Our Journalists Share Their Most Memorable Interviews of 2017

Her previous interviewer had said he was a reporter with the French newspaper Le Monde. In fact, he was a Chechen assassin. Midway through their interview, he opened fire. Ms. Okuyeva pulled out her own gun and shot back, saving herself and her husband.

There had been clues something was amiss. “He had a notebook, but he wasn’t writing anything in it,” she said.

In the Ukrainian news media, Ms. Okuyeva was portrayed as a fierce heroine for fighting back to survive. I saw a frightened woman. In my notebook I wrote, “furrowed brow.”

Our Journalists Share Their Most Memorable Interviews of 2017
Our Journalists Share Their Most Memorable Interviews of 2017

A few months later, I filed a brief story noting that Ms. Okuyeva had died in a subsequent assassination by a gunman hiding in bushes on a roadside. By coincidence, I wrote the story in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel, where I had come earlier in the evening to have dinner.

A warm smile in the middle of tragedy

FRANCES ROBLES, domestic correspondent

AILEEN AYALA, mother whose son died of a heart condition the morning Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico

I met Aileen Ayala at the Salinas Memorial Funeral Home a week after her 29-year-old son, Josue Santos, died as Hurricane Maria trampled Puerto Rico. Communications were so bad she hadn’t been able to notify friends and family about Josue’s death.

An End-of-Life Celebration

In the middle of all that tragedy, Ms. Alaya, 53, portrayed a warmth that belied the heartbreak. I remember her smile most of all. She was convinced all this was happening to her so she could be stronger on the day someone needed her.

Here’s the quote we used in our story for The Times’s “24 Hours in Puerto Rico” project: “You go out and stand in line, because now life here is all about lines — a line for gas, a line for the bank — and everyone starts talking: ‘I lost this, I lost that, I lost my roof, I lost my car.’ And when it’s my turn, I have to say: ‘I lost my son.’ ”

An entire life devoted to a single pursuit

RAPHAEL MINDER, Madrid-based correspondent, covering Spain and Portugal

JUSTO GALLEGO, cathedral architect


Credit Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times

On a chilly spring afternoon, I walked into the crypt of an unfinished cathedral in Mejorada, Spain, to find the grave of the frail old man I had come to interview.

Justo Gallego, 91, has been building his own cathedral almost single-handedly since the 1960s. With a 125-foot-tall cupola, the “Cathedral of Faith” is hard to miss, but talking to its architect proved far more complicated.

I had made an appointment through a friend of his, but Mr. Gallego was in no mood to talk. Hunched in front of a wooden stove, he made it clear he had no time for a journalist. Disappointed, I took another walk around the cathedral and settled on the steps of its esplanade to finish some other work.

Eventually, I went back in and found Mr. Gallego still transfixed by the glow of his stove, but in a different mood. For the next few hours, we discussed the Catholic Church, the Spanish Civil War, Gaudí’s architecture and why some people devote their entire lives to a single pursuit, whatever others might think about it.

A Syrian boy who was forced to look

SOMINI SENGUPTA, international reporter

MUHAMMAD, young Syrian refugee living in Beirut

In Beirut, I met a little boy who was forced to watch beheadings in his hometown in Syria. He would have been around 9 at the time, the same age as my own child.

He described holding his mother’s hand, not wanting to look, but also being unable to look away. Looking was mandatory, he said.

What seemed to trouble him most were the rules that pinched his freedom, like being told he couldn’t cut his hair or he couldn’t swim in the lake shirtless.

“Muhammad cut his hair again as soon as he reached Beirut,” I wrote in my story about childhood in ISIS-held areas. “He colored a swish of it platinum blond and swept it upward, with pomade, so that he looked a bit like a unicorn, with the face of a cherub.”

A “self-proclaimed black weirdo” with a “spectral, spaced-out” sound

JENNA WORTHAM, staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and co-host of the podcast “Still Processing”

KELELA, R&B singer


Credit Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times

Earlier this year, I flew to Strasbourg, France, to interview the singer Kelela for The Magazine’s annual Music Issue. She was on tour with the British band the xx.

The internet was ravenous for the return of her sound — spectral, spaced-out R&B that’s quirky and sexy without being hypersexualized — but also for her visibility as a self-proclaimed black weirdo. There just aren’t that many of us in the spotlight.

A few days before we met, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” one of the most visceral albums about black womanhood in years, had been passed over at the Grammys. Would Kelela’s new album, six years in the making, wind up in the void, too?

She was stunningly open with me as she worked through her feelings about her role as a black cultural figure — the responsibility it contains, and the delicate balance between succumbing to the appetite of the internet and resisting the commodification that goes with it.

For her, figuring out the answers to these questions was bigger than an article: It was essential for survival.

I left our last encounter after midnight, having gotten closer to resolving some questions of my own about the relentless uncertainty that accompanies the creative process.

A precious gift, after tea and pie

DAN BARRY, reporter and columnist

CATHERINE CORLESS, amateur historian, County Galway, Ireland


Credit Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

I carried a just-purchased apple pie up to the County Galway farmhouse of Catherine Corless.

I knew that this amateur historian had been interviewed many times before about how she had exposed the buried secrets of the old home for mothers and babies in nearby Tuam. But as the son of a Galway woman, I also knew that a deeper discussion would require tea, and tea would require pie.

Our interview, though, would need several more visits — and several more pies. Ms. Corless is quite shy, but with each visit she revealed a little more about her personal stake in a case concerning the historic mistreatment of unwed mothers and their children.

During our talks, I tried to imagine myself as her, so as to ask better questions. And when we were done, I knew that what she had given me was her story — a precious gift — and now it was up to me to handle it with care.

A politician digging around in his own conscience

SHERYL GAY STOLBERG, Washington correspondent

JEFF FLAKE, Republican senator from Arizona


Credit Al Drago for The New York Times

I had just started covering Congress when I went to Arizona in October to interview the Republican senator Jeff Flake, an ardent critic of President Trump, on his home turf. Mr. Flake was supposedly gearing up to run for re-election, and his race was going to be extremely difficult; Arizona is a pro-Trump state, so pundits were busy predicting Mr. Flake’s demise. (Ten days later, he dropped out of the race — but not before he delivered a searing indictment of Mr. Trump on the Senate floor.)

What I remember most about Mr. Flake that day was his mood. He was not defiant, as he would later be in his Senate floor speech. Rather, he was deeply reflective; in retrospect, it seems clear he knew even then that his political career was over.

As we spoke, he ran through some of his earlier criticisms of the president — for peddling the false conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, for instance, and for characterizing Mexicans as rapists. Then he asked plaintively, “In which of those instances should I not have spoken out?”

I felt as though I were watching him dig around in his own conscience.

A door opened, after knocks that went unanswered

JOHN BRANCH, sports reporter

CLAUDETTE CRAIG, mother of murdered youth-league coach Charles “Chucky” Craig, mentor to N.B.A. star Kevin Durant


Credit Matt Roth for The New York Times

The N.B.A. star Kevin Durant wears No. 35 in honor of a mentor named Charles “Chucky” Craig, who at 35 was shot and killed outside a Maryland bar when Mr. Durant was a teen. Doing a story about a murder that happened in 2005 meant a lot of nonworking phone numbers, unreturned calls and knocks that went unanswered.

But one door opened, in a neighborhood of tired old houses in Washington, and a small, well-dressed older woman asked me in. It was Claudette Craig, Chucky’s mother, who had just arrived home from a funeral. She didn’t expect me, but quickly invited me to sit at the kitchen table, where a framed photograph of Chucky still stood.

The rest of the house was empty. After decades there, she was moving to Georgia to be close to family, taking the train the next day.

“If you had come tomorrow,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here.”

I spent a couple of hours with her, talking about her son and her memories of the night he died. She had never met Mr. Durant, except maybe when he was a little boy and Chucky brought the kids from the recreation center by to get something to eat.

“I don’t know why I let you in,” Ms. Craig said as I got up to leave. “I don’t normally answer my door. But you looked nice.”

A bridge to a song

ANDY NEWMAN, metro reporter

J. J. COVIELLO, custodian, and SOLOMON WASSERMAN, inventor


Credit Stephen Speranza for The New York Times
Song for a New BridgeVideo by Andy Newman

Even mundane stories yield surprises. In September, I was at a rest stop on the New York State Thruway asking drivers about a new bridge on the Hudson River that had just replaced the deteriorating Tappan Zee Bridge.

A custodian emptying trash cans approached. His name was J. J. Coviello, and he had Down syndrome. In 25 years as a reporter, I had never interviewed someone with Down syndrome for a story that wasn’t about disability. But Mr. Coviello knew about the bridge. He planned to cross it soon to visit relatives. “I’m thrilled,” he said. “It’s a good experience for me.”

I quoted him in the story, without mentioning his condition, because it wasn’t relevant. He was a guy excited by a new bridge. To people who know and love people with Down syndrome, this is no epiphany. But the experience opened up the world a little bit for me.

The next person I talked to was a big jolly man, an inventor named Solomon Wasserman. He made up a song on the spot about the bridge, to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man”: “All day long I’ll sing and I’ll celebrate, what a wonderful bridge we have, hey!”

I left the rest stop grinning from ear to ear.

A string theorist with dreams of Middle East peace

DENNIS OVERBYE, cosmic affairs correspondent

ELIEZER RABINOVICI, theoretical physicist and co-creator of the Sesame institute


Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

In my role as cosmic affairs correspondent, I’m rarely involved in anything that moves the markets or affects international relations.

But last spring I met Eliezer Rabinovici, a string theorist from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After the famous handshake between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, Mr. Rabinovici and a colleague at the renowned physics lab CERN had an idea for what would eventually become Sesame, an institute in Jordan where Arabs and Israelis could collaborate on scientific research.

As someone who often speculates about multiple universes and extra dimensions, Dr. Rabinovici was as far removed from current affairs as I was. He would have no use for the Sesame synchrotron — a particle accelerator that would produce a special kind of light for studying materials and drugs — and even claimed he didn’t really know how it would work.

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