Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Voice of Curiosity

John Jeremiah Sullivan discusses his approach to interviewing

September 28, 2012 Sewanee graduate John Jeremiah Sullivan is back in the news, thanks to a cover story for The New York Times Magazine and the British publication of his essay collection, Pulphead. In “Behind the Cover Story”, an online interview, Sullivan discusses his research for “Where Is Cuba Going?”. The essay that offers a detailed personal glimpse into the current cultural and political moment in Cuba. Sullivan traveled there, not as a journalist, but with his Cuban-American wife to visit her relatives. Speaking of this approach to the story, Sullivan says, “There’s a tradeoff. If you apply for a journalist visa and get the badge around your neck, you can do official interviews, but you are more visible, and you might have trouble getting people to talk to you. If you go as a civilian you can approach anybody.”

In a pair of interviews supporting Pulphead’s British release, Sullivan further addresses the thorny question of how to break the ice with interviewees. While reporting on a range of subjects that include Axl Rose, “One Tree Hill”-loving teenagers , and NASA scientists, Sullivan has tried to cultivate a deft, agile approach. He says that interviewers should ask themselves whether “the subjects have a sense that you’re interested in finding out what their story is and telling it, or are you trying to fit them into the story that you want to tell? A lot of interviewing and reporting is just a certain tolerance for awkwardness.”

He goes on to describe his method of interviewing scientists working on the Mars Rover. “What I had to bring to it was an idiot’s point of view.” When asked if other writers might benefit from this approach, he says: “There’s idiocy that is philistinism, then there is idiocy that I prize—which is really just a kind of transparency. You’re really letting the reader share with you in the process of becoming less stupid. … I never want to choke myself off from that voice, because it’s the voice of curiosity.”