Chris Lydon’s “Letterman List” of Interviewing Tips

Christopher Lydon in

Chris_lydon_SquareBasic starting point: imagine in an interview you’re on a flight (90-minutes or so) to Chicago… You fasten your seatbelt and, to your amazement, find you’re sitting next to this person you’ve been wanting to interview…Magic Johnson, or Jane Austen or Paul Revere. Your mind is jumping to the moment when you can call home and say: you’ll never believe who I just talked with, heart to heart, no kidding.

Try these on the person in the next seat on the flight….

10. You have a definition of victory before you say hello. You’ve got an idea of what you’d like to phone home.

9. But: You’re ready for something entirely different. Jane Austen wants to talk about God, Paul Revere about sex… Somebody says: I know this isn’t what you’re interested in, but… and you know you’re launched.

8. The assignment is essentially about getting people to laugh, or cry. Or gasp. The novelist Alexander Theroux once told a prison writing class I was teaching that Buddy Hackett had it right about comedians and writers: the job is to go out there on stage, bang a nail into the wall, and then pull it out with your backside. I think with pleasure about interviewing Harold Evans about his book The American Century and intuiting from the book that the key moment was Harry Hopkins’ arrival in London with the Lend-Lease promise in 1940, or ’41. Harold Evans was 13 at the time, scared that his country (starting with mum and dad) was going down. I asked him just to talk about Harry Hopkins and sure enough he got to the moment when Hopkins recited from the Book of Ruth to Churchill and his Cabinet: “Whither thou goest, I will go… to the end.” And dear Mr. Evans cried like a baby. Bingo! He said Hopkins made Churchill cry, too.

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