Mark Twain's Interview Tips From Beyond The Grave

A newly revealed Mark Twain essay gives host Scott Simon some advice on how do his job. Scott discusses the art and the aggravation of the interview with writer Calvin Trillin, another humorist from Missouri.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The autobiography of Mark Twain will be published this fall at long last. He directed that it not appear until 100 years after his death. And several unfinished essays are being released with it, containing some of Mark Twain's choice ruminations, rants and rip-offs about a range of topics, including one that's sort of our bread and butter here: the interview.

Mark Twain gave a lot of interviews to promote his books and speeches. According to a transcript made public this week, around 1890 Mark Twain wrote...

TOM COLE: No one likes to be interviewed, and yet no one likes to say no. For interviewers are courteous and gentle-mannered, even when they come to destroy.

SIMON: That's the voice of our colleague, Tom Cole, reading the just-released words of Mark Twain.

We've reached Calvin Trillin, the writer, essayist, humorist and occasional interviewer. He joins us from station CKBW in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Calvin, thanks for being with us.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Did Mark Twain have that about right?

TRILLIN: Well, I think so, although he goes on to say that the interviewer doesn't mean any harm and compares the interviewer, I think, to a cyclone that really comes to the village = I think the quote is for the gracious purpose of cooling off a sweltering village and is not aware afterward that he has done that village anything but a favor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, yes, exactly. Let's go on to what else Mark Twain says here.

COLE: The interview was not a happy invention. It is, perhaps, the poorest of all ways of getting at what is in a man. In the first place, the interviewer is the reverse of an inspiration because you are afraid of him.

You know by experience that there is no choice between these disasters. No matter which he puts in, you will see at a glance that it would have been better if he had put in the other, not that the other would have been better than this, but merely that it wouldn't have been this.

SIMON: All right, Calvin, you've done some interviewing. Is an incomplete, if not quite the poorest, way of getting what's in a man?

TRILLIN: No, I think that's cross-examination at a trial, would be the poorest way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Is it the second-poorest way?

TRILLIN: It may be the second-poorest way. No, I think for - I've been interviewed more than I've interviewed. I'm not a very good interviewer. Usually I've done them with people who are such good talkers that you could just ask one question and then walk off the stage, and he probably wouldn't notice, and neither would the audience.

I've interviewed, for instance, Frank McCourt once on stage, and Studs Terkel, who was a fantastic talker, and I think the fact that he was known mainly as a listener is just an indication of his monumental restraint.

And I think Twain probably had another problem with interviews, and that is he was talking mainly about press interviews because he didn't have radio and television, of course, and the problem with somebody who tries to be funny as he talks to an interviewer is that what the interviewer takes from that may not be funny because of the interviewer's ear.

So I think anybody - it's true with reviews too. I think anybody who attempts to be humorous fears a really bad review less than a review that says this fellow is really funny and then gives as an example a line you wrote, leaving out either the punchline or the lead-in. So it isn't funny at all.

See, I don't usually have that problem. They don't usually say I'm really funny. They say I'm wry, which means almost funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You're very wry.

TRILLIN: Thank you, thank you. I think.

SIMON: However, for all these years, I thought that was a deli reference. But I could be corrected.

TRILLIN: Nobody has said yet you're quite pumpernickel.

SIMON: Drawing from our own experience interviewing people, it startled me a bit to read this part, where Mark Twain describes what someone being interviewed feels like.

COLE: All the time, at every new change of question, you are alert to detect what it is the interviewer is driving at now and circumvent him, especially if you catch him trying to trick you into saying humorous things.

And in truth, that is what he is always trying to do. He shows it so plainly, works for it so openly and shamelessly that his very first effort closes up that reservoir and his next one caulks it tight.

I do not suppose that a really humorous thing was ever said to an interviewer since the invention of his uncanny trade.

SIMON: Once again, NPR's Hal Holbrook, Tom Cole, as Mark Twain.

Calvin, I blushed when I read that.

TRILLIN: You don't think you're guilty of any of that, do you, Scott?

SIMON: Probably all of it.

TRILLIN: I would say in the little interviewing I've done, in my defense, that I'm not trying to trick somebody. I'm trying to think of the next question, somehow avoid just dead air.

SIMON: Are you looking forward to reading the Mark Twain autobiography, or...

TRILLIN: I am. I'm a great fan of Mark Twain, and of course when I hear - there's a quote that's sometimes attributed to Woody Allen - I don't know if he really said it - when he used to make these sort of Ingmar Bergman kind of movies and people ask him why he did it, and he said that in America humorists had to sit at the children's table.

I thought, well, in the first place, in my family people sort of fight to sit at the children's table. It's more fun. But also, Mark Twain would be there, and you'd think, wow, how did I get to sit at the same table with Mark Twain?

Also, we're from - we're both from Missouri. So I sometimes like to say Twain and Trillin and that Missouri crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, thank you. It's been wonderful to - wonderful to talk to the surviving member of that Missouri crowd. Thanks very much.

TRILLIN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Calvin Trillin, speaking with us from Nova Scotia today.

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