Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Get Your Story Straight

Patti started a great discussion with her last post, because whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you will have to interview people at some point. Asking people for interviews can be intimidating and it can be downright difficult to find the right person to begin with. But your interviewees can also be goldmines of information providing nuggets of new story ideas and directions for development. Here are some of my observations from interviewing people:

  • If the book or article for which you are doing the interview doesn't get published, you can feel like you've let the interviewee down. They've probably already told their friends the exciting news that an author interviewed them. Some may even expect to be on The View once the book comes out. I once interviewed two fantastic young people who rode endurance (horses) and they were so excited that their stories might end up in a magazine article. I was careful to say that I was writing it on speculation and didn't know if it would ever sell. It never did, but I was fortunate to spend that time with them hearing about their passion for endurance riding.
  • It can be challenging to find the person who can help you without feeling like a stalker. It's unsettling to feel the distrust of others. "I'm really a nice person," you want to say. If you can get a referral or an introduction from someone who knows the person, so much the better. I was incredibly fortunate to find a Family Law Court judge in Los Angeles who allowed me to interview him by phone at his home during the Superbowl. That would never have happened if I hadn't known an attorney who was his close friend. I didn't know the connection, but I asked and hit the jackpot. The judge's advice in regard to family rights and kids switched at birth was incredibly valuable. I spent several sleepless nights worrying over the accuracy of my research until he confirmed that the story was legally correct.
  • People have expectations that are hard to get around sometimes. No matter how often you reiterate that you are not telling their stories, some just won't get it. They will contact you after reading the complimentary copy of the book to tell you that you got it wrong. They might be angry or disappointed because they thought that finally their tragedy, their experience, would have meaning. This happened to me and there was nothing I could do about it except to feel very bad and question whether I wasn't clear or could have done the interview better. Thankfully, I was contacted by the person later and her outlook was so different. She was finally okay with it and loved the book. Phew!
  • Do your research before you conduct the interview so that you can ask pertinent, intelligent questions. The interviewee will appreciate that you are not wasting his or her time and recognize that you are serious about your craft, perhaps being more willing to allow follow up interviews or take a look at some sections during the rewrite process.
  • When you do so much research, you need to be sure you've processed it correctly. I have passed along sections of my manuscript to the interviewee to make sure my facts and understanding of our conversation were correct. For example, I interviewed a veterinarian and later sent her the pages that I wanted checked for authenticity during the rewrite stage. She graciously looked them over and crossed out the sentence where the main character buys hair color at the store. This was a young woman, but again, NOT about her. Whatever. I also interviewed a new mom who had a baby late in life through in vitro fertilization. She compared her experience to what I had gleaned from the tons of new information I'd gathered, and cleared up a few misconceptions.
  • Be sensitive to your interviewee's frame of mind, especially if he or she is visiting dark or painful memories. Offer the option of cutting the interview short and starting again at some prearranged time. Perhaps they would be more comfortable writing down their answers and emailing them, which is not ideal for the writer but could be in their best interest.
Do you have any tidbits to share about interviewing people for your writing?


Latayne C Scott said...

Debbie, both you and Patti have brought up some vital information about interviewing.

I've written two non-fiction books in which I interviewed people about why they left either Mormonism or a cult. I learned something very important: People who are interviewed for books expect that 1) This will probably be the only enduring, widely-distributed descriptive record of his or her life other than statistics (probably the correct expectation for most people) and 2) They want, sometimes even demand, that they be portrayed only in a positive light. Makes the role of a writer very difficult to have only "perfect people" stories to work with. Inevitable disappointment for someone. . .

Perhaps I'll add to this conversation in an upcoming NovelMatters post -- this is such an important subject for a writer.

Good job, Debbie! And very insightful.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

These are tactics gleaned from my Christian counselor sister...

1. Buy them coffee. It gives them something to stimulate their brains and coffee gets people talking.

2. Let them hold something (a pillow).

3. Let them do something. Sometimes if they can doodle or wash dishes or just plain move their hands it gets their brains stimulated.

4. Be present in the conversation. If all you're doing is jotting down notes, they'll end up feeling awkward. They need eye contact. Get a recorder.

5. Ask them warm up questions before diving into the meat. They'll know that you genuinely care about them...not just their knowledge or experience.

:) My sister is very smart.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Latayne, I agree that it's a big challenge to show people honestly once you've interviewed them. It's easier if you're just gleaning information about their profession or factual stuff. The experiences they share with you are tricky. They're packed with emotional triggers and that's where it gets sticky.
Susie, thanks for the practical advice. If you're fortunate to be able to interview them on their home turf, I think they relax even more.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Very valuable! I've felt some of those same things with interviewees. It's good to hear someone talk about the downside, because a lot of people make it sound so easy when in reality it's often not. Makes me feel more normal to know I'm not alone. :-)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

This is new to me! Find a stranger with expert experience in a certain subject and plumb the source. You have me thinking....who? What, in my wip, could use some rounding by live anecdote? Thanks for being my source of increased writing skill.

Marcia said...

Debbie and all, for me this subject of interviewing causes bruised memories to surface. I've interviewed--or tried to interview--about a dozen people regarding Colombian culture for my W.I.P. Some of these interviews have gone well, but some were characterized by struggle. One of my biggest hurdles is within myself: how often should I contact someone without feeling like a nuisance? What do you do when after two or three times they don't return your call or your e-mail?

Another struggle has been in trying to understand people with a foreign accent. It's embarrassing when you have to keep asking them to repeat themselves, because you're hung up on one word that--no matter how many times they repeat it--you just can't understand it! (And they won't respond by writing an e-mail, either. Probably because English is too difficult.)

So...with the national Colombians, there's the language barrier, and with the missionaries, there's the "busy" barrier, since they're doing the work of 3-4 people.

I keep people expecting others to be as happy to be interviewed as I would be if someone asked me. Perhaps this is an unrealistic expectation.

Anyway, through my discouragement I know I have to keep trying... keep contacting people. I drag my feet at the thought of an interview. It's where I'm weakest as a writer.

One thing that does come to mind as I write this is that I should probably revisit those sources which have been positive and pump them for more.

But that last sentence makes me sound like such a "user", and that's the last thing I want to be. It would be so much easier if God would just zap me with the knowledge so I didn't have to extract it from others!

Along that line, does anyone ever pay others for interviews?