It’s easy to think of interviews as something reserved for journalists or nonfiction writers, but I’d like to make the case that fiction writers can benefit from them as well. This week I’ve been working on my presentation for DFWcon‘s “The Art of the Interview” class, and one of the things I plan to cover is how interviewing someone can not only bring realism to your writing, but also life and depth.
(We’ll also go over finding sources, interview techniques, helpful apps and what it means to go “off the record,” but I digress.)
I tend to think of there being two types of interviews: the get-the-facts interview and the in-depth interview.
When you’re simply on a fact-finding mission — you need to verify historical data or understand a process — an interview can be pretty short and sweet. A get-the-facts interview is one of the few times I think it’s OK to correspond with an expert only via email.
But if you’re talking to someone with the purpose of developing a character or building a world, then you need to meet with that person. Maybe you’re writing about an FBI agent, but all you know about agents is what you’ve Googled or seen on TV. Maybe you have a character who grew up in a war-torn country, faces a terminal illness, won an Olympic medal or chases polar bears for a living — experiences you’ve never had yourself. Or maybe you have a unique setting — real or imagined — that needs details to help it come to life.
In these cases, it helps to talk to someone who works at Quantico, survived a war or traveled into space. You need to get to know them. You need to see how they talk, think, move and interact with their world. You need to hear their stories. In journalism, we think of this kind of interview as “putting a face to the story,” and it applies to both writing a news article and writing a novel.
For example, a few months ago I was working on an article about a tiny Canadian town called Churchill, which is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Every year some of the planet’s most deadly predators migrate through Churchill, a town with a population of fewer than 1,000 people. By November, sometimes 60 polars bears can be seen on a given day.
Bears wander up to homes and businesses, and the local “bear catchers” chase them out — and sometimes lock them up in “polar bear jail” or fly them away on helicopters. Tourists flock to the area, blatantly ignoring “Danger: Polar Bear” signs. Clearly, this is an interesting place.
Now, I could’ve written about Churchill by just reporting the facts: how many bears are captured annually, how residents prepare for bear season, etc. But the real story here — as with any story — is the people.
What I wanted to know was what life is like in this place. What’s the daily schedule of a “bear catcher”? What do kids think of trick-or-treating alongside an army reserve unit? What’s it like to have a polar bear stick its head through your car window?
Sure, I can Google polar bear facts and email wildlife experts to get the bones of the story, but to really make it interesting, I had to find real people who lived there and get them to talk to me — which is often easier said than done, but we’ll cover that in the session. If I hadn’t talked to Churchill residents, I wouldn’t have learned some of the most fascinating aspects of life there.
For instance, residents leave their car doors unlocked so that anyone can jump inside in the event a bear shows up. And the natural resources officer I spoke with once had a bear charge his truck and total it. Can you imagine? But it’s details like these — memorable, interesting details — that make a story truly come to life.
I love Google as much as the next writer, but it’s no substitute for people.
“The Art of the Interview” class will take place Sunday, May 5, at DFWcon. You can read my story about “The Polar Bear Capital of the World” on The Huffington Post.
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Photos: (sled, bears) courtesy of Manitoba Conservation; (sign) em_j_bishop/flickr