The Anxieties of Conducting Interviews
While many writers enter a new project by addressing its individual parts consecutively, I tend to begin by considering how it parallels other work I have undertaken. That is why my discussion of business plans and grant proposals is offered in a single page on my website. Likewise, I view the preparation for conducting both journalistic and oral history interviews as generally the same. Before examining specific aspects of preparing for an interview, I should clarify that there are limits to this simplistic summation, for the research required for anything dealing with an historical topic is usually greater than that for a biographical feature in a newspaper or magazine.
However, in both instances, you need to begin by learning as much as you can about your subject. For while time or resources may preclude your conducting in-depth research, there are two essential reasons for doing as much as you can. The most obvious is to verify the facts that have made the man or woman sufficiently noteworthy for you to undertake the project. This fact checking ensures that even if the subject’s memory of specific elements in their personal or professional history is flawed, you will be accurate in your reporting.
The second reason to perform research is to find commonalities between you and the interviewee that will help you establish an immediate rapport with them. This can be especially important if your interview is being done by telephone rather than in person. Even with today’s connectivity via computer camera, the nuances of a personal meeting can be lost in electronic communication: The brightness of your smile upon entering the presence of your interviewee; the warmth of a firm but unthreatening handshake; the liveliness of your natural voice; the fragrance of memorabilia assembled for your meeting; the shared experience of a flavorful cup of tea or coffee.
In the end, the results of failing to prepare properly for any interview are the same: Poor quality dialogue between you and your interviewee AND poor quality in your authorship.
Even when you are authoring a piece of non-fiction, good writing reflects a combination of science and art. This means investing the same amount of energy in your mental preparation as in performing your research, organizing the results and outlining the questions you will ask during the interview. What do I mean by encouraging your mental preparation? Well, you will need to be artful in your interaction with the subject in order to have a winning result for both of you.
That last note is very important, so allow me to repeat it: In order for your project to be a true success, both you and the interviewee must feel a sense of accomplishment when the conversation ends. As the interviewer, you are supposed to be in the driver’s seat. To reach your goal of creating an interaction that will result in mutual satisfaction, you have to anticipate myriad issues that might arise in the interview.
I will admit that once you have completed your transcription, there may be points on which you and the subject will disagree…usually because the interviewee has doubts about the material they have disclosed, or they have misgivings about the manner in which they answered your questions. In these situations, there is little that you can do about any disappointments your subject may feel—although you can offer to interview them again, or to make note of their after thoughts in a way that honors both your work and their concerns. However, as long as you have a signed informed consent and legal release form granting you use of the interview and its contents, you should be safe from future legal issues.
If you are a professional writer, you may have encountered circumstances in which you have turned to an attorney for counsel. For as laws vary from state to state, and accepted interview practices may change over time, you must be careful to research the legal issues involved in the use of any information obtained in the interviews you conduct. With regard to your personal preparation as an interviewer, you may wish to consider taking a course in journalism or oral history, or at least have access to a respected journalist or historian who can advise you about interview standards.
Should you find the thought of embarking on a round of higher education daunting, please know that you should be able to find a school that will allow you to audit a course. This means that unlike a student taking the course for college credit, you should not have to take exams or write course papers. However, as a sign of respect, even if the professor’s permission is not required, I recommend that you speak to them in advance of registering to audit their course[s].
How one handles the discomfort of an interviewee can be a difficult issue for anyone. Following an interview with an elderly subject in Hawai`i, I was careful to recreate the full essence of our conversation in my transcription by indicating her cadence and pronunciation. At the time we had been contemplating writing a partial family history for her, and therefore little of our dialogue would have appeared in the prose I would have written. Unfortunately, that fact did not mitigate her displeasure at what she perceived as flaws in her use of the English language.
In another instance, I conducted an oral history interview of a man who participated in the Allied Occupation of Japan following World War II. As I had been trained in oral history courses, I had performed the expected amount of research in advance. The interviewee and I were the ideal combination of being opposite in gender and age, and we did strike a good rapport at the onset of our meeting. In addition to this interview, I conducted subsequent interviews with former colleagues of the man, which also unfolded in equally harmonious ways. Unfortunately, when I interviewed his wife after his death, I learned that the work of my subject had been undermined by the rise of McCarthyism and the prolonged witch hunt for anyone suspected of being a communist or even, as in this case, being a supporter of freedom of speech in open dialogues between persons of varied political leanings.
I offer these examples of challenges faced by the interviewer to encourage you to conduct in-depth research prior to your interview AND to suggest that despite whatever due diligence you have performed, something unforeseen can arise. I’m glad to say that in the aftermath of both of these challenges, I was able to retain positive relationships with my interviewees, although the projects did not come to fruition as I had planned. In the long run, I recognize there is little I could have handled differently in the interview process itself, and I have certainly benefitted from the experiences I had as a young writer.
This brings me to one of the most important points I wish to make on this topic: All of your work as a researcher and writer adds to your credibility as an author. And, without a few challenges along your path, you will lack the breadth of life experience that brings depth to the verbiage you shape into material that a targeted or general readership will find of interest.
Wishing you the best in your writing endeavors,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, wordsmith and design consultant
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