When I’m conducting an interview and the person says something wonderful, I see it laid out in Times New Roman, 12 point, no margins, no space between paragraphs — the way articles need to be formatted so the graphic designers can work their magic. My superpower is typing really fast.
Interviewing has been my main job since 2005, and it still terrifies me. Sometimes I have to walk into, say, an art gallery, and say, “Hi, I’m Megan Willome, and I’m working with — ” and hope I remember which publication I am representing that day.
But despite the fear, I still love doing interviews because it’s something I know I can do. Frankly, I’d rather write someone else’s story than my own. When I felt stuck in the rewriting of The Joy of Poetry, I thought, “Well, who could I interview? I know how to do that.” Those conversations turned into some of my favorite chapters.
No matter how much I prepare for the journey into the unknown that is an interview, I am always surprised. From that tension come two pieces of advice:
Know before you go. Is there a website? A book? A movie? Have there been local or national articles? What is the subject’s social media presence? (Yes, I do type names into search engines).
As prepare I make a list of questions, which I print and bring along. Each question has a single word or phrase bolded because sometimes the light of a darkened Starbucks on a gray winter day makes it hard to read a printout. For a recent interview with author Hilary Yancey, those highlights included “Richard Wilbur” and “Mitts kids.” You don’t have to know what those notes signified: I knew.
Unless you’re writing a 10,000-word profile, don’t prepare more than ten questions. Usually five is plenty, allowing space for natural queries to arise. Feel free to skip around, to chase rabbits who run by with a pocket watch.
I usually make my first question something easy. Most people don’t give interviews for a living, so help them warm up. On a recent interview with a ceramist who runs a pottery studio and gallery, I asked for the shop’s operating hours and contact info.
My last question is always something like, “Is there anything else? Is there something you wanted to talk about that I haven’t asked you?” This is usually when the person says something I could never have anticipated.
Like at the end of an interview with a teacher named Nicole Rodriguez, I asked:
“Anything else? Something that makes your family unique?”
She responded by telling me that, actually, she didn’t have five boys; she had six. One had been stillborn. After she told me the story, I asked:
“Why is it important to you to include him? You could have ended this interview without telling me.”
She said, “He’s very much a part of our life.”
I ended up putting the story of her rainbow baby — a term to which she introduced me — right up front, in the introduction. That’s why preparing only takes you so far. The interview may be about more than you imagined.
Which brings me to tip no. 2
2) Don’t prepare
Or should I say, prepare to be surprised. A stray comment will shift the interview in ways you could not have predicted and for which you will be unbelievably grateful.
The master of not preparing is journalist Susan Orlean. The title of her episode on The Turnaround!, a series of interviews with interviewing pros, is called “Susan Orlean on the art of not prepping for interviews.”
So in the beginning, I will very intentionally go into each interview as open as I can I’ll interview people who seem very tangential to the story because the whole process for me is something has stuck in my head that I want to understand. And to me the only way to truly understand it is to be really open and cast myself in every possible direction rather than having a thesis that I’m looking to support.”
Orlean’s idea of not “having a thesis that I’m looking to support” is advice I try to follow. As the interviewer, I am the learner, talking to the expert. My job is to find what I didn’t know I was looking for and to share it with readers.
This happened most poignantly in 2011, when I was interviewing a family about caregiving. They had three daughters, and the middle one had Aicardi syndrome. At age 9 she could neither talk nor walk. We were gathered around the kitchen table — Mom, Dad, an 11-year-old, a 6-year-old, and the 9-year-old who was the focus of the story. I had my recorder running because everyone was talking at once. Then the 11-year-old said this, about her mom:
“And she had to go have a heart attack.”
There was accusation in her tone.
I looked at the mom, and I looked down at the recorder and said, “Do you want to talk about this?”
She shrugged and told the story, saying that her doctors told her she needed to “weed out some of the stress and take it down a notch.”
Which led me to ask something I had not prepared:
“How exactly do you cut down on stress in a situation that isn’t going to change, like the one you’re in?”
Her answer led to a great discussion about self-care in difficult situations. This was the Wacoan magazine’s first issue dedicated to caregiving, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know. So we listened to the experts, our interviewees.
Which brings me to my “plus” tip.
What the interviewee says is more important than what I say. My job is to get them to talk while taking good notes.
My favorite interviews are often background for big features. These involve me calling up someone and saying, “What can you tell me about [Super Star]?” People do like to talk about themselves, but they also like to talk about their friends, mentors, and heroes.
That’s how I got to talk with Ira Walton, a 94-year-old table tennis champion about one of his friends and friendly rivals, Jimmy Dorrell, a legend in Waco and in philanthropic circles. I called him and said, “I hear you play table tennis with Jimmy,” and away Mr. Walton went for the next forty-five minutes. It was a joy to hear him say, “Jimmy is just sneaky” and tell about a surprise birthday party.
I never know what an interview is really about until it happens. Sometimes the wonderful part doesn’t reveal itself until I’m transcribing a recorded interview or cleaning up my shorthand, putting it all in Times New Roman, 12 point, no margins, no space between paragraphs. Then everything becomes clear.
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro