Knowing how to interview people is certainly a benefit for much nonfiction writing. It’s not surprising that many narrative nonfiction and true crime books are written by journalists. Interviewing skills are useful for memoir, how-to, and self-help writing, too. If you’re working on a family memoir, you obviously shouldn’t need to approach Aunt Millie like you’re Anderson Cooper. In most instances, you’re not attempting to pry out something they don’t want to give—not usually. With some family members, for instance, it won’t be recalcitrance that’s an issue but keeping them focused!
In many interviews, you’ll want to gather three kinds of information from your interview subject: facts, feelings, and flavour.
The first is police blotter type information: height, weight, hair colour. The second is the emotional response: how did that make you feel? what did you feel the first time you saw? And finally flavour. These are the telling details needed if you’re going for the “fly on the wall” experience in your book. Some subjects might supply these of their own accord, more often you’ll need to do some digging: how did the room look? Was the furniture new or shabby? Was there wallpaper or paint? Curtains or blinds? Open or shut?
If your interview subject is not comfortable or confident, you may spend some time developing a rapport first. Also, I’ve found that starting with simple questions about facts can help put your interview subject at ease. How tall was it? How old were you? What kind of car were you driving?
If you’re asking your subject to recall an event or experience from the past, here’s a great tip shared by Kim Pittaway, Executive Director of the MFA in narrative nonfiction at the University of King’s College, from her equally talented sister, radio documentary producer, Tina Pittaway. She asks subjects to recount in the present tense as if the subject were narrating the event. For instance, “It’s midnight, I can hear the clock tower. I’m walking on Queen Street and I hear a noise behind me…” This approach alleviates “recounting by rote” if they’ve told the story before and helps to put them back into the moment.
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