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.
Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums is available from Amazon , Smashwords , and to order from your local bookshop.
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!
Co-Hosts this month: Tamara Narayan | Pat Hatt
Patricia Lynne | Juneta Key | Doreen McGettigan|
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There are some great tips here. Thanks for sharing them.
Pleasure! Thanks macjam.
Some really great tips!
With regards to recording of the interview, I wonder how many interviewees would prefer not to, and whether this is determined by the type of job or nature of the information discussed, amongst other reasons…
Only one refused – an academic who I think was wary of the technology and also wanted quite a bit of control over editing what he said. I think if I were interviewed I would consent – it’s actually protection for the interviewee, as well as the interviewer. Thanks for your comment.
That sounds like an interesting book–and great suggestions. It’s those ‘credentials’ that usually get me. Being an armchair paleoanthro doesn’t usually open many doors!
Is that palaeoanthropologist?! I would say credentials can be enthusiasm and knowledge as well as more formal qualifications or jobs. Depends how you put it across as well, I think.
What a fascinating book! I’ll definitely look it up. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks poet rummager!
The most pertinent line in that post is this one ‘It’s amazing how much people respond to being listened to’. I’ve worked with a few National dailies and I found this mantra most useful. All you have to do is to make sure they don’t wander off topic and people will give you way more input than you even need only if you have the time and patience to listen. Such sensible pointers.
Thanks for your comment. I think the difficult part would come when you had to interrupt because you wanted something a bit different – you know sometimes people come out with a lot of marketing-speak and you need to get past that.
Hi, Damyanti, Hi, Rebecca….
What a wonderful premise and interesting process for your book Rebecca. Congrats and all the best. I found your tips very useful and if I am ever interviewed or an interviewee, I will certainly keep these tips in mind. Nicely DONE…
Damyanti… what a lovely way to pay it forward with your Last friday of the month blog hop. With SO MUCH unrest in the world, spreading positive stories can only help protect us from the negativity…. Such a noble and worthy cause. I hope to post for it soon. I have such a crazy life right now with buying a new loft and preparing to move, but once I settle I get in touch…. Take care….
What an insightful post from your guest poster, Rebecca. Plenty of points to ponder in regards to interviewing. Looks like Rebecca has interviewed a wide variety of people but has she had the ultimate experience and interviewed a certain celebrity dog?
Thanks for this, Damyanti and Rebecca.
I would love to interview a celebrity dog! However this afternoon I am off to try to help a dog who is definitely not a celebrity – where I live animals are often badly treated. This one was skin and bone, covered in fleas and ticks, and pathetically held onto my leg when I tried to walk off. I’m going back with some food and a worm tablets. Thanks for your comment on the book.
These are great tips for getting more insights from those we interview! Thank you for the useful post 🙂
This is very useful – I’m about to start approaching people for help researching for a work of fiction, and there’s some good tips that I think I’ll find helpful when I do that. Thanks guys!
Good post. I always hesitate to contact people for research because I worry about disturbing them, or I am a little fuzzy on what I am looking for. I write fiction and research is usually part of the discovery process.
Thanks KT – good luck with your interviewing.
Really good advice–especially about reading their bios first.
Thanks for your comments – actually I don’t think any of the interviewees had had biographies written about them, but I was interviewing a professor about Charles Darwin’s weed garden (which still exists, outside his house, now a museum) and it helped that I had read a biography of Darwin previously, to show I knew something about it.
These are great tips to which I would add, have fun!
Yes, I totally agree.
Great tips, especially the one about not interrupting the interviewee’s train of thought. Love the book cover. It really caught my eye.
Thanks Ellen. I had to search hard for something with a bit of movement in it because objects are usually immobile!
Just like giving a talk – go in prepared and know your audience.
I bet those who contributed were excited to do so.
I hope so! It was interesting how different people preferred to contribute – some wanted the questions in advance, some even did some research, some preferred to do it it off the cuff.
Hi Damyanti – looks like a fascinating book to read … I’m adding it to my wish list … exactly if we don’t ask we don’t get … thanks for the interview and post on it … cheers Hilary
I’m always so shy when approaching people, but I’m sure you’re right. Don’t ask and you get nothing. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
Well, one thing that surprised me was that the interviewees themselves sometimes felt nervous. I think it’s very important to both sides just to open with a bit of small talk – compliments are nearly always a good bet as well.
You included some great tips. However, one thing I also tell people is “Don’t be afraid to go off on tangents. You might find a gem.” The caveat with this is that I always have a list of questions that I want answered so if I do go off on a tangent, I have something to come back to.
Also, I have come to believe that with face-to-face interviews, it is best to record them. That way you can make eye contact with your subject. I have also had subjects who seemed unsettled when I wasn’t writing as if what they were wasn’t important enough to note.
Yes, thanks for your comments. I also remember being told when I trained as a journalist that sometimes the best stuff comes when you close your notebook or turn off the recorder and people relax and communicate more freely. Although then you need a way of remembering it…
This looks like a fabulous book. I’m getting it for sure. Thanks for the interview tips!
I bet you learned a lot of fascinating stuff during those interviews. I’d definitely need to tape it or I wouldn’t remember any of it.
Yes – it was also self defence as well, in case interviewees queried something and I needed evidence. Although actually I always sent the edited monologue to each one for approval.