Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting the Interview

Writers, as creative as we may be, are not able to imagine the true details of the many professions we envision for our characters. Wikipedia does not suffice. We need to get out there and find individuals who live and breathe, as our characters do, to interview. How to turn away from our solitary world where we have complete control, and get out there to do the job right?

Q) Do you have advice on the best way to get an interview with someone you want to speak with for research purposes? One of the characters in my book had a niche job that I know I don't know enough about, but I've located someone who would be perfect to speak with. How do I go about getting a busy person to speak with me for informational purposes?

Lynne Griffin
I do a lot of research before I ask for an interview. Being prepared is critical to conducting an informative one and in being seen as professional. By doing your homework, you'll have a better sense of who to approach and specifically what you're after. Don't waste your subject's time by asking the obvious things you have access to by reading books or searching online. Make the experience worthwhile for both of you by going deep. The interviews I've conducted for my work-in-progress gave me some of my best insights into my characters' motivations. I strongly urge you to round out your research by going to a primary source. And always send a thank you afterwards, and again via your acknowledgments once the book is published.

Amy MacKinnon
Call and ask. It's amazing how helpful people are -- and flattered that you're interested in their lives. As for questions, allow your natural curiousity free reign and make a point of going to their environment. It's crucial to the detials, to the setting, the character to be present.

Hannah Roveto
People are amazingly kind and always flattered when anyone wants to peek into their lives, nevermind someone who might turn knowledge into a story. I've interviewed complete strangers on things as arcane as bioluminescence (glowing plankton!). Take a deep breath, and be professional. Write the person a brief but thoughtful email or letter. Explain you are a writer and you have a character doing a similar job, and need to understand the whys and wherefores and hows. Estimate how much time the interview will take and tell them. An hour? At their convenience, of course! Go in prepared with questions based on the story, going beyond the job to things like the temperament of people who do that job, what motivates them to go into that field, terms that might have useful secret or double meanings. Explain your basic theme; what comes to mind professionally for them? Why did you make your character this way? You are genuinely interested in who these people are; enjoy the conversation and write a follow-up thank you. And credit them when the book comes out!

60 comments:

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for these useful comments. I get nervous just thinking about interviewing someone for background for a book.

lisaalber said...

Great advice!

One thing I've found is that I do my best interviewing after I've written the first draft. Seems strange, I know, but after writing out the story I know exactly what kind of details I need. This was especially true when one of my characters was an Irish detective sergeant! (Research trip to Ireland = expensive; interviewing an actual detective sergeant = priceless.)

Amy MacKinnon said...

Shauna, people loved to be asked about their lives. Isn't it flattering when people are interested in what you do?

Lisa, lucky you! Hope the IRS let you write it off.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for responding to my inquiry! I guess I wasn't as far off as I thought. My "subject" returned my email immediately, and even suggested a book wherein he had been interviewed. I have gotten the book, and will contact him again after the preliminary research is done.

Thank you so much!

Raven Ultimate said...

I'm always nervous when approaching someone to be my interviewee. When I do my custom essay about food processing, I nearly got stomach upset but good thing, the branch manager was nice and I get through with it.

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chris09 said...

Great post! As a professional interviewer (I'm a senior correspondent for an online journal), I love the interviewing work. Good interviewing is a skill and not often discussed in writing circles. It takes preparation, research, organization but equally important, listening and people skills as much as anything else. Thanks. Also, love this blog!

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