Don’t tell me what your interview subject had for lunch

I have a pet peeve when it comes to many profile articles ( that is, an article that profiles an individual for a magazine or other publication).

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that many writers (way, way too many, if you ask me) have this little habit of deliberately alluding to the interview itself within the story. It removes some of the focus away from the subject of the article and puts attention back on the writer. And sports fans, we all know that it’s not supposed to be about the writer. The article is supposed to be about the person who’s being profiled.

The most obvious, and in my opinion most annoying, way of doing this is to talk about the interview setting itself–the location, the mood, the lighting, etc. The writer might write something like this: “Over a lunch of tofu salad on carb-free bread with a side of couscous and a tiny glass of wheatgrass juice, Grungy Rockstar/Sensitive Actor/Wide-eyed Starlet confided his deepest fear….” Sometimes the writer pounds out something more like this: “Acclaimed Director/Reality TV Star/Trashy Heiress dashed into the organic cupcake shop twenty minutes late, dripping wet and making apologies for her appearance–her chauffeur had bailed at the last minute–before sitting down and removing her Lanvin/Rag and Bone/TJ Maxx jacket and ordering a cranberry-banana scone without the cranberries…”

So. Annoying.

Hell, why don’t you just go ahead and also write, “And I had a tall non-fat pumpkin latte with organic nutmeg sprinkled on top. And then I giggled and batted my eyelashes at Sensitive Musician/Grungy Actor/Bleached-Blonde Starlet and pretended that we were best friends. Because after all, isn’t this story also about how co0l it was that I got to have a meal/snacks/coffee with this person?”

NO! It is not about YOU, fellow writer person! You’re supposed to be writing about this person! Not insinuating little random factoids that don’t actually add to the story except to remove a reader from the story and throw them back into the interview process. No one needs to know about the interview process, unless something really crazy or jaw-droppingly sordid happens. Haven’t you ever heard the old saw about how no one needs to see laws or sausages being made? Interviews are like that. The interview exists so that you can pry information out of your subject and then shape it and sausage-make it into something readable and interesting for other people to digest…er, read.

Women’s magazines tend to have the most egregious examples of this annoying little trend. I’ve rarely noticed it in newspapers, although they are not completely immune (I have to pick on a story in today’s Tennesseean about Olympic gold medal winner Scott Hamilton who apparently likes to chat with reporters over grilled chicken salads. Although I might be willing to give this one a pass, since the rest of the article is fine, plus it does address the issue of Hamilton trying to lose weight and be healthy enough to return to professional ice skating).

Now, I will admit that there may occasionally be a time when a nugget of information about an interview might actually provide something very telling about the interviewee. It might really impart some useful info about Celebrity/Starlet/Who is She Again? to note that she orders complicated food items that aren’t on the menu but expects to receive them anyway.

But really. Most of the time these interviews seem to take place over lunch or coffee, which hello, is where MANY interviews take place. And you don’t read too many articles about bank presidents or biomedical researchers or even sports stars eating ham-and-turkey-on-wheat while talking about what’s going on with them and their industries. I once profiled a really interesting television news anchor. But when you read the story, you didn’t learn that she offered me iced tea in her living room while I fiddled with my tape recorder. So I expect other writers to be a little more creative in describing their subjects, too. Unless you conduct the interview someplace really, really off the wall. Or in a war zone. Then you get a pass. But not for a coffee shop or cafe interview. I know you think it might be a good example of “show, don’t tell” to note that your interview subject slowly stirred non-fat creamer into her coffee, but honestly, it really doesn’t. If she dreamily refers to her habit of rereading “Macbeth” on dark, stormy nights while she stirs said creamer into said coffee, then please, tell me that. But leave out the coffee, ‘kay?

And no, to my knowledge, I have never done anything like this in my writing, athough I am VERY sure I’ve committed plenty of other writing-related sins. And if I ever do slip up and fall into this little habit, you have my permission to call me out on it. You can even invite me out to lunch and write down what I’m eating.  (But please, don’t tell everyone what I’m wearing.)


About jenniferlarsonwrites

I'm a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. I have a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor's degree in English from Rhodes College. I'm a born-and-bred Southerner who spent a few years in Southern California, a rabid baseball fan and a would-be grower of tomatoes. You can also visit me at LinkedIn or on Twitter at @JenniferLarson.
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2 Responses to Don’t tell me what your interview subject had for lunch

  1. Yo Prinzel says:

    I’ve noticed this and the trend of discussing how the “un-makeupped singer breezed into the coffee shop and was so average no one paid her any mind…” annoying.

    I did see one interview with Larry David in which the reporter talked about the food they ate–but it was necessary to paint that picture of the neurotic David we all enjoy.

    Maybe everyone thinks they’re Truman Capote or Liz Smith and actually are developing relationships with the famous. Sadness 😦

  2. Jack Busch says:

    While I wholeheartedly agree that a good interview focuses in tight on the subject and wastes little space on self indulgent insertions or musing, I am going to have to disagree that a little bit of self-consciousness about he interview process is always bad. Example: Radiolab. Almost every single interview has a little bit of behind-the-scenes candor, whether it’s the subject correcting Jad on the pronunciation of their last name or a little snippet of the mic level check. I would argue that it is always good when they do this. It is jarring in an intimate and satisfyig way. You get more of a sense that you are hearing a real live, interesting person talking rather than a faceless expert or some talking head. I’d suggest giving an episode a listen if you haven’t already — I agree that an interviewer flaunting their supposed chumminess with a subject is tiresome. But with all techniques, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

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