Bad Advice Wednesday: Interview Yourself, Interview your Characters

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


He was very, very, very good to me.


Much has been written in journalism texts about the art of the interview. Basically, I’ve found that interviewing for journalism is a matter of fooling your subject into revealing herself, perhaps in ways she’ll wish later she hadn’t. People love to talk, especially about themselves. Note-taking, the tape recorder, the endless questions, all are flattering, hard to resist. But for the memoirist, interviewing is a more delicate tool. Your subjects aren’t politicians, for example, who are used to public life and tough questions. Your subjects aren’t hapless and immediate victims of accident or disaster. Your subjects aren’t experts you have approached for facts and figures. Your subjects, in fact, are very often well known to you, very often relatives, sometimes even your mother. And Mom isn’t going to be flattered by any tape recorder.

Further, your story may be one no one particularly wants brought up, much less written about. In many cases, you’ll prefer not to have all the advice or censure that comes flooding in when a project becomes public property. Certain kinds of people will withdraw. Other types will try to control what’s said about them, sometimes in unpleasant ways.

Then again, and more likely, everyone may get excited about your project and want to be part of it: Uncle John calling to tell the old sunk-canoe story one more time, Dad sending over a typist, your college roommate unloading a U-Haul of photos in your driveway.

I mean, there are a million good reasons not to go to the people of your story and ask questions. But if a couple of questions will make the story better, all those reasons must be swept aside.

Interviewing even the friendliest witness takes a lot of nerve: you will be going past the small talk. But risk is what good writing’s all about, no?

Pick a person who appears in one of your drafts. Your sister, perhaps, or your best friend, someone who’s on your side, someone who’s going to be glad to be mentioned. Make it a formal interview, with prepared questions. Use a voice recorder, but take notes, too. Transcribe the interview from the notes as quickly afterward as possible; immediately is best.  (E-mail interviews are probably too easily controlled by your subject: too much time to ponder answers, erect defenses.)  Transcribing tapes takes forever–I generally just use them to verify whatever quotes and information I end up using.

With your notes in hand, your transcript to back them up, your tapes behind that, go to the draft and revise. How does the interview fit in? What must be changed? What parts get strengthened? How does your character grow in depth? Especially important: can you use any quotations from the conversation to give your character her own voice?

There are many people worth interviewing beyond the principals of your story.  Again, pick a scene or draft of a memoir or other work-in-progress. And think: to whom could you go for more information to add depth and light and exactitude? If you are writing about your house, could you find the architect who designed it? The builder who built it? A former occupant? The landlord?  If you’re writing about your time in the Navy, could you interview someone who was brass then? A historian who has written about the battle you lived through? An expert on ships?

You can use the internet to find likely interviewees, even e-mail addresses and phone numbers.  Be polite and clear at first contact: this is who I am; this what I’m doing; this is what I want from you.  Nervous is okay.  Nervy, not so good.  Never forget the interviewee is doing you a favor.  Suggest a meeting: it’s easier to make a round nonfiction character from someone you’ve spent time with, and you never know who will take a place in your work.  Ask if your subject knows other people who might be of interest.

If your story is about your alcoholic brother, a suicide, could you interview a counselor, an addiction researcher, an ex-alcoholic, a rescued suicide? (In The Perfect Storm, an impressive work of literary journalism about a boat lost in a terrible storm at sea, Sebastian Junger uses a brilliant device along these lines. In order to talk about what it must have felt like to drown—six men were lost at sea, could not be interviewed—Junger talked to a fisherman who had all but drowned in similar circumstances, used those insights to imagine what must have happened to his lost subjects.) If you’re writing about the pleasures of cooking—even a personal account—could you interview the chef at a favorite restaurant? The farmer who grew your acorn squash?  The manufacturer of your favorite knife?  People like to talk about what they do, and the more they like what they do, the more they want to talk.  And people, with their opinions, their quirks, their voices, give your writing something to push against.

Make interviews a regular part of your nonfiction writing process.

And if you can’t find anyone else, interview yourself.  For each of my books, publishers have asked me to write a self-interview, a question-and-answer session with an imaginary reporter, quotes and information they could use for publicity purposes.  First time around I was very serious about it, softball questions, sober answers  More recently I’ve taken to goofing around, like, getting in arguments with the interviewer over politics—I imagined Ann Coulter across the desk—and parrying her insults about my work.  She hated all my books, especially the one in hand, which was Temple Stream, attacked it from every angle.  The strategy worked in that it exorcised my self-doubt (at least to some extent), anticipated reviewer quibbles, and made the project more fun.  It also generated much more lively quotes for the publicists to make use of, even if they thought I was weird.

A good exercise is to type up an interview with yourself, talk about your writing, perhaps particularly your most current project.  Might be fun to do the interview twice, once with a friendly interlocutor, once with a dick.  The idea is to learn a few things you don’t already know and to find unexpected ways to say what needs to get said. Imagine that the story of your trip to China is big news—Inquiring Minds Want to Know—and ask appropriate questions.

Better yet, picture yourself across from Barbara Walters in your living room. What kinds of questions is she going to ask? How will you handle the tough questions about your divorce, say, or that skeleton in your broom closet? Where will the heartwarming moments be? Where are the shockers? What will everyone be talking about tomorrow morning?

A variation of the self-interview is to have a friend interview you. You might do this reciprocally with a fellow writer, using digital voice recorders or just an old cassette deck. Give your interviewer the latest draft of your latest work, and let the interview focus on that material. When the talk’s over, transcribe your notes, or even the recording (or transcribe for your partner and exchange transcripts).

The questions your interviewer asks are important: they let you know the kinds of things your readers will be interested in, let you know what’s missing from your draft.  Your answers are important too, will let you begin to articulate thinking that you haven’t yet managed to say in your pages.

Then there’s the impossible interview.  Some people, you just can’t talk to: the bad guys in your life, someone dead, former lovers, unsympathetic family members. In these cases it can be helpful to make up an interview. What questions would you like to ask? Well, go ahead and ask them, and then supply the answers you think your subject would give.

Certainly, don’t start to believe the interview is real. No quotations from it, of course. But use it to examine your own projections, your own role in relationships. Use it to discover the issue at hand. Use it to develop material.

Or use it to prepare yourself for a scary interview. Ask the questions on paper first, answer them yourself. Then go to your subject. What comes off as expected? Where are the surprises? What exactly was your own role in making the interview scary?

And now that we’re moving into fictional realms, the tool for fiction writers is more obvious: interview your characters.  Ask them how they got to be where they are.  Don’t let ’em off easy.


[This bit of Bad Advice was adapted from my book Writing Life Stories][follow me on Twitter: @billroorbach

  1. Clayton Bye writes:

    An interesting article, yet it affirms a decision I made a long time ago: I do not do “cold” interviews. Media people tend to enjoy tripping up their subjects, radio being the worst of the lot, as you are interviewed live.

    Yes, this type of aggressive interviewing catches people off guard, bringing readers, listeners and viewers lovely little nuggets of information they can’t find elsewhere. And it’s true that the interviewed was probably looking for some free publicity. My question is: Do these things I’ve mentioned justify turning your subject into a victim?

    • Bill writes:

      Well, it’s true some people make victims out of everyone, and others make victims of themselves. But I’m talking about kind of the opposite–letting people speak for themselves in our work rather than speaking for them, or merely of them.