Kevin Smokler's Top 5 Deep Interviews of 2011

Kevin Smokler is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Practical Classics: Rereading Your Favorite Books from High School (Prometheus Books, 2013) and curator of Deep Interviews here on Longreads. 

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Here on Longreads, I’m curating Deep Interviews (#deepinterviews)—lengthy interviews with interesting people—a format I’ve grown to love. It’s not quite original reporting but certainly more than transcription, a showcase for at least three of my favorite art forms—conversation, listening and set decoration. A great interview not only brings us inside the mind of an interesting person but inside the room where the conversation happened. And while many of the best presenters of interviews (The Paris Review, Playboy, Bomb) use an iterative process—the final interview emerging from several sessions like portrait painting—many others, equally loved, are on-the-spot reporting while all the action sits in hotel room club chairs. We the reader are invited in but are not the important person. We’re probably leaning uncomfortably against the bathroom door and trying to stay out everyone’s way. 

For this best-of list, I’ve chosen only interviews that you can read right now, no subscription required, from 5 different publications, at five different points in the trajectory of a culturally-known person. If the Deep Interview is a butterfly, below we’ve got pupae to pretty flying thing, though in no order biology would understand. 

2012 is looking to be a denser, dizzier time for the Deep Interview. More publications are opening their archives and the Charles Foster Kane basement of the genre (explained below). The hashtag #deepinterviews will keep you up to date on all these developments starting right now. 

I. William Gibson, The Paris Review Interview (Summer 2011 Issue)

Gibson knocks ‘em dead here—funny, smart, but plain and practical. A line like “We’re increasingly aware that our society is driven by these unpredictable uses we find for the products of our imagination,” which left me thinking for a solid 40 minutes, is tossed off without pause. There’s also plenty for those of us who know science fiction much more as cultural phenomenon than by the particulars of the author’s worlds. I’m also guessing that even the diehards will be pleased by Gibson calling Neuromancer, his most famous novel, “a soap box derby car.” 

II. Scott Shepherd and Richard Maxwell: Bomb Magazine (Summer 2011 Issue)

BOMB has featured artist-on-artist interviews as its signature offering since 1981. About 90% of the time I have no idea who the subjects are and that’s just the way I like it. I read BOMB to unearth areas of creativity. Their interviews are my miner’s helmet. 

Scott Shepherd is an actor with the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service. ERS was profiled last year in the New Yorker as they were putting up GATZ, a six-hour word-for-word retelling of The Great Gatbsy. Richard Maxwell is an experimental theater director. Of them, I know The Great Gatsby, the New Yorker and that’s it. These guys don’t have a bunch of old war stories but rather experience collected as the raw material of the future, of projects yet conceived and horizons yet crossed. I don’t understand a fair amount of the theorizing about theater that they do. But the conversation is open enough for curiosity and learning and in that way, is the creative process itself in miniature. 

III. tUnE-yArDs: Pitchfork Interviews (April 25, 2011)

I loved Merrill Garbus (TY is her project) after reading this interview. She’s funny, self-aware, thoughtful. She’s also exactly the kind of musician you want big sloppy success for, which is what makes this piece such a great example of a type: The interview that catches a star on the rise. 

Pitchfork catches Garbus right before a tour, when she’s “doing a lot of boring and wonderfully domestic things.” Read the rest and you’ll think “I don’t think Merrill Garbus will be doing her own laundry much longer unless she wants to.” Also the interviewer both acknowledges that TY does not fit a current musical trend yet nonetheless insists on asking if Garbus went through a “punk phase” (nothing in her afro-pop-inspired-vocal-heavy songs would indicate this. The interviewer seems to think that any musician not wearing glitter must have had a punk phase) and rushing past Garbus’s narration of her musical salad days in the uncool 1980s to get to her time spent in the more culturally approved 1990s. 

Garbus is having none of it. She is straight with the journalist but firm that her story not fit any convention but her own. 

I wish only great things for Merrill Garbus after reading this. And I hope she also files it away as capturing a moment before all those big things happened. 

IV. Giancarlo Esposito: The Onion AV Club Interview (Oct. 7, 2011)

Read enough interviews and you thank 18 different gods when someone with a criminally underrated career is given room to talk about themselves. Such is the case with Giancarlo Esposito, a character actor who makes everything he appears in better just with his presence. 

Esposito has been acting since the 1980s and I became aware of him from starring roles in Spike Lee’s early films. If you’re around my age (38) you probably remember him as Buggin’ Out in Do the Right Thing or as Cab Driver YoYo in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. The AV Club’s got him here for his role as Gustavo Fring, the newest addition to the acclaimed series Breaking Bad, unseen by me. But I still say “thank god” and “about time.” Fifty more like this with Mr. Esposito please and at least that many actors like him. 

V. Martin Luther King Jr: The Playboy Interview (January, 1965, republished Oct. 21, 2011)

I’ve got this one here as a representation of where the availability of Deep Interviews is going. Playboy has taken to republishing from its 50-year archive of interviews via reader requests on the magazines Facebook page. Martin Luther King Jr.’s is here by reader demand, a rebuke to the idea that no one reads Playboy for the articles. 

Beyond that, Playboy’s efforts are an indicator of reader demand for this kind of journalism. And with any luck, more availability, more openness, at whatever rate, is where we’re headed. BOMB and The Paris Review already have their complete interview archives available on line and free. I’d love to see more publications head that way. 

An even bigger interview drop is coming in the next two years. The Library of Congress is in the process of digitizing the entire collection of interviews by Studs Turkel, perhaps America’s greatest interviewer. The first of those nearly 7,000 conversations is due to be made publicly available sometime next year. 

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