In my previous life writing features about Michigan football, there came a number of occasions where an interview subject didn’t want to be interviewed. I’m not sure what the popular belief is, but it’s my experience that most football players, coaches and hangers-on would rather you kindly fuck off than ask them how it felt to score the game-winning touchdown or what their favorite TV show is.
Twice (here and here) I was forced to make an article about the fact that the subject didn’t want to talk to me – and I worked for the University – there’s no kinder, gentler, more friendly reporter than the internal PR machine.
My inspiration was a classic story by Gay Talese called “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. Talese had very limited time with the subject of his feature so instead he wrote all about Sinatra’s comings and goings and his posse.
I guess this is turning into another post about writing tips, huh. So here it is, explicitly: Use your eyes and ears and nose and tell me something about your experience. You’re forced to do that when your subject sits on a bench and mumbles one-word answers, but that doesn’t happen too often.
It’s hard to do. Much harder than it sounds. I rarely pull it off, and it’s something I’m obsessed with. Generally, if I’m writing about hot tubs or craft cocktails or salons, I write about those subjects pretty plainly, but my piece rarely becomes those things. That sounds weird and pretentious. My goal is for each piece to be about what it’s about, entertaining maybe, funny and hopefully with at least one sentence that you want to re-read because it’s pretty good.
My point is, some of the best “stories” have no story. It’s when things screw up or subjects don’t want to talk to me or an original hypothesis is completely wrong. In those times I need to dig deeper and try a lot harder. In those times, I can write about Frank Sinatra without writing about Frank Sinatra.
Now go read Gay Talese. He’s way better than me.