When I graduated from college I had one goal and one goal only: to write the next great American novel. There was only one problem…I had nothing to write about.
The advice I’d heard was to write about what I knew, but I didn’t know very much. I’d had a comfortable (read: boring) suburban childhood, and had been an even more boring college student. For years I regretted my decision to spend Friday nights studying instead of going on wild ragers.
Then I went to journalism school, became a journalist, and learned how to interview. Not only did it help my nonfiction, it helped my fiction too. If I didn’t know something or hadn’t experienced it, there was a solution: ask someone else.
What’s more, I learned that some of my favorite novelists were devoted interviewers.
Interviews aren’t just for journalists
Min Jin Lee based Free Food For Millionaires on her childhood neighborhood, but she conducted tons of background interviews to flesh out all the characters. For instance, to create the supremely confident financier Ted Kim, she visited Harvard Business School on admissions day and also interviewed MBA students.
For Pachinko, which is about Korean immigrants who live in Japan, Lee lived in Japan, visited historic villages, and conducted interviews. Pachinko was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed doctors, nurses, an art therapist, activists, journalists, lawyers, and AIDS survivors to write The Great Believers, a novel about the devastation AIDS wreaked in the 1980s, and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
Whether you’re working on a nonfiction project or a novel, here are some tips for getting the most out of an interview.
How to prepare for an interview
The secret to a good interview lies in the preparation. Sure, you can walk into an interview cold, but if you’re taking the time and effort to interview someone it pays to use your time–and their time–wisely. Plus, if an interview goes well, people are more likely to agree to a follow-up or pass you to other contacts.
Use your personal networks to find people
If I’m writing a nonfiction article for a publication, I typically cold email people and most are happy to chat.
However, for fiction, because I can’t necessarily promise exposure, I’ve learned to start with my personal networks and ask for introductions. I also ask everyone I interview to pass me along to someone else.
Do your homework
Before the interview, try to find out as much as possible about the person you’ll be talking to. It’s not always possible, but at minimum do a Google search. Make sure to read about the topic you’re interviewing them for so you can ask intelligent questions.
You don’t have to be an expert, and the point of an interview is to learn, not to show off your knowledge, but the more informed you are, the better your questions will be.
Prepare your questions
You may not use any of the questions you prepare, but I’ve never walked into an interview without a list of questions. Thinking about what you want to find out as well as the flow of the conversation can help you get the most out of an interview. I like to begin interviews by asking questions about the past, move onto the present, and finally ask about the future.
Don’t be afraid to get creative. When I needed to describe a garden in Harare, Zimbabwe, I asked an interviewee to draw the layout of his childhood home and label the plants, which I later looked up on Google Images.
You may need to conduct multiple interviews, whether with the same person or with different people, in order to get different perspectives.
How to conduct an interview
When I first started interviewing I worried that each question had to be hard-hitting and get the interviewee to reveal a deep truth about the universe. It took me a while to realize that there’s nothing wrong with simple questions because the best interview is the one where you get the information you need.
Start with an introduction of what you’re doing and your process
I like to begin by giving interviewees a brief (emphasis on brief) description of the project and how I plan to use the material. Then I’ll answer any questions they have and address any concerns.
For fiction, I’m clear that the research is on background and I won’t be using anyone’s name. This makes it a lot easier for people to open up.
Nonfiction is trickier. The general rule of thumb for journalism is that you can’t show a source the fully-written piece so you don’t lose control of it. Some publications even stipulate this in their contract (books are an exception). However, you can always offer to share direct quotes for their approval. (Keep in mind that this may slow down your process, as people frequently change their mind.)
Depending on what you’re writing (something complicated or sensitive or something where there’s a risk of being sued), getting approval for direct quotes may save you a lot of hassle down the road.
Be a good listener
The interviewee is doing you a favor. Do your best not to interrupt them unless they’re going down a road that is completely irrelevant to your work. (Even then, you’d be surprised at which tangents end up being useful).
Be friendly and courteous. It’s not your place to judge or analyze. You’re here to listen and learn.
And don’t forget to listen. A lot of people get tripped up by talking about their own story or their project, which can be a lot of fun, but then you’ve officially wasted most of your interview talking about things you already know.
Always take notes, particularly if you’re writing nonfiction. Memory is fickle and unreliable, and within a few days the conversation will have vanished entirely.
I find that taking handwritten notes as I listen forces me to pay more attention, but the resulting notes are often hard to read. Typed notes are my favorite, but the downside is that they can really interfere with eye contact and affect the quality of the conversation.
These days I simply record them, write down questions as they occur to me, and then pop my recording into otter.ai, a fairly affordable transcription service.
End by asking for next steps
Wrap up by asking if there’s anything else your source would like to mention. Ask for the best way to get in touch if you need to ask follow up questions, as well as any recommendations for who else you should talk to.
What to do after an interview
Congratulations! You finished your interview. But before you relax or move on to set up the next one, take a few minutes to get yourself organized so you can get the most out of your hard work.
Save your interview
This sounds obvious, but there’s nothing worse than losing a good interview because you got a new phone, your hard drive crashed, or you moved and lost your notes. (All of these have happened to me).
As soon as you finish, save your notes and recording somewhere. I save both recordings and transcripts/notes on Google Drive.
Note any promises you made
For every project I have a giant spreadsheet listing the people I talked to, their contact information, the dates we spoke, and relevant notes.
If you made any promises about attribution or if something is off the record, write it all down and label it clearly so that there’s no confusion when you sit down to write, which may be months or even years later.
Write a thank you note
Say thank you. No one owes you their time or their story. Plus, saying thank you is a great way to follow up in case you have any other questions.
There’s no right or wrong way to conduct interviews and what works for one person may not work for someone else or unusual situations may call for unusual solutions. When in doubt, remember to be pleasant, courteous, and go with your gut and you’ll be fine.
Do you have any favorite tips that didn’t make it onto this list? Let me know in the comments!
Art: Julius Scholtz – Der Besuch
Really good article. Most people are amenable to be interviewed for a book or article. Important, as this piece suggests, to show professionalism to allow the interviewee to relax and open up. I did freelance stories for some small regional newspapers, and I didn’t find one person who objected to being photographed or quizzed from the Mayor down.
I’m also reminded of Ronan Farrow’s 2019 best seller, CATCH AND KILL, and the exhaustive interviews he conducted, and the skills of high profile fact-checkers he utilized, to expose well-known personalities as male predators. This book started a whole new movement: #metoo. When HE is interviewed, it’s poetry in motion. His articulate way with words is amazing. I’m a big fan.
Thanks Wendy! And I love your point that most people are amenable to being interviewed–I think fear of imposing stops a lot of writers from asking for an interview. At my first journalism job it took me a good ten minutes of psyching myself up before I was able to cold email someone to ask for an interview.
Margaret R. Zotkiewicz says
Excellent tips on interviewing and saving interviews. When I authored a chapter of a local history book about Polish-Americans in northwest Ohio, I interviewed as many people as I could get to agree to sit down and talk. (a few people did not wish to be interviewed). Some of the interviews were short meetings, others were extremely long, but I got enough to write the second-longest chapter in the book. I used a tape recorder and a standard set of 12 ‘starter’ questions. I never needed all 12 questions, because the interviews took on a life of their own. And it worked!