Klosterman on the Transcendent Interview

It's easy to compare the rock critic-turned-essayist Chuck Klosterman to Lester Bangs or even Hunter S. Thompson, but doesn't any vaguely gonzo rock critic-turned-essayist get compared to Lester Bangs or Hunter S. Thompson? Instead, let's just say that this North Dakota native is the author of four books, one novel, and, most recently, "Eating the Dinosaur," a collection of thought-pieces about ABBA, Ralph Sampson, and Truth.

Klosterman recently granted Book World a meta-interview.

Do you think an interview is an adversarial experience? Like a criminal trial?

Not always. Particularly since, over the last 5 or so years, I've done mostly -- for lack of a better term -- celebrity journalism. It's not adversarial like newspaper journalism. [But] there should be creative tension between interviewer and subject...If [an interview] doesn't have that aspect, it's a dull interview.

Is celebrity journalism too nice?

The ultimate motive for doing it wasn't that different from advertising to me. A lot of times you interview a band, or an actor, or a director, and they perceive the experience as a promo event. But a lot of times, I felt like...the reporter was going to feel the same way. I was very surprised -- when I moved to New York City and got involved with magazine journalism -- how many writers were interested in meeting celebrities and thought they could become friends with them and somehow exist in that world. I found that disenchanting. Newspapers are not like that. When I worked in [newspaper] arts and entertainment, if a band was going to be interviewed, the fact that you liked them eliminated you from the story.

Do you feel that your interviews -- I'm thinking about "Bending Spoons with Britney Spears" from Chuck Klosterman IV transcends that dry exchange?

I had 45 minutes with her. The assumption is that you can't do a good piece with that limited access...[but if] you want to ask questions that change or amplify or improve the way someone would experience [her] art, forty-five minutes is more than enough time. [Journalists assume that], if you spend a week with someone, you'll pick up on details of their life. But no one is ever going to act like themselves around a journalist. If somebody spent a month with me and wanted to write a story about me, I wouldn't be myself.

Is the self you present in your writing a caricature?

One of the things I like about book writing is that there are less conventions and less rules. You can use whatever means are the best to get the idea across. Is the person in "Killing Yourself to Live" me? Yes, but in the same way that, if I give a book reading, I act differently than I do in my life. The way I'm talking to you on the phone now is different than the way I would talk to you at a party. The person in that book is me, but elements are a construction.

So does this interview transcend advertising? Or would it be equally worthwhile to talk about the Philadelphia Phillies?

If we talked about the Philadlelphia Phillies, it might be more entertaining. It might be more interesting to someone with no interest in me or my book. If we talk about writing or about ["Eating the Dinosaur"], it could change the way someone experiences it.

You're asking a fundamental question I should be able to answer, but I can't. I'm tempted to make something up. But I know if I make something up, it won't serve the purpose. That's the weird thing about being interviewed. You're often asked questions about things you wouldn't think about normally, but because they are about you or about your worldview, you just end up kind of talking. I look back and read what I said and think "That's weird."

So interviews aren't a good way to get at fundamental truths?

Probably not. But that doesn't mean that they are worthless. I like good feature writing...but no matter how good a profile is, it's naïve to think that you understand the person in a real way. Like documentary filmmaking...no matter how good [a director] is, the medium and the technology and the perspective of the director are the main thing you learn about -- more than anything about the person they are documenting. I didn't always think this. I do feel that I have an advantage...I spent many years interviewing people and then spent a bunch of time being interviewed. It has made me understand the process and the value of interviewing more than the average person.

Does it bother you when people like me -- interviewers who aren't interested in sports -- don't ask you questions about sports?

That was one essay ["Football"] of all the essays in ["Eating the Dinosaur"], that's the one I enjoyed writing the most. People without out interest in sports won't appreciate or understand it. And a lot of my audience isn't interested in sports. I know -- I meet the people at my readings. [But] no. It doesn't bother me.

I feel incredibly fortunate that I'm able to sustain a career writing about things that interest me personally. I can't have the expectation that, if something is interesting to me, it isn't universally compelling. Any time I have ever tried to write something and anticipate what people might be interested in, it always fails. You can't fabricate intellectual enthusiasm for a subject. I write about things that are interesting to me and hope that they are interesting to other people, but I don't expect them to be.

-- Interview conducted by Justin Moyer

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 12, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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