Claudia Dreifus, a regular contributor to The New York Times, is the author of numerous books, including two collection of her interviews for The Times with scientists, Scientific Conversations (2002), and with people in public life, Interview (1999). (January 2018)
Claudia Dreifus: I heard that you grew up in a political family. True?
Naomi Oreskes: I did. And for a long time, I didn’t want to be political. My parents were very involved in the civil rights movement. I always tell people, “When I grew up, the mall was a place you went to protest, not to shop.” As a child, I was proud of my parents, but there was something about their lives that was exhausting. Part of me just wanted the have the right to just play the piano or read poetry, and not to feel as though I was personally responsible for saving the world all the time. Do you know the novel Burger’s Daughter, by Nadine Gordimer? It was about the doubts of the child of two activists during the apartheid era in South Africa. I really related to the central character.
Claudia Dreifus: Who were some of your influences in those early years?
Ira Glass: Roland Barthes. At college, we were assigned Barthes’s S/Z , which made me understand what I could do in radio. In S/Z, Barthes takes apart a short story by Balzac, line by line. He asks: How does this story pull you in, engage, and give you pleasure? He names things that are helpful if you want to make stories about people. Barthes explains: here’s how to structure a narrative by creating a sequence of events that will create forward motion that will create narrative suspense, planting questions along the way that can be answered. That turned out to be an enormously useful way to think about how to do an interview.
Claudia Dreifus: I’m told you’ve had bad dreams about the downside of your genome-editing discovery.
Jennifer Doudna: There’s one in particular that haunts me. I had been thinking a lot about the profound tool it is, about all of the wonderful things that it enables—cures for genetic diseases and conditions, an increased food supply. But it also brings the potential for eugenics, for state-sponsored alteration of human beings. You even can imagine creating new species of humans.
Claudia Dreifus: If your predecessor as the dean of the White House press corps, the late Helen Thomas, could come down from journalism heaven, what do you think she’d tell you?
April Ryan: “Keep doing what you’re doing.” She’d be the first person banging on the door for answers. She had the doors closed quite a bit on her, though it never stopped her. But people in power were afraid of her. She wielded real power. Like her, I’m not looking for approval. I’m looking to do my job.
Claudia Dreifus: The end for Nixon came in the summer of 1974 when a group of influential Republicans went to the White House and told the president it was over. What’s changed?
John Dean: I hear a lot of people say, “the Republicans stood up to Nixon during Watergate and they’re not doing anything to check Trump.” Those who say that don’t really know much about Watergate because it wasn’t until the very, very, very end that the Republicans in serious numbers turned against Nixon—as did the Democratic Party. And that was the moderate Republicans. The Republican Party of 1972 to 1974 was much different to the Republican party today.
Claudia Dreifus: You are sometimes called “the Balzac of Baltimore.” What’s your take on the title?
David Simon: When people say that, I go, “Did you just call me a ball sac?” I usually goof on that. I haven’t read all of Balzac. I keep slicing up society, taking a different slice each time, thinking, eventually I’ll have a cake. That’s Balzac. That’s what he did. What I never do is raise my hand and say, “This could be a hit. Make this because this could be a hit.” The minute I do that, I’m done as me.
Claudia Dreifus: Did creating Maus help you come to terms with the difficulties of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors?
Art Spiegelman: When Maus was first published, in 1986, my answer was, “I’ve had therapy, and I’ve made comics. The comics are cheaper.” That said, I kept ducking in and out of depression. At one point, my therapist told me, “But you weren’t in Auschwitz. You were in Rego Park.” With that, he was saying, “deal with your own reality, not your father’s.” I tried to incorporate that into the book. So, to answer your question: working on the book helped with both.
Dreifus: Many biographers working on a long project complain that their subject has eaten up their life. Did that happen to you?
Caro: No. Because I don’t really regard my books as biographies. I’ve never had the slightest interest in writing a book to tell the life of a great man. I started The Power Broker because I realized that there was this man, Robert Moses, who had all this power and he had shaped New York for forty-four years. I regarded the book as a study of power in cities. After I finished that, I wanted to do national power. I felt I could learn about how power worked on a national level by studying Lyndon Johnson. I regard these books as studies in political power, not biography.