This is the handout for my workshop on personal interviews. I used to do this workshop quite often, but haven’t done it for a couple years. The handout was originally posted at No Train, No Gain. I am posting some of my NTNG handouts here, with some updating, because NTNG is no longer online.
Narrative writing grows from narrative reporting. The foundation of any narrative is the writer’s authoritative knowledge of what happened. Some of the most powerful narrative stories require special care in finding sources and arranging and conducting interviews. Narrative is a powerful way to tell stories in writing as well as in multimedia and especially in packages that use both effectively.
Some of the best narrative stories come from deeply personal stories that often are difficult to tell. Many people are especially reluctant to tell the compelling stories of such intimate or traumatic personal matters as rape, abortion, domestic violence, incest, faith, sexual orientation, bigotry, illness, betrayal, crime, divorce, corruption, family stress, war, disaster, immigration, substance abuse or the death of a loved one. These stories present obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. The challenges tend to fall in four areas: getting the interview, conducting a successful interview, collecting narrative material and telling the story.
Getting the interview
Know the issue. Learn your topic as well as you can before you attempt the key interviews. Your preparation will help identify the right sources to approach and will help you in the approach. Your preparation may earn you some credibility with third parties who will help you connect with key sources. Once you get the interview, your understanding of the issue will give you an ability to empathize, to avoid the offensive, unnecessary question, to ask the necessary sensitive question.
Use third parties. Often you will need help to approach, and at times even identify, people who have these stories to tell. Seek help from such people as counselors, social workers, probation officers, abortion clinics, domestic violence shelters, neighbors, colleagues, relatives, friends, advocacy groups, funeral directors and clergy. Try using more than one go-between if you have to. Some will tell you they will make the approach, but will not. Or if they do pass along your message, they might omit important information, make a weak pitch or discourage the person from responding. If a third party doesn’t work and if you can identify the subject yourself, seek a sensitive time and way to make contact yourself. If a source tells you about a friend or co-worker who might be difficult to approach, ask the first source if he will help you make contact. Sometimes people will not feel comfortable giving you a name or a phone number. Ask them to make the contact and pass along your request and information on how to contact you. Social networks might provide a way to connect with sources.
Don’t debate the reasons not to talk to you. The character has good reasons not to talk to you. If you try to debate the reasons, you’ll lose. Acknowledge them and offer what you see as good reasons to talk to you. Tell the character you want to tell her story. You don’t overcome objections by debate but by willingness to listen.
Tell the character what others have told you. This may give her some feeling of safety in numbers. It may reassure her that you are on the right track. It may show her that she needs to talk because you don’t have the full story or because someone has given you inaccurate information.
Say you want a balanced story. If the character is in conflict with another character who has agreed to talk, say that your story might be one-sided if he doesn’t talk to you (if that’s true).
Start the interview anyway. If a source says he doesn’t want to talk to you, acknowledge that but try asking “just this one question.” If he answers, that question may lead to another and another.
Seek confirmation, rather than quotes. If the source declines an interview, accept no for an answer but say you just wonder if she could confirm a few things. The confirmation will help, but the conversation gives you a chance to establish some rapport that could lead to an on-the-record interview.
Ask why, not whether. If the source thinks you don’t know anything, he’s more likely to stonewall you. As Eric Nalder says, asking why “presumes you already know even if you don’t have it confirmed. They’ll start explaining rather than denying.” Later in the interview, though, make sure you confirm the whether. A presumption is fine for starting an interview, but you don’t want to publish it. Once you’ve received an answer to the “why” question, you can nail down the “whether” by asking the character to run through a chronology.
Try to stay on the record. Even if you have to promise confidentiality to get an interview, try to get the source on the record later. Nalder offers this advice on a technique he calls ratcheting: “If a subject insists on talking ‘on background,’ take notes anyway. At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.”
Be confident. However tough the interview, you need to believe that you will get the interview and that the character will tell you what you want to know. Nalder notes: “Reporters who don’t believe they will get the interview or the information usually fail. As far as I’m concerned, no one should ever refuse to talk to me. It works.”
Work the edges. Daniel Finney of the Des Moines Register offered this advice when you strike out with your primary source: “Just because you can’t cannonball into the deep end doesn’t mean you have to get out of the pool. Who knows them? Talk to neighbors, co-workers, friends, whoever. Somebody knew the person or situation you’re writing about. Get as much as you can from reliable sources. Maybe, if you do a good job, one of those friends or co-workers will put in a good work for you. ‘This … reporter is good,’ the source might say to the tear-stricken central figure. ‘You should talk to the reporter.’”
Don’t give up on a source. Maybe someone declined to talk early in your reporting. Don’t give up. Ask again. Try a different approach. Acknowledge the character’s decision not to talk, but offer her the courtesy of hearing a draft of the story before it runs, so she isn’t blindsided. This is a tough offer to resist. Once the source is on the phone listening to the story, it’s tough to resist butting in to say, “That’s not how it happened” or, “That’s not the full story.” Before long, you have an on-the-record interview.
Always ask. Never say no for someone else. You might think you wouldn’t want to talk if you were in the same situation. Leave that decision to the source. Finney passes on this advice from an old cop reporter in Des Moines: “It’s always better to ask and have them tell you to go to hell than not ask and have them call the next day and say, ‘how could you write that about my son/daughter/friend without talking to me first?’”
Be patient and persistent. Sometimes a person will not be ready to talk on your timetable. You may have to write a news story without comment from a primary character. Go back later. Let the character know, in a letter or through a third party if necessary, that you are interested in his story whenever he is ready to tell it. Send links to stories you write about the topic. Offer to meet with the character off the record, so he can gain a sense of trust before he decides whether to do an interview. A great interview may be worth waiting a year or even more.
Conducting a successful interview
Seek a personal setting. Try to interview the subject in her personal setting: home, office, workplace. Watch for elements of the setting that will reflect her personality and help tell her story. A long interview with multiple settings, when that’s possible, is best. Take notes on the setting and ask questions. Ask about awards or photographs you see. Ask if the character has relevant scrapbooks, photo albums, letters, etc. If she wants to show you irrelevant items, take a look at them, too, and ask questions about them. Take lots of notes about the setting. Take sensory notes. What are the sights, sounds and smells?
Make the subject comfortable. In especially difficult situations, you might need to take extraordinary measures to make the subject comfortable: Allow him to decide after the interview whether to talk for publication, whether to allow use of name, etc. (Be sure editors approve in advance of these arrangements.) Often a traumatized person will want a friend, relative or counselor present at the interview for support. Comfort is more important than the personal setting described above. If the character would rather meet you, initially at least, in your office or a neutral setting, don’t press the matter.
Take your time. Ask general questions first, about background, family, etc. Give the subject time to grow comfortable with you before you reach the difficult, personal story. When you get to the difficult part, don’t go right to the climax. Ask about the context, the events leading up to the critical moment, the sensory memories.
Interview in slow motion. Nalder offers this advice: “When people reach the important part of a story, slow them down so you can get it in technicolor. Ask where they were standing, what they were doing, what they were wearing, what was the temperature and what were the noises around them? Then switch to the present tense, and ask questions like: What are you doing now? What is your friend saying? You and the interview subject will then re-enter the scene and walk through it together. If this fails, tell them it is not working. ‘I’m trying, but I just can’t picture it yet. What did it feel like?’ This is how you get a story, not a bunch of facts.” This is most effective if you can interview the character at the site of an incident. Ask who was where. Ask her to show you how she did something. Ask about weather. Ask who said what. Ask about the order of events. Repeat to make sure you have everything straight, and to further jog the character’s memory.
Share control. Give the character as much control of the interview as possible. Let him go on at length about seemingly irrelevant material. Eventually, you might have to steer the interview toward the difficult topic, but give the character a chance to go there first. Ask open-ended questions that invite the subject to talk: “Tell me about that.” “What happened?” “How did you respond?” Ask specific questions as you have to, but start with general questions that give the character more control.
Avoid insensitive insults. Don’t say you understand if you don’t or can’t. A well-meaning response like “I understand” or “I know what you mean” can appear insensitive, rather than sympathetic. A more effective and honest sympathetic response is, “I can’t imagine.” If you’re a man who’s never been abused or pregnant, you can’t understand the experience of a rape survivor or an abortion patient and you insult her if you say you can. It’s better to ask her to help you understand.
Make a personal connection. The connection must be genuine. If you share an alma mater or hometown with the character you are interviewing, note it and make some small talk about it. If you see a photograph of children about the same age as your children, take note and share a chuckle or two about car seats or car insurance. The character will feel more comfortable talking to you if he feels a connection. If you don’t have much in common, don’t fake the connection. Sometimes you have to make the personal connection just with genuine curiosity and empathy. “Use anything to get the conversation going,” Finney says. “The kid is wearing a Yankee cap. Talk baseball. They’ve got a friendly dog, play with the dog a bit. Whatever. Give the source a chance to recognize you as a real person and not a member of the big, evil and scary news media. Those people are bad. But you as a person can be good.”
Don’t hold back. In some cases, it may be appropriate to divulge something personal and a little uncomfortable about yourself. You are asking the character to reveal intimate and perhaps painful personal detail. She might feel more comfortable doing that if you feel more like a person and less like an inquisitor. You must be careful in doing this. You don’t want to shift the focus from the character to you. You don’t want to belittle the character’s pain by seeming to say, “See, I’ve suffered, too.” You don’t want to set up a tit-for-tat: I’ve told you about my cancer, now you have to tell me about your AIDS. If it’s appropriate, though, some personal disclosure can help the subject feel more comfortable. I know a reporter with Tourette Syndrome. His neck twitches frequently. He usually explains this at the outset of an interview, because the twitch can be distracting. He says his candor about his own condition often helps break the ice with a source and leads to candid interviews. Finney says, “In cases where I have covered tragedy, murders, drowning, etc., I, quite briefly, have related grief stories of my own life or talked about stories I have written in the past that deal with pain and sorrow. I don’t do it to make the source feel sorry for me. I do it to let them know that I’ve experienced this before, that I have feelings and will take their emotions into account as I write and report.” Where personal disclosures are concerned, you should err on the side of caution. But if it feels right, a personal disclosure can help.
Handle multimedia sensitively. Cameras or recording devices can inhibit a source, especially if you haven’t established rapport yet. Just talk a while before you start shooting photographs or recording audio or video. Depending on the situation, you might even do a first interview face to face with just a notebook and start collecting the multimedia on a subsequent interview.
Don’t pretend you can be objective. You are not an object. You are a human. Your humanity is necessary to tell the personal story. Allow yourself to feel the emotional impact of the story you are hearing, or you will never be able to tell it. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Don’t let the emotion overwhelm you. While you can’t and shouldn’t be objective (you’re not an object, and people telling personal stories see right through that cliché), you can and must be fair and thorough. Be watchful for something that doesn’t ring true. This may not mean your subject is lying. The mind blocks some traumatic situations from the memory and we all remember through the prism of our personal experiences. Get the full story as remembered by the subject. Then seek out people or documents that can bolster, contradict or expand.
Remember your role. You are a storyteller, not a problem solver. You can and should empathize with the character. You can’t tell his story if you don’t. You also can’t tell the story if you get too close. You should avoid involvement with the character beyond the story you’re telling. Use your judgment about where the line is. In some cases, it may be appropriate to cry with a character (or impossible not to). In some cases, you might be able to give the character some information about helpful service organizations that might help. But you can’t solve the problems and write the story.
Don’t promise too much. Telling the story to you may be therapeutic or cathartic for the subject. It also might cause nightmares. The publication of your story may bring the character help from the public, or may give the character some personal satisfaction. It also could bring the character harassment or disappointment. You don’t know what will come from the interview or the story, so don’t predict. Just tell the character you want to tell her story.
Give the subject time to answer your questions. These answers won’t come easily. You need to be comfortable with the silence while your subject struggles to answer. The character feels the urge to fill the awkward silence as much as you do. You want thoughtful answers. Be patient enough to get them.
Collecting narrative material
Take notes on setting. Setting may be an important element of the story and you won’t always know as you’re gathering information how important it will be. Take extensive setting notes (and still and/or video images of the setting) during idle times in the action and before and after the action. Note the weather (including changes as the action unfolds), the furnishings, the landscape, the wildlife, the artwork, the photographs, the brand names, the personal touches. You might want to ask questions in later interviews about the importance of some of the setting elements.
Take notes on character. Get notes on the appearance, emotions, mannerisms, speech, movement and interactions of the characters. You will want to make the characters come alive for the reader later. You need to record more than just their words.
Take sensory notes. You will want to transport your reader to this place and time. Use all your senses and get the sensory details into your notes. What do you see, hear, feel, even smell and taste. Get the details of shade (not just red, but blood-red or fire-engine-red or maroon), texture, fragrance, tone.
Learn plot details. Try to nail down the sequence of events. Ask characters to show you who was where when critical events happened. Have them walk you through the events if possible. Look for contradictions and inconsistencies in people’s accounts and see if you can resolve them. They may not mean anyone is lying, but may indicate the different ways people perceived an event, or they may show how confusing it was.
Reconstruct dialogue. Ask people to reconstruct dialogue for you. “What did you say then? How did she respond?” You can’t do this for extensive passages. But for the key moment, most people will remember pretty accurately what they said and heard. Ask all parties to a conversation and any witnesses. If they agree (or essentially agree), you can recount the dialogue in your narrative. If not, you may need to note the conflict over what happened.
Make audio and video recordings. Narrative requires dialogue, which usually requires recording. In addition, the audio and video will help you tell the story online. Watch the entire video, not just the edited clip, so you can enhance your notes.
Interview a second and a third time if you can. As you think about the interview afterward, you will think of questions you should have asked. Your subject will be thinking, too. Give him a chance to tell you the answers and anecdotes he remembers after the first interview.
Interview others. Other people will have important perspectives on the same story, however intimate it is. Talk to them as well (you might ask the main character to tell you it’s OK to discuss this with you). They may remember things the main character has forgotten. They may tell you some things the main character found too painful to discuss. They certainly will have a different perspective. You may need to re-interview the main character after you’ve talked to some other people.
Seek documentation. The subject might have court records, diaries, videos, journals, investigative reports, yearbooks, baby books, medical records or financial papers relating to your story. These may confirm or contradict what the character has told you. They almost certainly will provide details she forgot or other sources you may want to interview. Don’t ask for them in an accusatory fashion: Can you prove what you’re saying? Tell the source you’re trying to tell the story as fully as possible and you know the documents might have further information. If the story is about the character’s conflict with others, tell her that documentation will add credibility to her story. Seek documentation on your own that the main character might not have (or give you) but that is available in public records or in private documents that other characters might have.
Telling the story
Write without your notes. Set the notebook aside to start writing. If you’ve interviewed well, the story should be in your head. The story will flow better without the distraction of your notes. Write the story, quoting as best you can recall and noting with parentheses where you’re guessing about figures, dates and details. When you’re finished, go back to the notebooks and make sure you get the facts straight.
Write as you report. Write as soon as you can after a powerful interview. You may have a lot of reporting to do and you may not know where the story is headed, but you want to write this part of the story while the emotions and memories are fresh.
Be careful of gimmicks. You may feel inspired to try an innovative or creative approach to the story. Maybe that will be appropriate, but hold it to a high standard. You have a powerful story and sometimes the best way to tell a powerful story is to tell it simply and directly. Don’t get in the way of a good story.
Consider a narrative. Sometimes these personal stories lend themselves well to a narrative. Do you have enough facts and details to tell the story in narrative fashion? Plan the story carefully, identifying your protagonist and other characters, the setting, your central conflict, your resolution, important plot points, the climax. Slow down at important points to make the reader feel as though she is there watching and listening to the action. Keep attribution to a minimum or handle it in an accompanying box.
Read the story aloud. This is always a good idea, but it’s especially important with a highly personal story.
Don’t exploit unnecessarily. More advice from Finney: “If you’ve got a source who’s kind enough to tell you about something very personal, you should be kind enough to protect them from themselves. Of course you want to write about what a person says, even the painful stuff. But there are some details that just aren’t necessary. Here’s an example: I covered the drowning of two young boys in 1996. The mother agreed to an interview. During the course of the talk, she drifted off into the condition the boys’ bodies were found in when they recovered them out of the river. She talked at great length about one boy’s face and flesh. None of that appeared in the paper. Partially, I left it out because it was plain gross and really didn’t add anything to the story. I also left it out because the mother was clearly still in shock. Putting those details in the paper was taking advantage of that.” If you think such details belong in a story, call back and go over them with the source, so she’s not surprised and so she gets a chance to object and clarify.
Face the music. Touch base with the characters after the story runs. You don’t have to ask what they thought, though that may be fine. If that would feel like fishing for compliments, ask how they’re doing. Even if they think you did the story well, publication might have been difficult for them. Ask about follow-up possibilities. Give them a chance to sound off if they didn’t like something, or if it hurt to read it. Says Finney: “Let them know, again, that you appreciated them sharing their story. Not calling back can leave some sources feeling cheap and used. Avoid this by thanking your source.”
Providence Journal’s Power of Words
Chip Scanlan’s Tips for Writing a Personal Essay
Roy Peter Clark’s Her Picture in My Wallet
Roy Peter Clark’s Three Little Words: What I Learned
Chip Scanlan’s Homicide Survivor, Media Victim
Chip Scanlan’s Eight Stories: The Human Tale
Chip Scanlan’s Working the Phones to Remember the Dead and Missing
Al Tompkins’ Vulnerable Sources
Chip Scanlan’s Reporting on War’s Human Cost
Eric Nalder’s Loosening Lips: the Art of the Interview
David Shedden’s Interviewing Bibliography