Law and Conversation

January 6, 2014

Cross-examinations and Author Interviews

A good author interview, like a good cross-examination, is a thing of beauty. In both, the lawyer or interviewer seeks to flesh out a story. For the lawyer, the story is the one told by the witness, which is a smaller part of the story presented by the lawyer’s client’s opponent. For the interviewer, the story is the author’s work. Like the witness’s story in a trial, a book is a component of a larger story that includes the real-life background and events that inspired the author to write it, which may include political issues, current events, history, and the author’s personal life.

An effective cross-examination or author interview will seem relaxed and effortless. But the lawyer or interviewer has to work really HARD to make it look so easy. The lawyer will know the facts of the case inside and out, including what each witness said happened, what, if any, motives the witnesses have to shade their stories, and how the witnesses’ perceptions might have been altered (as by a vision angle or tendency toward selective memory); what documents exist, what they say, when they were created, and who created them; and how to elicit the story so as best to help the judge and/or jury to understand it. The effective interviewer will have acquired a familiarity with the author’s works by reading or at least skimming not only the one designated for discussion but as many of the author’s other writings as possible, knows enough about the current or historical background of the book to speak and ask intelligent questions about it, and will have found something out about the author’s personality and personal history. A great cross is never about the lawyer, and a wonderful interview is never about the interviewer: both are all about the subject.

Apart from substantial reading and research, both trial lawyer and author interviewer face another challenge: getting the witness or the author to answer the questions. Both may be reluctant or even hostile. Court rulings may place limits on a lawyer’s ability to ask questions of a witness (even over the general rule that cross-examination is limited to the scope of the direct testimony), and superstar authors may succeed in conditioning interviews on avoiding certain uncomfortable topics. Even absent such special circumstances, witnesses often do not want to testify at all, let alone be cross-examined by the lawyer for an unfriendly party. While authors typically want to sell their books, they may not want to talk about them, or may not want to talk about the aspects that the interviewer wants to discuss. In fact, it’s not unusual for an author to hate book tours and interviews. An effective interviewer, like an effective trial lawyer, has to be prepared to deal with the hostile or oyster-like subject without losing equanimity.

The Paris Review’s long-running series of author interviews is renowned for its depth. I’ve also long been a fan of Australian Ramona Koval’s author interviews on “The Book Show,” a sadly now-defunct broadcast of the Australian Broadcasting Company, which I listened to for years via the modern miracle of podcast. I’m pleased to learn via The New Yorker that Koval has now published a collection of her interviews, “Speaking Volumes.”

Other interviewers whom I particularly admire include Dick Cavett, NPR’s Terry Gross, Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill, and the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Ghomeshi. All, like Koval, are impeccably prepared and show a genuine interest in their subjects, are unfailingly gracious, and elicit wonderful stories from their guests. For two examples of an interviewer’s grace in dealing with the difficult subject, see Ghomeshi’s interviews with Billy Bob Thornton and Cissy Houston.

Interviews occur every day in all kinds of work and life contexts. How do you deal with the difficult subject, whether at work or a cocktail party? Don’t tell me you just walk away; cutoffs are copouts. I’m looking for comments describing situations where you, like the litigator or the talk show host, MUST continue to engage and interact with the person.

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October 29, 2010

More stories from interviews–and lessons for trial lawyers

Monday’s Read This! post urged everyone to read The Paris Review Interviews with writers, all of which the literary journal has generously made available on its website.  (Much as I love being able to read them on line, it’s nice to have some of the bound volumes, too, as I do, thanks to my extremely thoughtful husband.) 

Now, the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers has interviewed another interviewer in the most recent edition of The Next Chapter, one of the Canadian network’s programs on books.  Rogers’s colleague, Eleanor Wachtel, hosts “Writers And Company” and is one of my favorite interviewers.  (I like Rogers, too, as long as she’s not calling great American writers such as Walt Whitman “arrogant” or “immodest.”)

Wachtel has been hosting Writers And Company since 1992.  In her interview with Rogers, which begins about 12 minutes from the end of the program, she played an excerpt from an interview with writer, critic, and Yale University professor Harold Bloom.  Observing that Bloom’s reputation as a pugnacious reactionary defender of the classics, who disdained anything new, had preceded him and had made her initially unenthusiastic about the interview, Wachtel said that after she prepared for the interview by reading his works, she found, contrary to other reports of Bloom, “an engaging, passionate mind, full of enthusiasm.”  So, she decided to ask him about what he loved, and not about what he loathed.  On asking him about the value of reading, Bloom audibly teared up on responding that getting letters from people saying that his writing had sent them back to reading, or sent them back to a particular work that had meant a lot to them.  (I, too, love the classics, and many modern works as well.  Though I haven’t read Bloom’s works, I question whether the suggestion that he disdains anything new is warranted.)

For me, Wachtel and other great interviewers stand out through their genuine interest in and enthusiasm for what their subjects have to say.  The same goes for lawyers when they conduct direct and cross-examinations of witnesses at trial:  the most effective lawyers, not only in their appearance to judge and jurors but also in the information they elicit, are those who appear to be genuinely interested in and paying close attention to what the witnesses say.  (For more on this, see my article in the December 2006 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, “Cross-Examination:  Beyond the Perry Mason Moment.”)

What makes an interview worth listening to or reading for you?

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