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.
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. [Read more…]