Gay Talese’s famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is a legendary profile for many reasons, perhaps most notably because the iconic singer wouldn’t talk to him directly. Talese nonetheless delivered an incredible profile of Sinatra, without the benefit of a direct interview.
I thought briefly of Talese’s story when I read Nick Paumgarten’s excellent New Yorker profile of Ninendo creative genius Shigeru Miyamoto. What is clear from the story is that Paumgarten actually had very little opportunity to spend time with the elusive Miyamoto. The only scene in which he directly interacts with his subject is in a Nintendo corporate conference room, through the use of a translator.
And yet, Paumgarten still manages to make the most of that limited access. Here’s a snippet of his really effective use of observation, description, and vivid detail:
Miyamoto, dressed in a striped button-down shirt and black pants, regarded me with a wide smile. Up close, I could see that he had freckles and a few gray hairs. His upper lip sticks out a bit, like that of a character in a Matt Groening comic strip. He was carrying a beat-up and bulging old leather diary with a painted, hand-tooled relief of a horse on its cover. A friend had made it for him. It was where he jotted down thoughts and ideas. He said he was very busy: there was a deadline looming for the release of a new handheld device with a 3-D display that requires no 3-D glasses. Also, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Super Mario, and he was judging a competition in which thousands of players had used a Nintendo program to make and submit their own Mario animations. Miyamoto himself was to narrow these down to fifty finalists.
As Minagawa translated each of my questions, Miyamoto often buried his face in his hands or rubbed his eyes and frowned, as though Minagawa had misheard me and, instead of asking Miyamoto to parse the differences between entertainment and play, was telling him he’d gone broke. But it became clear, once he began talking, animatedly, with extravagant hand gestures and giggles of delight, that the apparent anguish was merely an expression of deep thought, a counterpoint to his ebullience in answering.
Paumgarten makes the most of a very constrained, limited interview. The doesn’t just get Miyamoto’s quotes, but we see him, hear him, and get a sense of his personality. He might be sitting in a boring conference room, but that doesn’t stop Paumgarten from still creating a vivid sense of his subject.
It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have ideal settings or opportunities to interview subjects, but that’s no excuse for doing a bad job telling the story.