Clay Felker: The Best Interview Advice I Ever Got

My former editor Clay Felker invented modern magazine journalism when he started New York magazine in the 1960's.

He was the best.

A former sportswriter, he often told me that the best stories, the only ones people wanted to read, had to have a strong personality and conflict. And that these were the only ideas, or stories, he wanted from me.

Who has the power and who is after it?

This was the quintessential question; the Darwinian struggle to dominate and all the Byzantine machinations thereof.

It was the formula that made New York magazine work and that was so exciting for those of us who lived in the city in the three decades after he founded New York in 1968.

Felker embraced a new journalism .... which went beyond recording the words that people say.

He wanted me to use novelistic techniques, to explain what people were really saying, what they really meant..... what they felt .....and..... why..... as opposed to simply noting the words that were being mouthed.

He was generous with his advice and open with young writers.

"The best questions," he told me during a lunch, "were often no questions at all."

I was dumbfounded by the Zen nature of what he was saying.

"Silence works wonders when you are trying to get something out of someone."

"When you are interviewing someone and they reply with a short answer, don't say anything.

"Just sit there looking at them.

"This is very hard to do.....Bite your tongue, but don't say anything. Count to ten silently. Don't open your mouth!

"After five or ten seconds your subject will start to get nervous. After twenty seconds they will be very, very uncomfortable. Human beings hate a vacuum. Soon they will start to think that the first answer they gave .... was not good enough. They will start to think .... what is it that I have left out.."

"And they will start talking again, about things that you never could have thought to ask."