To hell and back

I’m thinking of having my Medium blog on a weekly basis, something to complement my other blog — that rather heady, angst-ridden, all-too-political excuse for a young boy’s bloody rant, The Papercut Blogs.

You see, one thing I miss after wading through 74 days of lockdown are the university lectures. I miss the kids, the air of enthusiasm. Above all, their curiosity. I find it refreshing, exhilarating. It’s like having my batteries recharged without having to pay the bill.

And so I figured, hell, why not? What’s one blog a week to reconnect with writers and journalists on campus? We’re all stuck in our little bubble of contagion and nightmares of pathological eating habits and guilty pleasures anyway, leaving our lives as footnotes to the bush-league tyrannies and corruption spreading all around while we’re under quarantine.

But that’s for another time and place. Today, let’s talk about the art of the interview.

I remember how as a young journalist, I wanted to interview the five most interesting people in my estimation: the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, the Jewish messiah Jesus Christ, Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe, the American-German philosopher Hannah Arendt, and our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal.

Throw in the middle Jack the Ripper and every other serial killer known to man and what do I have? Well, there’s probably a bestselling book there somewhere should the Fates decide I write it in collaboration with the Marquis de Sade.

But that’s dreaming way beyond what my huge fat nose can get a whiff of.

My slightly pathological interest in the interview — quite in excess of the usual, I assure you — sprung shortly after I came across a book by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci.

Interview with History was such a compelling read (the book was lent to me by the late editor of the Philippine Star, Max Soliven), I had decided not to pursue any love interest (not that there were any worth the time to begin with) prior to reaching the last page.

My particular fondness, or rather journalistic fetish lies in the fact I get to pry open someone’s thoughts, his or her work ethics or Pandora’s box of unspeakable horrors lying in his cabinet somewhere, to say little of scandals and secrets long placed under lock and key.

Best of all, it’s legal. A good journalist trained in this sort of discipline gets to hurl tough questions, bringing to fore what others may have missed.

Tough questions, however, do not always cut it. One must ask the right questions, too. Your chances of getting the right answers are better when you do that.

However, I have learned early on that a good, tough and right question doesn’t always result in a good, tough and right answer. To expect it is an exercise in naïveté. People can and will lie if they think the occasion calls for it.

I’ve had people lie to me on several occasions, more so in interviews with extremely powerful people in government. But the one thing I failed to anticipate happened to me in an interview with a former finance secretary several years ago.

As most officials of government at the time conducted their official business in the mornings, I arrived at the Department of Finance a minute past eight in torn acid-washed jeans, a loose Navy blue sports shirt, and my five-year-old pair of high-cut Reebok rubbers — mud-spattered from the toe box to the heel counter.

Don’t get me wrong. Even as a young cocky journalist I had made it a point to conduct my interviews ‘dressed to kill’— suit and tie minus the Thompson sub and over-sized Fedora. However, I was in the middle of working on the roof of the house when the call from my editor came. “One of my reporters called in sick. I want you to take his place. Go interview the secretary at Finance. I want you there now!”

I grabbed whatever thread was within reach and headed to my assignment.

One thing they hardly teach you in Journalism school (not that I’ve had the chance to attend one) are the whys and wherefores of having to wait for the interviewee. A government office was, and will always be, a coven of busybodies, that I understand, people running hither and tither for no nobler reason than to type out a 50-word memo probably riddled with typos and grammatical anomalies.

So, fifteen minutes into waiting — and I arrived thirty minutes before the scheduled hour — I strolled to the secretary’s table to inquire about my appointment with the Secretary of Finance. Took about a minute or two for the young lady in a small teal dress to look my way.

When she did, she eyed me intently from head to toe, probably wondering what a down-and-out fashion derelict like myself was doing in her boss’ five-star office.

“He’ll be out in five minutes,” I was told as she looked away. Five then turned to fifteen, fifteen to thirty, and thirty to a quarter past the hour.

Patience not being one of my better virtues, I strolled once more to where the secretary was joggling her bangs with her forefinger and said, “My apologies, but I have a job to do. If I fail to do it in the next sixty seconds, I’ll be out the door. I will still write about the Secretary based on what I’ve experienced today. Don’t worry, I will find space to mention your name.”

She immediately disappeared behind the door. In no time, her boss, the great Secretary of Finance, was sauntering out and brandishing a huge smile.

I lost no time kicking off the interview. I knew enough of the financial condition of the country to ask a string of tough questions. To be fair, the Secretary took the blows in stride and answered each query, leaving only two or three of them unanswered for want of concrete data on hand.

There was, however, something peculiar about the way he answered the questions. I noticed how polished they were. Much too polished, in fact, that I felt he read them from either a book or pamphlet and committed the lines to memory.

The interview went on smoothly and lasted for three quarters of an hour. Before I bid adieu, her secretary handed over a couple of printed-out backgrounders and brochures which I can use to buttress my story.

On my way back to the newsroom in a public jeepney (which had a travel time of close to an hour on good days), I listened to the recording of our conversation. Lookee here, I was right. The great Secretary of Finance was quoting verbatim from one of the reading materials — all two paragraphs of them. Word per crazy word. I could have saved the time and money just reading the damn pamphlets.

Lesson learned: never assume that these officials will reward the best in you with the best in them. Oftentimes, bigwigs like these employ the services of consultants to do the thinking and writing for them. The only reason they can answer your toughest questions is that they had already anticipated most, if not all, you were meaning to ask.

Since then, I start off my interviews using topics that are outside the sphere of discussion. Family matters, recent entertainment scandals, his or her thoughts about the end of the world, you know, small talk. Preposterous or relevant makes no difference.

The idea is to knock them off their memorized lines so far off the beaten path that they need to purchase a plane ticket to get back on track once the actual interview starts.

I particularly like employing little distractions in the middle of the exchanges: like that sliver of attention I give, out of the blue, as to the fine shade of his coat, or how I like the way his books are arranged on the shelves. Prior to going to an interview, I make it a habit to ask around about my subject’s pets and peeves, anything and everything I could use to nudge Humpty Dumpty off his tightly-secured wall of memorized lines.

Where I am asked to wait, I always make it a point to look into the trash bin and see what he’s been up to. What you discover in the privacy of discarded tissue paper and little crumpled notes might play a good part in the things you might want to ask.

When I feel he’s too far lost in the jungle of small talk, that’s when I jump-start the serious interview.

To me, a good interview is one that is spontaneous, intelligent, factual. No interviewer coming face to face with his interviewee brandishing a hostile look and angry tone will get anything worth printing.

So, to all campus journos out there, smile. I daresay even laugh at the silliest things. You don’t necessarily have to look and sound warlike and disgruntled to afflict the comfortable. Find ways to keep your interviewee relaxed. Tame them first in the way animal trainers tame crocodiles minutes before the slaughter.

Keep it short, sweet and, when possible, sweaty. No more than an hour when occasion allows, but an hour on a roller coaster ride — to hell and back. I keep my interviews under forty-five minutes.

A couple of right and tough questions, hurled like arrows with the grace of a kyūdōka (弓道家) archer, are enough to win the day.

Will take up the art of the ambush interview some other time.

*If you want a free downloadable PDF copy of Oriana Fallaci’s Interview with History, just click on the hyperlink.

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Joel Pablo Salud

Joel Pablo Salud

Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction. His opinions in Medium.com are his own.