Friday, June 23, 2006

Interview Marathon

Two Men InterviewingThis week I spent a full day interviewing a well-known leader in a Christian ministry.  Our time together marked the beginning stages of a book project which I will be writing over the next few weeks.  Through the years, I’ve conducted a number of these types of intense sessions. It’s like an interview marathon where instead of a 30–minute interview or an hour long interview, you spend the entire day with the person.

At the end of the session, this man said, “I’m all talked out.” I could completely understand. At that point, we had been talking for over nine hours together.  I walked out of that session with a legal pad full of notes and a series of recorded tapes with the stories.  I was weary of the intense listening that comes with these sessions for stories yet I was glad to have a high volume of material.

You may wonder, Why do you have to interview in such an intense manner?

These sessions happen more often than you might think because the author doesn’t have time to write a book. Or possibly the person has no experience shaping his story material into a full-length book project which will work for his particular audience.  Instead of devoting a set amount of time each week (for example an hour or two), this individual will block his schedule for the day and spend it with a writer in interviewing. 

How did I prepare? I had several short phone conversations with this person and had some general ideas about possible stories and content for the day.  I created a list of questions, story topics and key points to cover during our time together. Also the individual had prepared for our time together. He pulled some confidential memos, reports of various trips and background books with related materials to hand to me during our session.  Also I came with a number of cassette tapes and a tape recorder along with plenty of paper.

One of the keys from my perspective is to continually think about the eventual reader for the book. This reader will be different for each book but as the author, you have to keep your eye on that reader. What will this reader take away from the story content? Each story must have a key point or principle to be included in the eventual chapter for the book.  If you don’t continually focus the stories and the interview on the results for the reader, then you can end up with a bunch of disconnected stories which ramble and don’t help you gather content for the book.  It’s easy for the writer to get focused on fascinating stories which are not used in the book, if you don’t keep that focus for the entire session.  Continually at different points throughout the day, I recapped and looked for the guiding principle or the point to a particular story. Maybe I wasn’t able to see it initially but my subject was able to verbalize and summarize the point for the reader—but only if I prodded him during the session. 

Walking away from my session this week, the story isn’t over but still in process. I believe I have enough content to write a full-length book.  My experience from writing these books tells me that have enough material.  I feel good about the overall shape of these stories and how they will eventually be woven into a book.   During the writing process, I will know if I’ve gathered enough material or not. If not, this leader and I have a contingency plan to get together again for another interview marathon.  I’m hopeful for this person’s schedule and mine, such a session will not be necessary. Time will tell.

2 Comment:

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Bob Left a note...


Have you been able to hone the process down over the years? (The first book that I ghost wrote took about 20-25 hours of face to face interviews, with another 6-7 of phone interviews.)

How does your process compare with that
of Studs Terkel, for example--he's described interviews as prospecting for gold--where after the interview he sifts the material for those nuggets worth keeping

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


Experience is a great teacher and I've been doing these types of interviews for many years. As you gain more experience, then you ask better questions, do more to actively direct and focus the session, etc.

I'm unsure how my process compares to Studs Terkel since I don't know enough to make an intelligent comment.



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