Friday, June 16, 2006

The Art of the Interview

Newsarama, one of the Internet's leading comics-related websites, posted an interview with me today. The piece is by Daniel Robert Epstein and I appreciate it very much. It also got me thinking.

I worked as a newspaper reporter a long time ago and have since interviewed more people and written more articles than I can recall. (That's literally true; I'll often find published work of mine just a few months old and have no memory of writing it. Maybe I should see a doctor.) There are a lot of ways to do an interview, each with their pros and cons, each yielding different effects and results.

The old-fashioned way is to sit down with a subject face-to-face with a notepad. One of the pros of this method is that you actually meet the person, ideally in their own environment, and the interview can be more of a conversation that meanders in interesting, insightful directions. One of my favorite examples was a retiring school teacher I interviewed for a newspaper feature. When I entered her living room I saw that she'd installed built-in custom-made racks filled floor-to-ceiling with magazines on a wide array of interests from around the world. That was my key into the lady's career and personality right there.

One of the cons of this method is that very few reporters write as fast as a subject speaks. You can miss a lot. When I do a face-to-face interview I prefer to use a tape recorder backed up by notetaking, but that has some drawbacks, too. First, you have to trust the technology. It doesn't happen often, but I have lost entire interviews to bad batteries. Second, you've got to transcribe the darned thing later, which takes a long time. Third, a tape recorder really makes some people nervous. Fourth, there seems to be an old-school journalism ethic against taping, like that's not what real reporters do. I never understood that, and maybe some of the more experienced journalists who read my blog (I know who you are!) can explain it or correct me if I've got the wrong impression.

An alternative to a face-to-face interview is a phone interview, usually the most practical option. You lose some personal connection and whatever first-hand observations you might make about a person and their environment, but you gain a lot of efficiency. It's also easier to tape a subject (with their permission) via phone without throwing them off their stride. For most purposes, a phone interview is just fine.

Today's Newsarama interview was done by phone. In fact, as best as I can recall, it's a pretty straight transcript of our conversation ... which illustrates one of the hazards of the oral interview: no one speaks in neat sentences and paragraphs. Everyone talks in fragments and run-ons with dicey grammar and misfired vocabulary. Thoughts wander. When you see someone quoted in the newspaper, unless they were reading from a prepared speech, that's the cleaned-up version with all the "uhs" and "y'knows" snipped. You're not trying to make someone sound better, just comprehensible.

More and more interviews are done via e-mail and are often published in a Question and Answer format. After the writer thinks up their questions, their job is pretty much done and the answers are almost irrelevant. Although these writers often ask if I'm available for follow-up questions and I always am, in practice no one has ever followed up.

The con of this method is that there's almost no give and take. Everything depends on the quality of the initial questions. The interview never goes in unexpected directions. There's nothing for a writer to observe themselves, as even a phone interview can sometimes tell you something about a subject they didn't intend to convey. I think that's a pity. However, e-mail interviews have several pros. They're very time-flexible. If the writer knows the information they're looking for, it's a direct way to get answers. Subjects can think about their reply and say exactly what they want how they want. Like many people, I write better and smarter than I speak. And there's almost no danger of being misquoted or taken out of context.

As a writer, I don't think anything beats meeting a subject face-to-face on their home turf, preferably with a notepad and tape recorder. I figure my job isn't just to write down what people want to tell me, but to observe things they don't realize they're revealing and maybe coax them into saying things they weren't planning to say.

As a practical matter, the phone interview is my favorite "go-to" tool. Frankly, unless you're doing a real in-depth feature, the phone is a great way to get the facts and quotes you need while still having some personal interaction that allows for spontaneity.

But as a subject, I must admit I really enjoy the e-mail interview, which gives me total control over its content and lets me sound as smart as possible. Pros and cons, different methods and results.


ronnie said...

Very interesting comments on the pros and cons of different interviewing methods. As someone who's also done reporting and interviewing I agree completely.

Also, if you need to see a doctor because you forget writing something, make me an appointment too. I do this constantly. I often go back and read blog posts and can't remember writing them at all.

On Thursday I attended a meeting at work where a policy paper was handed out for us to review before discussing our next action on the issue. I said "This is very good. It hits all the key points and really makes the case, bam, bam, bam. Who wrote it?" My supervisor said, "You did."

BrianFies said...

Ronnie, that's great! At least you didn't demand to know which incompetent hack did such shoddy work.

By the way, your photo reminds me to ask: have you seen the blog dedicated to pictures of cats who resemble Hitler? That's it: nothing but cats who look like Hitler.

I thought of you when I saw it. You may choose to be flattered or not.

Mike said...

I've never understood the prejudice by some reporters against using tape recorders, but I've also never understood the need to then transcribe the whole thing, assuming (as you say) you're also taking notes. I use my notes for the bulk of the story and then go to the tape when I need an exact quote. Of course, if you're publishing an actual interview -- Q&A -- you need to transcribe, but that's the same whatever method you use. I switched to tape-and-notes after my first interview with Arlo Guthrie. His specific choice of words was so creative and unique that I realized I was cheating my readers by trying to capture it with my notes -- I needed the exact wording in every respect. Few people talk like Arlo, but it's still best to get it right.

And few reporters do. I've been interviewed myself and I know what it's like to see some reporter's impressionistic vision of your words in print. After awhile, you begin to pick up the newspaper as if it were ticking. Psychiatrists have to undergo therapy as part of their training -- maybe reporters should have to be interviewed and have their friends and families read the results, before they are sent out to interview others.

BrianFies said...

Mike, I like that last idea. Likewise, a doctor in training should have to spend a week in the hospital.

Re: transcribing, yeah, I rarely have to sit down and type an entire conversation. But I will often listen to the whole thing again, which automatically doubles my time. My notes increasingly consist of directions to myself for later, like, "Missed great quote here!" When I do compare tape to notes, I'm often surprised how much I misheard the first time.

I wonder if the anti-tape prejudice simply reflects the sausage-making mentality of fast-breaking rough-and-tumble competitive journalism (which I've never experienced). Just get the story and put it out; if you've got time to sit around listening to a tape you're getting scooped. I dunno. Anything that makes the end result as accurate as possible seems good to me.

Interviewing Guthrie must have been fun. I think I would've been intimidated; my (distant uninformed casual-fan) impression of him is that he's a little prickly, maybe impatient with stupid questions--which I respect, but would be a problem for me because I'm guaranteed to ask at least one.