Written by A Guest Author March 25th, 2021

Interviewing for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers

by Ellen Levitt   

For some authors, writing is a solitary craft; just the creator and the computer (or notebook with pen); occasionally they correspond via email or traditional mail with other people. But for others, there is necessary, frequent and important interaction with other people. Nonfiction writers in particular often must interview people for their subject area and to provide data for their books, articles and reports.

I have written five nonfiction books and for each one, I interviewed many people. At least half of the articles and essays I’ve written included interviews. These interviews were conducted in person, via email, or over the phone. Some people I interviewed spoke or wrote at length, while others offered up brief answers. I’ve found that many people, when given the opportunity to speak or write about certain topics, are effusive and happy to help out a writer. (Thus HARO, Help A Reporter Out.)

Obviously for nonfiction books, such interviews can be valuable: for biographies, histories, academic works, popular culture books, titles on sports, art, music, personal finance, health, and a variety of others.

Even fiction writers can benefit from interviewing people for their novels and short stories. Authors can get a sense of different characters and personalities, the flow of dialogue and lingo, and gain a better understanding of the subject or environment about which they write. Interviews can be especially important for historical novels. Let’s say you are writing a novel about people who attended the legendary Woodstock Music and Art festival in upstate New York; interviewing people who went, or musicians who played, could make your fictionalized account shine and sound more authentic.

For those writing contemporary novels, interviewing people can make the characters stronger, their speech more compelling. Is the novel set in a particular locale? Interview people for the slang, the turns of phrase. Is the novel about people with particular jobs, at a particular school, who are part of a religious group? Interviewing people and gaining knowledge about their subgroups will help your written depictions.

It’s important to think about what you want to learn from the people you interview. Details of their lives, careers, school experiences? Information about the songs they’ve written, the dances they’ve choreographed, the type of food they cook and serve? Do you want to write about the crimes they’ve committed, how they lost weight, their methods of meditation?

Do you want to style a character in your novel after someone you interview? Will your character be a composite of two or more people you interview? Plan this out in advance, or at least brainstorm the possibilities.

Sarah Stern, a published poet who has taught poetry workshops, explained that she has “used snippets of dialogue in poems, from interviews. Most of the time I don’t go into an interview thinking that I will write a poem about it, but somehow the interview or parts of it become a poem.” In her collection “We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune,” a number of poems were based upon interviews Stern conducted with relatives and their friends. Another poem, “The Interview” is “a riff on interviewing and what people say as opposed to what you want them to say.”

If you are writing a play or a film script, interviews can also be of great help to you, as sources of inspiration and more.

How do you find people to interview for your books, plays and shorter written works? There are many avenues: social media (Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are especially good for this); contacting companies, organizations, schools, and research facilities that specialize in your topic; “roving reporter” efforts for the outgoing sorts; going to special events; and more. Are you writing a novel about a bartender? Seek out bars and speak with the bartenders. Writing a play about a history professor? Interview a few at colleges, via email or in person. The possibilities are endless, but you should conduct preliminary research to find your interviewees.

Will you be conducting formal interviews, or casual, off-the-cuff conversations? If they are formal, inform your subjects, and ask them how they want to be credited: first name or initials only, full name, nickname? You should be respectful of those you interview, not exploitive (which can backfire on you). If you use someone’s information and quotes in your text, acknowledge them in the bibliography and/or footnotes, or directly before or after the quote.

If you are casually speaking to people and getting bits and pieces, mostly for inspiration, think carefully about how much will be integrated into your text. Especially for fiction writers, your portrayals can reflect interviews or informal chit-chat, but think carefully about how you want to balance truth and fiction.

For formal interviews, create a list of questions. Be ready to compose additional questions on the spot. How do you want to record the answers: video or audio taping, written responses? If you feel awkward about this, conduct a practice interview with a family member or friend.

You may pull together a list of typical questions for your subjects, along the lines of “What do you do, how did you react to X, describe what you remember about Z?” You should also have a few unusual questions, that will elicit humorous or less guarded replies. If you do this, be careful not to ask something too offensive, or take the pulse of the interview as you go along. You can always write down a question and then omit it, if you get the sense that it’s a no-no.

Writers conduct research, oftentimes extensive, for their books and articles. Interviews are a rich source of information, although at times they can contain inaccuracies. But overall they are valuable and can provide excellent material for your nonfiction, fiction, poetry or playwriting projects.

Bio: Ellen Levitt is a writer and teacher, and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens, and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (www.avotaynu.com) and Walking Manhattan (www.wildernesspress.com) . She has also written many freelance articles and essays for online and in-print publications.


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