When friendships fray

IMG_4597

What happens when your deepest values clash?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

There are many moments in life that can test, end or even strengthen a friendship — graduation from years of shared classes and experiences, engagement, marriage, divorce, becoming a parent, miscarriage, serious illness, injury or disability.

Politics!

What is friendship really based on?

What keeps it alive for months or years or even decades — and what causes it to wither and die?

I’m really fortunate to have friendships that have lasted for decades, even through many major life changes on my end: leaving my home city, leaving my home country, getting married and divorced and re-married, getting (early stage, all gone) breast cancer in June 2018.

The people I became friends with in my teens or 20s are people who share my social, professional and ethical values, just as they are now.

They tend to be people who have traveled widely — and not necessarily in luxury or comfort — they’ve worked for an NGO or as a journalist or physician or photographer.

Many have also weathered some tough issues in their lives, like mine — like a mentally-ill sibling or parent or someone who’s alcoholic or abusive.

Many have lived outside their home cities or towns, and most have lived outside their native country, often many times, adapting to new languages, cultures and customs. It has taught them to be open-minded, flexible, aware that there are many ways to work, relate, worship, vote, savor leisure.

They’re really curious about the rest of the world and how it works, or why it doesn’t. The rest of the world can mean anything outside their postal code or zip code — not some tedious, annoying abstraction, but a place as filled with contradictions and joy as our own.

Sometimes, though, a friendship springs to life through the least likely — and such fun! — common interests. On Twitter I became friends with a Berlin-based archeologist because we started tweeting the lyrics to Time Warp (a song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) at one another.

Other friends share my passion for books or writing or design or antiques or travel.

My oldest friend is a mother of three adult women and lives a very different life from mine and very far away. I have no children and have only met her husband maybe once or twice in decades, thanks to our geographic distance.

But we have deep roots, thank heaven! We met in freshman English class at U of Toronto, rolling our eyes at one another.

We dated two men who were also best friends, both of them faithless shits!

She was my maid-of-honor at my first wedding, when I whispered to her before it started — “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out.”

It didn’t and she did.

Sometimes friendships end, as our lives diverge or our values shift — or our tolerance for bullshit just finally evaporates.

I had three female friends a decade or so ago I thought, like my earlier Canadian pals, were likely to remain my friends for many more years to come. They were not.

Weary of biting my tongue, I confronted all three of them, as politely as I knew how, asking them to examine their privilege and be more sensitive to the difference between their income level (never enough for them!) and my own. Two chose to end the friendship instead.

A third married a man whose values just appalled me, boasting to me about his enormous income as a corporate executive — while making my friend work non-stop through chemo for her breast cancer.

I didn’t want to be a part of their lives any longer, and vice versa.

One friend, who was really supportive of me through a work crisis in 2014-2015, was weird when I got breast cancer and said some really stupid things. When you’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis, even the least threatening, everything changes forever.

Like every relationship, a truly intimate friendship allows enough room for disagreement, conflict and, ideally, resolution. Over time, we reveal our tenderest bits to one another, confident those soft spots will be met kindly and with respect.

It was decades before one friend of mine even knew I had/have a half-brother. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss.

I’m watching my friendships carefully now, since it’s been more than three months since I’ve seen most of them face to face as we continue to isolate due to this pandemic.

It’s a time of real reflection and re-assessment.

 

Have you had, and lost, friends?

Did you ever reconcile — or just move on?

 

 

Oh, to be airborne again!

IMG_4983

 

By Caitlin Kelly

As some here know, I live to travel — 41 countries so far and so many more I’m so eager to visit:  Iceland, Finland, Morocco, Japan, maybe back to New Zealand and definitely back to Scotland, Ireland, England and France.

That also means hours airborne and I have bizarrely mixed emotions about flying:

 

I love flying, in theory, but loathe wide-body aircraft and being jammed into one with 300+ other people. I know that smaller aircraft, especially the very smallest, can be more dangerous and bumpy. I just hate being surrounded by so many people 35,000 feet in the air for hours.

I can’t wait to go somewhere far away!

Ohhhhh, I hate turbulence.

And now, the notion of. 6,8, 9 hours wearing a mask?

 

So, in the meantime, I’m watching every possible film and TV show set far from the United States, like Baptiste (Amsterdam), Happy Valley, Broadchurch, Shetland, Hinterland (England, Scotland, Wales), Wallander (Sweden, UK) and many others.

Jose and I are total #avgeeks, and on our Facebook and Instagram feeds watch JustPlanes.com— with the coolest aviation videos of planes taking off and landing all over the world, mostly from the cockpit!

I once had the most amazing experience — as an adult! — flying home into LaGuardia airport in New York from Toronto on Air Canada. The flight path goes down the Hudson River then turns east then south again to land.

The flight attendant, seeing me peer excitedly out the window as we got closer and closer to the airport — pre 9/11 and prohibited cockpit visits — asked if I’d like to see the landing from inside the cockpit.

Are you kidding!?

What a fantastic thrill!

I’ve had a few aviation adventures over the years:

 

IMG_20140317_055954839(1)
Our flight from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua

 

 

The domestic Nicaraguan airline whose aircraft was so tiny they weighed our baggage — and us!

Or the Russian-built aircraft I flew in in Venezuela, with all its interior markings in Cyrillic.

The flight from Valetta to Tunis, in a smallish aircraft and some turbulence, with all communications in Arabic only.

Or the BOAC flight I took on Christmas Eve as a child to London — with holiday decorations hanging from the ceiling across the single aisle.

Flying as a courier (no ticket!) to Stockholm, Caracas, London and Bangkok.

Or the flight to Scotland, age 12, for a summer staying with a friend — smuggling my hamster Pickles underneath my coat in his custom-designed cage made by a friend’s father.

And the Faucett Air flight into Cuzco, Peru, a small landing strip surrounded by mountains and one with low cloud cover. That was a white-knuckler.

And the tiny plane that flew me and a Gazette photographer and a CBC reporter and a cameraman — and hundreds of boxes of donated clothing — from Kuujjuaq to Salluit, Quebec, flying north for hours about the treeline, with nothing but ice and snow to see and eventually land on.

 

photo(34)
Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi — and back!

 

One of my favorite books, ever, is one written by a former 747 British Airways pilot Mark vanHoenacker, (still flying for them, but not that aircraft), Skyfaring. It is the most lyrical and lovely book about how the world appears from the air, and the cockpit.

I admit to being a total fangirl, in awe of all pilots and their skills.

Jose knows, if he’s meeting me at the airport arriving, I’m often last out because I’ve had a quick chat with the pilots, if possible.

 

Do you have a favorite airline?

Type of aircraft?

Or a great aviation tale to share?

Rituals and routines

 

IMG_6464

Bingeing on fabulous shows!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In a time of basic chaos — pandemic life — it feels even more essential to have some rituals and routines to help us feel grounded and vaguely normal.

I liked this New York Times column on the power of tea and toast:

My go-to comfort food is toast with butter and flaky maldon salt (I could eat this all day long!), and I didn’t hold back from sharing this with the team. Inspired, producer Julia Longoria made some calls to food writers at The Times to ask about their favorite comfort snacks.

Lo and behold, Kim Severson’s comfort food was also toast — specifically, cinnamon toast. Kim is a food writer based in Atlanta. She was eager to share her method, which involves toasting a slice of bread, buttering it “to complete abandon,” and coating it with cinnamon and sugar. “One bite of this and I’m exactly back in my mom’s kitchen after school,” she says in the episode.

But as we got to work, I realized that an episode about toast felt incomplete. What goes with toast? Tea, of course.

 

My typical routines include (and how I miss it!) a spin class at 8:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It was a perfect way to start my day energized, social and feel a bit less guilty about what I would later consume.

I still make a pot of tea almost every day around 4:30 or 5:00 pm, in a small pea-green teapot, often PG Tips, Constant Comment or Irish Breakfast. I love tea, and it’s a great break from one more boring bottle of healthy water. I like it strong enough — as an Irish neighbor once told my Dad — for a mouse to walk across.

 

 

IMG_5752

 

 

My other routines and rituals:

— reading two newspapers a day, in print, The New York Times and Financial Times

— watching New York Gov. Cuomo’s daily press conference on CNN at 11:30 a.m.

— lighting tapers and votives when we sit down to dinner

— setting a pretty table, even just for us

— a nap

— listening to NPR talk shows like the Brian Lehrer show, The Takeaway (not food!) and All Things Considered

— whatever TV shows are my current favorite. I was loving my Sunday line-up on PBS: Call the Midwife, World on Fire, Baptiste, Endeavour….and all have ended their seasons.

— blogging! This keeps me engaged when not writing for income, and allows me to connect with you

— Twitter. I confess to spending much more time there than optimal, but it also brought me my two latest clients, so it works in that regard.

— In summer, long lunches outdoors with my softball team

 

 

And I wouldn’t call it a routine, I really miss having friends over for a meal, something we usually do at least once a month, often more. We will often do a Sunday lunch, lazing for hours over conversation, rather than a Friday or Saturday night.

Do you have rituals and routines you enjoy?

 

Has the pandemic altered them?

 

Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

IMG_5361

 

I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

The end of My Brilliant Friend, season 2

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a series of four books that everyone I know rhapsodizes over, by Elena Ferrante.

I tried to read the first one years ago, and gave up.

But the HBO series has been extraordinary.

If you haven’t seen it, and can, I urge you!

It’s the story of two women, who meet as young girls in a rough Naples neighborhood, one extremely beautiful, uneducated, Lila, who uses her beauty over and over as her most powerful weapon — even though she ends up pregnant by one man and miserably married, at 19, to another. Suddenly she is wearing elegant shifts and enormous pearls.

While she’s wildly tempestuous and rebellious compared to her friend Elena, (Lenu), who is quiet, shy, bookish, Lila’s life is a rollercoaster.

Both women, even as very young girls, see each other as their “brilliant friend”, both admiring and envious of the other’s skills and talents and ways of navigating their world — a tough and insulated world always dominated by money and by men, who have all the money.

Their world, post WWII Naples, in a town without a single tree or flower, is violent and allows them only one legitimate choice — to marry young and well, if possible, and have children. To attend university, as Elena eventually does, is the only true escape.

It’s mesmerizing, although sometimes so painful to watch — to see two women grow up, sometimes deeply committed and sometimes in such fierce competition with one another, for male attention, for family respect, for work with any meaning, for a life they define as theirs in any way.

If you — as I have — have had a best friend for decades, watching one another grow and change, through joy and despair — this will resonate deeply.

Set in the 50s and 60s, the sets, locations, costumes are all perfect — Italy!

The music is beautiful and evocative, the themes totally relatable.

And here’s a link to a documentary about the two terrific actresses — who had never before acted…!

And a Vogue story about them and the show:

 

I’m surprised to find a quiet and even bashful girl. From a small seaside town south of Naples, she says she shares with Lila “her energy, the fragility of her sentiments, her determination.”

She and her mother have moved to be close to the set. Unlike the other girls, who burned to tell their friends about the role of a lifetime, Girace wanted to keep it a secret. “It was a thing for me,” she says softly. “A personal thing.”

Margherita Mazzucco, the fifteen-year-old who plays the older Lenù, is fairer, with thick, wavy hair. She welcomes me to the courtyard, “where I live,” she jokes, and complains that the costumed padding is making her seem heavier.

“I’ve never acted, never done anything,” she says. “Even today, I asked myself why they picked me.” In the course of devouring the books, she at first saw nothing of herself in the naive “and nice” Lenù. But as an actress, she has learned they both “observe everything.”

 

Have you read the books and/or seen the show?

 

When the new neighbors are too shiny

IMG_3734

Our town reservoir

By Caitlin Kelly

Oh, this essay!

I loved every word of it, marinated in nostalgia — but not really nostalgia because the author, Jeremiah Moss, still lives in the place, New York’s East Village, whose massive changes he mourns.

An excerpt, originally published in n + 1:

The mothers are coming up the stairs. Holding the hands of their adult children. Daughters, mostly, and one hesitant son. Asking questions like, “Is the neighborhood safe?” The real estate agent, in his starched white shirt and slick hair, replies, “The East Village used to have quite a reputation fifteen, twenty years ago, but now it’s totally safe.” Or did he say totally tame? As in domesticated, subjugated, a wild horse broken. I am listening from inside my apartment, ear pressed to the gap where door doesn’t quite meet jamb, looking through the peephole, trying to see who my new neighbors might be, knowing they’ll be the same as all the rest. Young and funded, they belong to a certain type: utterly unblemished, physically fit, exceptionally well dressed, as bland as skim milk and unsalted saltine crackers. “I work on Wall Street,” I hear one of them call to the real-estate agent. “Awesome!” the agent replies.

They didn’t used to be here.


came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money.

This is so evocative and, if you know Manhattan, and especially its East Village, it will strike a powerful chord in you as well.

Sadly, it’s really not a place that tourists visit.

Why would they?

It’s residential. Not shiny. Not glossy. Not especially Instagram-able.

Long blocks filled with narrow buildings, walk-ups to tenement-style apartments.

This isn’t the cool, trendy West Village, full of investment bankers and their very thin, very blond stay at home wives and international clothing brands like Reiss and Scotch & Soda.

I’ve always loved the quieter, battered East Village, wandering and taking photos, stopping for a coffee.

And I really hear him — because the town I chose decades ago has also massively gentrified, becoming much trendier than when I moved here. We now have two coffee shops and two gyms, beyond the worn-out Y.

We even have a Japanese restaurant where we watched an angelic 27-month-old with her mother happily slurping her miso soup in silence.

 

IMG_20150227_115203336

A shop on our Main Street, interior

 

I joke — not really — that it’s become all Mini Coopers and man-buns. Now it also contains women wearing those shearling boot/clogs and artisanal scarves and driving pastel Fiats and married to guys with turned-up cuffs on their dark rinse jeans.

The cool kids priced out of Park Slope, Brooklyn have stampeded north to our funky little river town, the one whose volunteer fire department — still — is summoned by a series of specific fog-horn blasts.

Alma Snape florists is now an art gallery.

Mrs. Reali’s dry cleaners, with the dead ficus tree in the window, is now a photographer specializing in wedding and engagement and baby photos.

The former antiques mall, stretching way back from Main Street, is a gourmet shop and restaurant run by a former Manhattan photographer — one we enjoy, but where we also saw three people, in one day, read the menu and say out loud: “This is too expensive.”

Ours was once a town of battered Saturns and Corollas and Buicks.

Now there are Mercedes and even a Maserati and a Lamborghini.

Like Moss, I stare and think — who are these people?

 

Christmas shadows

 

IMG_3916

By Caitlin Kelly

For Jose and I — now 20 years together — Christmas is a time of very mixed emotions.

Now, gratitude for health and friendships, for work and for savings when there’s less work!

 

But Christmas 1971 was a life-changer for me, and 1995 for him.

 

I was living in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother, in a quiet residential neighborhood, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, in the area of Lomas de San Anton, named for a small, nearby waterfall, Salto San Anton.

I walked uphill a few short blocks every morning to school. Two tall narrow windows framed the most unlikely of images — two extinct volcanoes, Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl.

I had few friends, then 14. We had no telephone. We knew no one, really.

My mother was attending CIDOC, and also had some students there; my mother had never attended university, so I have no idea what or how she taught.

 

Have You Re-Visited Your Childhood Home? What If It's Gone?
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

 

She is bipolar and, as Christmas came closer, was clearly losing her mental health. I had no one to tell. My father was in Toronto, long divorced from her.

She totally de-compensated on Christmas Eve, driving to the airport in Mexico City to pick up a friend of mine, arriving from Toronto for a two-week stay. It was terrifying.

The evening ended with her minivan stuck in a ditch, in an industrial city nowhere near home. Her 19 year old female student, luckily with us, took Laura and I to a hotel. We then spent the next two weeks alone and unsupervised.

I moved back to Toronto later that month to live with my father for the first time in seven years, and never again lived with my mother. I wasn’t going to risk it twice.

 

lopez in Bosnia

New York Times photographer Jose R. Lopez (my husband) in Bosnia on assignment

 

Jose was then an ambitious single guy working for The New York Times as a photographer — asked with two weeks’ notice to go to Bosnia over Christmas for an indefinite assignment.

In the depths of bitter winter.

He accepted.

 

Mine explosion on road

-01/03/96–On Military Route “Arizona”– An anti-personnel mine explodes after it was safely detonated by members of the Croatian army. Soldiers from the Croatian army were clearing the mines along this route that the US Military will use when they take up the peace keeping duties. PHOTO: Jose R. Lopez/New York Times

 

This would include sleeping one night in an unheated shipping container and getting caught in a blizzard while trying to get from Split to Tuzla, with Neevis (their translator) and the reporter, Raymond Bonner.

The worst part of a former war zone? Destroyed infrastructure. Their car, a Nissan Altima, got stuck. You don’t want to get stuck in a blizzard anywhere, let alone a bombed out Bosnian road.

 

stain glass damage in church

12/17/1995–Bugojno, Bosnia-Herzgovina–The stain glass windows of the Catholic Church in this small village reflect the damage done to this house of worship during the three year war. Residents of this small village packed the church on the first Sunday service after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed on December 14, 1995, bringing an end to the 3 year-old civil war. PHOTO: JOSE R. LOPEZ/NEW YORK TIMES

 

At the very last minute, shopping for his supplies back in New York, Jose had bought a large metal carabiner, the sort used for mountain climbing.

When a UNHCR truck pulled up and Wolfgang, a member of their team, stepped out to help — if only there was a way to attach their car to his truck –— the carabiner did the trick.

Coworkers had created a care package for him, which he opened on Christmas Day — a pair of nylon stockings wrapped around a pack of Marlboroughs (“These worked for my Dad in WWII,” the colleague wrote.) There was chocolate. A flashlight.

 

mine sign in field12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements. PHOTO; JOSE R. LOPEZ/NEW YORK TIMES

 

 

Christmas Day he was all alone, staying in a Tuzla hotel.

In the dining room, alone, he ate a bowl of chicken soup, all there was to eat.

We never eat on Christmas now without a deep understanding how fortunate we are.

 

Wishing you the merriest of Christmases — happiest of Hanukkahs!

 

Home again

thumbnail-5

Much catching up to do!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I hadn’t been gone that long — 23 days — since my six-week vacation in Europe in the summer of 2017, a big splurge worth every penny.

This trip to Canada involved stops in six cities and towns, and eight places I laid my head at night. Jose and I drove up to Ontario from Tarrytown and worked together on a story for the first time, he taking photos and I doing many interviews.

We were lucky and grateful to stay with friends in four of these, saving money on food and lodging and enjoying renewing our friendships. I only get back to Toronto maybe once a year.

Jose drove home and back to work, then I had a solo week in Toronto, meeting with some very high level sources, so was a bit nervous but it went well. The final four days were time to relax and enjoy the city: St. Lawrence Market, a great Italian restaurant called Terroni and three new younger women friends I met at Fireside.

On top of that, I was dealing with a topical treatment for a skin cancer on my right shin, gout (!) and joint pain from the medication I have to take to reduce the risk of another breast cancer. And 80-degree heat.

But I soldiered on.

 

thumbnail-7

A view of Niagara Falls as our bus headed south to the train

 

The pain in my leg was excruciating — so this week, at home I finally saw the doctor to find my leg was infected, hence terrible pain. Now on antibiotics.

Home, grateful for silence and my daily and weekly routines.

I’ve lived in this one-bedroom apartment half my life now, but I am always glad to return to it.

 

thumbnail-6

Somewhere in upstate New York — it’s a 13-hour journey from Toronto, with two of them spent at the U.S. border — but some of it is gorgeous!

 

Home nurtures me for the next adventure!

The art of interviewing: 11 tips

IMG_1486By

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been interviewing people for a living — journalistically — for decades.

These include the former female bodyguard for New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on 9/11 (global exclusive), a female Admiral, Olympic athletes, an NHL coach, convicted felons and just regular people, aka “civilians”, people who may never before have spoken to a journalist and realized that every word counts.

My 11 tips:

Always start and end with a sincere thank-you for their time and attention.

 

Very few people have to speak to us, and for some, it can feel like an ordeal. The more warm, empathetic and human you are, the better it will go. Yes, some interviews are very tough on the subject, even adversarial. That’s also our job. But being an efficient robot is rarely the best way to elicit great stuff.

 

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

 

Nothing is ruder than waltzing into someone’s home, office, or life without knowing who they are, why you are speaking to them and how they fit into your story. Do your homework! It shows respect and will, always, elicit a deeper, richer exchange as a result.

 

Consume everything you can on this person before you speak so you’re easily able to reference their books, videos, TED talks, podcasts, essays, journal articles.

 

Obviously, if you’re writing 300 or 500 words, you can’t afford to do this. But a story of 1,000 words or more means digging deeper. Few moments are as flattering to an interview subject than letting them realize you’ve really done your prep on them and their ideas and accomplishments. Sometimes I go all the way back to college or high school yearbooks and friends from those years.

It only appears social.

 

A great interview can be conversational or feel like it. There are times I just lay down my pen and stop writing,  preferring just to listen, watch their body language and take a breather. I also, when it feels legitimate, may share a personal detail with them that’s relevant to the story and its focus. This can build trust. Why would anyone just spill it all to a stranger?

 

Allow at least 30 minutes unless you truly only need a very quick quote.

 

My interviews are routinely 30-45 minutes, often an hour, sometimes 90 minutes and (whew!) rarely, two hours. After that I am utterly whipped and so are they.

 

IMG_2383

One of my old notebooks — coffee stains and all!

Tape or take notes on paper or computer — whatever works best for you — as long as you are accurate!

 

Do what works for you. Fact-check!

 

Make sure, whenever possible, no one — pets, children, the mailman, an assistant, your cellphone — intrudes and interrupts.

 

This is a sacred space. Don’t check your phone! Create intimacy and trust. Focus.

 

Allow plenty of time beforehand, certainly when doing this face to face, to find the right place, settle in, use the washroom and steady your nerves.

 

We all have those “ohhhhhh shit!” moments — your kid melts down as you’re leaving the house, you feel ill, the bus/train/subway is slow or late or cancelled. Give yourself plenty of time to get calm. Your subject needs to feel confidence in you.

 

Ask them who else they consider essential for you (and your audience) to understand and explain the story properly.

 

If you’re done your job well, they’ll share some great intel they might not give someone less skilled.

 

 

IMG_4515

What’s the story’s direction?

If this feels comfortable, consider sharing the focus, length and direction of your story, and maybe some of the other sources you’re speaking to.

 

Some journalists totally refuse to do it. I do this, judiciously, for strategic reasons.

 

Ask them, at the end, what you failed to ask.

 

Always.

I also coach other writers to excellence for an hourly fee. Details here!

A fab week in Santa Fe, NM

IMG_5060(1)

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It had been 20 years since my last visit — a 10-day trip with my husband Jose, then a very new boyfriend eager to show off his hometown. His late father was the minister of a small downtown Baptist church and he regaled me with happy memories of riding his bike down Johnson Street, where the Georgia O’Keefe Museum now houses her artwork in the shell of that original adobe building.

Santa Fe has a low, intimate building scale, since most buildings are made of brown adobe — curved, smooth, rounded forms made from a mixture of straw and earth, a visual uniformity unique to this small and ancient city.

Santa Fe is the state capital, founded in 1610, at 7,199 feet altitude, the oldest state capital, and the highest, in the U.S. — the 2012 census puts its population at 69,204.

It draws many tourists and celebrities; Game of Thrones author, and local, George R.R. Martin donated $1 million to create the arts center Meow Wolf.

On this visit, we stayed the first four days with one of Jose’s oldest friends, then at the Hilton, whose public spaces are filled with beautiful, large-scale original art, the city center a two or three block stroll away.

One weird caveat — the city has no taxis! There is a car service but $30 (!) is a fortune to travel a few blocks. I do not use Uber or Lyft and both are available.

Also, NB: the city’s altitude and strong sun mean plenty of water and sunscreen.

 

Some highlights:

 

Shopping

 

 

IMG_5069

I love Mexican embroidery!

I love Santa Fe style — elegant bohemian — a look more difficult to find at home in New York, where the official color is black. There is a lot of tie-dye and embroidery and insane amounts of Native American jewelry on offer, but if you like ethnic textiles from places like India, Mexico, Laos and Guatemala, you will find a lot of choice.

The city attracts some very wealthy visitors and homeowners, so some prices are eye-watering, but there are more moderate offerings:

Passementrie is a treasure trove if you, like me, love textiles — cotton, silk, linen, in pillow covers, throws, scarves and clothing.

 

IMG_5010

A selection of cowboy boots at Nathalie

 

Nathalie, on Canyon Road, has been in business since 1995, owned and run by its namesake, a former French Vogue editor, bien sur! A stylish mix of clothing, cowboy boots, antique and new home objects.

 

Spirit, downtown, is amazing, but spendy-y, as is Corsini, the men’s store next to it. But a great selection of floaty dresses, knitted leather handbags, basic T-shirts, wallets, jewelry. The men’s store has gorgeous cotton jeans in all those weathered Southwestern colors, $225 a pair.

 

Check out all the local food offerings to take home, from blue corn for pancakes to chile powder to posole.

 

Every day, local natives bring their handmade silver and copper jewelry for sale in front of the Palace of the Governors. Lots of choices! Many local stores also sell native jewelry, both current and vintage; Ortega’s has a huge selection.

 

If you’re interested in pottery and contemporary art, wander along Canyon Road, lined with galleries.

 

Collected Works is a fantastic 40-year-old indie bookstore with a cafe attached.

 

Act 2 is a consignment shop on Paseo de Peralta, with a wide selection of women’s clothes, shoes, accessories — including sizes large and extra-large. Not the Chanel-Gucci kind of store but lots of linen and cotton. I scored two handbags and a linen shirt.

Dining

 

Such great food!

 

La Choza

A classic since 1983, ever popular, in the Railyard neighborhood. We ate there twice: lots of margaritas and Southwestern food like frito pie (ground meat and trimmings), chalupas, enchiladas and served in a former adobe home.

 

 

IMG_5063

 

 

IMG_5061

 

Cafe Pasqual’s

With only 50 seats, bright green wooden chairs and Mexican tiled walls, this cafe offers a long menu and delicious food, from breakfast on.

 

Izanami

This was one of the best meals I’ve eaten anywhere, sort of Japanese tapas, with a huge choice of sake and wine. The dining room is beautiful and the deck offers fantastic views of the wooded canyon. We ate soba noodles, shrimp and oyster tempura, asparagus tempura, pork ribs and gyoza, plus a glass of red wine and one of sake; $105. This is the restaurant at Ten Thousand Waves, out of town, so you’ll need a car to get there.

The Teahouse

This lovely restaurant on Canyon Road serves food all day and has an amazingly long list of teas, hot or iced. The quiet and intimate rooms are filled with black and white photos or you can sit outside under an umbrella in the shade.

Day Trips

 

IMG_4515

 

Ten Thousand Waves is a must! This spa, lodging, restaurant combination has been in business since 1981, Japanese in design. Private hot tubs, massages and dinner available. A few caveats: the women’s locker room is cramped, with only 2 showers and one toilet, while the place is very busy. It’s also at the top of a steep hill and I saw no access for those with mobility issues. The massages were excellent as was the private hot tub.

Taos

A 90-minute drive north into rugged countryside. Much smaller and quieter than Santa Fe. Worth it! Population 5,668.

 

IMG_4975

The Santuario

 

Chimayo

There are two reasons to make the drive, the gorgeous early Mission church, the Santuario de Chimayo (built 1813 to 1816) and the 50-year-old restaurant Rancho de Chimayo, with delicious food, shaded patios and very reasonable prices. Their sopaipillas are heavenly — and don’t forget to dip them in the pot of honey on the table; they come with almost every meal.

Los Alamos

Where the atomic bomb was developed!

Santa Fe National Forest

A short drive from town, this thick forest of pine and aspen has picnic sites, campsites and hiking trails.

Valles Caldera

Gorgeous! I’m doing tbe next blog post about this National Park, a 57 mile drive northwest of Santa Fe.