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Five Words About Interviewing

by Silver Donald Cameron

Books can be written about interviewing: many have been. Most of them are by and for sociologists rather than for writers. When I’m asked to give advice about interviewing, though, I can boil it down to five words that cover most of the glaring faults in the interviews we hear every day on radio and TV, or read in newspapers and magazines.

Prepare. If your subject has written books or articles, read them. If he’s in government, get the official biography and ask a few colleagues what he’s like, what he’s interested in, what his strengths and weaknesses are. A famous trial lawyer once told me he never asked a question in court to which he didn’t already know the answer. An interviewer can’t hope to be that omniscient, but the more s/he knows the better the chance of coming up with an intelligent, interesting discussion.

Shut up. The interviewer is a means by which the subject is to reveal himself or herself. We want to hear Linus Pauling or Margaret Mead, not Hiram Hokum of Radio CGUF. And it’s astounding how little it takes to make most people talk. Uh-huh? Go on. Tell me about that. What happened then? How did you feel? Why does that matter?

That’s all it takes, most of the time. (Try it in ordinary conversation: the results will amaze you.) It’s hard to keep quiet, particularly when the subject is saying something transcendently stupid or vicious. Challenge him, if you must, with a short question (What’s the scientific evidence that the Aryans are a master race?) but don’t develop a long-winded argument. Not now. Write a speech about it later. Trust your reader or listener to be as bright as you, to see viciousness or stupidity with very little prompting from you.

Listen. Don’t go into the interview with your mind made up about the subject, carrying an elaborate list of questions. If you want to be sure you’ll ask about some point or other, note it down in a word or a phrase, then drop a general question at some lull in the conversation. “I do want to ask about the time you were torpedoed in the Pacific:” all your note says is “Torpedoed-Pacific.”

“Of course all writing is based on about five themes, anyway,” says the famous novelist. What are they? is the obvious question – but how often have you heard an interviewer say instead, “I was wondering if you could tell how you feel about being appointed writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto?” You know he wasn’t listening; he wasn’t interested; he was more concerned with looking good himself than with eliciting something provocative and revealing from his subject. He was thinking about the camera or the tape recorder, or he was reading his notes. He wasn’t concentrating on the conversation – and how can a good conversation ever develop when one party is preoccupied? The most important thing in the world at that moment is the person you’re interviewing. The electronics don’t matter, your own image doesn’t matter: all that matters is what s/he’s saying, and all your energies should be focussed on that.

Think. If you’ve done your homework, you know more about him than he expects you to know. How does it fit with what he’s saying? Can you press him to reveal more than he intended? When he uses a high-flown phrase, think of what it means. “…these are provincial government appointments.” You mean patronage appointments? “Well, um, er…” If you know he rigged the Bluenose and he doesn’t mention it, bring it up. If an Albertan named Estey is arguing impatiently for Maritime union, ask him when his family left New Brunswick. (You may miss on this one, but if you score you’ll cast a good deal of light on the emotional bases of his attitude. And most Canadians with Maritime family names are descended from Maritimers.) Think not only about what you know about your subject, but bring to bear all the queer little observations you’ve made in a lifetime. Trust your intuition: it’ll give you a good many revealing off-beat questions.

A word about equipment — which possibly comes under Prepare. Before you go, check that you have clean tapes, that the battery is fresh in your tape recorder, that you can operate without using household current, if you need to. It pays (though I don’t always do it) to stop the tape after a few minutes and play it back to be sure it’s recording properly, and that background sounds aren’t intruding. If the tape is for radio, the sound quality is particularly important: spend some time with a technician asking him for hints about good recording practice.

For print, of course, anything will do so long as you can make out what was said. Sometimes I dispense with recording altogether, listen really hard and make extensive notes immediately afterward. In general, though, it’s better to take the extra trouble and get a good-quality tape (or mini-disk, or whatever comes next.) You never know when an opportunity may arise to use the tape later on — and eventually you build up a library of tapes full of material which you may be able to recycle many times. The tapes can even become a collection which may be salable to a university library or an archive.

Good interviewing is a complex and subtle craft — and it’s relatively rare. People like the late Barbara Frum and Peter Gzowski are worth listening to carefully, and analyzing. What they do at their best is induce sometone to reveal his or her unique human qualities in a way that at once informs and entertains. That’s what good interviewing is all about.