The Art and Power Of Interviews

Interviews, in person, on site, can be one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal.  A novelist does not need to be an expert to appear to be one, to fool even an astute reader.  We just need really, really good details—and an interview can provide more details in an hour than a dozen books on any given subject.

My MIP is set in western Oregon, on a working organic farm.  I will admit that I have been struggling with one of the characters, and struggling a lot with my uncertainty of the details of place.  I’ve been there, but not as a writer collecting details, and I finally bit the bullet and booked a trip to a little town outside of Portland, convinced my Portlandia cousin to do the driving, and set up some interviews.

I say that like it was a piece of cake, but in fact, it was challenging to find exactly the right subjects.  I found the lavender farm that suited me, but it turned out they were only open weekends.  Then, after some trouble, I finally found a small, family owned and operated organic farm—which just happened to be ten minutes down the road from this little lavender farm.  I had exactly one day to see the landscape, take photos, absorb the local color, conduct two interviews, and stroll around a couple of small towns to see which one spoke to me.

Luckily, it was one of those synchronicity days that seem to have more hours in it than it should. Every minute seemed to hold the gifts of an hour.  A rainbow showed up over the organic farm, like a finger of heaven pointing to good luck.  I found my town, shot a zillion photos to help me absorb what I saw, and conducted two interviews.  (Also ate very good food.  Even the outlying areas of Portland have extremely good restaurants.)

By the time we staggered back to our room in the quirky Hotel Oregon in McMinnville (elaborately painted, with a delectable rooftop bar that we…um…closed down), I knew my book was alive at last.  Suddenly, the cardboard cutouts I’d set up in my imagination were taking on dimension, color, shape, movement. The wooden characters are moving and walking and talking, and diverging from my expectations, which is what we always want. They gesture in ways I would never have imagined. They laugh differently. They are more…and less than I expected.

Perfect.

The most important three hours of the day were the ones I spent with my interview subjects, both women. Both powerful type A personalities (not what I expected, though once you see what kind of work a farm requires, you realize it would be impossible that anyone but a type A could do it), quite different from each other. In their conversation, their passions, the things they do to make their lives work, I found inspiration.  In the terrain they led me over, each one as intimate with the earth beneath her feet as with her own body, I recognized the pride of a mother who had birthed integrity, beauty, all with pure, damned grit.

Great interviews like that do not just happen.  After many years, first as a journalist, now a novelist, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, and say without modesty that I have a knack for it.  I’m in love with people and their stories, which makes it easy, but I thought you might like to know the process I use.

Prepare yourself.

Study the subject before you conduct the interview so that you don’t waste time on things you can read in any book.  I wanted to learn more about pastured chickens, and laying hens, so I read about them beforehand.  That freed me to really look at the chickens and watch the way they behave (friendly, fat little things!), and ask intelligent questions about them.  It also left time for the farmer to tell me about things it didn’t occur to me to ask, like what the calling card of a raccoon killer is, and how the liquid refuse from the processing room (trying to be delicate here) is recycled to water the shrubs along the property line.

Don’t just read about the subject you’re writing about. Read what your interview  subject has written on his blog or on Facebook.  Familiarize yourself with her passions ahead of time.  Show yourself to be interested, passionately interested, in what they have to say.  Almost everyone likes to talk about their lives and the minutia of their professions —give them room to do it.

Be transparent

I like to talk with my subjects via email ahead of time.  Most people are intrigued by novelists, but some will be underwhelmed, and that’s fine.  I move on to the next possibility, and let it go.

Sometimes a subject is nervous, or doesn’t think she will have anything interesting to say.  I will often send a simple list of the kinds of things I’m looking for, and tell them ahead of time that I like to just have a strong feeling for a career or setting, not actual stories or details or names.  Most people who love their jobs or lives really want you to get it right, and they are especially happy to help you avoid the wrong steps.

Conducting the interview

Be prompt, and give yourself way more time than you think you’ll need (it would be terrible to be in the midst of a great story and have to rush away). Bring your recorder or notebook, or whatever you need to remember everything.  I find recorders too clunky, and carry a small notepad to scribble on. I also bring a camera  because it helps me grab an image faster. I love one shot I took of a glossy black chicken, and absolutely know she’ll make it into the book.  If your subject minds, respect any limits she sets, but reassure her that you are not a journalist who might have a secondary agenda like an expose, but a fiction writer who needs to make a book sound authentic.

I also bring a small gift that tries to embrace whatever we are speaking about.  For the organic farmer, it was cloth napkins and a reusable grocery bag.  Don’t take tchotchkes. They’re really just annoying most of the time, and feel insincere.

Create a thoughtful list of prepared questions, but never be afraid of digressions.  The most positive thing that can happen during such an interview is for a subject to start talking off the cuff, telling you about everything.  It might be a water pump or a certain kind of cloud–or as happened on this trip, a passion for mead.  Listen actively—nod, exclaim when you are excited, repeat anything that seems it might lead somewhere even more interesting, offer prompts to keep them talking.  The best material is all stuff you don’t know anything about.  The purpose of the interview is to gather it.

As your subject talks pay attention to gestures, clothing, ways of speaking. I interviewed a falconer once who scanned the sky every time he mentioned hawks, as if he always hoped to see one sail by.  The lavender farmer squeaked in horror as we passed the perimeter of a field and cried out, “This weed! This is the worst weed!”

Collate

As soon as humanly possible after the interview, go back through your notes and fill in the blanks.  Add whatever details you can remember that are not on the pages.  I loved the way one farmer’s hair was cut, and I loved the look of a row of carrots beneath a tidy blanket of mulch. I make this part of the outing, including a visit to a coffee house or a spot for lunch to let it all bubble up.

Remember to send a thank you note within a week or so, and it is always lovely to send a finished, autographed copy of the book.

Last Steps

File the material in whatever ways are useful to you, but mostly the trick at this point is to allow the material to settle into your imagination and subconscious like compost.  It will sink out of sight, and emerge as needed with the rich nutrients of detail and observation to bring your book alive.

Have you ever conducted an interview that helped illuminate a book? Are you intimidated by the process of interviewing a subject? What might make it easier to learn to do it? 

Interview subjects so you might frequent their goods if you live or visit the area: Kookoolan Farms and Willakenzie Lavender

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    I love this post. So many tricks to remember when going to interview. I love interviewing people and I can see how knowing as much about them before you go in is a good idea. It gives you a steady base to work from, and as you say, more time to focus on what it is you want out of the interview.

    I will remember to take a gift when I go and interview for my next WIP. Thank you. It is the small things that matter.

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  2. says

    One additional note. You’ve already covered it partially, but one part bears mentioning, since it happened to me. Don’t waste the interviewee’s time with stupid questions. Yes, I’ve heard the phrase “There are no stupid questions,” and that’s not true. If you have a live person to ask questions, they need to be asked for answers you cannot get anywhere else. I live in Washington, DC, and I was being asked questions by another writer. It was pretty apparent she hadn’t even picked up a tour guide book for general information. Her story was set in the 1950s, and she asked me what people saw at the Kennedy Center at the time. Five minute check on the KC website would have told it was built after Kennedy’s death. She actually said she couldn’t find anything. Considering we’re a major tourist hotspot, it didn’t sound like she either didn’t know how to research or hadn’t bothered — neither a good image to me.

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  3. says

    I have conducted numerous interviews. I agree you should get at least some background on the subject matter and the interviewee before the interview. So you can ask intelligent questions. Always write a thank you note – agree!

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  4. says

    I truly enjoy interviewing people I find interesting. However, I have yet to do this as research for my fiction writing. Perhaps that’s because I’d always written about professions and settings with which I have some familiarity.

    My current WIP is about a subject and a setting where my knowledge extends no further than TV shows and a bit of internet research. So it’s the perfect time to conduct some interviews and do a little ground research.

    Thank you for your tips on preparing to make such interviews a success!

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  5. says

    Thanks for sharing your pointers, and also introducing me to the word ‘tchotchkes’. My interviews in the past have mainly been for print publication, so it’s good to learn some of the ins and outs of the virtual process. Often, the interviewee has that unconscious agenda, something they’d like to get out, but maybe are a little hesitant due to trust issues. I think it’s worthwhile to keep an ear out for those things that are in between the lines so to speak and be ready to read the person and pop the question that seems to be hanging in the air.

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  6. says

    So much good, useful info. I wonder if you (or anyone) can provide additional info on the very beginning steps – how do you find and approach interview subjects?

    I’m looking for a specific kind of person who might be hard to find, and am thinking about how to approach that search. (I’m looking for military wives, especially from Ft. Bragg, who had young children in the late ’80s & early 90s – and/or those children, who would now be in their very early 20s.)

    Great post full of wonderful tips. Many thanks!

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  7. says

    I always find the idea of interviews more intimidating than the interview itself. I think some of your suggestions will help with that. Thanks you.

    Anne: I would start by looking for an association or group dedicated to military wives.

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  8. says

    Thanks for the great pointers. I haven’t considered interviews as a research tool, as I’ve only written historical stuff. Although I’d love if I could get Sherman to fire up the Wayback Machine, and turn the dials to 375AD (might be scary to interview a Germanic tribal warrior, though). Agree on the Portland restaurant scene. Also love the Pinot Noir and craft-brewed beer out there.

    I love your posts, whatever the subject, Barbara! And I’m sure this will come in handy someday soon, so thanks for introducing me to a useful tool.

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  9. says

    Awesome advice for a face-to-face interview. I haven’t had the opportunity to do something like this yet, but I have interviewed several people via email for my current WIP. It was worth every second, not only because I believe it’s helped me with my novel, but also because getting to know others is always a good thing.
    The one thought I’d add to this conversation is how important it is to interview people who just seem interesting. Maybe you don’t have a story or character idea yet, but if you meet someone like an amateur ghost hunter or an urban explorer, try to get an interview and take good notes.
    Everyone has a story.

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  10. says

    Great tips! I interview people all the time for freelance articles, but I’ve only interviewed one person for my current WIP and it was just a few quick questions.

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  11. says

    Barbara,
    Thanks for this post. As a former newspaper reporter I found your list of interview tips to be comprehensive and highly useful. I preferred taping my interviews because I could never take notes fast enough and I needed to actively listen and not worry about what I was missing. Thanks again!

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  12. says

    Thanks for the tips, Barbara! I’ll soon be sitting with an historian talking about the Battle of Asheville (Civil War). Planning to work in a reenactment of that battle in my WIP. Time to put fresh batteries in the micro-recorder.

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  13. Loreth Anne says

    Great post, Barbara. I confess I had to look up ‘tchotchkes’ … don’t know how that quaint word has managed to avoid me my whole life :)

    Also want to say I’ve just finished THE GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS and thoroughly enjoyed it–thank you for a wonderful story.

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  14. says

    I have been stuck near the start of my current WIP so this post came at the right time. Thank you for the practical tips. They have given me inspiration and courage to move forward in a worthwhile direction.

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  15. says

    Sorry friends, I usually try to respond more in depth, but yesterday was a crazy day here in Colorado Springs and it was just impossible to get in here much at all.

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