Monday, October 17, 2011

Every Writer's Magic Key: The Interview

Writing books come and go. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird seems to be on everyone's must-read, must-underline heavily, must-dog ear list. It's about time we talked about it. So that's what we're doing. Today, we're discussing her chapter, "Calling Around." You don't have to read the chapter to share in the discussion.

There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone. --Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I didn't believe Anne, not the first time I read this. Was she crazy? I'd done plenty of interviews over the phone as a quasi-journalist. The people on the other end of the line kept asking, "Who is this again? Why are you calling me?"

But she is right.

When I call people, tell them I'm a writer, they invite me over to meet the family and fill out adoption papers. Well, that might be an exaggeration, almost.

Meeting people who are passionate about their hobbies, histories, families, occupations, travels is like finding bonus nuts in your brownies. Very enriching. Even if you don't end up using one bit of the interview material.

In the muling days of my last manuscript, I thought I needed to know more about the 10th Mountain Division, an elite Army division that trained in Colorado. A nice local touch for my historical fiction set during WWII. As it turned out, the 10th Mountain Division would have cluttered my story. That doesn't mean I'll ever forget the time I spent with Sgt. Herbert Wright, 95.

It was soon apparent that Herbert didn't hear well enough to do a telephone interview, so I scheduled an interview at his home, which turned out to be less than a mile away. Herbert led me through the livingroom to the kitchen. He trailed a tube from his oxygen compressor. Boxes of frozen dinners cluttered the counters.

"Would you like something to drink?" he asked.

Dead flies mummified on the window sill. "No thanks."

Herbert sat across from me, the effort of walking from the front door had taken its toll. He shook his head. "I don't know what I can tell you. I'm not as sharp as I used to be."

"I don't need dates or facts, just what you remember, mostly about training and how things went once you got to Europe."

He smoothed back his impossibly thin hair. "You want to know about the guys?"

"I especially want to know about the guys."

Herbert looked up. A veil lifted. His eyes cleared. He was back at Camp Hale, reliving the cammaraderie of his buddies. "I sure loved those guys."

And then he told me the most amazing story.

The 10th Mountain Division arrived late to the war, not until 1945. The Germans had bunkered along the ridges of the Apennine Mountains of Italy and had no plans of leaving, though many had tried to hurry them back to Germany. Along with the usual infantry and tank support, the 10th Mountain Division consisted of skiers and mountain climbers. They came to the war late, but they incurred one of the highest casualties rates and conducted one of the fastest advances into enemy territory. These men were risk-takers not accustomed to failure.

Early in the fighting, Herbert's platoon had to crawl over a small rise of earth, nothing more than a bump, to continue their ascent. Herbert led the way, but he was shot in the pelvis only yards from his objective. His seargant crawled over the rise to bring Herbert back to the safety. As Sgt. Scott bent over Herbert, a sniper's bullet severed Sgt. Scott's jugular. He collapsed on Herbert and bled out. Herbert's chances didn't look good. They looked even worse when a U.S. tank started backing toward him. He thought, "Swell, I survived getting shot by the Nazis. Now, I'm going to be crushed by one of my own."

As it turned out, the tank provided cover for the men of Herbert's platoon to remove the body of their sargeant and evacuate Herbert. His voice caught as he talked about Sgt. Scott. Herbert considered him a first-rate hero for taking such a chance on his behalf.

Herbert was sent stateside to recuperate and rebuild his life. When he felt up to a journey, he drove the 600 miles to northern Idaho to visit the widow of Sgt. Scott and the young son he'd left behind. Herbert felt responsible for putting the sargeant in harm's way. He'd traveled to Idaho to apologize and to tell of Sgt. Scott's heroism. He did that. And then he fell in love with the widow Scott and loved her the rest of her life. He also stepped up to be a father to the boy. Herbert was quite proud that his son had two fathers who served in the 10th Mountain Division.

I didn't use what I learned from Herbert that day, not in the traditional sense. But his story rekindled something in me, maybe hope. I never looked at an elderly man quite the same. The stories they hold...

What's your take? Is Anne telling the truth? Are the words "I'm a writer" an magic key that opens doors to people's lives and passions? Have you conducted an interview that changed the course of a story? Provided a friend for life?


Anonymous said...

Patti, what a touching story. My grandfather, whom I was very close to, passed away just a few years ago at the age of 96. He was as sharp mentally at that age as he was as a young man growing up in Alabama. My husband and I loved visiting him and listening to his stories. We'd sit and listen as long as he could felt like talking. I wish I'd thought to record him.

I agree, Patti. The words, "I'm a writer" opens all kinds of doors. People are intrigued by the idea of writers. It makes me laugh, because I know so many writers -- I know ME the writer -- and we're just normal people. Well, normal may be an exageration. But we're just people.

Samantha Bennett said...

Love this post! And I love this man's story. Thanks for sharing!

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti, please write this story. It's probably not a novel, it feels very much like a short story with such a wonderful inward glance at the end. I love it.

Totally don't care what Ann said today....just wrapped up in this story of real hope and honor.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes, the "writer card" has helped me many times. I've found that, as long as I promise confidentiality, people are very willing to share their stories and random information.

It came in handy when I needed to learn about mental hospitals and mental illness for this novel. I'm hoping to use it well for later novels as well.

One time, however, I told someone that I am a writer. She said, "Oh, please don't write about me." Interesting. It made me wonder what secrets she had!!!

Steve G said...

Wow. Great story. I agree with Bonnie. It also made me think about how busy I am. What kind of stories will I have when I am 95 and a writer calls me up for an interview. We need to be making the stories today, lives filled with love and risks, so that we have something of value to share.

"When I was young I invested in stocks that did so well I had a cabin and a boat, and, I don't remember much of the people, but those fish. Why, I remember a fish that was this big..." (says the one armed man as he stretches out his arm). Somehow, that just doesn't seem to cut the mustard; maybe the cheese, but not the mustard.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

So cool, Patti!

I had an awesome conversation with a midwife easy to talk with and personable. Not only could I use it for a novel, it made me rethink the preggo route I took. ;)
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Sharon: Our richest treasures are the people around us, the ones who are just so ordinary, like us!

Samantha: You would have loved Herbert, too. Such a gentleman and so humble. He suffered quite a bit from that bullet he took in the pelvis but didn't feel obliged to complain because so many of his friends died.

Bonnie: I think a collection of short stories is in order, definitely. I've been listening to short story writers talk about the craft on Pen on Fire, a great pod cast, and I'm thinking of dipping my pen into that ink.

Susie: I sat in a coffee shop with a woman I'd never meet. We talked for three hours about her relationship with her mother. At the end of the interview, she paled. "I've never told anyone all of this, not even my husband."

Steve: Leave it to you and Bonnie to see a story from a fresh angle. It seems like we live in a culture where we have to be deliberate about making memories...and then scrapbook them.

Wendy: If an interview doesn't cause me to see the world or people differently I didn't try hard enough.

Great comments all!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Oh, wow - WHAT a story!! Thanks for sharing it.

I don't think I'm very good at using the writer card. I hate asking for help. Hate cold-calling people I don't know. Chicken out a hundred times before I follow through (if I ever do.) I really need to get over that.

I haven't always had good experiences. One particular legal expert I called for weeks, leaving messages with secretaries, on office voicemail, cell phone. I must have explained myself a dozen times in those messages. Assured him I wouldn't take more than 15 minutes of his time. Offered to email my questions, wash his car, dance a Mazurka, anything really. He never ever called me back.

Mind you, I guess when you're used to charging 1500 bucks an hour, 15 minutes is one heck of an expensive conversation.

Lori Benton said...

Oh my. Herbert's story brings tears to my eyes. I agree with Bonnie. I hope someday you write it.