The Interviewer

The Atlantic and Australia’s new magazine The Monthly discuss the art of the interview

In the Atlantic Stephen Budiansky unearths a World War II document on how to interrogate Japanese POWs while in The Monthly Kerryn Goldsworthy looks at how the ABC’s Andrew Denton "lures his subjects into moments of frankness and vulnerability."

Budiansky’s article focuses on Major Sherwood F. Moran – a WWII marine who avoided the usual degrading interrogation tactics. Instead, he argued that interrogators need "to get into the mind and heart of the person being interviewed":

One must be absolutely sincere. I mean that one must not just assume the above attitudes in order to gain the prisoner’s confidence and get him to talk. He will know the difference. You must get him to know by the expression on your face, the glance of your eye, the tone of your voice, that you do think that “the men of the four seas are brothers”, to quote a Japanese (and Chinese) proverb. (Shikai keitei.) One Japanese prisoner remarked to me that he thought I was a fine gentleman (“rippana shinshi”). I think that what he was meaning to convey was that he instinctively sensed that I was sincere, was trying to be fair, did not have it in for the Japanese as such.

Moran advised interviewers to start by making the POW "and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems." And if the prisoner happened to be wounded, this was an opportunity – soldiers like showing off their burns and wounds. But at the same time as Moran advised interviewers to show genuine interest and concern, he reminded them never to forget the purpose of the interview:

You must know exactly what information you want, and come back to it repeatedly. Don’t let your warm human interest, your genuine interest in the prisoner, cause you to be sidetracked by him! You should be hard-boiled but not half-baked. Deep human sympathy can go with a business-like, systematic and ruthlessly persistent approach.

Andrew Denton’s interview technique is similar. As Goldsworthy writes "He hangs on like a terrier, sinking his teeth into the sock of some issue while the subject weaves." Nikki Gemmell, the author of The Bride Stripped Bare, knows all about the approach. The subject of her novel is too embarrassed to tell her husband he’s doing the wrong thing in bed but game enough to have sex with several taxi drivers in a hotel room:

Andrew Denton: Well, this begs the question. When eventually the book came out and it was revealed that it was you, Nikki Gemmell, not Anonymous, what was your husband’s reaction?

Nikki Gemmell: It’s been… I can’t tell you. The last eight months, it’s been hell. It turned our lives upside down. I wrote this book with this incredible sense of freedom. I can say whatever I want. I’m not going to hurt anyone, I’m not going to expose myself or anyone around me. And then it would to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is like the world market of fairs. And I had no idea at the time, but it created this sensation, and people were bidding for it, and it was like, "Who was the author?" And I was away then. I live in London at the moment. I came back to London, opened up a newspaper and it had "Mystery housewife has written this book that’s going to cause a sensation, blah, blah, blah…" From that moment I realised I’d lost control. I thought it’s only going to be a matter of time before someone finds me out. I had this incredible kind of queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach of suddenly "What have I done here? I’m in too deep with this."

Andrew Denton: Isn’t the key, though — even though, as you said, the book isn’t strictly about you, it is also about you — isn’t it that the person you were most worried about finding out was your husband?

Nikki Gemmell: Yeah. I’m fascinated by that idea that "What relationship can survive the brutality of absolute honesty?" And Vita Sackville-West described herself as an iceberg, and she said her husband, Harold — they were happily married for many, many years — and she said he only knew what was above the surface of the water and there was a huge mass below the surface of the water that he had no idea of. She speculated that that’s why their marriage worked so well. I thought, "That’s fascinating." We all have secret lives, and what I wanted to do with my book was dive deep and kind of split open a woman and reveal her secret life in all the kind of rawness and kind of ugliness but beauty, and all those things. The things that often our partners, our husbands, our fathers, the people around us, have no idea of the complexity.

Andrew Denton: There’s another similarity to the iceberg in that it doesn’t like to go down either!


Nikki Gemmell: (Laughs) Andrew! Please! I’m keeping it literary.

Andrew Denton: But I want to get human here. You’re still ducking around this question. This is why I’m coming back to it. How has Andy, your husband, dealt with it? Because this is exposing to him and for him.

Nikki Gemmell: Yeah. For some reason, I thought he would never read it. He’s head of the Rumpole Society in Britain — his world is P.G. Wodehouse, Rumpole, all that kind of thing — so a world away from this kind of book. And for us… I mean, as a fiction writer, I’ve written three books in the past, and kind of as a defence mechanism, he hasn’t wanted to read the other books, because he says, "Your writing is very raw, very honest, there are past relationships in there — I just don’t want to know your past and all that kind of thing." So I felt with this book, the same thing would happen. He would be like, "I don’t want to know."

Andrew Denton: That’s taking a big risk.

Nikki Gemmell: I know! And I was naive. And I always get myself into trouble like that.

Andrew Denton: So how is he about it?

According to Goldsworthy, Denton’s approach is based on the idea that "if you create an inviting silence, people will talk into it, and Denton has a gift for making a space into which people feel willing to speak." And if they happen to be wounded… that’s an opportunity.

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2024 years ago

Good interrogators have known about this technique for ages, Don. The KGB were past masters at it.

2024 years ago

So why do we have Abu Ghraib?

2024 years ago

Bad interrogators? Morons? Cretins?

Al Bundy
2024 years ago

Rob, ‘bad interrogators’? No.

They weren’t an interrogator’s arsehole. They were a bunch of redneck hillbilly sadists straight out of Deliverance – assigned the arse-end job of prison warders. Interrogators are highly trained and respected professional intelligence officers.

It remains unfortunate that the media hysteria over Abu Ghraib has left people thinking that naked men cowering before the likes of Private England has anything whatsoever to do with military intelligence. Still, with the media persisting with the AG photo parade on nightly bulletins even now, the wider, and incorrect, perception will remain.

The WWII document here seems pretty much in line with modern interrogation methodology practised by Western forces.

2024 years ago

“They were a bunch of redneck hillbilly sadists straight out of Deliverance – assigned the arse-end job of prison warders.”

So was it incompetence or malevolence that assigned them that job?

2024 years ago

So were the Abu Ghraib offenders just creating wounds to assist the interrogators? Because I thought that was their explanation — they were “softening up” the prisoners before the interrogators arrived.

David Tiley
2024 years ago

“In letters and e-mails to family members, Frederick [ the senior enlisted man charged for Abu Ghraib] repeatedly noted that the military-intelligence teams, which included C.I.A. officers and linguists and interrogation specialists from private defense contractors, were the dominant force inside Abu Ghraib. In a letter written in January, he said:
I questioned some of the things that I saw . . . such things as leaving inmates in their cell with no clothes or in female underpants, handcuffing them to the door of their cell–

david moran
2024 years ago

I am one of Sherwood F. Moran’s grandsons (note that he often is confused with my father / his son Sherwood R. Moran). Anyone who wants to learn more about this unusual individual will want to read the family bio just posted at (can’t get Google to pick it up yet). We wrote this bio partly in response to Stephen Budiansky’s unfortunate comment recently on Weekend America radio that “we don’t know much about this guy.” (Not knocking SB; his article was very fine.)
thanks, David Moran