Editor’s Note: As we were updating goodnewsforpets for 2023 and looking for a pet question, we came across this column from Mordecai Siegal about perpetual questions. Mortie was one of our original columnists and a brilliant writer. We thought it was a very fine way to remember him by posting this column here. Missing you Mordecai.
By Mordecai Siegal (first published June 1, 2005)
To my surprise and disquiet a features writer from the Wall Street Journal interviewed me for several hours during the busy days leading up to the Westminster Dog Show. In other good times, I have been interviewed by our own Steve Dale, among others, for his syndicated newspaper column and radio program, but by and large, I am not particularly newsworthy or much of a celebrity, thank you very much. Although Dale can be a tough journalist, I am always at ease with him because we share many of the same concerns and his interview subjects almost always come away looking better than when they started and that’s a tribute to his skill.
But the Wall Street Journal, well, it was anybody’s guess how it would turn out. An interviewer with a national newspaper can make you look ridiculous, heroic, upstanding, or dishonest. There is no way to predict it or control it. The writer contacted DWAA Secretary Pat Santi and then its President, Chris Walkowicz asking to interview a “”venerable member who earned a living writing about dogs.” Fortunately for me, the result of the interview turned out quite well, to my delight and relief. The article appeared on the very conspicuous last page of the February 15 issue, which fell on the second and most important day at Westminster. It couldn’t have been better. It took up the entire bottom half of the page, the top half of which was an article about the passing of Arthur Miller. For about a day or two I became notorious, but by the third day, of course, they were wrapping fish with the newspaper. So much for celebrity.
Over my many years as a journalist for various publications and then as an author, interviewing became an important part of my work. When you are on the other side of the pencil and you are new to the craft, it is not unusual to ignore a person’s needs, motives, or feelings, which are important elements that can deepen the results of an interview. Although it helps to know the story you are after, a skilled journalist is open to an unexpected response or story twist and that can only come about if your subject is relaxed and feels comfortable with you if not safe. The idea is to get him or her to open up and talk honestly without being self-conscious. Of course, in these days of quick-read newspapers, broadcast media, and the Internet, some interviewers are just looking for a sound bite and that’s a shame because so much richness and depth can be lost.
My first interviews were for my high school newspaper back in the fifties, for which I was awarded a cherished gold pin and a dictionary. I never forgave my mom for losing them along with my tear sheets in a basement flood while I was away in the service. My editor, also my English teacher, sent me to interview a very young man about eighteen or nineteen years old who was just starting out on a singing career. He already had a hit record. I was standing backstage at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia with ten other high school reporters. He was startled when I shot out a question he didn’t expect, “What’s your real name?” In an unguarded moment, he answered, “Anthony Benedetto.” His manager gave me the bum’s rush out the door. The singer had the unlikely name of Tony Bennett and who believed that. It was an unkind question but it made my article just a bit more interesting. We were all so young then. For the same paper I interviewed a pop singer of the fifties, Johnny Ray, and asked him about his hearing aid, which was a large thing, stuck in his ear with a conspicuous wire hanging over his shoulder. It was an insensitive question and I regret it. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me.
One of the very first interviews I ever conducted in the pet field was for an article in Dogs Magazine, a publication that is long gone and in magazine purgatory, I’m sure. I had to leave Manhattan and venture forth into the Borough of Queens, a frightening prospect for me because I always needed Broadway or Fifth Avenue to keep my bearings straight. I went to see a veterinarian who wrote for a medical journal. I remember sitting in front of him at his desk and I took out a small cassette tape recorder and microphone. I asked him if he minded my recording the interview and explained that I didn’t take shorthand and could barely read my own handwriting. He said, “Not at all,” with a smile and then reached into his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a microphone and tape recorder, and set it on the desk with a thump. “What’s that for,” I asked with surprise. He said, “To keep you honest.” I shook my head, smiled, and knew there was much to learn.
Over the years I have interviewed many notable people including author Cleveland Amory, actress/animal activist Betty White, publisher Ellsworth Howell, President of the ASPCA Roger Caras, AKC president William Stifel, Westminster Show Chairman Tom Bradley, Dr. Jack Mara of Science Diet, and Bud Most of Iames, all among the more distinguished members of the dog world in addition to Tom Dent, Executive Director and Richard Gebhardt, president, both of the Cat Fanciers’ Association.
Many years ago, I interviewed over the phone the operator of a notorious monthly “dog auction” in Mississippi, who was accused by the Times-Picayune of New Orleans of dog abuse. He was evasive and slippery. Among the more interesting interviews was the one with a rancher in Wyoming who was using four or five Komondors to protect his sheep and cattle from coyotes and wolves. Back in the 1980s, I went to the freezing climes of Saranac Lake, New York to cover the Alpo Sled Dog Races and found myself at the bottom of a nine-foot snow drift with the microphone frozen to my hand. We had to yell for help as the sleds went by, dogs howling as the musher yelled, “Gee” or “Haw.” It took a while to get out and it was scary. Some of these interviews were on my radio call-in program, Vets and Pets, over WNYC in New York. Others were on the fly as the subject walked away with me in pursuit. I comfortably taped many of them over the phone.
I think my greatest interview pleasure was reading in the New York Post several years ago how my daughter, Ida Siegal, an on-camera reporter for WNBC-TV, caught the Rev. Al Sharpton in a lie and made the papers. She’s just a chip off the old computer.
In my opinion, there are three elements to good interviewing: type, purpose, and style.
- Among the various types of interviews is the complete profile which usually shows up in a magazine such as The New Yorker or the AKC Gazette. Then there are quotes that are for insertion in a larger framework such as a book or article on a subject not necessarily about the person being quoted. Sometimes an interview is for a book of interviews. There are other types.
- The purpose of an interview can also be varied such as sound-bites for TV or radio, to support a point of view, to capture a person’s true position on an issue or his/her personality, or just as a matter of public interest.
- The style of an interview can be subjective in order to support the writer’s point of view, an objective which is to say a sincere search for the facts, humorous obviously to either get a laugh or make your subject laugh, or provocative in hopes of catching your subject off guard and getting him or her angry. An angry person can also make for an interesting interview.
My advice to a writer starting out is to decide right away if you are a pigeon or a statue. You know what pigeons do to statues, don’t you? Norman Mailer once compared the Press to a large goat that will eat anything (tin cans, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, old newspapers, and human beings.) It all comes out in an interview.
Mordecai Siegal’s newest book is, “The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,” published by HarperCollins. It is a reference work comparable to the American Kennel Club Complete Dog Book. His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt),” When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown),” and the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster),”” “The Cornell Book of Cats, Second Edition (Villard),” The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),” The Davis Book of Horses (HarperCollins).” He was President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association.
Originally published June 1, 2005.