An interview is always a therapy session of sorts.
You're trying to get the measure of someone, probe the psyche a bit. At least, that's what I've come to realize that I'm trying to do when I conduct an interview – not by strategy, you understand, but by instinct.
I ask the questions about the matter at hand – a book, a film, an album – but just to get them out of the way. Promotional hype can be noteworthy. But people are so endlessly fascinating. And curiosity is a funny thing. It's impatient, for one thing. Which doesn't mean it's impolite. There is such a thing as being gracefully shameless. I have and will ask just about anything, nicely.
But there are times when you don't have to probe. Everything gets offered up. That was the case with John Taylor, the 52-year-old bassist and co-founder of Duran Duran, the New Wave band that made its debut in the early eighties. In Toronto to promote his new memoir, In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran, he was willing to talk about everything, his wife, his marriages – the brief one and the good one – his drug years, his former addictions to sex, tobacco, booze and cocaine. I felt I should have billed him at the end of the hour – for all the professional listening and nodding I did.
It was only later, after the interview, that I realized that the outpouring about his personal life was really an expression of his enduring solipsism. He felt he was over the fever of fame, that he'd come out the other side, normal and able to talk about it like an illness. He had been clean for 18 years. But he still found himself to be the most interesting phenomenon, having been a shy and single child who grew up in a Catholic family in Birmingham, England, and hit the big time at 18. "I've been so busy unravelling my complexes," he lamented, before telling me more.
Michael Chabon was another surprise. Most writers would rather keep their thoughts to themselves, and for the page, rather than share them with a reporter. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was in an ebullient mood, reclined on a sofa in a downtown Toronto hotel to talk about his new novel, Telegraph Avenue, as though ensconced in some lurid opium den. Dressed in a tweedy fitted suit and a floral, open-necked shirt, he was as baroque in manner as some of his sentences are in syntax and description.
"I don't think it makes sense to criticize me as a writer for overwriting," he said. "That's how I write. It's like criticizing Oscar Peterson for playing too many notes." Of course, part of his candour springs from healthy confidence – a struggle for other writers. Chabon was clearly in his element, which made him at ease and willing to speak about his talent, not boasting exactly but simply explaining the mechanics of writing as if it were a process as straightforward as baking a cake.
Sanjay Gupta, the 42-year-old neurosurgeon, medical reporter for CNN and novelist (Monday Mornings) offered up his stunning achievements with a cool, undramatic reserve. I could ask – and he would reply, eager, it seemed, to diagnose what I needed to know, and happy to give me something as a cure for my curiosity.
"With creativity, it's one of the few activities that engages both sides of the brain simultaneously," he offered about his novel, which took him 10 years to write on planes, in the early morning and at night. (He and his wife also have three daughters, aged 6, 5 and 3.) "You're stressing pathways," he said of the process. "And when you feel your brain working that way, it's pretty fun."
There were other memorable interviews of effortless telling. Over lunch, Terry Jones, the British ex-Monty-Python comedian, gave me a lot to digest. In town to promote the humorous health video, MyHealthTips.com, which he created with the late Toronto physician, Robert Buckman, for Lyceum Health, he leaped off on a thousand tangents with the air of an absent-minded professor. He spoke of his infidelity with a Swedish student at Oxford where he had gone to sell books (he has written serious academic books on medieval life) and to give a talk about Chaucer. "She couldn't afford a book. I felt sorry for her so I gave her one. It's the only time I've ever done it. I don't know why I did it really," he volunteered with a look of bewilderment. I felt that he wanted me to suggest a reason he might have been compelled to give her the book. I didn't. It would not have been kind.
He divorced his wife of 38 years, and married the young woman, Anna Soderstrom, who is almost 40 years his junior. Their daughter is one year younger than his youngest grandchild.
Why do people choose to confess? I don't really have an answer for that, and can only say that it's so much more interesting when they do. There were interviews subjects this past year who gave the same old script: Jann Arden and her salt-of-the-earth schtick; Nik Wallenda, the seventh-generation funambulist who could only say, "It's peaceful, it's relaxing, it's thrilling, it's exciting," when asked about his tightrope walking, which he did across the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls this summer; and Liam Hemsworth, the Australian actor in The Hunger Games who managed to muster this about his break-out movie role: "I am so proud to be part of this project." Sigh.
When people open up, they often reveal themselves to be brave and human in ways that they might not have imagined. That's what I felt about Mimi Alford, author of Once Upon A Secret, an account of her alleged 18-month affair with President John F. Kennedy when she was a 19-year-old summer intern in the White House. The president took her virginity on the canopied bed in his wife's White House bedroom on Alford's fourth day of work. For 40 years, she kept quiet about it. When a transcript, which mentioned her, then known as Mimi Beardsley, was unearthed by a Kennedy biographer and leaked in 2003 to the New York Daily News, she confirmed her identity but went underground.
Her decision to later write about the affair was to "reclaim for me those parts of the 19-year-old that had been shut away." Now 63, and remarried after a divorce, she was a model of calm detachment. "If I was doing this for the money, it was so difficult to do, I would have given up a long time ago," she said. Remarkable, too, was her lack of shame. Even after sex with the Kennedy, she called him Mr. President. And he never asked her to call him Jack?
"Never," she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "Maybe doing that would have put [the relationship] on another level."
Right there is a great example of graceful shamelessness. She looks pretty foolish and naive in the memoir, but she was unafraid to expose herself, to tell it all, and yet she did so with great dignity. I had to give her credit.