Portrait by Bjorn Opsahl
Neil Strauss made his name writing for American papers and magazines like the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. He has also co-written superior celebrity excess memoirs with Mötley Crüe and Jenna Jameson, but he really gained notoriety with The Game (2005), his account of Las Vegas pick-up artists that ended up chronicling his own transformation from wordy nerd to Alpha-male babe magnet. His new book, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, revisits a quarter of a century’s worth of Strauss interviews with celebrities from Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears to Johnny Cash and Ali Farka Touré, and in the process aims to restore the genuine, interesting bits that the conventions of magazines and newspapers usually oblige writers to remove.
Peter Lyle Here’s a general feeling of mine that I found affirmed early on in your book: famous people are actually, by and large, okay. If they’ve turned up for the interview, at some level they’re acknowledging it’s worth their while to do, and though some of them can make your life miserable, most of them are relatively bright and civil if you don’t act like an idiot.
Neil Strauss They kind of have to be nice no matter what’s really going on – it’s their job to make you like them and make your article make them sound nice and interesting. You can usually tell if they don’t like you and they’re trying to hide it, though. If more people would be nasty without disguising it, that could be an interviewer’s dream.
PL Another thing that struck a chord with me in your book was when you explain to someone that you don’t have a list of questions – that the most interesting results come when you just have a conversation.
NS I say that I don’t have a list of questions, but actually I’ve methodically prepared a list of questions. I will read everything I can about them, read every book they’ve put their name to and make notes about things that interest me. I’ll put them in order and study them like I’m preparing for an exam, but then when it comes to the interview, I’ll wing it and I won’t refer to any questions – but obviously I’ll have these areas I want to get to in my mind.
PL One thing that amazes me about the celebrity interview circuit is how many people do come with a list of questions, all of which you’ve heard a million times before, and which they seem obsessed with asking in a specific sequence, with no thought to how the interviewee might react – so, for example, starting with a question you could predict would go down badly, and so alienating them for the whole interview.
NS The first question is really important. I think it’s really useful to say something particular to them, to make it clear you’re familiar with their work and think it’s worthy of interest. Piers Morgan is a horrible interviewer, for example, ’cause he’s so on his own agenda. Interviewees give him gold, give him pearls, but rather than follow up an interesting response, he just ignores it and moves on to the next question. He so relentlessly pursues it that he absolutely ignores everything else, totally avoids being in the moment.
PL Your new book defines itself against the self-conscious structures and mannerisms of the usual celebrity magazine profile. Was that your plan from the outset? Or did you start by thinking you wanted to make a book out of your old interviews, and hit on the idea along the way?
NS Every book of mine, the intention has been different from the eventual outcome. With The Game, it was supposed to be eight profiles of pick-up artists; then I became a character. With Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, I suppose the idea was originally to do an anthology of my journalism. But when you come to reread your old articles, even the ones you think you’d done well, like when I covered Kurt Cobain’s death for Rolling Stone, they tend to be disappointing and dated. They’re not meant to be read together. When I started to read other journalists’ anthologies, I felt the same thing. So I started trying different formats and approaches, but every time I did that, I regretted taking out something crazy that happened because it didn’t fit the format. So then I just started compiling crazy moments with people that I’d loved meeting. If the interview had no crazy moments, even if it was with someone I’d always loved, like Iggy Pop, I left it out altogether.
PL Can you define the conventions, the clichés, that annoy you about writing for magazines – the ones you set out to sidestep in the book?
NS Writing for glossy magazines is those clichés. It has to be, in a way – you gotta give directions, tell a fake story. So you set up the fake story, then pull back for a career overview. Instead of having the transcript of Julian Casablancas’ drunkenness, you’d have, “Julian Casablancas lights a cigarette. It’s been a long day of promotional interviews, and the group’s new album, which may just be the most important of their careers, is finally complete…” Or with newspapers, you have to just make the article very dense with pure information, facts. I remember writing an article about Chuck Berry, who was 83 at the time, and being annoyed that they asked me to put in a biographical section. I thought, “Everybody knows who he is, they can get a comprehensive biography in a second from Wikipedia, and I have all this interesting stuff he’s said, in his first proper interview for 20 years – why do a bio?”
PL One of the side effects of your approach to Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead is that, for the vast majority of the book, your own written words are just a linking device – you don’t get to show off your writing skills. Is that an age thing? That you become less interested in forcing your opinions on people, and more interested in telling a worthwhile story about somebody else?
NS I wanted to started writing for an excuse to be in New York, really, and to meet all these people, so I was never too precious about that. With this book, the whole aim was just to take out the fakeness, and I wanted to be strict about it, so I sent all my old interview tapes to someone who was fresh to them, and she re-transcribed them all. Every nuance, every inflection.
PL You’ve mentioned Chuck Berry, on the one hand, but on the other you’ve interviewed conspicuously “modern” stars like Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga. Do you see people like them as representing distinct eras of celebrity, as the hyperbole often has it, or do you find that famous people down the ages have more shared qualities than differences?
NS Well, my epilogue pulls together 10 lessons or commonalities about celebrity, one being the idea that everybody loves you when you’re dead. When you meet celebrities and they’re still upset about not getting their dues, you have to explain to them – because they somehow manage not to realise this – that if you’re famous, people will drag you down. Another trait you see a lot is a sense of destiny. Celebrities often feel like God, or some equivalent, has a special plan for them. And that helped them stand up to the early knocks and the barbs.
Another thing you learn when you meet a lot of celebrities is that it becomes pretty easy to anticipate a particular career arc. I interviewed Lady Gaga and I asked her what she’d do when the backlash began, and she was shocked. She said, “I don’t believe there’ll be a backlash – look at how long Madonna’s been going.” Then she called her assistant over and said to her, “I’m soooo good to you, right?” She nodded, and so Gaga said to me, “See? My karma’s good.”
PL You still do interviews for magazines like Rolling Stone, but I assume that you, like everyone, get much less time and access than you once did.
NS The type of celebrity profiling I did in the 1980s and 1990s, before social networks, is not really possible any more. Then, the magazine article was the most direct route to explain your new album and reach your fans. When Marilyn Manson was first interviewed for a Rolling Stone cover story, the band had been thinking about that moment for months. They wanted to give the official account of what brought about the album. Now they don’t need that, because they can convey whatever they want directly. To me, though, that’s a disservice to the fans, because you’re getting their version of themselves – there’s no chance of somebody else’s take on them. §