Slate Group Editor-in-Chief Jacob Weisberg was on Facebook on Wednesday to chat with readers about his wide-ranging interview series “Conversations With Slate” and his thoughts on the 2012 elections. An edited transcript is below; see the full conversation by clicking on the link.
Jacob Weisberg: Good morning! I’m here and glad to answer any questions.
Jeremy Stahl: I want to ask you about the difficulty in getting really well-known celebrities and artists to open up during an interview. Did you ever feel like any of the more famous people you interviewed were especially guarded? How do you cajole them out of their shells in those cases?
Jacob Weisberg: I think the people I’ve interviewed have been really forthcoming. Making the focus their work, and delving into it in detail, has encouraged them to open up. Artists like to talk about what they do with people who’ve read their books, or seen their films.
Katherine Goldstein: What was the most unexpected answer you’ve gotten from all of the people who you’ve interviewed?
Jacob Weisberg: I was surprised with a lot of what Jennifer Egan said about her method as a writer. For example, that when she wrote A Visit From the Goon Squad, she didn’t do any research into kleptomania to create the character Sasha. She imagined it, so as to avoid turning it into a clinical problem or diagnosis.
Jacob Weisberg: One of my favorites was with the artist Tom Sachs, who has the “Mars” show at the Park Avenue Armory now. He doesn’t like to talk about his space program as a work of art, in quotation marks. To him, it’s a real space mission.
Jeremy Stahl: I really enjoyed the Dan Barber interviews, especially the recipe he gave for making the perfect kale chips. Were there any other foodie preparation tips that he gave you that you found especially useful?
Jacob Weisberg: I have now made those kale chips three times. I can eat a whole tray straight out of the oven—world’s greatest healthy snack. Not in the video was what I learned from Dan Barber about grilling. Dan grills over something called biochar, which is essentially charcoal made from the bones of animals—he makes it himself. So if you cook vegetables over biochar made from pig bones, it infuses it with pork flavor, the way cooking over hickory or mesquite does. It’s also a way for carnivores like me to use the whole animal, without any waste. I’m eager to lay my hands on some biochar and try grilling with it this summer.
Jeremy Stahl: I love that BBQ tip. I don’t think my vegetarian wife would love it so much.
Bill Smee: Any plans to sit down with political types in future episodes? And regardless, what’s your take on the coming campaign—will it really be the nastiest most negative we have ever seen?
Jacob Weisberg: Bill, I’ve avoided political types for the “Conversations” series for two reasons: one because they tend to be less open and forthcoming, and two because I fear they won’t last as long.
Jacob Weisberg: In terms of the campaign, I’d describe it as likely to be negative without being that nasty. More money than ever is going into negative advertising—no doubt about it. But neither Obama nor Romney is personally nasty—the way George W. Bush could be, for example. I think that will hold the line a bit. Nasty was Lee Atwater attacking Michael Dukakis’ patriotism, or the swift-boating of John Kerry. Making an issue out of Bain Capital doesn’t fall into that category, IMO.
Jeremy Stahl: To expand on that question of personal nastiness: Doesn’t Bain fall a little bit into this category? I think the message of those attack ads is that “Mitt Romney doesn’t care about working people, he only cares about the bottom line” and that feels very personal to me. When you depict your rival as an uncaring private equity vampire, isn’t that kind of personally nasty?
Jacob Weisberg: I think it’s an entirely legitimate issue for the campaign. The best study I’ve seen suggests that private equity as a whole adds no economic value—it’s just moving money around in a way that enriches financial engineers. I don’t think that’s conclusive, but what Romney did at Bain is hardly the equivalent of creating wealth through genuine entrepreneurship and industry. And Romney is the one putting it at the center of his campaign. As for whether Romney is an out-of-touch rich guy who doesn’t care about poor people—I think there’s a case to be made. Not all negativity is bad. In politics, it’s a necessary clarifying tool. Nasty, on the other hand, would be, say, injecting Romney’s religion into the campaign, which I doubt the Obama people will do.
Jeremy Stahl: I like that assessment. And I didn’t mean to suggest it wasn’t fair game. I think it is. But I also think that any time you go after someone’s character, there is something fundamentally nasty about it. And I think the Bain ads and the “Swiss bank account” ad are infused with this “out of touch rich guy” angle. It does feel like a character attack. Again, though, not necessarily an illegitimate one.
Holly Allen: What is the backdrop in the Elizabeth Banks interviews? Who chooses where to have your conversations?
Jacob Weisberg: I basically use what connections I have to line up people who I think might be good, with lots of help from producers here at Slate. A lot of time we go through publicists, who are responsive when they have something to promote. With the Hunger Games coming out, I thought it would be a great time to get Elizabeth Banks, who I think is one of the best comic actors of the moment, and a good representative of the Judd Apatow school of comedy.
Ellen Tarlin: Do you get flustered interviewing a beautiful woman like her?
Jacob Weisberg: Flustered by the gorgeous Elizabeth Banks? Yes, Ellen, I was completely flustered. I think you can actually tell in the video. This was less of an issue with Nathan Myhrvold.
Jonathan Maple: How do you prepare for interviews?
Jacob Weisberg: I definitely over-prepare. So when I did Jennifer Egan, I read all of her books (the ones that I hadn’t read before). When I did Wes Anderson, I made sure that I’d seen all of his films. With Tom Sachs, I really delved into his artistic work and read what people had written about him. I don’t want these to be hardcore fanboy interviews, but I do want to really engage with my subjects in detail about their work, whatever it is.
Jacob Weisberg: Jacob, who might you interview next for the series?
Jacob Weisberg: Funny you should ask. I’m just back from China, where I was able to see the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Though I didn’t bring a camera crew, an associate of his captured most of it with an iPad. If the video is clear enough, I hope we’ll be able to run some segments as our next “Conversation.” If it happens, it will be less polished than the others—please make allowances.
Jacob Weisberg: Jacob, who is on your wishlist for the fall season?
Jacob Weisberg: Two Salmans: Rushdie, whose memoir of his years in hiding is coming out, and Khan, the entrepreneur behind the Khan Academy, which is bringing online educational opportunities to people around the world.
Jacob Weisberg: I’m also taking nominations…
Ellen Tarlin: I have a nomination. Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey will be in New York in the fall on Broadway in The Heiress. Get Dan! Or other Downton Abbey folk, please! And as long as we are nominating, how about Ian McEwan? He’s got a new book coming out in August.
Jacob Weisberg: Would love to interview Ian McEwan. He’s one of my favorite writers.
Ann-Marie Taylor: In your opinion will Obama’s recent statement about gay marriage help or hurt him in the election?
Jacob Weisberg: I’m probably in the camp that thinks gay marriage will help Obama. For Republicans to make an issue out of it hurts with independents. And I think the religious right will demand that Romney affirm his opposition to it—which pulls him in the direction that’s opposite where he needs to go to win votes in the center. I also think it has recharged Obama’s base. It’s great to see him doing the right thing on this issue.
Ellen Tarlin: Did you find Rachel Maddow intimidating? I find her very impressive, except her talking style of saying everything three times in three different ways grates on me. Was that an issue for you in the interview?
Jacob Weisberg: I thought Rachel Maddow was fantastic. Personally, she’s not intimidating, though she is extremely cool. She has a way of being direct and challenging without making it personal, which is a real gift. She’s super-smart, and just fun to be around. I’m a huge fan.
Ellen Tarlin: I’m glad to hear that. She does seem extremely cool. I’m glad it’s not just a TV persona.
Jacob Weisberg: It’s been nice chatting on FB. Now back to watching FB’s stock drop…