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!

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sara Latta
6 years ago

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
Reply to  Sara Latta
6 years ago

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