Thursday, January 3, 2008

Narrative Nonfiction: Art of the Interview

I'm starting 2008 by taking myself on a mini writing retreat upstate. So during the next few days, I'll likely be posting on process--as I continue to tweak my own!

Having trained in lit crit, rather than as a journalist, interviewing people--you know, the live ones--is a new skill for me. While the best way to learn is by doing, for those of you who, like me, obsess by reading about it first, here's some wisdom gleaned from those who've been at it for a while (mostly culled from Telling True Stories):

• Find examples of unfolding action; try to experience something interesting with your subject. Try drafting scenes immediately after reporting.

• Don’t ever lead your sources by thinking that you already know what the story is.

• Trust your material – what people actually do, what people say can be quirky, dramatic, humorous, painful.

• “People’s voices are like found poetry—raw, uncrafted, imperfect. Still, we do them the greatest justice when we choose carefully and get out of the way.” --Debra Dickerson, TTS

• “The overall interaction is more important than the particular questions. I try to make the interaction as enjoyable as possible. No one wants to be grilled for hours on end. A formal interview isn’t conducive to soul baring.” – Isabel Wilkerson, TTS

• Think “guided conversation,” where the overall interaction is more important than the particular questions

• “The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you’re trying to observe.” - Anne Hull, TTS

• “Journalists tend to be very self-centered: our questions, our answers, our timetable. Field reporting isn’t about that.” – Louise Kiernan, TTS

• “Ask people what they worry about most or who matters most to them or what makes them most afraid. Always follow these abstract questions with concrete ones to elicit specific anecdotes. . . . Your job as an interviewer is to turn the subject into a storyteller. Ask questions so layered, so deep, and so odd that they elicit unusual responses. Take the person to places she wouldn’t normally go. Ask questions that require descriptive answers. If your profile hinges on an important decision the subject had to make, ask her everything about the day of the decision. What kind of day was it? What was the first thing you did when you woke up in the morning? Do you remember what you had for breakfast? What were you wearing What did you think about that day? Walk me through the first two hours of your day. These things might not seem relevant to the story, but they serve to put the person back in the moment. Push a bit. Make some assumptions that require the person to validate what you say or to argue with you.” – Jacqui Banaszynski, TTS

• “One way to get people to say interesting things is to ask dumb questions….If they don’t talk, I sometimes remain silent. Silence makes people uncomfortable and people keep talking to fill the space.” –Debra Dickerson, TTS

• “Don’t worry about your list of questions, your editor, and your story lede. Worry only about the person in front of you. A friend of mine calls this full-body reporting. If you do it right, you will feel exhausted when you leave the interview.” TTS

(Image cred)

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