Interview with a moron

September 2, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

In this case, the moron is me, the interviewer.

My writing course is really going crazy at the moment, even though we’re only about a third of the way through.  Assessments are coming at me from all directions, and quite a number of them require calling random strangers and important public figures for comments and interviews.

At first all my attempts were futile.  People just don’t want to talk to strangers, even if it’s their job to do so.  I found that there were generally two types of people and you have to tell them what they want to hear.  There are those that are more willing to talk to a student writer because students are less intimidating than “real” journalists and they won’t necessarily get their work published.  On the other hand, there are those that don’t bother with helping students because all they care about is getting themselves out there, so if you can’t boost their profile, then get lost.

I certainly don’t fault either type.  Who people want to talk to is their choice.  I just needed to find out which type they were so I could either be honest and say I’m a student or lie and say I am a freelancer.

Calling up people you don’t know is quite nerve-wracking, especially those first few times.  The key is to persevere and not give up too easily.  If they don’t return your email, then send them another one.  If they don’t return your call or message, then call again.  In the beginning I was way too timid and polite, and a gentle pushback would be enough to send me scampering in the opposite direction.

Anyway, after struggling for the past week with more than half a dozen rejections from various individuals, organisations and institutions, things are finally starting to come together.  Yesterday I interviewed a lawyer who specialises in civil liberties, and today the general manager of a circus.  Both are for potential feature articles.  There really wasn’t any trick to it.  You just contact them and see if they want to talk.

The hard part is getting through the interview without seeming like a complete lost case.  I was lucky because I didn’t really to take notes, as I had my handy Pulse Smartpen ready to record every word that was said.  I can’t see how anyone can transcribe conversations without a recording device.  I don’t believe it for a second that Truman Capote had more than 90% recall of all conversations.

Nevertheless, interviewing really is an art.  You can’t just go in with a list of questions and run through them methodically, because you never know where the interviewee’s responses may take you.  It’s all about listening to what they say, responding to what they say, and asking the right questions.  You not only have to listen intently but you also have to simultaneously think about what question to ask next.

In my first interview I was a complete shocker, full of “ers” and “ums”, and asking questions that really didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Listening back on the Pulse Smartpen was brutal, especially when I reduced the playback speed, which made me sound completely retarded.

Today, the interview with the circus manager was a lot better, but I think that had a lot to do with confidence and a genuine interest in what the man had to say.  I had a great time.

Tomorrow I have another interview with an author for a profile, and a couple of weeks after that I am interviewing a very famous writer for another one.  Man, I need to improve!