research methods, interviewing techniques, novels, creative writing

Interviewing 101: getting to the heart of your novel

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By Julie Tyler

Hey, folks. As part of the Research Methods for Novelists series, I’m offering three resourses on Interviewing, a method that I find indispensable to writing a novel. Systematically gathering information from people who live or have lived through whatever you’re writing about will take your novel to the next level.

Interviewing’s not for everyone, of course. And it certainly isn’t required for novels about, say, a romance between inhabitants of distant planets.

BUT!!! (And that’s a huge BUT) If you’re writing about characters who represent any of the following real-world examples …

  • A specific community, like a quilting group that meets on the regular. How To Make an American Quilt, anyone?
  • A specific place, like a straight-laced neighborhood where scandal lurks around ever corner.
  • A specific culture, like a Cuban family who flees to Miami in the 1980s, which I explored in my first novel.
  • A specific profession or company, like the NYC ballet, filled with some of the world’s greatest dancers.
  • A recent historical event, like the housing market crash of 2008 that caught A LOT of Americans off guard. Seriously, The Big Short is a must-see for any novelist.
  • A specific life-event, like living with a thyroid disorder, which my second novel will explore.
  • A specific philosophy or worldview, like practicing mindfulness meditation.

… then, stop what you’re doing and learn interviewing, even if your novel focuses largely your own personal experience. Why? I’ll tell ya:

  • Gathering individual, first-hand accounts teaches you specific things about your novel’s subject matter you can’t learn any other way. Google is another awesome tool, as Whitney and I have written, but it can’t replace human experience.
  • Gathering individual, first-hand accounts help you establish unique voices for characters, ’cause you actually LISTEN TO and RECORD folks talking, like, out-loud … to YOU.
  • Forming a bond with informants means others are as invested as you are in getting a good story out into the world. As my title suggests, you’re getting to the heart of your novel, intellectually and emotionally.

I could list reasons forever.

In addition to going over the WHYs, this article will introduce you to a style of interviewing I learned in grad school called the “semi-structured, responsive, in-depth interview” (Rubin & Rubin, Qualitative Interviewing). While there are many styles of interviewing, I highly recommend this one above all others, based on the oodles of interviews I’ve conducted with research informants and freelance clients, and even the projects I assigned to students when I taught writing.

Let’s break it down

  • Semi-structured interviews unfold based partly on the interviewer’s prepared questions and partly on questions that arise in response to what the informant says.
  • Responsive interviews are a give-and-take experience between interviewer and informant. The interviewer does not dominate the conversation, but rather gives the informant the power to determine the conversation’s direction. 
  • In-depth interviews give us rich, detailed narratives, not just yes/no, agree/disagree statements about the subject matter.   

Put all this together and you don’t just learn about your topic, you also learn HOW people tell stories. What words do they use? What’s their angle? What emotions and opinions do they express? What details do they remember? What order do they put everything in? How does one informant’s account differ from another’s? What do you make of everything you learn?

Finding your informants

This is a challenge, y’all, but an enjoyable one. Depending on your novel’s subject matter, the ideal informants may be in your immediate family or social circle or on the other side of the world. I recently met a writer who’d spent the last six years traveling far and wide to interview some of the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust. For him, conducting interviews became an urgent matter.

Ultimately you want to find people who are willing to sit down with you (or talk over Skype) and share something that may be very personal. It’s better to limit this part of your research to one really expressive informant than to hunt down dozens of folks who just don’t want to talk with you.

When you contact potential informants, start off with a simple introduction:

“I’m working on a novel project about X. I understand that you know a lot about this. Would you be interested in telling me more over coffee? Your insight would really help me make this novel great.”

You’ll find that a lot of people are honored to be involved in the making of a good book. And of course, offer the option of anonymity:

“I won’t share your identity, unless you’d like to be listed on my Acknowledgments page.”

Okay!

Now that I’ve gone over WHY you should interview and the style that will best help you succeed, you’re almost ready to conduct a semi-structured, responsive, in-depth interview … or twenty! In the next installment, Interviewing 101 installment, Gathering Stories From Others in 6 Important Steps, you’ll learn the best way to prepare beforehand and keep your cool once the interview starts!

Meanwhile, tell us in the comments about any interviews you’ve conducted or are thinking about conducting for your project!

 

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