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.