Thursday, October 18, 2007

Profiles and a profile

If you enjoy good profiles, you know of Susan Orlean and Mark Singer. Someone posted their comments at the New Yorker Festival on, and I figured I'd pass them along. I was especially interested in Orlean's thoughts on the reporting process. Who needs questions anyway?

Also, the New Yorker ran a profile of David Simon, the author of perhaps the ultimate narrative non-fiction, "Homicide" and co-creator of HBO's "The Wire." You can find that here.

From SJ:

Good friend of mine attended The New Yorker Festival last weekend, and went to the "master class" in profile writing with Mark Singer and Susan Orlean. He took notes and shared them with me. Thought they might be worth sharing with the crowd here.

In chronological order, and without commentary, here's what they said that he deemed worthy enough to write down:

-The most important thing is to be able to see the profile subject doing what it is they do. Just observe, don't ask questions.

-Susan Orlean: "I don't ask questions generally. I don't have any good questions." She said she is more inclined to figure someone out obliquely and to be around them so much that they forget she's there. It sometimes gets to the point that she says so little the subject begins to think Orlean is in over her head. She says they think, "Oh, that poor girl. She has no idea what she's doing." That's a good thing.

-Construct your reporting for a profile exactly the way you would go about making a friend. Get to know them the way you would know a person in your real life.

-Mark Singer: If you can't tell a story out of your head (because you have come to know the person so well), then you're not ready to write.

-Find subcultures, and use individuals as ways to write about these small worlds.

-Singer: "I take an insane amount of notes." He takes his laptop everywhere (including into uranium mines, etc.) and just acts as a stenographer for the conversation. It helps that he's a really good typer.

-Singer: Profiles must have a chronological spine from which things branch off. You better have a damn good reason to break that chronology.

-Orlean: "The lede has to be absolutely seductive. It's a strip-tease and you have to start with your bra."

-Orlean: She said it's surprising that she and Tina Brown are such good friends because they take exactly opposite approaches to profiles. Tina Brown's approach is to find someone interesting (like a celebrity) and tell their story. Susan Orlean prefers to find subjects
that most people would think they would never find interesting, and then make them interesting.

-Orlean said she keeps a copy of Mark Singer's book "Mr. Personality" on her desk, and whenever she's stuck she flips through it and reads passages. She uses it so much that she's on her third copy.

-Singer: "The best way to approach one of those Rolling Stone-style interviews [in which you are given 45 minutes with a celebrity in a hotel room] is to shoot yourself in the head."

-Singer said he has stopped writing celebrity profiles, because he hates them, but he told some funny stories about hanging out with Donald Trump for a profile. Before giving him something juicy, Trump would often say, "This is off the record, but you can use it."

And when Singer asked Trump what he considers ideal company, Trump said, "A total piece of ass." Singer wrote in the piece that Trump is someone who is "unmolested by the rumblings of a soul." Critics thought that was harsh and wondered how Singer could know such a thing. Singer said, "I inferred."