Since it was published yesterday, New York and Vulture contributing editor David Marchese’s “In Conversation: Quincy Jones” has lit up the internet and drawn more than 1.5 million readers, with Jones coming for Michael Jackson, Ivanka Trump, the Beatles, and pretty much everybody else. Marchese, who started at New York as a culture editor in 2014 before moving to write for the magazine and Vulture in 2016, answered Press Room’s questions over Slack about how he prepares for interviews, his dream subject, and more.
Congrats on the Quincy Jones interview! Can you talk a little about how you prepared for it?
Yeah, for sure. The preparation was pretty much the same as the preparation I do for any longer interview. I read as much about the subject as I can. If he or she has a memoir, I read it. If there’s a biography, I read that. If there are multiple ones, I read those too. Then I go back and try and find any profiles or Q&As written in good publications. And for all those things, I’m taking notes on things that I feel could yield more information or insight and that weren’t fully explained.
Quincy’s anecdote about “We Are the World” is a good example. He’d mentioned a couple places this hitch where the rock musicians didn’t like the song. But he hadn’t really gone into it in detail. And when I asked about it, he had that interesting story about Cyndi Lauper.
So that’s pretty much what I do. It’s rare that I’ll find some area that the subject hasn’t spoken about at all. So I look for the ones that feel like they still have some room to move in.
There’s a whole second part of the process beyond the research. But I don’t know if you want me to get into that!
Well, yeah, do tell!
Okay. So during all that research, I’m taking notes, and then I have like 20 or so pages of notes. And then I go through that, and condense it all into questions that I hope are both sort of broad and specific at the same time: Broad in the sense that I’m not looking for one easy answer, but specific in the sense that they’re about a particular idea or moment or something to that effect. By the time I’m done with that, I have somewhere between three and five double-spaced pages of questions. I realize I’m maybe coming off as anal-retentive or something now.
But then I basically memorize those questions. Which I find is a matter of reading those three to five pages somewhere between 25 and 35 times. At some point it clicks, and I just know when they’re firmly lodged in my head. As I’m reading them, I make little notes about possible directions to take possible responses to those questions. So then I end up with pretty gnarly pages of questions because I’m reading them on the subway, or while my kids are napping, etc., and they’re scribbled all over.
Do you bring the notes?
I do take those notes into the interview, mostly as a crutch, like a “break glass in case of emergency” thing. A safety blanket. The goal is never to refer to them, but of course then the funny thing that happens is the conversation will veer off from the things I’d planned on talking about. But all the research and memorizing I’ve done means I can then find through lines or connections easily.
How much did that happen with Jones, in terms of veering off what you expected?
Yeah, he did lots of veering, but having done the preparation I’d done, it meant I could usually get him back on some sort of more straightforward path.
How soon did you realize you had a winner with this interview?
Maybe 15 minutes in. At first I was a bit concerned that he’d be too all over the place, but eventually I realized that the places he was going were entertaining, and that you could get him back to a given spot, too.
How much did you edit out? Anything good that was left on the cutting-room floor you can mention?
Oh yeah, tons was edited out. The average transcript for an In Conversation is probably 15,000 words, and they run between like 4- and 6,000.
Honestly I can’t remember in this moment that much that was cut out. A lot was cut out because there was a very good GQ piece that appeared a week earlier that had overlap so I cut nearly all of that out. And then there was some other stuff that for various reasons, I didn’t feel warranted including.
You were remarkably well-versed in seemingly obscure references that Jones made. Was that more a result of prep or just having an encyclopedic cultural knowledge? Like the book Coltrane was always reading, etc.
That’s a bit of an optical illusion.
There’s basically two parts to that. When you read a ton about someone, you find they tend to refer to certain things so you notice that, and then learn about those things. Like when I’d interviewed Erykah Badu she mentioned this guy Irving Janis, and I said something like, “Groupthink,” which is the idea that Janis came up with. But I only knew that because she’d referenced him in interviews before.
The other part of it is just that it’s self-selecting. Like the Coltrane thing. I’m a big Coltrane fan, so I knew the book and, oddly, the writer of that book, Nicolas Slonimsky, was mentioned by Sonny Rollins when I interviewed him a couple months back. So it was fairly fresh in my mind. The best I can say is that I have a decent knack for remembering cultural ephemera.
It serves you well! Do you play HQ Trivia?
No! I’ve never even seen what it looks like. But there was a brief period in my life like ten years ago when I would do bar trivia now and then.
So you started at New York Magazine as a culture editor but moved over to writing and then doing the In Conversation series. I think it’s safe to say you’ve found your calling. Were celebrity interviews something you were always interested in, or more of a happy accident?
I really don’t think of myself as a celebrity interviewer. I hope people don’t think of me that way! I’m really not interested in “celebrity” at all. I am interested in talking with interesting people about their lives and the work they do. It just so happens that most of these people tend to be famous. But I have always liked having long discussions with people in the interview context. It’s not something I ever actively pursued before it started to happen with regularity here, though.
Do you have any dream interview subjects?
Whose interviews do you admire, in terms of other writers/broadcasters?
Tons of people are good at interviewing. Vulture has lots of very talented interviewers! Alex Jung and Kyle Buchanan in particular always get good stuff. I read a lot of old interview collections. Maybe this sounds snobby, but Oriana Fallaci interviews are amazing. Recently I found a book called The Smith Tapes in a used-book store. It’s a collection of interviews with rock musicians from the late ’60s to early ’70s by a radio host named Howard Smith. That was interesting. Terry Gross, obviously. There’s lots of good interviews out there in the world.