Neil Strauss, the man behind Everyone Loves You When You're Dead, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to Neil's episode). Until then, get to know him a little better with this Q+A, in which he talks about what's it like interviewing celebs for a living and why he wouldn't mind living with the Teletubbies.
As an interviewer, sometimes you can fall into the role of a therapist for these celebrities, teasing out their issues and ideally helping them realize something new about themselves. Has there ever been a situation where the person you were interviewing turned the tables and allowed you to understand your own problems better?
Neil Strauss: There are a lot of people who, through their lens and inquiry, either provide answers that I can apply to my life or have deep philosophical conversations about life with me that were pretty helpful. That's why I never went to therapy because I felt like I had these people who lived life on this large scale that i could learn from, the only difference, is that it's really about them than it is about me, so I don't know if it's as much therapy as mentorship. The funny thing is even the people who are around these celebrities every day have some envy of you as a journalist because you're allowed to ask them questions that people in their inner circle can't ask because maybe it would be impolite or too personal or too awkward.
Most celebrities you interview take quite a shine to you, with the exception of Phil Collins of all people, who sent you a nasty letter laced with a few expletives over a bad review you gave him. Have you received other peeved reactions to your articles?
NS: You do get peeved reactions, but never for the reason you expect. Sometimes your article will trigger a strange insecurity in someone that you didn't even realize was there. Like when I wrote that Courtney Love wanted to snort Kurt Cobain's ashes and I thought she was upset about that, but she was upset that I didn't specify that she wasn't doing cocaine. The lesson is you really can't write to please people because you never know what's going to please or upset someone, so you have to write for the audience.
You've said that Julian Casablancas of The Strokes was your worst interview ever. Is there someone who comes in as a close second?
NS: I think Julian Casablancas being the worst interview was really one of the best because a really bad interview is going to be great copy. It being the worst interview ever was the fact that he kept turning off the tape deck and trying to make out with me and just being generally out of control, but that really makes for a great story. So the worst interview ever becomes the best story ever. As for second worst, I had two days with Master P. He was really fun the first day, but on the second one, all his answers were like grunts. And I told him the point of these questions was to get him to expound on things so I could quote him and that didn't seem to be going through.
Some say one shouldn't meet their idols, lest the reality of this person fail to measure up to expectations. Have you ever gone into an interview a huge fan of someone and come out disenchanted?
NS: Lauryn Hill -- which was early on enough where I didn't know what to expect -- and especially Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell was just so bitter and she felt like if she wasn't used in the same breath as Picasso -- Picasso, Mozart, Joni Mitchell -- if that wasn't the way you saw the history of art, music, and culture, then she was being robbed of her rightful place. And it was so shocking coming from someone who seemed to be in this angelic fervor when she was signing in the early days so I didn't really expect someone so angry and bitter to come forward. I cut her section into one third to put into the book because it was so long that it almost got numbing.
On the flip side of that, was there ever an instance where you went into an interview not caring for someone, but leaving with a new-found respect for that person?
NS: I think Marilyn Manson is a good example of that. I actually went into the interview thinking this guy is a poseur, he's phony, he's coming late to the whole gothic rock thing, why don't I just tear this phony guy apart. It turned out this guy was really funny and bright and knew what he was doing. I ended up writing an even-handed, generally complimentary piece and I even ended up writing his book.
What was your first concert?
NS: John Denver. I was really young, 4 or 5, and was with my parents and my brother and I fell asleep.
You're on stage at a karaoke bar. What are you singing?
NS: I don't karaoke. It's hard enough to hear my voice on a tape recorder. But, if I could do any song, I would do "Long Black Veil" by Lefty Frizzell. I just think it's one of the greatest story songs ever. It's told and sung from beyond the grave by an innocent man who was mistakenly accused of murder, but doesn't have an alibi cause he was sleeping with his best friend's wife. The long black veil is the woman coming to his grave. It's such a great human story but it's definitely not a "Total Eclipse of the Heart" song that is gonna get everyone laughing or a Journey song that is gonna get everyone to stand up. But that's the song I would do.
If you could visit any other time period and place in history, which would it be and what would you do there?
NS: Does it have to be the past? I feel like we have a good idea about what's happened so I think I would go to the exact spot of the here and now in 250 years just far ahead enough that history will have happened, but not too far that so much history has happened that it's no longer recognizable. I'm interested to see how this country ends up and who's running it.
If you could invite 3 people (dead/alive/fictional) to your dinner party, who would they be and why?
NS: James Joyce because Ulysses is my favorite book. My grandmother on my mother's side because I never got to see her before she passed away and I always felt guilty about that. And I guess it wouldn't be fair if I didn't invite my mom so she could see her mom again. So James Joyce, my mom, and my grandma.
If you could live inside one movie, which would it be and why?
NS: The best movies are often the darkest so I think it would definitely be an animated movie. Maybe Teletubbies the TV show because it seems safe and I could live to old age. Maybe Sesame Street. My first thought was of my favorite movie, The Night of the Hunter, which is about an evil preacher trying to kill these kids, and I thought I don't want to go there so my next thought was where would be the safest.
You've toured with Motley Crue, co-written books with Marilyn Manson and Jenna Jameson, and given lots of geeky men hope with The Game. What's next for you?
NS: I can't say yet because I want it to be a surprise and also because I don't want the idea to get stolen, but I think it's gonna be darker than all the other books, yet be even more hopeful. I'm in a dark place with a positive intention and we'll see which one wins.
Since you're quite the seasoned interviewer, what question should I have asked you and what's your answer to it?
NS: That was the question you should have asked me. You've gone ahead and guessed the question. But the serious answer is that I think questions are just excuses to get people talking so I don't think there is a right question, as long as the question comes from a place of genuine curiosity.
Look for Neil Strauss' episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!