by Joan Raymond
First, a disclaimer: This is not one of those “How to Get the Best Interview Possible in 11 Easy Steps” type articles. Instead, this is my eight-week journey from inexperienced interviewer to weekly feature writer for a local publication. I’m still not an expert, but I have discovered quite a bit about the process and myself along the way.
I’ve written fiction as long as I can remember. My first major piece, “The Mystery of the Missing Bread,” was penned in 4th grade. After years of writing for myself, at 53 I finally decided what I wanted to do when I grew up and began pursing my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing/English, concentration Fiction, in 2011. Somewhere along the way, I decided to add the non-fiction workshops to my program because they sounded like fun. In the first class we wrote memoirs, not too stressful. But, in the second class our assignments became pieces based on interviews. My heart sank; I had no idea how to approach people to ask for an interview, much less know what questions to ask without coming across as a total newbie. Although I had a lot of great story ideas, I was terrified to talk to REAL people. So for my first few pieces I interviewed only my family and realized asking questions really wasn’t that bad. I asked, they answered and then I put the little pieces together and made a full picture.
About the same time the non-fiction class started, a local editor was looking for freelance writers for feature pieces. For some crazy reason, I called. For an even crazier reason, I got the position based on my piece submitted to our local paper – one of my stories from the first non-fiction writing workshop class. Discovery #1: Always take a chance even if you have no idea what you’re doing.
The first story he gave me was straightforward – interview three people about a members-only Facebook swap site set up by a local resident. I joined the page, observed it for a while, and then prepared questions based on what I saw. I conducted all of my interviews by phone, taking the time to get to know each person a bit so we’d both feel comfortable. As we chatted I realized when people understand you’re trying to write a positive story, they really enjoy sharing information. Before I submitted the piece, I called a few of the people back just to verify facts. At first the thought of confirming information made me nervous, wondering what they might think of my sloppy skills, but in reality, they were pleased I took the time to make sure I had quoted them correctly. Discovery #2: People admire you for taking the time to make them look good.
Since then I’ve done about a story a week depending on the subject. For one story I had to interview three new members of the city planning commission. I drove to their town (about 40 minutes from where I live) and interviewed two people in person; the third was by phone. I hadn’t figured out a shorthand system yet, so it took me a while to write down all their comments. I did try to use a voice recorder phone app when I spoke to one of the gentlemen, but when his body language changed from friendly to cautious, I put my phone away. It didn’t bother him that I didn’t write fast; in fact he stopped talking several times to make sure I had gotten everything he said. In that moment I realized he didn’t care if I wrote slowly, he just needed to feel at ease. Discovery #3: Always keep your interviewees comfortable. They’ll be more willing to open up and share.
One of the more recent stories I wrote was about an economic development strategy presented to the city council. I had to interview the president of the local college, executive director of the chamber of commerce, a bank vice-president, and the city manager. The story made me a bit nervous. I had no idea what an economic development strategy was much less how it worked. Because of my lack of knowledge, I felt intimidated to talk to the people I needed to interview. Fortunately, I’d chatted briefly with the chamber director when I was trying to locate her husband for the planning commission article. I called her first, hoping she’d point me in the right direction since I had no idea where to start. She understood my concerns and offered to send me the 52-page report. I read it over and much to my surprise it was easy to understand, plus I was able to formulate several questions from it. I interviewed her first and then was able to come up with more questions for the other people I needed to interview. The president of the college was booked solid with meetings because of new classes starting, but she set aside 15 minutes for me. I came up with three concise questions. She was so helpful and gave me really important facts and information. Discovery #4: Do your homework and find out as much as possible before you start talking to people. You don’t need to be an expert. They’ll appreciate the time you took to prepare.
In looking back over the last eight weeks, I’ve realized I didn’t have to know everything, but I did need to take some time to prepare. I also learned that since my stories are encouraging, people enjoyed talking to me because they knew I’d portray them in a positive way. I’ve also realized I don’t have to come across as an expert. If people trust me, I can be myself and take the time to get their quotes right. Discovery #5: Always believe in yourself. You’ll never know what you are capable of until you try.
Joan Raymond lives in Bakersfield, California with her family. She’s actively pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing with concentrations in Fiction and Non-Fiction. Her writing has been published in both print and online publications including the Southern California Writer’s Showcase and weekly special interest stories for a local newspaper. A member of Writers of Kern, she hosts a writer’s critique group in her home twice a month and is a volunteer for the Kern Adult Literacy Council.