The Art of the Interview

Alex Belth offers a terrific interview with Jeff Pearlman about his new book on the “Show Time” L.A. Lakers.

The questions about interviewing are especially revealing. Any time you take on a big subject–ink politics, sports, show business, business–the big names tend to resist interviews or offer only sanitized stuff. So the best approach is to start far away from the big shots. Interview the forgotten players and the bit players.

Two of the great nonfiction writers of our time–Robert Caro, author of the monumental bios of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, and the late Richard Ben Cramer, author of a masterful portrait of the 1988 presidential campaign–take this approach.

Cramer took this approach to the extreme. When candidates like Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Gary Hart, and others sought interviews, Cramer sometimes delayed: Not ready for you yet …

Here are some of the take-away passages from the Pearlman interview:

Fringe players haven’t been asked 1,000,001 times about the time period. I might be off on this theory, but I sort of think guys like Magic, Kareem and Riley have told the Showtime-era stories sooooo many times—in interviews, in motivational speeches, in conversations, in books—that what they’re now remembering are not the memories, but the telling of the telling of the telling of the telling of the telling of the memories. … 

Men like, oh, Wes Matthews and Mike Smrek and Billy Thompson and David Rivers, on the other hand, haven’t repeated the lines so many times. The questions are unique; the memories are often sharper. Early on, I actually had someone tell me, “You can’t write this book without Magic’s participation.” I nodded—but, inside, laughed. … 

Kareem is another story. Kareem has a publicist, whose name I won’t use here. I was warned, repeatedly, that she’s impossible. I reached out several times, and she kept rebuffing me. They wanted things, guarantees, etc. No, no, no. Last year I went to the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and I spotted Kareem from afar. It was crowded, and not the right time to approach, but I texted his publicist, who replied with something like “GREAT NEWS! WE NEED TO MEET!” I thought I was in—Kareem had decided to talk. Well, I meet her, and the great news is that it’s been 50 years since Kareem’s first Sports Illustrated cover, and wouldn’t it be great if SI put him back on the cover, with all his memorabilia, and SI could do a traveling show with all the stuff and … and … at this point, I think “Release Me” by Wilson Phillips began playing in my head.

Thanks for the insights, Alex and Jeff.