At Least Once in Every Profile, I’ll Feel Like I Might as Well Be in a Dark Closet with My Pants Off
April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
When the phone rings, I’m sitting on the floor of an Iqaluit supply closet in my underwear, eating raw Mr. Noodles from the bag. I’ve arranged to interview filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril but she’s stood me up four times already. After postponing my flight and frittering away my budget on hotel rooms, I checked out of the Navigator Inn, then slipped back in the rear entrance to camp out in one of a series of storage closets adjoining the conference room beside the security desk. I’m sponge-bathing in fancier hotels.
So when my cellphone finally breaks its vow of silence, I want nothing more than to answer it, set up an interview, do it and go home—until I hear the heavy conference room doors open. I bury the phone in the foot of my sleeping bag and sit on it, but it rings on. I squeeze it between two rolls of toilet paper, but it echoes. There is no voicemail or call display on my ancient mobile, and I’m shaking too hard to find the volume control. Storage closet doors are opening. I mutter a quick prayer under my breath: “Dear God of perseverance, lowly virtue of journalism, please forgive me for what I’m about to do.” I hang up. The footsteps pivot, retreat and the door clicks shut. This story is not going well.
Granted, my career is young and I’ll learn from my mistakes and maybe even my poverty, but I realized one thing almost immediately: at some point in every profile, I’ll feel like I might as well be in a dark closet with my pants off for all the progress I’m making, wasting time, losing money and probably doing something I’m not supposed to be doing. Profile subjects never do what I want them to, when I want them to do it—unfortunately, that’s also what makes them such good reading.
Gerald Hannon thought he knew Attila Lukacs, the “classic bad boy artist,” when he flew to New York in 1997. Critics compared his gay skinhead paintings—“monumental in size and almost all of them ripe with lust”—to Caravaggio and Francis Bacon. His address in the meatpacking district, just blocks away from a legendary S&M club called the Mineshaft, should have prepared Hannon for a week of cocaine-fuelled all-nighters and throngs of hangers-on. But he didn’t know Lukacs could be catatonically shy. Many of his club friends were unaware he was even an artist, let alone an internationally exhibiting one. Whenever he pulled out his notebook, his interviewee froze up, so Hannon resorted to secret note taking in bathrooms and dark corners. After four days with Lukacs, he still had nothing resembling a formal interview. At the height of despair, a day before he was due to fly back to Toronto and file his story for Canadian Art, the writer slumped in his chair, dropped his notebook and gave up.
When Lukacs noticed this, he asked, “Would you get into bed with me?” Hannon went through his professional handwringing in all of a second. “Do I go that far?” Yes. “Okay, sure,” he said, and climbed onto the bed while the artist (“Imagine the Pillsbury Dough Boy,” Hannon later wrote, “fresh out of jail, slim now, but still soft, still white, still smooth, with a stylized dagger tattooed on his right calf”) hugged a teddy bear, switched the channel to The Colour Purple, and bared his soul.
Years before Hannon jumped into bed with Lukacs to massage a flaccid story, Noah Richler struggled to coax a profile subject out of bed. In 1992, he flew to the U.S. to record a series of interviews for a BBC radio tour of America through emerging writers. The centerpiece was to be Douglas Coupland, who had just finished Generation X, and lived in Los Angeles. Richler arrived at the hotel with a list of interview locations, including the mall (from which the novel’s characters are always trying to escape) and the desert (where a few of them find solace), but he was uninterested in all of them. Pale, and partial to skinny suits, Coupland lay in bed with the curtains drawn and told Richler to come back later. Ditto the next day. Day after day, Richler returned, found him bedridden, and retreated, anxiety mounting. How to force a man into the desert? But then he realized, “To find a fella in bed on a beautiful California day with the curtains pulled”—that was a story in itself, “and a pretty good expression of his worldview, and of him, at the time.” He returned and Coupland consented to a bedside interview. Of course, Richler still fretted about the lost time and material, and confided this to his next interviewee, Southern-born short story writer Mark Richard. In his own mid-Atlantic drawl, Richler imitates him saying, “Whatever you fahnd, that’s the sto-ry.”
But my story’s not done yet. Arnaquq-Baril just sent me a mercifully silent text message:
U have lunch plans tomorrow?
Should we say 11 at the Frobisher?
I guess you’re sick of Nav breakfast eh? Haha
Yes frob at 11 is good.
See you then
She stands me up.
A week later, she sends an apologetic email and promises to repay me with 10 beers.
I should have said yes.