Mind-blowing interview tips from veteran journalist Philip Bashe
With the plethora of online interviews available within seconds, it becomes quite a formidable task in trying to weed out exceptional pieces of work. All too often an interviewer is merely content to show up for a summit without doing any research beyond Wikipedia which places the interview subject in an uncomfortable situation. To make matters worse, many interviewers bring a patented, generic list of questions to the table. They are unable to really listen and allow a conversation to naturally emerge, instead hurriedly anticipating the scoop that will generate the biggest click bait headline. No wonder celebrities consider journalists to be a — holes.
Philip Bashe comes duly prepared for an interview. The former rock critic, editor, and full-time author’s résumé consists of That’s Not All Folks! [i.e. Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck], Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson, Dog Days: The New York Yankees’ Fall From Grace and Return to Glory, The Complete Cancer Survival Guide, and The Complete Bedside Companion.
The multi-faceted Bashe reveals in an exclusive conversation below interview tips that are essential to anyone desiring to be taken seriously as a journalist of merit. How to combat being nervous, what to do when your subject goes off-topic, accepting that a story must be edited and trimmed, why diversification equals well-rounded writing, and an encounter with avant-garde artist Frank Zappa are guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
The Philip Bashe Interview
What should your initial questions accomplish?
I’ve interviewed thousands and thousands of people. Before I got into writing books, I was a magazine editor. Specifically, I hate saying the word, but I was a rock journalist. To me, most rock journalists aren’t journalists.
I was always very conscious when I went to interview whoever it was, whether Robert Plant or Pete Townshend, that this guy has just probably spent a week talking to one a — hole after another.
My first couple of questions were designed for nothing more than to prove to this person right off the bat, “I know everything about you, not in a fan way, but I’ve done my homework. I’m going to prove to you in the first few questions that I get you, I’m professional, I’ve done my research, and you’re going to like talking to me.”
Once people realize that, then they’re more likely to open up and reveal their true feelings, because why would you, as any kind of public person, open yourself up to a stranger? There are “journalists” who show up for an interview, and they don’t even know who they’re interviewing or what they’ve done.
I would find that insulting. I was very cognizant of the fact that this guy probably thinks every journalist in the world is an a — hole, so I have to keep that in mind and prove to them quickly that they’ll really like this.
What about being nervous?
If you’re nervous, I guarantee you the person you’re talking to has no idea. And if they do, so what? If you’re asking good questions, if anything, they’ll bend over backward to make you feel more at ease. I rarely got nervous.
You know who I was nervous with? I was at Frank Zappa’s house, and he was a notoriously prickly guy. He was prickly at first when I met him. I have to admit, I was a little intimidated by him.
But I got six questions into it, and his mood changed. He realized, ‘Ah ha, not an a — hole.’ We ended up having a great ol’ time. Zappa wasn’t someone I think a lot of journalists had a great ol’ time with, and vice versa.
What do you do when your subject goes off-topic?
There are times I’m talking to someone, and they’re really going off-point. Not only that, I know it won’t be interesting in the article I’m writing. I have no compunction about gently and politely getting them on-track.
For the most part, if you’re having a good interview, it becomes this free-wheeling conversation. You’ll transcribe it, piecing it together however you want to structure your article.
Have you generally had good experiences with your interviews?
Yes, and I’m not sure why that is. Having been an editor and knowing some of the writers out there, I can totally understand celebrities being reluctant to open up to some of these people.
But it’s not hard to do, it really isn’t. Your competition is so lame; the bar is set so low. All you have to do is come prepared and really listen. A lot of journalists have their ten questions, and they don’t listen.
Otherwise you might as well hand the celebrity your questions and let him sit there and answer them. It needs to be a dialogue, with the journalist listening and following up with good follow-up questions.
If you do that, most of these people are very happy to talk. I remember Peter Wolf from the J. Geils Band, when they were super popular in the early ’80s. We were finishing up the interview, and he looked at me and said, “Man, you are intense!” Like, he dug it.
I remember people going, “Wow, you get this. You have no idea how I usually have to explain my music to journalists, and they still don’t get it.”
How do you approach editing?
I do everything, even crappy novels. It’s fun to edit somebody else’s crappy novel. It teaches you what not to do.
I’m savage on my own stuff. Some passages have to go, and that comes from being an editor and realizing that not every word is a pearl. Part of good writing is being a good editor. Either do it yourself, or, hopefully, you write for a magazine that has good editors. But those are few and far between. Or do what I did and marry a great editor!
You have to learn to be brutal. Why is this here? Does it really advance the story? It’s very easy to get enamored of your own research and particularly with interviews. There are times I’ve come away from an interview going, “Oh, that was such a great interview!” What I’m thinking is that we had a great rapport and an excellent time, but when I transcribe it, it’s not so good. It’s very natural for writers to not want to let go. Or you discover this cool fact. Again, it’s for another article or another book. It’s superfluous here. As painful as it is, you’ve got to cut it.
It’s a constant learning process. I had written books nonstop for 22 years. That’s an awful lot of writing, and some of my books are a quarter-million words (the size of three books). It’s nice to use the other part of your brain and edit somebody else’s work.
Through doing that, your own writing gets better. Good writers are their own harshest critics.
Do you keep any of your old interviews?
Oh, no. Nowadays if I did it, I certainly would have kept the files on one flash drive. I’ve written 18 books. That’s a lot of interviews. Keep it for what purpose? It didn’t seem worth it.
The only interviews I ever kept came from my Dog Days book, because I was such a Yankees fan. I was interviewing guys that I grew up rooting for, like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson.
Folks often think of celebrities in pop culture, but is that an entirely accurate assessment?
Today I write primarily books on health and parenting. I still interview celebrities, except that they’re important doctors or famous psychologists. One time I was writing on cancer genetics, and I interviewed the most famous cancer geneticist from the University of something or other in Kansas.
So we’re talking, and I’m on his level. I was not an expert in science as a kid; I hated biology. Of course, I love this stuff now. To me, this guy was like the Bono of cancer genetics. We had a really good interview, since the best interviews flow like a conversation.
There are some people who genuinely hate doing press. But for the most part, artists are people who like to express themselves, obviously. Most of them especially enjoy a stimulating conversation. It’s so rare. That’s not their fault, that’s the fault of folks in the media who either come totally ill-prepared or ask stupid, insulting questions.
How important is it to cover diverse subjects?
You become a better writer when you write about other things. Metaphors come to you more easily. I used to struggle for analogies and metaphors. Not only have I written so much today, but I do a lot of editing for Simon & Schuster, Random House, and so on.
Editing improves your writing, and it forces you into different areas. Suddenly you have a much broader pallet. My knowledge of things has really expanded. If all you write about is music, you’re probably going to be limited to music metaphors.
The worst thing that most writers do is limit themselves. “I’m a sports writer!” Well, if you’re a half-way intelligent human being and curious about the world, you don’t have to limit yourself. It never occurred to me to limit myself.
I did two books on music, but then I did sort of a transitional book in 1987 with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister called Dee Snider’s Teenage Survival Guide. It was a book for teenagers on surviving your teenager hood, based on a book that Pat Boone had written in the 1950s called Twixt Twelve and Twenty.
We did the 1980s equivalent with Dee Snider. How funny is that? We wrote a real funny but honest book for kids. And it did great. After that, my literary agent would get a call: “Would Phil be interested in co-writing a book on cancer with this family whose child is suffering from lymphoma?”
Well, gee, I’d never thought about that before, but why not? If you’re a naturally curious person willing to do the research, you can make yourself proficient in just about anything. I’ve been a sports writer, music journalist, parenting expert, and a health expert.
I just wrote my first business-related book. I’m someone with no knowledge or interest in business. But the minute I started getting into it…you learn that pretty much anything is fascinating if you’re just open to it.
The great thing about writing is it gives you the time to delve deeply into it. Then you start thinking about it in the same way you analyze music. Writers pigeonhole themselves, and it’s no one’s fault but their own.
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Exclusive Interview: Philip Bashe wrote Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, one of the first books exploring Rick Nelson’s meteoric trajectory, in 1992. In his 40-year journalism career, Bashe can still recall the moment when he first heard Nelson’s “Garden Party.” Instantly rooting for Nelson’s moral victory after being booed at Madison Square Garden and refusing to compromise, the author began a decade-long quest to uncover the man behind the myth. In the splendid 11,000 word conversation entitled “Saluting the Artistic Integrity of Rick Nelson 30 Years After His Shocking Death,” Bashe refutes the misnomer that father Ozzie Nelson didn’t understand rock ’n’ roll, explains why Nelson is often lumped in with teen idols, reveals the singer’s acting aspirations, contextualizes the vastly neglected work of the Stone Canyon Band, and why legends including Bob Dylan and John Fogerty idolize the “Poor Little Fool” balladeer.
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