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A question about interviewing for narrative

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by sirvaliantbrown, Jun 21, 2008.

  1. I think I am bad at after-the-fact interviews for narrative stories. When I try to ask Gary Smith-esque questions about the scenery of scenes, or about what the interviewee thought at a particular moment in time and then another moment in time and another, he or she usually rushes the answer -- they just don't seem to understand why I care about such seemingly inconsequential details. Was just reading Jones's Esquire piece again, and, like: "Now he pushed a slick of bangs off his low forehead and lifted a square-bladed shovel out of the back of his pickup truck. It was the second to last day of May, but it was already summer hot, and he moved slowly, surveying again his imaginary rectangle. Satisfied that it lay parallel to the path, the hedgerow, and the train tracks beyond it, Collins made his first cut into the grass."

    Jones had to ask what the weather was like - and what the man did this moment, then THAT moment, then the next moment, then the one after that...

    People seem perplexed when I ask such questions, or, at least, unwilling to share as much as I'd want them to share, and, consequently, the answers are often unsatisfactory to me.

    Is this simply a matter of explaining, before the substantive part of the interview, what type of story I am attempting to write? That I'm going to ask such questions, because I want to paint a picture for the reader as if he was there, and that I'd appreciate a ludicrously detailed second-by-second description?

    Any suggestions you have would be appreciated.
  2. Boognish

    Boognish Member

    I've run into similar issues. Also, I never seemed to ask all the right questions. The minute after I hung up the phone or got into my car, I'd always think of more. Then I'd go back and ask those questions. But then none of that mattered when I would later decide to scrap that chapter and start over again with new questions about a new and better scene ...

    My experiences taught me that it's not necessarily the questions I asked in a narrative piece themselves, but the amount of them, and how much time I spent with my subject. It took time, at least it took me time. And the more time I spent with my subjects the better the story became. The more questions I asked the more detailed my scenes got, the better I saw through my subjects' eyes, the more real their stories became on the page.

    I don't think anybody I interviewed ever really understood what I meant when I told them what kind of story I was attempting tell. But by the time the story ran, they talked to me in a way that was less like an interview and more like comfortable conversation.

    I was lucky enough to have a pretty open-ended timetable for my piece. But it's funny. When deadlines did come, and I had hours left to finish and I needed just a few yes or no answers, 5 minutes or so, I couldn't get one of my subjects off the phone. Again, it just took time. And repeated phone calls. But they understood the drill by the end, even if neither of us knew how exactly to do it when we started weeks, err months, before. Hope this helps a little.
  3. STLIrish

    STLIrish Active Member

    To some degree, I think it is about straight-out saying "I'm going to ask you some questions that you may think are strange, but bear with me."
    And about spending enough time with them, and making the whole thing enough like a conversation (as opposed to an "interview"), that they feel comfortable telling you whatever you ask.
    Spending enough time with them that you get a sense of their mannerisms and natural ways of speaking helps, too. You'll pick up on things that you can work into your story to give the reader a better picture of the person you're talking with.
  4. This is a great idea for a thread.

    I've actually told people, many times: "I'm not looking for quotes here, really. I'm trying to learn what happened."

    I think it confuses people a little on one hand - they are absolutely conditioned that reporters are looking for "quotes." This is particularly true of athletes still active on the highest levels - as well as their media relations people. Most SIDs I know look at "access" and "availability" sessions as one big quote fair. And, in truth, most of us treat it that way, as well.

    Narrative's tough. Tough to report, tough to write and tough to sell. I've had editors make fun of me, in a good-natured way, about how often I return to a source and the kind of questions I'm asking. They just think it's overzealousness about a story and that it's somehow cute to listen to. Irritating, yes, so I try to actually downplay my effort at times around the bosses on stories like that.
  5. BrianGriffin

    BrianGriffin Active Member

    "I'm not looking for quotes here, really. I'm trying to learn what happened."

    That's a great line
  6. It does help people let their guard down a little bit. Because 99 percent of people go into an interview with one overwhelming concern on their mind - "How are my quotes going to sound in print?" Remove that barrier, and you might actually be able to do some reporting.
  7. jfs1000

    jfs1000 Member

    It is narrative. What Smith does is paint the picture using what the source said while also recreating the scene with a bit of creative writing (gasp!).

    I am not saying to make it up, but Gary Smith-esque questions?WTF is that?

    If it is a hot day, use your own experience to explain how a hot day feels.

    You are not using the literary device correctly if you are hell bent on getting only what the guy said in the paper.

    You are more like a historian trying to re-create a truth and the scene. Did JOnes go to the site? Hemay have asked what shovel he used and how he did it.

    Ask simple questions that are broad based. You don't get into minutia until after you do the interview and start writing.

    You are putting the cart before the horse. Do the interview, figure out the story, angle and delivery method, then go back to a second interview.Also, second hand sources are also used and not credited.

    Maybe there was another story on this. Maybe there was other people they talked to that weren't quoted, but their information used to create a scene.

    Narrative is a way to tell a story though scenes. It doesn't have to be flat out exactly how it happened. It just has to be the truth.

    I know, I know, it goes against what we have been taught. Forget J-School. Become a writer.

    You got to take risks, but you can't write something that didn't happen (unless your really good and can get away with composite characters and fictional scenes that produce the truth).

    This may not make sense, but keep your journalistic instincts, but throw away the journalistic barriers.
  8. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

    Writers fall into the trap of quoting every single person they talk to when writing a feature, like they feel obligated.

    You're interviewing for INFORMATION, not to show off how many people you talked to. And you don't owe a quote to the source, either.

    Unfortunately, there are editors and contest judges out there who do go through and see how many people are quoted - to make sure it's "well-sourced."

    I've fallen into the trap before of tossing a quote in here and there by a large number of sources because I know that is precisely how it may be judged.

    Also - try to keep the quotes you do use as short and impactful as possible.
  9. Mediator

    Mediator Member

    I absolutely agree that writing a good narrative can get bogged down by sourcing. But I think there is an art to sourcing the information you get.

    In an age when Jayson Blair makes stuff up and put it in the paper, and editors don't ask where a reporter got something, we owe it to our readers to let them know that, even though they are reading something that's been artfully written, that it's been diligently reported. That doesn't mean you have to hit people over the head with every reference, but you can't take shortcuts in reporting. There is a difference between a novel and non-fiction, you can borrow from one form without sacrificing the other.
  10. Sourcing can really slow down a true narrative, though. We aren't the first people to debate this, though. Hell, it was a major point of contention back when Capote and Wolfe were popularizing the form. I remember in Julia Keller's Pulizter-winning feature on the southern Illinois tornadoes, the Trib included an extensive source box that served as a sort of bibliography. I mean, nonfiction books don't source every single piece of information. Some don't even have bibliographies (less and less of them these days, though - I particularly like nonfiction book narratives with unobtrusive end notes, though that would be tough to do in a daily newspaper or a mag).

    The best narratives occur, BTW, when the writer is actually embedded with the source.

    I think about the book "There Are No Children Here" about two black brothers growing up in inner-city Chicago. The author spent like two years with the kids in their neighborhood. Most of the scenes he paints, he witnessed (though he explains in the acknowledgements which scenes he had to recreate, if I recall).
  11. I appreciate the response, but I don't agree with any of this.

    Sure, Gary Smith doesn't have to ask, you know, if the player was sweating on the 100-degree day. But he darn sure has to ask what colour the Mexican shack was, what type of shoes the kid was wearing, what was beside the fridge in the kitchen where the argument took place, what the subject thought immediately after THIS statement and THAT statement and THAT phone call. He doesn't "use his own experience" to get those facts. He uses his experience as a journalist and as a man to interpret them, to organize them, whatever, but he certainly has to ask the questions in the first place.

    As for journalistic barriers: I don't want to throw any of them away - at least the ones that make us tell stories exactly as they happened. Why should I? Why can't I write a good narrative while also telling it (as close as I can get to) exactly how it happened?

    "You are not using the literary device correctly if you are hell bent on getting only what the guy said in the paper": I'm not sure what you mean.

    "You are putting the cart before the horse. Do the interview, figure out the story, angle and delivery method...": Often, you know what the basic nature of the story is before you do the interviews, and you know you want to write it narratively.

    "...then go back to a second interview": This advice is valid, and a good thought. Sometimes, though, you can only talk to someone once given your deadines - a busy athlete, a politician, whomever. Gotta get the details the first time.
  12. jfs1000

    jfs1000 Member

    I knew you would resist to the advice. LOL. Most writers do because we are shackled by AP style, and basic news gathering techniques and standards.

    You think David McCullough in John Adams ever had a chance to interview his subjects? How do create something like that having never actually talked to the person?

    Smith doesn't ask those questions, he observes. Maybe he visits the home and sees and picks up things.

    Be aware of your surroundings. Setting is everything.

    You have liberties writing a narrative. Gary Smith makes a ton of assumptions and plugs in holes. How the hell did Smith ever write that Tiger Woods profile abouts 7 or 8 years years ago without taking liberties?

    Narrative is painting a picture with words as you see the truth represented. It is a truth based story, not necessarily stone cold facts.

    Now, the facts make it a nonfiction story. But, it is a story nonetheless.

    You have to make your own assumptions of fact without being able to verify any of it. Scary, I know.

    The truth isn't black and white.

    Narrative is constructed a lot different than bare bones journalism.

    Each tries to get to the truth in a different way. Doesn't mean one is any less true than the other

    Of course, you pick your spots with writing narrative. If you use the techniques of basic news writing you will fail writing narrative. The writing is not the same. They are trying to achieve two different results.

    To be honest, the way you asked for help I can tell you that you are using the wrong techniques to interview.

    In my opinion, your journalistic rigidity is what's preventing you from seeing the narrative. Let down your guard. Before it goes into print, you can always put the guard back up as a filter. But, don't let the filter prevent you from getting the work started.

    No one asks which hand you used to pick the up the shovel, or if you took the sweat off your brow. Who remembers that? It's either observed, or it is recreated.


    What is Narrative Journalism?

    Narrative journalism is the interpretation of a story and the way in which the journalist portrays it, be it fictional or non-fictional. In easier words, it tells a story.

    Narrative journalism is also commonly referred to as literary journalism, which is defined as creative nonfiction that, if well written, contains accurate and well-researched information and also holds the interest of the reader. It is also related to immersion journalism, a term used to describe a situation when a writer follows a subject or theme for a long period of time (weeks or months) and details an individual's experiences from a deeply personal perspective.
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