Love of the Interview

How much can you get a person to reveal about himself or herself?

One of my favorite kinds of writing, to both create and read, is the interview. Interviews take a lot of preparation, and even then, they can go sour quickly. Some interviewees warm up immediately while others stay cold the whole time you're asking them questions on the record. Some people answer questions better the second time you ask the same thing. Some people simply will not be interrupted for a follow-up. Some don't know how to elaborate.

It pains me, though, to interview people in a limited amount of time, as is usually the case, and not have the chance to ask more personal questions. Their histories and personas, I believe, actively inform the "why" and "how" of their work--or whatever it is I'm interviewing them for.

Not everyone opens up, either, and often, based on the nature of the interview, there isn't time to get to what I'm truly interested in knowing. Last week, I interviewed a prominent businesswoman and entrepreneur, Cindy Gallop, who has a very open personal life. Before we started recording the interview, she said a few things off-hand that I wanted to ask more about. It had to do with her life's trajectory and how the uncertainty of her future is, right now, very exciting and brings her happiness. I could have asked a hundred questions about those few ideas alone, but the purpose of the interview was something else, and I didn't want to take up more time than I had initially said I would when she so graciously agreed to be interviewed in the first place. [Video below.]

One of my favorite interviews I've done was back in 2008 with game designer Eric Zimmerman. Before the interview, I overly prepared for it. I was working at home at the time and living alone. I had an abundance of time and a lot of flexibility at work. I researched Zimmerman and discovered he's an open book online, with his resume (which included even his home address) all fully there for the taking. So I prepped and prepped and prepped.

I think the interview itself must have lasted 90 minutes. That's a lot of time to ask of someone. We met at the office in New York where Zimmerman worked and had a quiet conference room where no one bothered us. So I fired away, mostly on the topic of games as systems and the topic of systems thinking. Here's an excerpt of my favorite bit (I'm "GCG") where I tease out something more personal but still manage to stay on topic:
GCG: I found a quote from Karen Sideman. She was quoted in an article on The Escapist last year called "Gamelab's Hustler." I think you had spoken at the Astoria Museum of the Moving Image and someone had interviewed you. Karen Sideman spoke to the same reporter and she said, she thought that you were successful because you are "extremely comfortable" talking about things "systematically." I was curious first for you to comment on that, and second, if you could tell us something that you are either not systematic about or something that suffers because you are too systematic.  
EZ: Oh, wow, that gets kind of personal. ... 
I also want to say that thinking about things systemically is not dehumanizing. It just depends on what you do with it. In the instance of the resume, what I'm really saying is that you need to understand that there is a human being who is going to be looking at your resume, and it's not just about the object of the resume, but it's about how that object ramifies in a human context. I wouldn't want to think that thinking systemically somehow empties all the humanness out of the equation. 
So you said, "What is an example of one thing I don't do systemically?" 
GCG: -- either something you don't do systemically or something that suffers because you're too systematic. 
EZ: Deep engagement with something, whether that's a romantic relationship, whether it is being in the moment of playing a game, or something that you study seriously -- I've studied martial arts for a number of years -- you go through cycles. Sometimes you rise above it all and have a very rational analytic consciousness of what's going on. Other times you're really taking a very deep dive and are acting very intuitively.  
I think that you need to be able to let go of systemic thinking. Sometimes it's good to be able to analyze what's going on in a relationship or with your feelings. Other times it's just totally wrong because that analysis itself is you sort of hiding your feelings. ...I would say that systemic thinking is not necessarily rational either. Part of acting intuitively is that you have learned systems so well that you're no longer thinking rationally about it. You've moved through that rational process into some space of deeper play. 
If you think about great play, whether it's Counter-Strike or tennis or poker or basketball, there's a kind of flow that occurs. In that space of flow, is that really systems thinking? Yes, but maybe more on a preconscious level than a conscious level. I'm not a cognitive scientist, so it's hard to speculate. I wouldn't want to always associate systems thinking with rational analysis.