Grand Inquisitor Grand Inquisitor
Issue 003

Grand Inquisitor

by Morgan Clendaniel Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

February 16, 2007

Deborah Solomon thinks there are no stupid questions, just stupid answers.

Writers and statesmen might have trotted out the same worn talking point thousands of times before, but Deborah Solomon isn't interested. She isn't interested in hearing allegedly intelligent people endlessly expound without actually saying anything. Solomon, 49, is the author of The New York Times Magazine's weekly "Questions For" interview. Over the past three years, she has become an expert at forcing her subjects, ranging from the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, to say something.Solomon is the author of two books (including a biography of Jackson Pollock), and for many years worked as an art critic for the Times. Her latest assignment began after a 2003 interview with Frank Gehry, in which he scoffed at the idea of submitting a design for rebuilding Ground Zero because the $40,000 fee was too low for an architect of his caliber. "The piece got a ton of mail and my editors thought I had a gift for this," she says. "It was a complete mistake. I think I'm curious. But isn't everyone curious?"
I don't see interviewing as an art form....At best, it is a minor art form, like bartending, or macramé.
Despite believing that what she does requires little skill ("I don't see interviewing as an art form. … At best, it's a minor art form, like bartending, or macramé."), she consistently gets her subjects to cut through their publicity goals to some more valuable truth. Solomon makes every effort to get to that truth because, as she says, "most of the statements that people utter are thoroughly unexamined and probably deserve a little more discussion."Sometimes her subject isn't interested in having such a discussion. New York gubernatorial candidate Bill Weld, for instance, hung up on her. "I called right back. I said, ‘You can't do that.'" It's easy to see how, compared to Brit Hume pitching softballs to the president in prime time, Solomon can seem like a bulldog interviewer-but she says she doesn't mean to get in people's faces. "I have a longing to understand, and if someone says something and it makes no sense, I want to know what they're trying to say. I'm not trying to take them down."For Solomon, interviewing is a simple process. She doesn't plan questions in advance. She sits down with people, asks about their opinions, and listens. If their answers don't make sense, she asks more questions. She doesn't understand why employing such a simple formula has marked her as one of the toughest interviews around. "We're living in a culture of spin, and I'm not just going to nod my head in agreement to everything someone says to me," she says. "I ask people to think thoroughly when they're speaking to me, and to make sense. Is that tough?"
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Grand Inquisitor