The writer must ask all the pertinent questions and ensure the accuracy of the answers. But, a good interviewer is also willing to veer off the subject, if a more engaging one surfaces—and so begins the balancing act. My personal solution is this: I research the subject of the interview, and jot down thoughts in preparation, but I never create a hard and fast set of questions. I want my interviews to have the flavor of a pleasant yet professional conversation.
There’s a risk in this, of course, because vital questions can be overlooked. I won’t claim that this never happens to me, but, with practice, it has become a rare occurrence, and the spontaneity I maintain is worth the gamble.
Interviewers must mimic the tone of the interviewee. If you call someone and she asks about the weather in your area, assume that she enjoys preliminary chitchat. If the person says, “How can I help you and how long will this take?” this is a clear indication that precision is the key.
The personality of the interviewee also dictates the style of the questioning. When I wrote About Boomerangs: America’s Silent Sport, I interviewed about 50 boomerang experts from around the globe, each one a distinct individual. One athletic and eccentric man shaved his head, except for one boomerang-shaped piece of hair, and a golden boomerang dangled from his ear. Contrast this with my interview with the brilliant engineer who revealed the physics of the returning stick—and the one with the enthusiastic 15-year-old who’d set a world record in speed throwing less than one hour before the interview.
But, while each interview is unique, there are many common threads. Since I’ve sold approximately 200 profiles of authors, I’ll use that process as an example:
- Prepare for the interview. Read the most recent or most well known book of the author’s. Also read already published interviews of this person, to avoid stale and cliched questions, and peruse any press releases accompanying the book.
- Determine what interests you most about the book and/or author, and jot down these thoughts. Also write down anything that confuses you, so that it can be cleared up. Set a precise time for the interview, and be on time. Often interviewees like to know how long the interview will take, so offer an estimate.
- If a statement during the interview confuses you, paraphrase that statement, then say “If I understand you . . .” If you were correct, your mind is at ease. If you misunderstood something, then you just prevented an embarrassing error.
- Thank the person for his or her time, and ask that you be allowed a short follow-up phone call for clarifications.
- Clear your calendar for a short time after the interview, because they often take longer than expected. Gauge the reaction of the interviewee, however, to see if this extended time is acceptable. (Or just ask!)
- After the interview, review your notes while they’re still fresh in your mind, and organize information immediately.
- Send a written thank-you note, if appropriate. In this hurried and harried world, old-fashioned etiquette sparkles and puts you on a professional pedestal.
When the article arrives in all its polished glory, send a copy to the person interviewed.
This article was taken from the course Writing the Memoir 102. Click here to register for the course now!