Beanery Online Literary Magazine

January 24, 2008

THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW: Things Writers Should Know

Although most writers are familiar with interviewing techniques, reviewing them is a good reminder. Our topic for the January 25, 2008, Beanery Writers Group meeting was just that—a review of some of the characteristics of a good interview. —written by Carolyn C. Holland

While writing for the Fay-West, my editor asked me to do an article on Bob and his retirement. When we met at a local fast food restaurant, we sat down and began talking—that is, I began talking. He remained mute. I soon realized that he wasn’t going to talk, much less answer any questions I might have for him.

I recalled an adoption home-study I while working for an adoption agency. The couple was petrified. I understood—to them, I had the power to determine their future. When I realized they weren’t going to cooperate in the interview, I made a difficult decision. I broke an interview rule and my “professionalism,” by sharing my personal story, since at the time, my adoption application was being investigated by a different agency in the county in which I lived.

I watched the couple visibly relax. The home study continued with much success.

I broke the same rule with Bob, as I began sharing tidbits of my life with him, picking those that paralleled the questions I understood to be in his life—simple things, like parenting. As soon as I shared a tidbit, he began talking—on the spoken subject. I had to continually reveal tidbits from my life to get his responses.

The newspaper editor and other journalists were amazed when I returned to the office. They had given me the assignment because they knew Bob was a difficult interview, and they had expected me to return with insufficient information for an article.

My education had taught me that an interview is about the interviewee, not about the interviewer. My role was to inquire about Bob’s situation, not to discuss my life or debate issues with him.

But rules are meant to be broken, on occasion, and I’d experienced this two times. I’d learned a major interview rule: flexibility.

What about the art of interviewing? What makes a writer (or a caseworker) a successful interviewer? What determines your success?

I believe my responsibility in interviewing is the product—an article that satisfies the interviewee first, then readers next and then the editors. This does not mean shaping the article to please the interviewee. It means phrasing the truth in such a manner that it can be told with the permission of the interviewee. It means getting the point across to the reader about who the person is or what the subject is.

Articles should educate, clarify, persuade or amuse—whatever is intended—a neutral reader, according to Bobbi Linkemer, a ghostwriter, editor, and the author of 12 books under her own name.

For her “the heart of research has always been the ability to elicit information from others.” It never occurs to her to rummage through magazines or official documents at a library (or the Internet!). When she wants to know about something, she locates experts on that subject and tried to crawl inside their minds, to cram everything they would tell her into whatever time they gave her, and to understand things about which she knew absolutely nothing. Sometimes she started out knowing so little she couldn’t even frame a decent question.

Usually when I presented a story idea to my editor, he would ask “what’s the point, the core?” My response would be “I don’t know—there’s this and that, but after the interview I can tell you more.” He learned to give me freedom, shaking his head, after I successfully came through with story after story, often returning with a completely unexpected point than I expected.

I differ with Linkemer’s technique. For me it’s detrimental to go to an interview “cold turkey.” Whenever possible, I do basic research on the topic or person before the interview and compose a few pertinent questions, providing some structure with which to begin the interview, and to remove it from “stuck spots.” Otherwise, I leave the interview open-ended, hoping the interviewee will share the surprise nugget that will provide the story with a unique voice. I keep the interview conversational.

NPR radio host Terry Gross prepares for her “Fresh Air” interviews similarly. “I want it to have a narrative, a beginning, middle and end, and I want each question to build on the one before. Writing out my questions beforehand is an exercise in thinking through the structure of the interview.” After defining the structure, she too feels free to follow whatever direction the interview leads her.

Linkemer considers her the first interview critical because it provides her with the big picture, key contacts, and politically correct language, since she indicates there is no further contact with the interviewee. Unless there is no opportunity to contact the interviewee later, I consider the first interview similarly, but I always ask the interviewee for permission to contact him or her to clarify details, and for a contact phone number or other means. Rarely have I had any refusal.

Skills essential to any successful interview are listening and empathy. Collins agrees. “A good interviewer is a good listener. It’s almost like a conversation. It’s frustrating when a reporter is asking you questions and you know he isn’t listening to you, but rather looking down at his notebook and reading the next question he plans to ask.” I actually found taking notes on a laptop is beneficial, because, being a pretty good typist, I can maintain eye contact while taking notes. Except for pauses to type specific data correctly, I rarely look down at my hands. I correct typos and improve on the notes shortly after the interview.

Good listening requires something else—the removal of the interviewer’s ego. Linkemer notes that “it takes the ability to get your ego out of the way so that you become virtually invisible, and the spotlight is on your expert, not on you. (This was the rule I broke on the interviews related above). An interview isn’t about you; it’s about the other person. It’s about what that person knows or has experienced or can share with you that will add to your understanding of your topic. This is the rule I broke in my two interviews—however, I didn’t consider it egotistic then, only a means to encourage my interviewees to open up.

Good listening also enables me to compose the story in the voice of the person I am interviewing. Thus, each story I write is unique to itself.

Finally, the type of questions asked are important. In comparing my feature articles with articles on the same subject written by other journalists, I notice a difference. For example, in comparing articles on a pastor the other article included the pertinent data—who, what, where—were answered. There was rarely a personal aspect. By asking pastors about their faith journey, my articles revealed who the persons were. These questions come from prepared interviewers.

The Collins seems to agree. “The best questions….I’m always happy to answer. `Why did you title a particular poem?’ `Do you title before or after you write a poem?’ An interviewer might pick out a line of a poem and ask me a specific question about that line…(rather than asking broad-based questions like) `What do you think about the future of poetry?’…`Why don’t more people read poems?’…Just because you can do one aspect of a thing, it doesn’t make you an expert. There are distinct differences in performance art. To step outside that performance and to comment on the future of it is futile. If you ask helium-filled questions, you’ll get helium-filled answers.”

In any interview, the interviewer must be able to think fast and creatively. Linkemer states it this way: “You must be able to take in and process information on the spot…You must assume that this is your only chance to ask, and that each question or comment will expand your grasp of the subject matter.” The ability to think fast and creatively, to “read between the lines for nonverbal clues….(and) integrate new information into what you already know” has allowed me to follow the interview in its unique direction, even that of the surprise.

Interviews contain an element of risk. You can be refused. When writing the story on a woman who found a deer head in her mailbox, I had the newspaper article and the material from the writers group prompt (providing reasons why someone would place the item in the mailbox). I decided to flesh out the story by contacting the victim. She could have been mortified at what we did. Fortunately, she had good humor and wanted to hear our responses and read our story (to read it click on December 20, 2007 DEER HEAD FOUND IN MAILBOX—A GIFT? filed in the category WR/BEANERYWRITERS on this site, the Beanery Online Literary Magazine Volume 2 to read this story).
Interviewing is an art, and a skill necessary for most writers. Below are the Internet sites for two articles referenced for this article:

From Writers Digest:
http://www.writersdigest.com/articles/curran-hackett_interviews.asp

From Worldwide Freelance Writer (http://www.worldwidefreelance.com)
http://us.f314.mail.yahoo.com/ym/ShowLetter?MsgId=3982_617493_214379_2010_7627_0_2207_16415_140657078&Idx=18&YY=76753&y5beta=yes&y5beta=yes&inc=25&order=down&sort=date&pos=0&view=&head=&box=Inbox

Visit Volume 1 of the Beanery Online Literary Magazine at www.ProBlogs.com/beanerywriters and scroll down to read the following articles on writing:

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, or WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT

Whose Story Is It?

BE HISTORICALLY CORRECT

Self-Publishing

Who Cares?

Censorship?

DEVELOPING CHARACTERS IN NOVEL WRITING

MY EDITOR, MY MENTOR

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3 Comments »

  1. […] THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW: Things Writers Should Know […]

    Pingback by Announcements for Writers: March 4, 2010 « Beanerywriters’s Weblog — March 5, 2010 @ 12:43 am | Reply

  2. Nice article Carolyn. Informative and clearly precise. I agree. Subject should speak for self. Often, we as writers, people, including myself, are uncomfortable in the silence of waiting for other to speak.

    Comment by Regina Butler — February 11, 2011 @ 10:47 pm | Reply

    • Regina, thank you for commenting so nicely.
      I’ve lost your contact info. Could you email it to me? Either at beanerywriters @ yahoo.com or cchcreations @ yahoo.com. I hope you see this reply.
      Carolyn

      Comment by beanerywriters — February 18, 2011 @ 8:45 pm | Reply


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