Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome author and teacher, Rebecca Reynolds. She shares her wisdom on conducting an interview for a fiction or non-fiction project.
Whether for fiction or non-fiction, you may need to get a particular angle on an event or place, or be looking for an expert or authentic viewpoint, or perhaps just want to catch a particular accent or vocabulary. You may wish to use the resulting content as quotes, or a monologue, or draw on it for a novel or short story, or lightly fictionalize it. This is where an interview comes in.
I conducted over 40 interviews with curators, artists, museum visitors and others, which appeared as edited monologues in a work about museum objects from around the UK, Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums.
These were mainly face-to-face, with a couple on the phone and a couple by email.
Coming out of the end of the process, here are some tips I would offer:
- Don’t ask, Don’t get. Ask, often get. Even top-level people are usually keen to share their work (and often have an obligation to, if they work for a public sector organization). You might have to chase a bit though and make your way through different levels in an organization. I would say I got to meet 80% of the people I approached.
- Make your credentials clear when contacting them. Who do you work for? What pedigree do you have?
- Keep the request simple. What do you expect from them? How long will it take? Will they have to do any preparation?
- Show that you know something of their work – useful both for the enquiry letter and the interview itself. This also helps in forming the questions and ‘proving’ yourself to them. I only felt I was being tested by one interviewee, and it helped that I’d skim-read a biography of the person I was talking to him about.
- You don’t have to use the interviews if you don’t think they are strong enough. There are a couple in the book I might not have included if I thought I didn’t have to. You can always use them in other ways, say in a blog post.
- If it’s face-to-face or on the phone, record it unless the interviewee would prefer you not to. This will help with backing up your notes and checking later.
- Go with the flow. If someone is on a roll let them talk, and ask questions at the end. I interrupted one person to check a spelling; this disrupted his train of thought and he struggled to resume it. Of course it’s different if you are doing a more critical interview though, which requires you to interrupt, challenge, probe.
In the end I found the interviews the most enjoyable part of working on the book– it was fascinating to hear people try to summarize their life work, often in a very short time.
It’s amazing how much people respond to being listened to.
Rebecca Reynolds is a teacher and non-fiction writer. Her main places of museums work have been the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading. She blogs here.
How do you prepare for interviews for your writing? Are you a reader, a writer, or both? Have you ever been interviewed for a book, article, or television? As a reader or writer, do you have questions for Rebecca?
This post was written for the IWSG. Thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh for organizing and hosting the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) every month! Go to the site to see the other participants. In this group we writers share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the act of writing. If you’re a writer and a blogger, go join rightaway!
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