Q & A: Medill Professor David Standish

Conducted 1/25/10
Excerpted from a longer interview

Acclaimed journalist David Standish has retired his recorder and, for the time being, his professorship to spend his days completing his third book, a biography of author Stephen Crane. Standish began his career as party jokes editor at Playboy magazine, where the Cleveland native spent ten years at what he calls “Harper’s with nude girls,” editing and writing for both feature pieces and the music section. In 1980, Standish began freelancing and co-wrote the script for a 1986 feature film, Club Paradise. The father of three and Medill School of Journalism professor talks about his journalistic past and imparts words of wisdom upon aspiring journalists.

What was your first celebrity interview?

Eric Clapton when he was with Cream, which was a disaster.

Why was it a disaster?

I went up to his hotel room to interview Cream, and Clapton comes out, and I break into sweats. I was totally flustered. The door opens, and it’s Ginger Baker and Frank Zappa. Zappa sits down on one side of me on this little couch, and Ginger Baker sits down on the other side of me, and they start doing this surreal mock interview with me. “What’s the moon?” and “How’s the news?” and “What is cheese?” and “Why are French?” I was so flustered that I lasted about eight minutes and packed up my tape recorder and fled.

What would you say was your best interview experience?

Kurt Vonnegut. I did that interview with him in the very early ‘70s, and he said things in that interview that seem so wise and so true and so funny that they still stick with me. Another is Peter O’Toole. He couldn’t have been more gracious and wonderful and funny and smart.

How was interviewing Willie Nelson?

In all my years as a journalist, he’s the only person I’ve encountered to whom I would apply the word “charismatic.” My son is named Willie. What can I tell you?

So, you’ve interviewed celebrities, and you’ve been on tour with Queen, KISS, Willie Nelson – how do you think these experiences have affected you, both as a journalist and as an individual?

It really shows who you are. It’s a magnification of how you as a person affect the people around you. The people like Willie who are good human beings, the people around them are good. Queen were the sourest, most poisonous individuals I have ever encountered, and it went down in their whole structure. Who you are is setting the tone for everyone. And it made me not that interested in celebrity. I got much more interested in going new places, writing about history.

Is there anything you miss about magazine writing that you can’t find in book writing?

You can have more variety of experience. Now that I’m doing books, I’m doing far fewer pieces and going fewer places.

If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be doing?

I’m sort of an accidental journalist. My great desire in life was to be William Faulkner number two. I don’t think I’d be doing anything beyond writing. I wouldn’t mind being Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, though.

What would you most recommend for any young journalist?

Have the courage to have your own voice. Write. Write for free. In this crummy market, you almost have to.

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