The Courier-Mail author profile: Neil Strauss – ‘Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead’, April 2011

An author profile for The Courier-Mail. This isn’t available on their website (at time of publishing), so you can either click the below image to view a bigger version, or read the full article underneath.

Neil Strauss: Choosing the right minute

To American writer Neil Strauss, the traditional format of the cultural journalism anthology was tired and predictable.

After his 2009 book, Emergency – wherein Strauss switched into survivalist mode and learned a raft of new skills so he’d be prepared in the event of an apocalyptic catastrophe – the accomplished Rolling Stone and The New York Times writer thought he’d give himself a break.

“I thought I’d do an anthology,” he says, “because anyone who’s been writing articles and feature stories for 20 years feels like, ‘why not collect my favourite pieces and put them in a book?’”.

The problem with this formulaic approach became evident once Strauss started sifting through thousands of published interviews with some of the world’s most famous musicians and actors.

“I like telling stories,” he explains – as evidenced in Emergency, and in the 2005 bestselling exposé of the then-hidden pick-up artist community, The Game – but in this instance, “there were no through lines”.

He spent some time with anthologies by some of his favourite writers.

“Half of them I didn’t finish, because I got bored. With the other half, after I was done, I was bored of the writer, and bored of the voice, because it’s not a book if it’s just articles bound together, he says.

Eventually, Strauss realised that his best published work simply showed moments where readers were allowed to see “the real person behind the mask”.

So he began collecting those moments. The final product is a 500-plus-page tome named Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, which features 228 such moments.

In the book’s preamble, Strauss writes that you can learn a lot about a person or a situation in a minute – but only if you choose the right minute.

Strauss is known for his ability to get closer to his interview subjects than most writers.

Some of the book’s best moments are when he’s far from the regular interview locales, like hotel rooms or cafes.

Instead, far more revelatory material is gained when he’s lying in bed interviewing Jewel, or driving with Snoop Dogg to pick up diapers for his kid, or being flown in a private jet by licensed pilot and jazz saxophonist Kenny G, or riding motorcycles and going to the Church of Scientology with Tom Cruise and his mother.

Reporting from these extraordinary situations comes at a cost, though. For Strauss – who says he only does one or two interviews per year, now – these outlandish experiences have raised the journalistic bar considerably.

“In the past, I succeeded by getting to be in the same room as this great artist who I looked up to,” he says.

“Now it’s not enough. I’ve got to get the best interview this person has ever given in their life. You have to somehow go in, with a limited amount of time with someone, and you have to walk away and leave with something they’ve never told to any other writer before. That’s a lot of pressure. The better you get at something, the harder and more intimidating it gets.”

Does he ever feel guilty for relentlessly extracting information from his subjects? “Sometimes I feel guilty. Say I’m leaving with four hours of recordings of one person spilling their soul to me, and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘thank you very much, goodbye’. I’m walking away with their soul on a tape, to some degree. They have nothing. That part always feels strange to me. It’s like having sex with someone, then running away.”

Aspiring and existing journalists will be pleased to learn that Strauss is human after all, though. He doesn’t shy away from including one of his most embarrassing moments in the book.

Forty minutes into an interview with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – guitarist and singer for legendary British rockers Led Zeppelin – Strauss realised that he’d plugged his microphone into the headphone jack. The result: blank tape.

To make matters worse, it was the pair’s first in-depth interview together since Zeppelin broke up fourteen years earlier, and it was one of Strauss’ first assignments for The New York Times.

When he later attempted to surreptitiously backtrack over some of his questions, Page and Plant gleefully discovered his mistake.

Strauss can laugh about it now, but at the time, he was  “so mad” at himself.

“After that, I started bringing two recorders to every interview, just in case one failed, or something went wrong.”

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead is out now in Australia via Text Publishing. For more Neil Strauss, visit his website or follow him or Twitter.

Bonus material: for the full transcript of my 45 minute interview with Neil Strauss in early March 2011, click here.


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