The first person I ever interviewed roundly criticized my skills. In fact, he said, “You’re the worst interviewer I’ve ever had.”
Wow! I was crushed. I was a junior in college and was preparing a story on Kelly’s Seed & Feed and the Schola Cantorum for my feature writing class. I met some of the people involved in both, and I had the opportunity to interview Kelly Morris, who started both groups.
For those of you who may wonder, Kelly’s Seed & Feed was an avant-garde theatrical group prominent in the 1970s. The theater closed in the late 1970s, but the Seed and Feed Marching Abominable band is alive and well. The Schola Cantorum, a chorus of 20 to 30 singers performing primarily early music, also is going strong.
I did manage to get an A on my class paper, but I knew I’d better hone my skills for the real world. I think I’ve done a pretty good job. Several years later, when I was writing for a fashion newspaper, Gianfranco Ferre, the late award-winning Italian designer, told me I was the best interviewer he’d ever had. Wow again!
What did I learn in that time? Here are some pointers that I use:
- Research your subject thoroughly.
- Have a list of prepared questions.
- Chat a little at first so you’re both relaxed.
- Save the tricky questions (i.e. how much money did you make last year – or did you have an affair with that person?) for last.
- Be prepared to ask follow-up questions.
- Let them do the talking. As they warm up to their subject, they may say something important or meaningful that you didn’t expect.
- Don’t be afraid to ask them to explain something you don’t understand. I also ask people to repeat numbers.
I don’t like using tape recorders, mainly because they take up so much time, but I do occasionally record an interview as a backup to my notes. That helps with accurate quotes and numbers, but I can usually depend on my note-taking if the person isn’t talking so fast that it’s difficult to keep up.
Also, while some people are easy to interview, others are not. Some don’t say much, so you have to really work for the answers, while others go off on a tangent and you have to direct them back to the subject so that you don’t end up spending an hour and a half on an interview that should take 30 minutes.
Recently, I interviewed Predrag Gosta, founder and director of New Trinity Baroque, a wonderful early music group. My story is about the group and its 15th anniversary, but I ended up getting into discussions with him about the use of early instruments and how to build audiences. This interview, which I thought would take no longer than 45 minutes, took 90. It was interesting, and he didn’t mind. He enjoyed talking, and I learned a lot, such as why he’s so difficult to pin down. He travels all over Europe conducting orchestras!
My skills came in handy when I was researching my historical novel, which is set in England in the 11th century. I was traveling alone and chatting with an older couple at the table next to mine in a pub. I told them what I was doing, and the man said that each town has its own historian. Armed with that information, I asked in each town I visited after that encounter how to contact the local historian.
For example, when I visited Porlock, where my main character led an attack in 1052, I found the local historian working at a toll booth. He wasn’t expecting me, but he thoroughly enjoyed sharing his knowledge, and I learned how Porlock would have looked a thousand years ago (not much different) and how devastating that attack was.
In writing this, I decided to Google what other interviewers say. Sarah Stuteville, writing for Matador Network in April of this year, gives 13 tips. She says many of the same things I do. She suggests finding a good location. I usually interview people in their offices, homes or by telephone, so that has not been an issue for me. However, I have done interviews in some very difficult places that I couldn’t change, such as on a construction site or on a show floor. In those cases, you do the best you can.
The Writer’s Resource Center also offers advice. John Hewitt’s 10 tips are similar to mine and Stuteville’s, but he also says “beware unnecessary confrontations,” which I always avoid, anyway. He ends with “get the name right.”
Ah, yes, always, always get the name right.