Monday, April 13, 2009

Interviewing Your Subject : Strange Bedfellows

Somehow, interviewing subjects never gets less nerve-wracking. The night before, I am always up until silly-o'clock writing out pages of questions. (I tend not to keep notes on hand, I have a decent memory when it comes to my biographical subjects, but I'd recommend it to others who don't.) Then the morning of the interview I fret and pace and rehearse what I'm going to say when I pick up the phone. With a few false starts, I finally get through.

Then everything's fine. I swear, young biographers, it's usually 100% fine! This is difficult to remember when you're hearing that phone ring and panicking, but when the voice answers on the other end, something intuitive kicks in.

Here are the best tips I can offer, from a very young biographer to others, about interviewing your subjects. These apply to any non-fiction research. If you have other tips to add, feel free to join in:

1. Prep your questions ahead of time. This seems sort of intuitive, but it makes the conversation a lot less intimidating if you know what to ask when the stories lull. Also, if you don't have a good memory, it might be beneficial to keep some of your notes nearby, for quick reference. I write my questions on separate sheets of paper, not front-to-back, so I can spread them out easily in front of me. Like I said, if there are pauses in the conversation that indicate a switching of topics, you can quickly grab a question and throw it in.

2. Ask ahead of time to tape record. Tape recording your interviews is almost essential to get every valuable fact and colorful phrase just right, but it is also illegal without prior consent. Written consent is best. Most subject have no problem with this, but it's always best to check with them before using exact quotes so as to avoid quoting out of context.

3. Speak with both humility and authority. You're speaking to someone who holds a precious key to your research and your book. This person knows something you don't-- so don't forget it. Thank them, many times. Sincerely. However, you should also speak with some confidence. Don't apologize for yourself and your questions. Talk like you know what you're saying.

4. Take notes. Even if you're recording, take notes. Tape recorders can fail and written notes will always jog your memory. However, I use shorthand so that I can be mentally engaged in the conversation while note-taking.

5. Every time you think of a question, write it down. Self-explanatory. You should write down every scrap of information, every question, every idea anyhow.

5. Listen. The single most important thing to remember. Don't ramble, don't interrupt. Let the stories come and just listen. Again, this person knows more about your subject than you do. Listen with the openness of a young student.

6. Again, thank them for their time! Sincerely. These people are busy with their own lives. They deserve thanks.

Developing character

Had a fascinating discussion with fellow non-fiction writer Jerry Waxler who writes (and lives) memoir about the development of character in non-fiction. His latest essay in his fascinating blog Memory Writer's Network deals with the mental connections reader's must make in order to full realize a character.

"Books don’t tell us everything about a character all at once. They drop in a fact here and a scene there, and the reader’s mind accumulates a deeper understanding of that character in bits and pieces across many pages." - Jerry Waxler

No truer advice ever spoken. With non-fiction it's particularly difficult, as we, as researchers, must first investigate, piece together, and interpret the essential truth of a person for ourselves before we can attempt to translate that onto the page. But that character translation is the most essential thing to our work. I find that the only thing worth writing is character. Character reveals plot and plot changes character.

Through endless glimpses here and there, as Waxler wrote, by dropping in a fact every now and then, we build a mosaic illustration of a human being. It's a beautiful and bizarre thing, something akin to magic when it happens. If you can give your readers only one glimpse of the essential truth of one person, then you've accomplished the near-impossible.

Is it ever really possible, you ask, to capture a human being on the page, anyway? Or on the screen for that matter? In paint? In music?

Well, perhaps not. But hell if we won't try.

Jerry Waxler's memoir blog: