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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: October 10, 2009

John Wilcock
the weekly column

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Bidoun #18

This is the second part of an interview with JW by Zachary Hooker for the magazine Bidoun.

[Part one appeared in last week’s column]

ZH: Has interviewing always been a central part of reporting for you?
JW: Well. yes… I was thinking about it after you had contacted me. So, I started doing this little cable TV show around the early 80s, and by that time I had worked and written for five of the world’s biggest dailies — the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail in London, the Toronto Daily Star, the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, and the New York Times. And I realized that I had learned more about interviewing by trying to start a cable TV show than I had in thirty years of work as a reporter. And one of the things was that — and this was because I had to edit in camera, couldn’t afford post-production — the order I shot was the order they took it, so I didn’t bother with gathering background information and small talk, I would just jump in mid-sentence, interrupt a thought. Say I’d be with a tour guide. I wouldn’t even mention the fact I was there to film him, and then mid-sentence I’d start the camera and ask, “Well, what do you think of that?” Or something like that. A great deal of interviewing is catching people off guard, but not aggressively. Just giving them something they don’t expect.

ZH: It seems like you find many affinities between being on camera and the act of interviewing, regardless of if there is actually a camera present. I’m just thinking of all those references to Warhol’s camerawork, and this experience producing for public access.
Yeah. it’s all mixed up, really. When you go and interview somebody… I started before there were tape recorders, there were no tape recorders until the 50s or 60s, really. So, it was in shorthand, all shorthand. And you can’t interview somebody and take shorthand. The mere fact of sitting there taking notes shuts them up. So basically you had to remember what they said, and not only remember what they said but the actual words they used. And I realized one way to do that — like when I went to interview Marilyn Monroe, for instance, one of my earlier jobs — what you have to do is ask the questions you are personally curious about, what you want the answers to. Because if you know what you want to know from them, when you get back home, of course you will remember how they answered the question, you know? So that was a big key to interviewing for me… asking the questions you want to know, not rote questions or something like that. And also catch them off guard a lot. I mean, I’m very amiable on camera, but some people get really nervous when you put the camera on them. You know what Quentin Crisp used to say? He used to say, “If you’re going to be on television, decide what you want to say and say it no matter what the question is.” Which is really great advice. So I’d put the camera on someone, and I’m very informal and friendly and I don’t challenge them. I’m not aggressive.

And then there is this trick to writing novels — you raise an issue, a question, and don’t answer it until later in the book. Keeps people curious. Well, you can do that in interviewing, too. I was talking to this art dealer once, and I asked something like, “Remember when Larry Rivers abruptly left your gallery, was he kicked out?” And then follow it up really quick with another question, so they are festering, waiting to answer that provocative question. You delay that answer as long as possible.

ZH: Regarding shorthand and note-taking, something important seems to hinge on the act of reproducing speech. The issue of how truthful to what the person “actually” said, you have to be, as an interviewer or a reporter.
JW: Well, when I write, I like to keep three things in mind: keep it interesting and provocative, never have a word more than is necessary, and the third rule, which is the best one, is that even one unusual word in a sentence will give it life, will make a reader remember it. So the most valuable book you can have is a thesaurus. I use one all the time. I’m always looking for a word that is not too far from what I want to say but keeps the original meaning. And that’s the secret to doing an interview without taking notes, and getting it in exactly the sense the other person was using. You remember a couple key words, and you wrap the sentence or paragraph around those. You are going to either replicate exactly what the interviewee was getting at, or come up with something that sounds a hundred times better. And they aren’t going to deny they said it. Especially if it sounds good, they will probably believe that that is exactly what they said.

ZH: Talking about how video has influenced your take on interviewing and writing is making me think of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a public access show from New York in the late 70s that revolved around the Warhol scene to some degree. That show fascinated me a while back. Were you around for any of that?
No, no. I was long gone. But Glenn O’Brien’s a big shot over at Interview now. I might have met him back in his early days in New York, but I doubt it. People like him and Bob Colacello have made that magazine kind of pompous, elite…

ZH: How long did you stay involved with Interview?
JW: Well. Andy and I had that fifty-fifty arrangement for a year, and during that time I had nothing to do with Andy or the paper or anything, with respect to content. I was traveling to Japan a lot, Greece… I’ve written a lot of travel guides. Not long after I got back to the city I was planning to leave the country again, for good, and I wanted to keep some part of the paper, because I had already been through this type of thing with the Voice… I was one of the people who started the Voice, and I didn’t make a penny out of it, you know. And even today they still run fifty-year-old articles of mine, post them on their blog, and I don’t get any kind of credit. Anyway, I didn’t want to go through that again, so I tried to persuade Andy to give me a portion of the ownership, and all he said is that I could either keep paying my half or sell it to him. So I just charged him the typesetting fee for the previous year, $6000 — twelve $500 bills — and he paid me most of it, and then just before I left, I went up to him and said, “Give me some artwork, Andy, because I know you’re not going to give me that last thousand dollars.” So he gave me a couple flower paintings, I think they had just come back from the Tate, and that was the end of my time with Interview. Since then, they have refused to mention my name at all or plug my Warhol book or my autobiography.

ZH: About that experience co-founding the Village Voice, can you tell me a bit about how that paper situated itself in the midst of 1950s American Levittown conservatism?
I think there was a growing awareness at the time that there was no real alternative to the straight daily press — in other words, any established newspaper. And not long after the Voice began — and I think this was one of the motivations for my cofounders Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher — the Village Independent Democrats began to challenge the Democratic Party in the same way the Voice challenged the established press. And there were all these other things happening that went along with what the Voice was doing. Jane Jacobs wrote this seminal book on American cities, while Robert Moses — who really was a czar, thought he was above the law — was trying to put a highway right through Washington Square Park, right through the Village. The Off-Broadway movement had gotten off the ground, which Jerry Tallmer had a lot to do with, founding the Obie Awards, etcetera. Anyway, these things were happening, these were the issues that the Voice covered, the issues they created awareness about. They justified the early existence of the paper.

ZH: What made you leave the paper?
JW: When I left the Voice I had recently met Walter Bowart, who started the East Village Other (EVO), which was the first real underground paper in New York. And Ed Fancher called EVO and the Voice and demanded I choose one. He didn’t make this demand on anyone else — Nat Hentoff was writing for a slew of papers, for example. I think they were worried because EVO was a direct competitor to the paper — and it was certainly more hip than the Voice. So I think there was bad blood because of this, and after I left there was a sort of fatwa against me. No longer was I to be associated with, to be mentioned in any official history of the paper, not in Mailer’s memoirs, nothing. Even though they still rerun my pieces — my Warhol piece was even republished in the fiftieth-anniversary issue — I never get credit. They don’t bother to mention my books or my website, and I certainly don’t get any money.

ZH: Do you think your ideas regarding what journalism is, and the role of the underground press in general, made you difficult to work with?
JW: Well, that is certainly a possibility. The underground press, after it got rolling, began to realize there was little support for it from the straight press, and mostly hostility. This might have been the case with the Voice. The people who were making a lot of the underground papers, these were mostly college kids. I don’t think it lent much credibility to the movement. And I was associated with all of that — l championed that. Maybe I shouldn’t have smoked so much dope around that time, or been such an advocate of the legalization of marijuana. I wonder if that strain of my career did more harm than good sometimes, in terms of journalistic reputation. I also co-edited The Witches Almanac for thirty years, with a witch named Betty — Elizabeth Pepper. I know that couldn’t have sat well with a lot of circles in the straight press.

ZH: Any regrets?
JW: I have no regrets — I’ve always loved what I do. But somehow, I always end up written out of history all the time. It’s a real mystery to me. I can’t really understand why it is that nobody will mention me anymore. I’m not looking for ego satisfaction, I’m just looking for credit for what I did originally. But it’s just water under the bridge… What can I say — it’s gone. Time is gone now. I have no contact with most of those former colleagues, none at all.

John with mother and cousin Margaret
c. 1935 at Llandudno, U.K.

So in a way, stuff like this, I feel like my whole life has been… I wouldn’t say a failure, but a series of me doing whatever I wanted to do, but never really being recognized nor recompensed for It. And I think I’ve realized it’s got to be my fault. It’s just what I do — get really fascinated by something, really into something, then leave before any kind of payoff. So I can’t really blame anybody. And why would I? I’ve always enjoyed myself.

You know, there was this one time… My mother is very shrewd. One time I was bitching about money to her, and she said, “I don’t know why you are complaining. You know you have never done one thing you didn’t want to do, ever?” And she was absolutely right, and that was the first time I ever realized it. She had told me the absolute truth — I never did anything I didn’t want to do. I still won’t, really.