Art of the Interview

Question: How did your mother influence your interview style?

Gay Talese: Well, she sincerely was curious. She wasn’t professionally curious. A lot of interviews, and I’m not including you, but a lot of interviewers have a job to do and they would have to interview somebody and it’s a movie star or some very successful political figure or whoever. And they have a job to do and they have their questions and they go about it. My mother was curious as any Mike Wallace or any, you know, Charlie Rose or anybody, curious, but her purpose wasn’t professional. Her purpose was to see how these more assimilated Americans were in body and spirit. And she wanted to learn about the larger life than was possible from her insular background as an Italian immigrant, as a woman of Italian background. And see the immigration to Italy brought with it people who didn’t speak the language. I told you this before. My mother’s mother and father couldn’t even speak English. They lived in Brooklyn, but they couldn’t even speak English their whole lives. My mother had to take Italian lessons to speak to her mother and father. And so this sense of being isolated, being different, being foreign, my mother in her dress shop was able to feel in the company of women whom she knew well because they were regular customers. They were not 26 years old; they were 56 years old. They were middle-aged women, rather portly. My mother specialized in large-sized dresses and large-sized suits for mature women and women who were very gently reared and had time on their hands and they would come in the middle of the afternoon and they would not only go through the clothing that was on the racks, but they would talk. And it was like a talk show in a way. And the women were just rhapsodizing or just commenting or recalling things about their daily lives or maybe about their families or maybe about something of the atmosphere of the town in this wartime period that my mother found very interesting and very instructive. And she was like going to school on these women. She was learning through a very interesting way of questioning. She was never aggressive and she never interrupted. People started talking and she wouldn’t change the subject. She would patiently listen. And out of this patience came the uninterrupted dialogues or the monologues I should say that were like the story, like a verbal essay out of these women’s mouths. And these women again were not people that were newsworthy; these women when they died probably got a little obituary, but not much. They were not what you would call today women of any achievement, but they were women who echoed the character of the town, they were the spine of them all, virtues of the town. They were maybe skeptical of certain trends at that time, they were maybe critical, but they gave voice to a whole sense of small town stability. And my mother just was very on the intake of these kind of women and so was I, who listened in the background. So this was a very great experience for me and later on useful to me when I too became an interviewer, granted a professional one, but I had a way of not interrupting and letting people tell their stories. And my mission I always thought was to give voice to other people by listening well and writing from their point of view, not mine, their point of view what it is that they represented.

Question: Who are the great interviewers of today?

Gay Talese: Well, if we were talking about what most of your audience would be familiar with, I guess Charlie Rose, you know, within the limitations of his time, but he is as good as you get on television. Granted every day, he’s talking to someone new and it’s within the limitations of maybe a half-hour or an hour, I’m not sure. He does interrupt a lot, as people who are critical of him- I’m not critical of him, I think he does a very good job. What I most like about him is he does allow people’s point of view, different than his own in many cases, to give full vent to it. He allows people to talk. And he also is a gentleman. That’s one of the things I think that journalists should be that are not. He is a gentleman. He’s well mannered. That’s why people go on his show because they feel they’re not being abused. In the old days of Mike Wallace, long before your lifetime, he was very abusive, tough. He was like a detective. He had a prosecutorial mentality, the old Mike Wallace on Night Beat and even to a degree 60 Minutes. I think Chris Matthews and people who are- he’s not an interviewer, he’s really more of a ranter, but he’s amusing. But I think in print media, I’ll tell you the truth, in the magazine business today and the newspaper business, there is not much that I find admirable. I think it’s not necessarily the fault of any particular group of individuals as journalists; space is not afforded to such people. The technology has ruined it. I mean I believe the invention of the tape recorder was one of the most disastrous inventions in terms of what I’m speaking about because I said to you before that it’s so important to let people say what they want to say and have a sense of who they are rather than what they say. I’m not looking for in my own work as a curious person the words out of people’s mouths; I want to feel I know the people and I can describe them. When the tape recorder came into prominence maybe in the 1960s first, I never had one. I still never have a tape recorder. I never used one in my life. But I think what’s wrong with the tape recorder, during the whole art of the interview, the hanging out, the art of hanging out which is the way I put it, it made it a question and answer, Q&A, Q&A. And sometimes you see even The New York Times Magazine and other magazines use the Q&A. And what that has done is give to the person who is being interviewed the verbatim control over the interview and the person that’s conducting the interview is really just not a reporter, but a recorder with a little tape going around. And it also brought the interview, which I always thought as a grand experience sometimes in the outdoors with a whole descriptive frame around the story and the person within the story, the persons within the story, it brought it into the interior world of a room. Most of these Q&A with a tape recorder are in a room so it brought the interviewer indoors and I think more narrowly confined than when I was a practicing writer of this form beginning in the 1960s after I left The New York Times and I started working a lot for Esquire. And it also now as I’m in my very, very, very senior years, I see the world even more defined narrowly by the excessive use of laptops. People are sitting all day indoors looking at a laptop. And to get information, they got to push some keyboard. Everybody has a keyboard now in their heads and when I was in my 20s, the only people who had keyboards were journalists like me and typists, women, usually typists. Now every guy, every fat kid and every little kid, they all- you know, and what are they doing? They’re Googling through their lives. They’re getting information from within this and they’re sitting there. No wonder they’re so fat. I mean the whole country’s fat. Part of the reason is the junk food; part of the reason is the laptop. And this society isn’t reaching out and this society has become so goal-oriented, so linear it is like they want information and they put it in the buttons and they can Google it and they get what they want to get. Well, they do get that. But what they miss is what they didn’t want to get but what they discovered. There isn’t any sense of serendipity. I used to wander around. I never knew exactly what I was looking for. I knew vaguely what I hoped to find or I had some rough idea, but I was in the exploratory mode all the time from the time I was young to the time I’m practically senile on the subject, but I always believed that you can’t be so goal-oriented. Just go out and discover and you’ll find by chance, by accident some terrific stories, some terrific people you never thought you would meet. This is what I don’t think is going on anymore because of the narrowly defined world of laptop people lapping it up on the laptop. Oh boy, I’m glad I’m getting out of here.

The best interviewers include his mother, and the best techniques include wandering.

Global climate strike: Scenes from the #ClimateMarch protests

The week-long global protest, which is calling for an end to the age of fossil fuels, is taking place in more than 160 countries today.


SOPA Images
/ Contributor / Getty
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Millions of people around the world are taking to the streets to demand more urgent action on climate change.
  • The protests come just days ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
  • Although it's unclear exactly how many people are participating, it's likely to be the largest climate protest ever.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Millennials and the rise of tiny homes

Are tiny homes just a trend for wealthy minimalists or an economic necessity for the growing poor?

Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon / The Denver Post via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The tiny home movement has been popular on social media sites, often portraying an idyllic lifestyle that's cheaper and better for the environment without sacrificing aesthetics.
  • But tiny homes may become the answer to a growing population and growing inequality.
  • As the movement continues to build up steam, one has to wonder whether it's a housing crisis solution with a new coat of paint.

Tiny homes. They're the watchword of the Home & Garden network, at once an Instagrammable, envy-inducing lifestyle and an unfortunate necessity for a generation struck by a recession, historically high inequality, and loans taken out for an ostensibly necessary education that's failed to really net any benefits.

But the question is, which are they? A symbol of a smarter, more environmentally-conscious, humbler generation — or a symbol of one that's had to make do with less than its predecessors? (See: "Millennials buy the things their parents did — but they're much poorer.")

Downsizing housing and hubris

Image source: Mike Morgan / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Will tiny homes look like this in the future -- smaller and more efficient but still beautiful?

In the U.S., things are just bigger, and houses are no exception. The median size of a single-family home in the U.S. peaked in 2015 at 2,467 square feet. Compared to other parts of the world — particularly Europe — this is a massive figure. There's a variety of reasons for this; one, for example, is that Americans began driving early and often, which transformed the design of their cities and suburbs. Developers could build outside of urban centers where the land was cheaper and more plentiful, enabling bigger houses to be bought.

In addition, the idea of having a lot of space seems to be an appealing one to the former European colonies — where Europeans have often lived in more cramped, repurposed older buildings, Australians, Canadians, and Americans had the opportunity to seize land (despite it already being occupied) and build new, sprawling settlements throughout it. The prosperity that the America saw in the 20th century didn't hurt, either; why not build big if you've got the money to spare?

But a considerable amount of this space is wasted. A UCLA study found that the majority of people spend their time in the kitchen or around the television and very rarely use the living room or porch. As a result of these extra, unused spaces, more resources are wasted on construction, and energy consumption is double what a family would need if their house only had the rooms that they actually use.

Smaller, more energy-efficient houses are appealing to a growing population of minimalists and resource-conscious individuals. In 2017 alone, the sales of tiny homes increased by 67 percent. Coming in at under 400 square feet on average, these houses are also understandably cheap — for tiny homes on wheels, the average cost is $46,300, while those with a foundation cost on average $119,000. As a result, 68 percent of tiny homeowners don't even have a mortgage.

Downsizing out of necessity

Tiny homes

Image source: George Rose/Getty Images

A community of tiny homes for homeless people known as "Nickelsville" in Seattle.

On the other hand, the group of people drawn to tiny homes isn't just homogenously composed of wealthy minimalists looking to reduce their consumption while still appearing trendy. In 70 percent of the U.S., the average worker can't afford a home, one-third of adults are a $400 bill away from financial difficulty, and a quarter have no retirement savings whatsoever.

Under these conditions, downsizing may be the only viable method to survive. Consider, for instance, how cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Denver are constructing tiny homes as emergency shelters or transitional housing for the homeless. There are also the many retirees that had their savings wiped out by the Great Recession who now live nomadically in RVs and modified vans. This tiny-living trend also has its Instagram cheerleaders, but the reality of it is less idyllic. Journalist Jessica Bruder and author of Nomadland related an anecdote to MarketWatch illustrating the nature of nomadic tiny living:

"I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald's before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too. One time, Barb and Chuck were standing at the gas station to get $175 worth of gas and the horror hit them that their account had $6 in it. The gas station gentleman said 'Give me your name and driver's license and if you write a check, I will wait to cash it.' He waited two whole weeks before he deposited it."

This might become a reality for more people in the future as well. Inequality widens when the rate at which wealth grows — say, your stocks or the price of your house — grows faster than the rate at which wages do. Research suggests that wealth is growing at a breakneck pace, keeping in line with economist Thomas Picketty's prediction of a dramatically inequal future.

Solutions for this will need to be found, and many municipalities or private individuals may find such a solution in constructing tiny homes. Homelessness is a powerful, self-perpetuating force, and having shelter is an obviously necessary step to escape poverty.

Regrettably, if tiny homes are being driven primarily by resource-conscious but fundamentally economically secure individuals, we can expect the trend to remain just that; a trend. In a few years, fewer and fewer tiny houses will be constructed and sold, and eventually there will just be a small contingent of diehard proponents of the lifestyle. If, however, the tiny home trend is being driven primarily by economic inequality, then we can expect it to stick around for a while.