“I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist.”
During an interview held at his house in Mexico City with the Paris Review, for the Winter 1981 edition of the literary magazine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez berated interviewer Peter H. Stone for bringing along a tape recorder to harness the accuracy of the exchange.
The interview, which occurred over the course of three late afternoon meetings spanning approximately two hours each, involved the Colombian artist speaking mostly in Spanish, with his sons translating much of his words.
Through it, Marquez provides illuminating insights into how a novel and a piece of journalistic literature are conditioned by the expectations of editors. Writing for newspapers versus novels impedes the flow of creativity, suggests Marquez, when he writes:
“I had to condition my thoughts and ideas to the interests of the newspaper. Now, after having worked as a novelist, and after having achieved financial independence as a novelist, I can really choose the themes that interest me and correspond to my ideas. In any case, I always very much enjoy the chance of doing a great piece of journalism.”
There are nine important lessons an explorer of ideas, writing, and journalism — or an ethnographer — can learn from Marquez’s approach to journalism.
1. Do not use a tape recorder for the conversation:
“As a journalist. I never use it. I have a very good tape recorder, but I just use it to listen to music.”
2. Understand that the reason you shouldn’t use a tape recorder is because of a profound distinction between the meaning of “interview” versus “report”:
“… As a journalist I’ve never done an interview. I’ve done reports, but never an interview with questions and answers.”
3. Realize that prepared questions can lead you to already predict the outcome of the story and the line of questioning. Embrace, instead, an approach that valorizes the words of the narrator. Instead of using questions and answers, do as Marquez did, when writing about a shipwrecked sailor:
“It wasn’t questions and answers. The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing.”
4. Be humble and allow your informants’ voices to speak for themselves.
“When the work was published as a serial in a newspaper, one part each day for two weeks, it was signed by the sailor, not by me. It wasn’t until twenty years later that it was republished and people found out that I had written it. No editor realized that it was good until after I had written One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
5. Realize that good writing conveys the same messages, despite the medium, and there is no difference between journalistic reporting and novels.
“Nothing. I don’t think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and language are the same.”
6. The expectations of readers is what drives the responsibilities of the writer.
“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.”
7. Remember that people are conscientious about being recorded and this may change their behavior.
“The problem is that the moment you know the interview is being taped, your attitude changes. In my case I immediately take on a defensive attitude.”
8. There are two fantastic ways of collecting ideas in a conversation and recording it:
“The best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed. Another useful method is to take notes and then interpret them with a certain loyalty to the person interviewed.”
9. Being conscious of being interviewed changes the way that your informant will react, which is undesirable and unproductive to a good reporter:
“What ticks you off about the tape recording everything is that it is not loyal to the person who is being interviewed, because it even records and remembers when you make an ass of yourself. That’s why when there is a tape recorder, I am conscious that I’m being interviewed; when there isn’t a tape recorder, I talk in an unconscious and completely natural way.”
How else was Marquez influenced? Read about how Marquez began writing as a young university student in Bogota.
To find out how other writers viewed creativity, read Susan Sontag’s wonderful insights on the importance of creativity, and on the need to evaluate, in order to remain productive and true to our creative selves. Additionally, mix these up with how overarching life questions shape the way we humans feel in our life, as told by prolific diarist Anais Nin.