By our Summer Writer in Residence, Osha Gray Davidson. For information on upcoming events and consultations with Osha, click here.
Close to thirty years ago I borrowed my wife’s state-of-the-art tape recorder (she was a radio producer at the time) and sat down with my parents at their Florida condo and interviewed them. Today, both of them have passed away and those tapes (I interviewed them one at a time) are in a safe deposit box – the only real treasures in there. You may be wondering what this has to do with writing. The answer is that it’s a happy overlap where an essential writing skill can be honed while creating something that’s priceless for you and your family.
Interviewing is an important tool in any writer’s toolbox, regardless of the form your writing takes. It’s obviously important for journalism and other types of non-fiction, but fiction writers often need to interview experts to understand the ins-and-outs of a character’s world. Say you want to write a detective novel. Unless you’ve been an actual detective you’ll need to talk with one to create a realistic tale of sleuthing. Interviewing strangers may sound intimidating, and, in fact, it was for me at first. That’s why it can be helpful to start by interviewing family members.
When I interviewed my parents I had a list of questions already prepared. I started with the basics, with questions such as: “When and where were your parents born?” and then moved on to more open-ended questions. I asked: “What was it like growing up in ___ ?” And: “Who was your best friend in grade school and what did you like about them?” And: “Tell me how you and (Dad or Mom) met.” Sure, sometimes their answers were short. But often the single-sentence answers begged follow-up questions, probing that sometimes opened a long-closed door, behind which lay a story I had never heard, with people I didn’t know, a story of a devastating loss or of a triumphant victory or of something in between – but a story that helped me understand the complex reality of my parents’ lives.
Today, our phones make great recording devices and the digitized interview can be copied and even transcribed using an online service. Just be sure to familiarize yourself with the technical process and make sure it’s recording at the right volume before you start.
For more tips on interviewing, join us for The Art of the Interview on Thursday, July 14 from 6:30 – 8:00 PM with Osha Gray Davidson and former Writer in Residence James L. Thane. Click here for more information.