Interviewing someone for a feature story is unnerving. I had to interview my subject for our 6000 Issues and Research class earlier than was on the syllabus. I did my research, prepared the questions, contacted her “people” and prepared for a phone interview. I rigged the phone with my Scribe Pen that would record our conversation and printed my questions in LARGE print with s p a c e between the lines. (My questions are below)
She called. We talked. Something was not quite right. I learned, after the fact, how the next interview will be better. I was reading a text used another MAPW class (that I could not fit into my schedule) called, Telling True Stories from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University School of Journalism. An interesting essay by Isabel Wilkerson, “Interviewing: Accelerated Intimacy” pointed out where my interview with my author could have been better.
Wilkerson describes seven phases to an interview that will allow writers to get “beautiful narrative stories.” She suggests that the subjects must be comfortable enough to share anything. Wilkerson goes as far as to call this interaction between subject and writer a “relationship.”
Isabel Wilkerson expands and interesting onion metaphor:
“People often compare interviewing to peeling an onion. Though it’s a cliché, the metaphor is instructive. Picture the onion. Its outer layer is dry and brittle. You tear off the outer layer and throw it away. The next layer is shiny, rubbery, limp, and sometimes has a tinge of green. You won’t use it, either, unless it’s the only onion you have. You want the center of the onion: It is crisp and pungent and has the sharpest, truest flavor. It’s the very best part. It requires very little slicing because it’s already small, compact. The size and quality are so perfect that you can just toss it right into whatever you’re making. The same goes for the interview process. The first thing out of a source’s mouth is often of little use. It’s the outer layer. Whenever we sit down with a person, we want to get to the center of the onion as fast as we can. That’s accelerated intimacy.”
The Seven Phases of Interviews
Informal guided conversations are recommended and not formal interviews; being formal places unnecessary barriers between interviewer and interviewee. Here are the seven phases to an interview as suggested by Wilkerson in Telling True Stories:
Phase One: Introduction
The person is busy and do not have time to talk. They want to be rid of you as soon as possible.
Phase Two: Adjustment
You are adjusting to each other. You ask the prepared questions to start the conversation and you wonder if you are getting what you need to write your interview. The subject is wondering, “Why am I doing this? How long is it going to take? I do not want to talk to this person.”
Phase Three: Moment of Connection
You find a connection to accelerate the intimacy needed to peel the layers and get to the good stuff. Many interviews are cut off before they get to this phase. You may have a quote, but the first part of an interview is rarely the best. Remember that being interviewed is hard and the subject must get themselves together, sometimes this takes longer than the time it takes you to ask your first questions. Sometimes you need to ask again in a new way, come at the same questions at a different angle.
Phase Four: Settling In
Things are starting to feel comfortable and you both are enjoying this short-term relationship.
Phase Five: Revelation
This is the point where your source will feel comfortable to reveal something real and true. The subject will be surprised they said it. This is a turning point in the interview, a moment of trust that will help the writer get what is needed.
Phase Six: Deceleration
As things wind down and you bring closure, the source may not want it to end and tell you more. Listen with your notebook closed.
Phase Seven: Reinvigoration
At this point, the interviewee may make the greatest revelation of the interview. This is the center of the onion. Use this moment, it is rare and fleeting.
One final point Wilkerson makes is that we must maintain humility when we interview. We must “understand the enormity of what our sources are doing when they talk to us. Sometimes they don’t even realize it.”
If I could redo my interview with Tori Murden McClure, A Pearl in the Storm, I would have attempted immediate intimacy. This is an easy thing for me to do in conversation with almost anyone. I was too formal and very nervous with my subject. I would do it different the next time, I would be more comfortable and make my interviewee more at ease.
Here are my questions from my notebook:
From your book, A Pearl in the Storm, I saw important reading was to you. With weight and space at a premium, you took your books
You took your books on your boat when weight and space were premium. You said:
“You wouldn’t give up your books. The written word is the connective tissues. Without knowledge freedom suffocates.”
What are you reading now?
We used your class in our summer reading class and Professor Melanie Sumner suggested we look for the way you used mixed genre. In your book you used adventure, history, romance and memoir.
Why did you use so many genres to write your story?
You purposefully waited several years after your second trip rowing across the Atlantic
Why did you wait so long?
What memory devices did you use to recall your story?
How long did it take to write your story, once you started?
You had to abandon your trip the first time because of a hurricane.
If you had written your story, before your second rowing trip across the Atlantic how different would your story had been?
When you were thinking about writing about your adventures, you asked your uncle how you should write it. Your uncle suggested you write a “romance” to tell your story of your explorations, “the greatest stories in your life are about romance.”
What did it mean that you found romance out there in the middle of the ocean – alone. Your finance was on the shore waiting for you. How did you discover romance alone?
New position as President of Spaulding University,what are you writing and what will your next book be about?