Certainly one of the most fun aspects of what I do as a columnist is the variety of specialists whose brains I get to pick either in the context of research for a book or a feature interview. On the flip side, it provides one of the biggest challenges to someone who is a natural-born editor: How do you keep your subjects from saying something stupid? More specifically, how do you regulate whether those really stupid things get into print? A case in point is a recent survey I conducted in which experts from across the country shared their two cents on a topic pertinent to my targeted readership of wannabe novelists. The initial trickle of helpful responses soon burgeoned into a flood of advice, opinions, and criticism on the publishing industry at large. I was ecstatic, for the cross-section of experts represented in the questionnaire would yield more than enough helpful hints for the article. My husband, intrigued by the progress of the piece, was reading over some of the answers when I pointed out one in particular which I was averse to using. “It’s too cynical,” I said, annoyed that I had requested useful tips and received instead from this person a raging admonition against pursuing one’s dreams. “I’d never say something like that,” I remarked. “Of course you wouldn’t,” my husband agreed, “but you’re not the one being quoted. He is.” Therein, of course, is the conundrum of the interview process: striking a balance between encouraging people to openly share their views and subjugating your personal opinion that whatever they’re saying is completely wrong. Even worse, I think, is the person with whom you do agree but who is conversationally-challenged and is about as comfortable with grammar and spelling as a moose in a tutu. There’s an innate desire to want to make these people look smarter, to subtly massage their responses into profound revelations that will cause Barbara Walters to be envious. In a word: Resist. Your job as the interviewer is to come up with the thought-provoking questions. Their job is to answer them…in their own voice. This lesson was first brought home to me back in 7th grade when I had a school assignment to interview someone interesting. I picked the local Chief of Police, a man of portly proportions and a crew-cut who had a lot of free time on his hands, owing to the community’s low crime rate. In retrospect, the session went really well…until I started editing. Keep in mind now that this was a very simple man of simple tastes, a man who did not toss out words like ‘loquacious’ or ‘escritoire’…unlike his 7th grade inquisitor who belonged to the Junior Chess Club and owned one of those nifty word-a-day calendars. “Did he really say this?” my teacher inquired, for she just happened to know the chief’s wife and had never, in their long years of association, deemed him anything close to the Rhodes scholar I had made him in print. I was forced to admit, of course, that I had embellished a little, forgetting that in the zeal of getting a good grade I had forfeited the importance of delivering a true picture of who he really was as a person and a public official.
ACCURACY IS ESSENTIAL Don’t rely on memory alone! My own preferred method these days is the convenience of email. Not only does this allow your subjects the option and leisure of responding at 3 in the morning if they so desire but saves extensive retyping of the material once it is sent back. What happens, though, if the document abounds with misspellings and grievous punctuation errors? Is this simply the result of sloppy/hurried typing, or are you dealing with an individual who’s just not very bright when it comes to written expression? There are plenty of purists who would contend that correcting any of these mistakes is taboo. This leaves the interviewer with two options:
1. Submit the material as-is and run the risk of readers thinking you’re the one who doesn’t know how to spell; or 2. Acknowledge that you know it’s a mistake by utilizing a series of [sic], [sic], [sic]’s throughout the text; this, however, runs the risk of making your subject feel inferior. Not a good idea, especially if you ever want this person to talk to you again.
The dilemma, of course, can be readily resolved if you’ve planned ahead. In laying out the initial parameters of the piece (topics to be covered, targeted audience, desired word length, etc.), I always make a point of advising the subject that “with your permission, minor edits to tighten the text and conform to the publisher’s standards may be made to the finished product.” (Thus far, no one has ever said “no” to these conditions.) I also tell them that a courtesy preview copy will be sent to them prior to submission. In a nutshell, this gives them a graceful opportunity to retract anything which they themselves suddenly realize sounds silly, arrogant, or bafflingly inaccurate.
KNOW 90% BEFORE YOU START The test of a good interview is to cleverly extract The Ten Percent Unknown. What this means is that, the bigger the celebrity, the more likely a lot has already been written about them by everyone else. In fact, if they have to relate one more time how they first got started in their chosen profession, they will probably scream. Either that, or just yawn a lot. Your mission, then, is to put on your sleuthing hat, read all those other write-ups, and figure out what they haven’t been asked yet. Trust me: you will instantly grab their attention. Being married to someone who is highly visible in the state political scene, this strategy often comes into play whenever I find myself seated next to the guest of honor. During a lull in the dinnertime chatter about legislation and apportionment, I’m the one who casually opts to inquire about the luminary’s children, pets or hobbies. Once they’ve started yakking about the personal topics dearest to the heart, it sometimes takes the collective effort of the whole group to pry their candidate back into any remote discussion of governmental issues.
AGREEING TO DISAGREE While it’s entirely permissible to challenge your subject to substantiate his or her position on a given topic, this isn’t a forum for what I call “selective editing”; i.e. only incorporating those remarks you happen to agree with. Diversity is the watchword in the arena of interviews. To return to the earlier example of my survey regarding fiction writing, who’s to say that the negative comment I wanted to omit wouldn’t turn out to be the very impetus to encourage a struggling writer to try even harder? (“How dare he tell me my dreams can’t come true!”) A number of publications also still carry the familiar disclaimer that the content within does not necessarily reflect the views of the management. If you truly are torqued about some of the answers you receive, it is a far better course to diplomatically acknowledge the existence of differences at the outset rather than turn around and purposely delete those comments and beliefs which may, in fact, have been the person’s whole motivation for talking with you. You are within reason, of course, to bring to their attention any remarks or projections which you feel could be offensive to the readership. Please be objective in this appraisal, however, so as not to use your assumptions about the audience as a means of justifying your own bias.
YES OR NO? NO! Last but not least, learn to ask the kind of questions that aggressively go somewhere instead of stalling in a dead end. Imagine how much shorter a program like “20/20” would be if the staff were relegated to yes or no inquiries. Questions should be treated like onions with multiple layers to be peeled away. Besides, if you conscientiously did your homework prior to the session, you’ll already know to substitute, “Have you ever been arrested?” with the more provocative, “What was going through your head when you and your roommate decided to steal an elk?” Quirky as it may seem, people tend to measure the value of an interview more by the respondent’s answers than by any of the interviewer’s questions. You could be tossing out some of the most scintillating queries in the world but if your subject only replies, “yes,” “no,” or “once, in New Jersey” and volunteers nothing further, the one who ends up looking bad is the person who was conducting the interview. To close with an analogy from my years in theater, the audience focus is never on the actor who just blew his line and clammed up but on the performers around him who didn’t know how to react and keep the show moving.
Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles. Her website can be found at www.absolutewrite.com/site/christina.htm.