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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Interviewing The Terrified (or, how to fall in love in one easy step)

There I was, seven months pregnant, sitting with a pad and a pen in a room full of construction workers and terrifying every one of them. 

Writing down what they said. And gestating. Two things these guys found incomprehnesible and terrifying.

I was writing the text of my first business website, promoted suddenly from database manager after my boss had me throw together some ad copy and the client loved it. ("Hey," my boss exclaimed in the middle of presenting it to the client, "This is good!" Professionals all the way, that was us.)  But in order to get material for twenty pages on a website, I needed to interview them, so the owner invited every department head into his office and had them talk. I copied every word, and I learned something important: writers can scare non-writers.

Sometimes it's good. I've maliciously sat in a hallway (maliciously!), writing in my journal as a means of making people leave me alone. Writing in a journal is subversive: I could be putting anything in there (particularly with my handwriting, sometimes incomprhensible even to me.) But when you as a writer want information, it's bad. When you're trying to write your client's advertorial and the client won't talk, it's bad. When you're conducting a newspaper interview, it's even worse.

Me: "I'm calling from the Local Paper because I'm writing an article about the food pantry, and they said you've been wonderful to them."
Business Owner: "Oh. Yeah?"
Me: "So how did you come to support the food pantry?"
Business Owner: "I don't know. I just did."

Me: "Tell me a bit about how you support them."
Business Owner: "Stuff. You know. Whatever they need."

Clearly I'm not getting a quote from that guy. 

You're thinking, "But I write novels," and I'm going to tell you this: at some point, you'll need to talk to someone about her job or her experience, and you'll need that information to create a well-rounded character. I've ended up talking to auto mechanics, fire marshals (no, seriously, the top guys in two states ended up talking to me!), and so many others just listening to their impressions of their own professions or their own experiences. It's invaluable in creating your character, but first you have to get the person to talk.

They won't talk if they're terrified of you, strange wizard with your magical writing powers. So what do you do?

I end the interview. No, really, I've discovered that as soon as the terrified person feels she's no longer being interviewed, she starts to open up. So I'll thank the person for talking to me, explain why it was so important, and then suddenly, with the spotlight off, they relax. 

When they relax, they stop giving me what they think I want (well-formed sentences with words they haven't used since their SAT prep) and give me what I actually want: themselves.

"My friends call me a color-coating technician!" quipped the painting specialist. Or the business owner: "Oh, those folks at the food pantry, they're so nice. They're not just doing it like a job. They really care."

These are professionals but they don't have media experience and they're afraid you're going to destory what they love, so it's up to you to take it into the arena they're familiar with. Oftentimes, they're very comfortable selling themselves or their business. Most of the time, someone's doing his job because he loves it. There's some spark in that industry that attracted him to it, and it's kept him there. You can find that spark, hold it right in your hand, and ignite your character. 

But to do that, you need to loosen up your interviewee. Sometimes, the way to do that is to say, "I'm so glad you spent the time talking to me," and then, "It sounds like you really love what you do." Because they do -- and once you love it, your character will love it, and your reader will love it too.

You might call it falling in love. I call it research.

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Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or knitting warm socks. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 

1 comment:

Deb Salisbury said...

Great tips! (Especially the part about writing in a journal when you want to be left alone. ;) (Oops, I didn't say that!)