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Chatting Them Up: Tips for a Successful Interview

by Donna Freedman

(Revised and expanded version of an aricle orginally published in Children's Writer, a publication of the Institute for Children's Literature)

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One of the most delightful aspects of writing is the chance to be, well, a snoop. Think of it: a job description that requires you to march into people's lives and ask questions.

You can tour a candy factory, hang out with a champion figure-skater, or observe the training of guide dogs for the blind -- and you get paid for it. But unless you're good at interviewing, you won't get hired again. Interviewing can be a dry, who-what-where-why-when ordeal, or a lively and revealing conversation. You have the chance to explain things, introduce new ideas, or provide a glimpse of a fascinating person or topic to young readers -- but only if you know how to interview.

Getting Started

You may be lucky enough to be assigned a specific person to interview: a teen celebrity, a best-selling novelist, a famous astronomer. In that case, all you have to do is contact that person's agent, publisher or employer. But suppose your assignment is “all about warthogs,” or “girls' ice hockey”? Then it's time to (a) identify experts, and (b) convince them to speak with you.

Some possibilities for finding interviewees are through trade publications, professional groups (the American Medical Association, for example), speakers' bureaus, and the public-relations offices of universities, hospitals or even businesses. And, of course, through the Internet. If you do a search for "warthogs," you'll probably find lists of breeders, biologists and businesses.

How do you get the interview? Often, all you have to do is ask. "When you say you're writing a children's book, how could anyone refuse?" says Gloria Skurzynski, author of more than 40 books for kids and young adults.

How to contact potential interviewees depends on your own personal style. In this high-tech age, some people still go the snail-mail route. Fred Bortz thinks letters have more impact. In his interview requests, he writes very specifically of the project he's doing, and what he hopes to accomplish. "I think that gives them a chance to reflect on it," says Bortz, author of numerous interview-based articles for children and adults, and a book of profiles called, To The Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science.

Some writers have no qualms about picking up the phone to ask for an interview. That's how Skurzynski does it. And Candy Purdom, who writes for a number of children's publications, uses the phone, or a combination of phone and e-mail, because "deadlines are always looming...I try the quicker routes."

E-mail is a good compromise for those who don't feel comfortable cold-calling, but who don't have time to write letters. Nonfiction writer Debbie Miller, who talks with a lot of scientists, uses e-mail to frame her questions and suggest some times for interviews. This "gives them more control over how they respond," says Miller, author of books like A Caribou Journey and Disappearing Lake.

Sonya Senkowsky does phone potential interviewees -- but she always e-mails first. The freelance science writer announces her intentions an electronic note explaining who she is and the details of her assignment. "I list my Web site as part of my signature so subjects can check me out ahead of time if they want," says Senkowsky, whose work has appeared in daily and weekly newspapers, trade publications and, most recently, Bioscience magazine.

Talking With . . . .

How many experts should you interview? That depends on the publication for which you're writing. Children's Writer, for instance, requires at least six to eight interviews. Other editors may ask for fewer, or more. Keep in mind that if you contact five people, you might get three -- or none. So make your requests early on, and prepare to accommodate yourself to someone else's schedule. Of course, you may luck out and get all five, and right away. So you'd better be ready if they are.

"You never know when a subject (will) take you off-guard by saying, 'Oh, I'm about to go to Europe on a phone- and computer-free vacation for six months, but I can talk to you for the next 10 minutes'," Senkowsky notes. Should this happen, you'd better have a decent understanding of the subject at hand and, ideally, some questions. That means research. The writers interviewed use a mix of sources, including newspapers, magazines, colleges and universities, professional journals, popular magazines and the Internet. Writers cheer the Internet, because it can connect them with sources they might not otherwise have encountered. When young-adult author Linda Joy Singleton decided to write a book about cheerleading, she knew next to nothing about the subject. So among other things, she joined an Internet listserv. "This online connection eventually led to an invitation to attend a four-day cheerleading camp," Singleton says.

Be selective about the sites you choose, however. Miller points out that "you (may) find information on the Internet that doesn't list the sources clearly."

If you're interviewing an author, read some recent works. For an entertainer, rent films or listen to CDs; read reviews, too. If time permits, seek out influences your interviewee has mentioned in the past. When Booklist devoted an issue to religion, children's book editor Ilene Cooper sought out books one writer had mentioned as being influential to his writing.

Not everyone can do things like that. Freelancers, especially, know that time is money. But it's vital to do enough research so that you don't "look like an amateur," cautions Skurzynski, or waste the interviewee's time.

Ask a Stupid Question?

Suppose you've researched enough not to sound completely ignorant, but you're not sure you fully understand polar bear migration. Should you admit up front you're not entirely clear on the matter yourself?

Absolutely, says Wendie Old, author of 10 books for children and young adults. "Indicate that you have some general/popular knowledge about the subject, but that you've always wondered that/if/why...." she suggests. "This makes the interviewee comfortable with you, because he is in familiar territory explaining things."

Candy Purdom claims there really is no such thing as a stupid question. "How can I explain it to readers if I don't get it? So I don't have a problem saying I don't understand something," she says. "Or (I) repeat something, 'So what you're saying is....' and make sure I have it right."

How much research is enough? "When I've exhausted my sources, or I'm finding the same information repeated," says Purdom. Bortz uses his own curiosity as a gauge. "When (it) is fairly well satisfied, that's when I can quit," he says. And Old has a simple rule to determine when to quit researching: "When you run out of time."

Interview questions will develop as you research. Keep your audience in mind, but remember that whatever's really interesting about a subject should be interesting to anyone. "The fact that the mold that grows in the bathroom is (alive) is interesting to anyone. The fact that it digests its food outside of its body, then consumes it, is interesting too," Purdom says.

If you're writing for a specific age group, ask questions that make famous people accessible, and therefore human. For a series of author biographies, Ilene Cooper posed queries like, "What were you like when you were a kid?" and "Who were your favorite authors when you were young?" When she's writing for Booklist, though, she takes care to ask questions designed to help librarians and teachers.


Tools of the Trade

After 17 years as a features writer at a daily newspaper, with a concurrent freelance career, I've learned a few things about interviewing. Here are some things that have worked for me:
•Offer to do the interview at the subject's convenience. That might mean you have to get up at 5 a.m. to accommodate a faraway time zone, or work on a Sunday afternoon. Do it. You're already asking a favor by requesting the interview; asking the person to rearrange a schedule might wreck your chances.
•Keep an eye on your tape recorder. That way, you can say, “One moment, please,” and flip the tape, rather than finding out later that you missed the last 10 minutes of the interview because the tape ran out.
•Get your biographical info somewhere else. Don't waste the first 15 minutes finding out the person's age, educational or professional background, current job, etc.
•Try to find a “click” point, something that will make this person warm to you. If your subject raises Rottweilers and you happen to own a Rottweiler, mention it. If the person was born in New Jersey and you were, too, say so. This is not ingratiating or falsely familiar. It simply lets the person know that there really are six degrees of separation.
•Be open to suggestion. If the person you're interviewing thinks something will be intriguing to your readers, listen to him. He'll become more expansive as he talks about what really interests him. At worst, you'll have to steer away from the subject. At best, you'll wind up with a new layer to your article, or an interesting fact no one else knows.
•Ask the toughest questions last (“How old are you? What's your salary? What'd you pay for that?"). That way, if the person hangs up on you, you've still got the bulk of the interview.
•And if they haven't hung up? Your last question should always be, “Is there anything you'd like to bring up that I haven't asked?”

Should you send the questions in advance? Writers are sharply divided on this idea. Cooper doesn't want to limit her the conversation by establishing parameters with a list of questions. Besides, she says, a prepared list may result in answers that "sound canned." Not that the interview is a total blindside; when Cooper writes a letter to confirm her appointment to talk, she will mention a few of the points she'd like to cover.

Judy O'Malley, former editor of ASK magazine and of Book Links, frequently interviews children's authors. She's found that many prefer to have the questions in advance, "in order to mull them (over) and compose a coherent, directed response." The result, she says, is "an interview that has an integral shape beyond a string of informative answers."

Chatting Them Up

Approach the interview with common sense and courtesy. If you have an appointment, by phone or in person, keep it. If the interviewee has only 15 minutes to talk, get right to your questions -- but first, thank him for being willing to talk. "The people I'm interviewing are giving me some of their time," notes Bortz. So he keeps an eye on the clock to make sure he doesn't go over the time he'd requested -- "unless they seem really eager to tell (me) more."

Hang in there if things are a little awkward at first. Not everyone is at his best when he's on the spot, be it by phone or in person. And it's a little off-putting to have someone write down or tape your comments. (Empathy exercise: ask a friend to "interview" you. You'll be surprised how odd it feels.) When Candy Purdom senses resistance, she'll ask what the issue is. "There's usually a way to smooth things out," she says. Sometimes, that's with humor: "I convince them I don't have the mange and I won't bite and I'm not with '60 Minutes'!"   In her newspapering days, Senkowsky dealt with her share of reticence. When one subject was "a little combative," she let him vent for 10 minutes straight. "Then I repeated back to him what he had said, in a way that indicated neutral interest," she says. "After he realized I had been listening to him quite intently, he was satisfied to let me go on with my part of the interview."

Not every interview involves listening -- some writers find it easier to do some or all interviewing via e-mail. Linda Joy Singleton loves electronic Q&As, which are "quick and convenient." Wendie Old prefers e-mails, because they can be sent and received in her spare time. Whenever possible, though, she conducts interviews in person. So does Fred Bortz. "The purpose...is to understand the person. I don't think it's possible to do that through electronic means," he says. "You need to at least talk to them on the phone, when you can hear the nuances of their speech."

Another wonderful byproduct of person-to-person conversation: tangents. If your subject goes off-topic, you should go there, too, according to Gloria Skurzynski. "Tangents are wonderful, because they're about matters I didn't even think of," she says, "and that may be a lot more interesting." Of course, you may have to rein in your interviewee. Keep an eye on the clock, so you don't spend too much of your allotted time with this conversational bushwhacking. "Let him go there for a (short time), then ask your next question to bring him back to the subject you are interviewing him for," advises Old, who notes that sidetracks "help with characterization, and might make a good sidebar."

In a perfect world, your assignment would include travel money so you can visit the expert's turf. This certainly helps with the scene-setting, since it lets you describe the sound of whale songs, or the smell of a tiger's cage. Ilene Cooper is working on a children's book about John F. Kennedy Jr., so she went to Massachusetts for research at the Kennedy Library. And when Fred Bortz was researching To the Young Scientist, he visited seven states in six weeks. "Really crazy travel," he says, "but it was just so important for me to get to where they were working, to get a sense of the person."

Are You Getting This?

The best way to capture an interview is the way that works for you. Some people use only pen and paper, others only tape recorders. If you tape, be careful where you stage your interview. If it takes place in a public place, such as a restaurant or hotel lobby, "background noises and interruptions can be distracting and make transcription a nightmare," according to O'Malley. And even if you're a total tapehead, bring a notebook. You'll want to write down the matter-of-fact way the biologist handled the snake, or how the author's face lit up when he discussed Madeleine L'Engle.

The writers interviewed do their own transcribing, since tapes may contain technical or esoteric information or pronunciations. Besides, listening to the words helps get them into the spirit of the interview once more.

If your topic is extremely technical, or relatively new to you, don't be too proud to ask for a reality check. This could be from someone else in the field, rather than your original interviewee. Debbie Miller asks three to five scientists to review her first draft. "For A Woolly Mammoth Journey, the (man) who knew more about mammoths than just about anybody lives in London. I sent it to him electronically," Miller said.

Should you show the entire article? That depends on your personal ethics and/or those of the publication for which you're writing. Some magazines routinely send articles out for an advance read; others do their fact-checking in-house, and may in fact prohibit writers from showing the work before it's published. Skurzynski always offers pre-publication review. "I may have got something wrong that needs clarification," she says. But Cooper wants her interviews to stand as they were recorded. "It's just human nature that anybody might want to take something back," she notes, "or make themselves sound better." Sending the article around also "slows down the process," says Linda Joy Singleton. "But if someone asks, I will probably agree."

Finally: Once is not enough when it comes to thank-yous. The writers interviewed always follow up with a note and/or a copy of the book or publication. This ensures future friendly relations and, according to Miller, makes the interviewee feel like a part of the finished project. "This lets them know that their work is valuable," she says, "and that and because they shared it, I get to share it with children."

Copyright 2004 by Donna Freedman. All rights reserved.

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