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Many know Alain Elkann for his words—in books, newspapers, and online—and others may know him for his presence on television. He’s a globally recognized writer who has interviewed many “greats” in various facets of our culture, such as art and design, business and fame, and hierarchy and religion. Elkann recently released a book with Assouline, Alain Elkann Interviews, compiling many of his famous question-and-answer style interviews that show tactful conversation, and sharp yet curious personal interest. In September, we were present at the book’s debut at the Italian Institute of Culture, where he hosted a discussion with fashion mogul Diane von Furstenberg and editor in chief of Bloomberg News, John Micklethwait. The conversation evolved around Alain’s book, which was 25 years in the making, and its wide-spanning topics.
“It’s a thrill to be interviewed by Alain. That very much describes the experience of being interviewed by Alain because you’re being interviewed when you didn’t entirely intend to be in the first place. And when you do, you discover this portrait. And the other side, which we’ll try to capture, is the idea of the intellectual he is,” said Micklethwait.
The conversation delved into Alain’s many famous interviews, and his evolution over the years through various jobs, countries, projects, and more. At the end, the speakers opened up for questions, and we asked what makes a good interview great.
“Many elements,” Elkann said. “One is luck. You have to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time, talking to the right person. Another one is talent. But the most important is [to] work. The talent is to work every day, so you have to work.There is no talent without work. But you don’t have to show the effort. And the reader shouldn’t have to make an effort to read. You have to be sure that the page is clear. It’s a combination of elements.
“And I think the difference between being good and great is when the reader is moved,” added von Furstenberg. “If you reach the emotion. I think that’s the difference.”
Thereafter, Elkann hosted another conversation on November 14 at the New York Public Library with longtime friend and interviewee, architect Peter Marino.
To learn more about his book, his writing style, and his transition as a writer over the years, we spoke to Elkann.
WHITEWALL: How do you prepare for an interview? Do you have any preparation rituals aside from research?
ALAIN ELKANN: I try to know something private or something on the backstage of the person in order to create a climate of confidence and of unpredictability.
WW: Your questions and answers are so direct and concise. How much is edited down?
AE: Questions have to be short because the interviewer should never be the protagonist.
WW: How has it been transitioning over the years, and through different countries, as a journalist?
AE: A journalist is giving news or writing opinions. The interview is like writing a short story instead. In my case I learned to be as simple as possible in my questions and I am looking for a rhythm, because the reader does not have to lose attention or interest. Better to have a main subject, for example a description of the interviewee’s métier or craft.
WW: How do you feel social media is affecting journalism? Is it a negative or a positive?
AE: Social media is a different way to give news. Journalism will become more sophisticated and precious if it is good journalism. People need news, need to know the truth as much as possible.
WW: Are we seeing the downfall or progression of traditional reporting? What is your feeling about that?
AE: Reporting may change media but it will always be the metaphor of freedom. People want to know, and a good reporter has to tell.
WW: What is important to know about the newspaper industry today?
AE: Quality niches remain. Excellency will be required to survive.
WW: Who was the most interesting person you’ve interviewed recently? Why?
AE: There is no most interesting. They are all interesting for different reasons. They are witnesses and protagonists in their field in their time.
WW: You said you couldn’t choose a “favorite” interview or interviewee because it’s like someone asking you who’s your favorite child and it’s “the one I haven’t yet done but the one I hope to do in the future.” Who are you hoping to interview in the future?
AE: The list will be long and new people will appear. I would love to interview the Queen of England, the ex-Pope Benedict XVI, Warren Buffet, the Emperor of Japan, and my grandchildren.
WW: You choose to interview interesting people, rather than just those in the spotlight. To you, what makes an interviewee interesting?
AE: An interview is interesting when the answers are sincere and when there is passion.
WW: What is your overall tactic to being a good listener?
AE: To give the right importance to the person you interview, and respect what they say.
WW: What is one question you will never ask?
AE: What is your favorite child?
WW: What do you feel makes a great interview?
AE: The music of the questions and answers. Any subject can be special if you find the right music.
WW: What is the most important lesson you teach at UPenn?
AE: When you don’t understand something, have the courage to say, “Sorry, I did not understand. Can you say it again please?”
WW: What are your most important values for a professional life? For your personal life?
AE: For a professional life, to do the job that you always wanted to do and have no regrets. Personal life is personal.