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A Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting the Research Interview

lunch_interview_by_immages-d49m3y9 [1]
Image courtesy IMMages via DeviantArt.com.

One of the most valuable methods of research for writing a novel can be the in-person interview. Experts in a particular field or people who have personally experienced something related to your story can not only answer questions put directly to them, they can provide experiential, sensory and other details it might be impossible to gain any other way.

When I talk to other writers about conducting interviews as part of their research, many express trepidation or outright intimidation at the prospect. This is understandable. First of all, many of us in this profession are introverts, and asking forthright, sometimes intimate questions of people we’ve just met falls outside of our comfort zone. Second, the people we seek to interview are often busy professionals, sometimes holding positions of high status. How can we approach them with any expectation of receiving their time, particularly if we’re unpublished, unknown writers?

The answer is to choose carefully the people you approach and to act professionally and with confidence–even if it’s an act at first. Don’t know where to start? No problem. Here is an 18-step process (yes, 18!) for interviewing people for your novel.

  1. Do your pre-research. Read. Read more. Read history, memoir, articles, sometimes fiction. Watch documentaries. Learn everything you can via various media. Let’s say you’re writing about a murder investigation. You won’t want to open an interview with the detective assigned to a murder case with, “So, what’s it like being a detective?” This vague question is not a valuable use of the detective’s time, and she won’t appreciate it. Learn everything you can on your own first.
  2. Draw up your list of target interviewees. Decide how many and which people you need, and prioritize them. If you need to speak to a general surgeon, begin there. You will probably find someone without too much difficulty. If you need to speak to someone who was a member of Solidarity in Poland in the early ‘80s and was detained without charge during the imposition of martial law, you’re probably going to have a tougher time. But don’t let that challenge dissuade you (see next point).
  3. Be a detective. If your targets are hard to find (the Polish example), sensitive (relatives of people who have died or survivors of tragedies), or people not inclined to talk to the public (people who work with private or secret information, such as some psychiatrists and government officials), you may need to dig quite deep. Comb through every network you can think of: alumni lists, civic organizations, fellow school parents who may know people.
  4. Write a professionally worded email to each person you want to interview. Introduce yourself and your project, offering just enough detail to catch your potential interviewee’s interest and show him how he is relevant. Tell him specifically how he might provide critical information for your book. Don’t go on at length; you’re also showing him that you understand his time is limited. Include a few points from your own biography; keep it to a sentence or two. End with any pertinent travel details—i.e., you’re going to be in his city the week of June 1—and an expression of how grateful you would be if he could meet with you during your time frame. Tell him you will follow up in a week with a phone call, but also provide your phone number and email address in case he’d prefer to get back to you.
  5. How to respond – If you get a positive reception: great! Be as flexible as possible regarding when and where your interviewee wants to meet. You’re a night owl but she wants to meet at 6:00 a.m. before she goes running? You’ll be there at 6:00. And offer to buy breakfast if you have the means. (If writing is your profession, it’s a tax-deductible business expense.)
  6. If you get a negative reception: that’s okay.Don’t burn bridges, and don’t take it personally. People might decline to be interviewed for any number of reasons, and most of them have nothing to do with you. Move on to the next person on your list.
  7. Before you go to the interview: PREPARE. This is the most important point on this list. Most interviewees will be able to tell if you are not prepared, and they won’t appreciate it. Write out your questions. Group topics together, but know your questions well enough that you can move around with the flow of conversation and still cover what you want to cover. Plan to ask the most important questions early so you can be sure you’ll get to them. Find out how much time the interviewee has available before you get there, and plan to bring a watch to place on the table where you can glance at it without being rude. Check it occasionally so you always know how much time you’ve got left.
  8. Consider, for some interviewees, sending an information sheet a few days prior to the interview. For example, when I took my characters to therapy [2], I sent the therapist brief character profiles and the plot details I thought she needed to know. She was able to read about her “clients” when she had time and give them some thought before we got together, thereby enhancing the productiveness of our time together.
  9. Ask in advance if you can record the interview, stressing that it’s only for your own use in making sure you don’t miss anything and that you will keep the recording private.
  10. Brush up on interview techniques. If you’re a bit uncertain about your interview skills, gather a few tips before you go. Or, if you can, practice and learn at the same time. The father of one of my daughter’s preschool classmates happened to be a reporter for our local public radio affiliate, so I asked him if I he would be willing to answer a few questions. I interviewed him about interviewing before I interviewed my first source, and I use his tips to this day.
  11. At the interview: Dress professionally unless told to do otherwise. Begin with gratitude. Set up your recording device if that’s part of your agreement. Start with a few easy, innocuous questions. Ease into any harder material.
  12. At the interview, part II: Listen. Be sensitive but matter-of-fact in asking about difficult material. If you stammer and blush, the interviewee will become uncomfortable and reluctant. Avoid yes-or-no questions. Don’t fill or be afraid of silences; give the interviewee time to think. Don’t interrupt. Look at your interviewee. Don’t fiddle with your recording device.
  13. Listen for changes in tone, inflection, vocabulary. Watch for body language. This is why you’re doing a live interview. The things you observe might be nearly as informative as the things your interviewee tells you. I once interviewed someone both because of his professional expertise and a personal tragedy he had suffered. When we discussed professional topics, he sat straight, his voice was higher, his words were solid, flowing and confident. Whenever we switched to the tragedy, everything about him changed—his voice dropped an octave, his speech slowed and stretched, and he slumped into the booth we occupied in the coffee shop. He was almost two different people.
  14. Your three last questions should be: 1) Is there anyone who knows about X you could put me in touch with? 2) Is there anything I didn’t cover? 3) Would it be all right if I called or emailed you with follow-up questions?
  15. End with gratitude. Even if you didn’t really get anything good.
  16. Transcribe and annotate your notes as soon as you possibly can. Every time I have failed to do this, I have regretted it. Every. Time.
  17. Send prompt thank-you notes. If your interviewee promised to connect you with someone and/or said it would be okay to contact her with follow-up questions, you can remind or affirm that information in the note.
  18. Think about how rich your story will be for the unique elements you can include, all because you dared to conduct that interview!



About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [3]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [4].