more freedom in the sense that I give my opinions about things. If you’re a straight reporter, you have opinions—and sometimes you give those opinions, but you’re not going to engage and start talking about what [your subject] thinks about something. If I’m interviewing someone about child separation, it’s not hard to figure out what my point of view is. Maybe that allows me to think about it in a different way. But does the form itself give me that freedom? I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. Yeah, maybe a little bit.
NA: How do you see the role of your job?
IC: If you’re interviewing a novelist, you want it to function as a profile of the person, just in Q&A form. It can also just bring us information, the way a reported piece does. If I’m interviewing someone about the Mueller report, I’m trying to get a sense of what this policy is, to get the information out, the same way a newspaper would. But your readers don’t care what some immigration expert’s personality is like.
I spoke to Bernard-Henri Levy about his role in the Libya intervention, his support for Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and his views on how women are treated in Islam. https://t.co/npvdTUUIAK
— Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) March 18, 2019
NA: It’s cutting down to the meat.
IC: Exactly, but for other people, I do try to think of it as a profile. If I’m interviewing Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen or [some other novelist], you work with your editors with your intro and stuff to shape it as a profile so you get a sense of this person, what makes them tick, so on.
NA: Do you think you have a style? Do you think it could be replicated, or should be replicated?
IC: I’ll put it this way: One frustration I’ve had reading interviews is that they feel really edited to me. They’d be really good, but they didn’t feel like a real conversation. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really good editors, who push me both before and in the editing process to make sure that [the interviews] reflect the actual conversation, because that makes them more interesting and less artificial. I also think it’s a more honest representation of the conversation itself.
I talked to Ian Buruma, the editor of the New York Review of Books, about why he published the Jian Ghomeshi essay, and why the nature of Ghomeshi’s behavior is not his “concern.” https://t.co/tDtFwsS2gc
— Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) September 14, 2018
NA: You’re both cutting down to what your subject is really saying, but also keeping yourself as a human with a personality, not an “objective” robot asking bland questions.
IC: Well, sometimes I like to be a robot. A danger of interviews is always appearing too much in the interview yourself. I’ve done some interviews in the past where I’ve worried about that. But for some interviews, I just think about myself as a vessel for the reader. [If] there’s a coup in Turkey, and I’m not an expert on Turkey, I try to read enough to ask someone who is an expert seven questions that are hopefully smart enough to get some interesting answers. When you’re interviewing an author, if you engage with them and make it seem like a conversation, a more interesting side of them comes out, because they’re not just speaking answers into a void; they’re conversing with someone.
NA: Why do you think people respond so much to the interviews of bad men, or people who we read as bad men?
IC: I don’t want to judge the people I interview—
NA: No, of course, that’s on the reader.
IC: I don’t know. I’ll skip that one.
NA: You mentioned being frustrated about over-edited interviews. Do you have any frustrations about Q&As elsewhere?
IC: No, no. When I started doing Q&As, there were fewer of them than there are now. There was one in the Times magazine, and Paris Review did long ones, but there were fewer of them. Now there are more—David Marchese does great ones for The New York Times. Sean Illing does good ones for Vox. There are a lot of people who do good Q&As.
I do think the way television interviews are conducted is really bad. That’s not a controversial opinion, but in that sense I’m frustrated with interviews. Certainly, the 2016 campaign and the way Donald Trump was interviewed for a very large chunk of it, it was outrageously bad, a stain on journalism, especially in cable news. But broadly speaking, I think a lot of people are doing really great Q&As. I [don’t] have a super frustration, I just think they’re overly edited.
NA: Do you choose whom you interview?
IC: The way I’ve always done it is I have a primary editor, and we just talk it through. At almost any place I’ve been, it’s a mix of my ideas and her ideas, and other editors will have ideas in meetings. It’s extremely important to get other people’s ideas. Now publicists will e-mail me, but it’s too much to respond to. I’ll see a book in a bookstore and think, “Oh, I should interview the author.”
NA: Does it get harder to interview people the clearer it becomes to the public that you’re not going to ask fluffy questions?
IC: Oh, I don’t think people read bylines. Ninety-nine percent of people don’t read bylines.
NA: But you’re often interviewing people like Ian Buruma or Bret Easton Ellis—they’re people who might read bylines.
IC: Yeah, sometimes I interview people I know. But for most of my interviews, once in a while they’re very confrontational, but often not. My favorite kind of interview to do is an author that I really love, and want to learn about their work. When I think about my favorite interviews that I’ve done, that would be most of them.
NA: Fiction authors?
IC: Yeah, those are my favorite to do. It’s limited how many you can do, but getting to read all of a great novelist’s work and then go talk to them—that’s the best thing you can hope for. Short of interviewing NBA players, that’s my dream.
NA: I often find, when I go to hear artists speak, that they aren’t that great at talking about their own work.
IC: I think that’s true. Even if they’re not great at talking about their own work, often they’re interesting, strange people. But I agree—writing a novel and then having to talk to 20 interviewers about it must be hard.
NA: Is there any advice that you would give to young journalists, young interviewers? Or older ones?
IC: Just read a lot, and take a lot of notes.