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Writing 201: The Art of the Interview

“The most important thing about interviewing is that you, the interviewer, be really interested in what these people have to say. Genuinely interested. If children can spot a phony from a mile away, adults can, too.”

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Welcome to Writing 201: Beyond the Blog PostLongreads founder Mark Armstrong starts us off with the perfect entry point for creating a longer piece of writing — the interview.

I have always been a shy blogger. I constantly self-censor my writing, I second-guess whether I should share small personal details about my life, and I quietly worry about the repercussions of my work all the way down to the grammar.

This is why, in some ways, the best format for me when it came to embracing blogging was not “blogging” at all: It was interviewing other people. What better way to write a story — without exposing myself to the embarrassment and ridicule of personal confession!

All kidding aside, interviews offer a unique opportunity to tell stories through the unfiltered voices of others. It offers the space to let people give depth and nuance to their own stories, versus through the subjective lens of a narrator. There is a real opportunity for those of us who blog to document the stories of those who do not. These are the uncaptured voices of 2014, so let’s go find them and interview them.

Interview basics

Phone, email and chat will work for interviews, but “they lose the intimacy and spontaneity afforded by interviews done face-to-face,” says Marsha MacDowell in Collecting Stories. “The interviewer and the interviewee do not have the benefit of observing or sensing facial or body gestures nor the benefit of being surrounded by the items (objects, photos, etc.) that can ‘jog’ memories of the interviewee, asked about by the interviewer, or otherwise easily be referenced during the interview.”

The best interviews are a conversation. You can do them in person (ideally), and record that conversation, or you can interview people via email, phone or chat. My recent interview with Christine Hyung-Oak Lee about surviving a stroke took place over a series of emails with each other. I asked a question, she replied, and the conversation continued that way.

In some cases, it may be easier to start by interviewing someone you already know. For others, that actually may be more difficult. (I have many friends who always wanted to interview their parents or grandparents for a family history, but have never summoned up the courage.) Or, if your blog has a specific theme or subject matter, you might choose to interview acquaintances or fellow bloggers who have a shared interest in that topic.

Make sure, of course, that they know they are being recorded, and that they are okay being interviewed in the first place.

Getting ready for your interview

Preparation is critical — getting to know your subject, reading everything you can about their work or area of expertise — because the more you know about a person in advance, the more time you can spend digging deeper into the questions that no one has asked. Keith Gessen, author and editor of n+1, talked to Nieman Storyboard’s Andrea Pitzer about the joy of an interview that really works:

With the right interviewee, “to hear a live and intelligent and very particular human voice,” Gessen said, “that’s very exciting to a reader and very immediately accessible—as accessible as anything.”

Gessen and others immediately namedrop Pulitzer prize-winner Studs Terkel as the inspiration for their work. Terkel is a legend of American oral history, having captured personal stories around World War II, the Great Depression, race relations and work, among other subjects:

They’ve got to believe you’re interested. If it’s a writer of a book, you’ve got to have read his book thoroughly. Or a person who is just an anonymous person — say for one of my books, say this guy is a carpenter — I’ll ask him about his life and as he’s talking I’m listening. I don’t have written questions. It’s a conversation, not an interview. “And then what did you do?” No! “Just tell me about…” — and you start, sort of like you’re having a cup of coffee or a drink, so it’s informal and very easy. Out of that things are revealed.

This is emphasized over and over again: Your relationship with the person you are interviewing, your curiosity in them, their trust in you, and your rapport together, is what makes an interview truly stand out. In Melvin Mencher’s “Interviewing Principles,” he notes that the early stage of the interview “is a feeling‑out period. The interviewee balances his or her gains and losses from divulging information the reporter seeks, and the reporter tries to show the source the rewards the source will receive through disclosure of the information‑publicity, respect and the feeling that goes with doing a good turn.”

“The most important thing about interviewing is that you, the interviewer, be really interested in what these people have to say. Genuinely interested. If children can spot a phony from a mile away, adults can, too. If you come in with some kind of persona that’s not you, then nothing will happen.”
-Interviewing Tips to Get Vivid Soundbites (Deborah Potter & Daniel Zwerdling)

Author Robert Caro literally moved to Lyndon B. Johnson’s hometown in the Texas Hill Country in order to win the trust of the people who grew up with the president. (Of course, he also has written four volumes of books about Johnson, but you get the idea.) He told Nieman Storyboard’s Anne Hull:

One rule I have is, no matter how late it is, I will type up that interview before I go to sleep because I want to have it in my mind as fresh as possible, what my impressions were, how he acted when he was saying things.

Which brings us to: transcribing your interview.

Interviewing tools

Once you’ve interviewed someone, you’ll want to transcribe the audio from your interview and begin the process of editing the conversation. Here are a few tools to help you record and transcribe your work:

Record audio from Skype and other sources: Piezo is an app for Mac that lets you record audio or phone calls from places like Skype, or your microphone or browser. You can also use free podcasting tools like Audacity to record.

Transcribe: Once you have audio of your interview, you’ll need to transcribe it to text. Transcribe is a really great paid service ($20 a year) that lets you listen and type in the same window, as well as slow down and speed up the recording. Once you’re finished you’ll be able to download the text as a Word .doc. There are also plenty of free ways to transcribe your work, using your own built-in audio player and a text editor.

Publishing your interview

A finished interview isn’t just a raw transcript of your conversation. In many cases, you’ll want to edit the text of your conversation for length and clarity, and format the questions in bold to differentiate between the question and answer.

“There is a big difference between changing quotes and cleaning them up.”

Some publishers have different rules for how much they allow themselves to edit or “clean up” the questions and answers. But the goal is to have an accurate interview that conveys the real thoughts and feelings of the person you are interviewing.

As you go forward, share your interviews on WordPress.com by tagging them as “interview” (and to make your posts easy for other Writing 201 participants to find, remember to use the “writing201” tag).

Reading list: outstanding interviews

Sample StoryCorps interview questions:

  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life?
  • What lessons did that person teach you?

Here are few excellent interviews to read for inspiration. For more, check out the Longreads Archive.

Interview with My Mom, One Who Stayed Home (Roxane Gay, The Hairpin)

After reading the New York Times Magazine story on women who “opted out,” Gay asks her mom about her own experiences.

Playboy Interview: Stephen Colbert (Eric Spitznagel)

Playboy, despite its notoriety in other areas, helped redefine the longform celebrity interview. Here, we get Stephen Colbert, out of character, talking about subjects including grief and the death of his father.

Fresh Air Interview: Jay-Z (Terry Gross, NPR)

No interview post would be complete without Terry Gross, who is a master of the celebrity and author interview. In this episode she gets a completely different side of Jay-Z.

Humans of New York & Instagram Essays by Jeff Sharlet

HONY’s Brandon Stanton and author Jeff Sharlet publish photo-driven interviews with “regular people”, but it’s the captions that make their work so special. There is a deep curiosity and an ability to listen closely, which is how they are able to create such emotional connections with their subjects.

If you have questions or something to share, head to the Commons for support and feedback. If writing workshops are new to you, take a look at this post on getting the most out of workshopping before you dive into the discussion.

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