Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Unearthing the Good Stuff

Five Steps to a Suc­cess­ful Non­fic­tion Inter­view

geraniumsI love flow­ers but no one would ever call my thumb green. Each spring how­ev­er, I drag the pots to the front step, fill them with soil, plant red gera­ni­ums sur­round­ed by marigolds, and water when nature for­gets. And when the school bus­es rum­ble down the street, I am delight­ed to emp­ty the pots for anoth­er sea­son.

Gar­den­ing in non­fic­tion is prefer­able. I have learned that there, too, you must dig and cul­ti­vate, and a non­fic­tion inter­view is a great place to start that dig­ging.

Bold Women of MedicineOne of the sub­jects in my book, Bold Women of Med­i­cine is Adele Levine, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist spe­cial­iz­ing in pros­the­sis work for sol­diers. I pulled a few anec­dotes from her book, Run, Don’t Walk: The Curi­ous and Chaot­ic Life of a Phys­i­cal Ther­a­pist Inside Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter but real­ized I need­ed fresh infor­ma­tion.

Dur­ing an inter­view, I asked her to tell me of a time out­side of med­i­cine when she need­ed courage. She respond­ed that as she wrote her book she didn’t think any­one took her writ­ing seri­ous­ly. She was sure “that in about ten min­utes I was going to be tossed across the lob­by by an angry group of edi­tors for wast­ing their time.” Instead she walked into the Ran­dom House con­fer­ence room and expe­ri­enced what “felt like a tick­er-tape parade. They were shak­ing my hand and pat­ting me on the back. It was not at all what I thought was going to hap­pen.”

This is the kind of quote I nev­er would have received if I didn’t ask a spe­cif­ic ques­tion. Details like a “tick­er-tape parade” are impor­tant because they aid the read­er in imag­in­ing what anoth­er per­son has expe­ri­enced.

5 steps to a successful nonfiction interview

Here are five steps to help you dig for the good stuff.

  1. Define the pur­pose of the inter­view (or decide what to plant). Is it infor­ma­tion­al? Bio­graph­i­cal? Defin­ing the pur­pose will keep you on track and make the most of your subject’s time. What drew you to the per­son? Is it her career, hob­by, or anoth­er rea­son? What are you or your read­ers curi­ous about? After you know what you want to get out of the inter­view, pre­pare thor­ough­ly by read­ing every­thing you can about the inter­vie­wee. The more you know about the sub­ject the eas­i­er it will be to focus your ques­tions.
  1. Make a list of ques­tions (sow the seeds of the sto­ry). Always have more ques­tions than you think you will need. Type one or two ques­tions on each page, leav­ing plen­ty of space for the answers. Avoid ques­tions that can be answered with yes or no. Instead of “do you like prac­tic­ing med­i­cine?” ask “what is your favorite part of prac­tic­ing med­i­cine?”

Begin with an ice­break­er such as ask­ing about the ori­gin of her last name, or even the weath­er. Tread light­ly when ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions. Ask broad ques­tions first, then ease into the top­ic. Swap­ping sto­ries and keep­ing the inter­view con­ver­sa­tion­al will help uncov­er con­crete anec­dotes. The sto­ries with the tini­est of details, the nat­ur­al dia­logue, and vivid descrip­tions are what will help your non­fic­tion sto­ry shine.

Use a tape recorder (only with per­mis­sion), if you feel you won’t be able to write fast enough.

Inter­views are unpre­dictable. Plan that the con­ver­sa­tion will veer off in ways you didn’t expect. Being pre­pared will allow you to use that inter­rup­tion to your advan­tage and come up with a unique per­spec­tive on your sub­ject.

  1. Ask for clar­i­fi­ca­tion of an answer (weed out the mys­ter­ies). One way to do this is to para­phrase the subject’s answer before mov­ing on to the next ques­tion. This way if you have mis­un­der­stood, the sub­ject can cor­rect you.
  1. Lis­ten in an open-mind­ed way (appre­ci­ate all of the plants). Try to under­stand the answer in your subject’s point of view, not your own. Don’t be so focused on writ­ing down their answers that you for­get to lis­ten well. Use phras­es in your notes that will help you remem­ber what the inter­vie­wee said. The added bonus of an in-per­son inter­view is that you can note non­ver­bal cues such as smil­ing, gri­mac­ing, and pon­der­ing to tru­ly under­stand your sub­ject.
  1. Type up your notes imme­di­ate­ly (unearth those hid­den facts). This will decrease any errors and cement the con­ver­sa­tion in your mem­o­ry. Thank the inter­vie­wee for their time and tell them you will send a copy of the fin­ished man­u­script for their approval. Don’t for­get to send a thank you note.

Now you know what will come up in your gar­den because you defined the interview’s pur­pose, sowed seeds by ask­ing intrigu­ing ques­tions, and unearthed sur­pris­ing facts from your notes. Last­ly, pull your thoughts togeth­er into a big bou­quet of qual­i­ty non­fic­tion. And you didn’t even have to get dirt under your fin­ger­nails!

2 Responses to Unearthing the Good Stuff

  1. Sara Latta September 6, 2017 at 8:48 pm #

    Susan, your tips for con­duct­ing a suc­cess­ful non­fic­tion inter­view are spot-on! I look for­ward to read­ing your forth­com­ing book; it sounds fas­ci­nat­ing. I am also a kidlit non­fic­tion author, and I was alert­ed to your inter­view by anoth­er chil­dren’s non­fic­tion author, Heather Mont­gomery. I’m Sara Lat­ta (my sis­ter’s name is Susan!), and I’m so hap­py to make a vir­tu­al acquain­tance with anoth­er Lat­ta in the children’s/nonfiction writer com­mu­ni­ty. I don’t know if we’re relat­ed but it might be fun to be in touch. Best regards,
    Sara Lat­ta

    • Susan Latta September 7, 2017 at 9:00 am #

      Hi Sara,
      Thanks for read­ing! I have seen your name on oth­er kid lit sites and won­dered the same thing. My hus­band is Robert Lat­ta, and he was born and raised in St. Louis. So fun­ny too that you have a sis­ter named Susan. Let’s con­nect, I’d love to hear about your writ­ing. Susan

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