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What We Talk About When We Talk About People Talking About People Talking
Talking up a new newsletter about people in food.
This week I launched another newsletter: F&BQ&A, an interview series about interesting people in food, beverage, restaurants, hospitality, and adjacent universes. The first installment features New York restaurateur and media founder John McDonald, who among other things has advice for those seeking to travel back in time and achieve VIP status at Nobu. You should of course subscribe, and check out the brief explainer and introduction, and certainly feel free to suggest more people for me to interview.
Without getting into a big thing about it, I also want to come to the defense of Q&A interviews, as well as the as-told-to interview format we used over on Zagat Stories. This style is the red-headed stepchild of interviewing. I can’t tell you how many writers and editors have looked down their long probosci at these formats, at any number of publications, because they (a) involve more editing of the subject’s words while allegedly representing them as semi-literal, and (b) de-emphasize the words and point of view of the writer in favor of the subject’s.
These two objections are related. Every writer, myself included, loves talking about themselves above all else (I’m doing it right now). What fun is it to toil over a long interview where your authorial presence is minimized? And am I being reportorially dishonest if I remove this interviewee’s umms and ahhs, finesse tortured grammar, cut irrelevancies, or put their scattered spoken conversational manner of storytelling in chronological order?
The fact is, having now conducted, edited, and published hundreds of as-told-to and Q &A interviews, I’ve never had a single objection about journalistic accuracy or veracity from an interview subject about what they actually said. In fact—other than correcting occasional typos or errors—the only post-publication concerns have been when interviewees got too far into the groove and wishes they hadn’t been quite so candid or forthcoming. In which cases I’ve offered them the chance to amplify or qualify further in an additional note. Only one person took me up on that offer.
How people speak is not how they write, and so what I edit toward in interviews is a subjectively true representation of the talking person—not a literally and objectively accurate record of the sounds coming out their mouth in the order they emerge. What I’m after is a written story that reads, sounds, and feels true to life for both reader and subject. And the best compliment I’ve gotten from many of my subjects (and those who know them) is that their interviews sound like themselves.
Incidentally, one new method of work I’m embracing for F&BQ&A is the principle of mutual use. I make the interview recordings and unedited auto-generated transcripts available to interview subjects, in case they want to create their own versions. My interviews tend to be at least 20 minutes and sometimes go up to an hour, meaning there’s a ton of Potential Content that ends up on the virtual cutting room floor. Maybe the interview subject can make something from all that stuff which otherwise would vanish from the earth. Plus, it’s a transparency check on my work in case someone does eventually object to my edits. If I actually do get something wrong, of course I want to fix it.
I’m going to publishing similar (and sometimes complementary) interviews as part of Strange Work programming, though of course I’ll still post plenty of self-indulgent narrative columns! So much to look forward to!