Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Interviewing--real and imagined

Early this month I went down to Fairfield Iowa to meet my friend Cheryl Fusco Johnson so we could talk on the radio about the chiru story. We drank coffee at Paradise (and it was heavenly coffee). Then we went over to the radio station. Talking about stories and writing is always fun. Here's the interview if you want to listen to part or all.

The afternoon reminded me of how helpful the interview format can be when we are researching a story.
There are several ways that interviews can work for us:

(1) Formulating questions that we might ask someone helps us to identify what we actually want to know about a subject. When I was researching for Snowflake Bentley (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), I made up a list of questions that I wanted to ask Wilson Bentley. Of course I couldn't actually ask him because he had been dead for so many years. But once I had the list of questions I could work at finding the answers. Many I found in his own writing. I liked to imagine that he was speaking to me.

(2) We can "sit in on" the interviews that others have done by reading transcripts of interviews.
For On Sand Island (Houghton Mifflin 2003), a story about a boy who lived on one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior and wanted to build his own boat, I read the transcripts of many interviews done by others and imagined myself sitting in the interviewer's chair.

When researching Chicken Joy on Redbean Road (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) I was lucky enough to find the book Cajun and Creole Music Makers by Barry Ancelet and Elmore Morgan (University of Mississippi Press, 1999). It is a compilation of transcripts of interviews with many of the best of the old time Cajun and Creole musicians. I could imagine myself sitting on those porches, in those kitchens, and listening in on the interviews.

(3) Once we've formulated our questions, of course we can do our own interviews in person, by mail, or by phone.
In researching the chiru book, I read as much as I could find about the chiru and the men who make the trek across Tibet. Then I interviewed George B. Schaller and Rick Ridgeway by letter to find answers to the questions I still had.

(4) The interview technique also works when we are writing fiction. Sometimes we just hit a dead end--a character just won't come to life.

We can make a list of interview questions for these recalcitrant characters, such as:
  • what do you worry about?
  • what's your favorite color? why?
  • what do you always carry in your pocket?
  • what's your best breakfast?
  • what secret would you never tell?
Then we can have our characters answer those questions.

(5) There are even some days when interviewing ourselves helps us to focus, helps us to find the story we want to write or the job we need to do next.

Gotta' go. I'm late for an interview.


  1. I love this idea, Jackie, especially when it comes to interviewing characters, both real and imaginary. Do you still have your list of questions for Wilson Bentley?

  2. I think I do still have my research notebook. I'll look for it--and report back.