The following is an excerpt from my e-booklet, Write That Nonfiction Book Already: A Practical Guide to Writing a Successful Book, from Conception to Publication.
Interviewing provides information and quotes as well as an element of humanity and storyline. Particularly for a book, you want to get your subject to tell you stories that you can turn into scenes that propel your overall story. An important first step is to think about what your objective is for this particular interview is: Do you need clarifications? Verification and amplification of stories that others have told you, or that you’ve learned about in your research? What are the most important goals of this interview? You’ll want to prioritize those questions if you have a limited time with your subject.
You can do interviews via email, via phone, via online video such as Zoom or Skype, or in person. For the purposes of a book, it’s advantageous to speak in person. This is the most natural and comfortable way to get people talking, and in person, you’ll often naturally get more time with the person if it’s going well. However, we’re all very aware that there are times when being in person isn’t practical, whether it’s a pandemic or we just can’t fly across the country right now. (That said, I have flown myself across the country for many an important interview, and it has always been worth it.) In any case, the more personal the contact, the better. A video call is better than a phone call, because at least you can see each other’s faces. But a phone call is better than an email or nothing!
Email presents a special case: Subjects sometimes ask to do email interviews, and it’s easy to understand why. Email allows a subject to think about the questions and edit their answers. This is one of the reasons why it’s not ideal! You’ll get more natural, forthcoming answers in a real-time conversation, and you’ll get more stories and conversational flow. You can quickly and easily follow up in the moment, rather than days of emailing back and forth. But sometimes email is better than nothing.
Your research so far has probably prepared you fairly well for your interviews, but be sure to do at least a little focused research on each specific interview subject before speaking to them. You want the subject to feel that you know what you’re talking about, and you want your interview to advance beyond conversations they’ve already had so you can get fresh information, anecdotes, and quotes.
I recommend making a list of questions to ask. Of course you can go off script once you’re in the interview, but it’s good to have a plan to make sure you cover what you need. If the subject is famous, prominent, or often-interviewed, try to think of fresh questions they haven’t been asked a thousand times already. Don’t ask yes/no questions; ask questions that prompt stories and insights. “How” and “why” questions are the best for this. Make your questions clear: Don’t muddle things with multi-barreled construction like, “What was it like working there, and did you like it, and if not why not?” There’s too much going on there.
If you’re meeting the subject in person, meet them in a location of their choosing, so that they feel comfortable — and so everything is as convenient as possible for them.
I record all of my interviews and take a few notes as I go, writing down extra information like what they’re wearing, the surroundings, or key moments I want to remember. Recording the conversation allows you to pay attention to what they’re saying in the moment and makes the interview feel natural, which is the goal. You needn’t and shouldn’t hide the fact that you’re recording. Whether in person, on the phone, or online, you can just say something like, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to turn my recorder on to make sure I get everything right.” I’ve never had anyone object. People like knowing you’ll get things right! A technical note: I simply use the notes function on my iPhone if it’s an in-person interview. I use an app called TapeACall for phone conversations. On video conferencing programs like Zoom, you can usually easily record within the app.
Be sure your device is charged and try to make sure it’s working properly during the interview, without getting too distracted. Check your recording as soon as the interview is over. This way, if something has gone wrong, you can write down as much as you can remember before it’s too late.
During the interview, put your subject at ease and try to place yourself in their shoes. Be respectful and listen to what they have to say, whether you like it or not. That doesn’t mean you can’t challenge them, but you are there to listen and record what they say. On the other hand, in the case of folks you like a lot, maybe even a little too much: It’s fine to tell them you admire them and why! People like that. Just don’t make the entire conversation into an awkward fan event. Move on to the business at hand.
Make your questions feel like a natural conversation, not like an inquisition. It’s okay to look at your list of questions; the person knows you’re there to interview them, and probably appreciates your preparation! But don’t just fire away at them, either. Let them do most of the talking. Essentially, just maintain human contact: smiling, laughing, nodding, responding naturally and normally.
That said, a few little tricks of the trade: First, don’t be afraid of silence. Letting a few seconds lapse after a subject finishes answering often causes them to keep talking to fill the silence, and this often leads to new revelations. Doing this also helps you avoid that awkward thing where you cut them off before they’re really done. Second, if you have to ask a sensitive question, phrase it like you’re giving them a chance to tell their side of the story (which you are!): “What’s your response to accusations that you …?” or “What do you say to critics who claim that …?”
If you remember only one piece of advice about interviews, it should be this: Listen! Listen and respond in the moment. Don’t get so bogged down in all of this planning that you miss what’s actually happening.