Interviewing for magazine articles and books


A couple of days ago I blogged here about interviewing for newspapers. The process is a bit different for magazines and books.

For magazines, almost all of the articles you will write will come from a “go-ahead” reply to a query letter that you sent to the editor. So you know what information you must gather, you have probably suggested two to four people you might interview for that information, and you know when the piece is due (often in three weeks or so unless it’s travel yet to take or tied to some future event). I outline this process fully in the Travel Writer’s Guide.

It’s an even more measured pace for books since the same conditions are similar to magazine writing, except deadlines may be a month or a year away. You probably suggested many more potential interviews for a book. If the book is about one of the interviewees, or they play a key role in putting the book together, you might re-interview that person many times.

So magazine articles and books have less urgency than gathering newspaper copy. More time to arrange the interviews, meld them into a bigger copy body before submission, and even time to return for clarification or ask an added question to the interviewee, to fill a gap that became apparent in the final writing. (Having said that, I don’t remember contacting interviewees later about a then current article more than perhaps a dozen times total, of many hundreds of interviews.)

You also know what kind of information, and about how much, you need to write copy that works. That, in turn, makes it easier to organize the interview. The only problem there is that the interviewee sometimes won’t talk to you, or won’t talk about what you need to know. Or will, and does, but really wants to talk at length about something else. If you get enough information for your article, then let them talk and talk. Sometimes you can gently work that talk into more information usable in your article. Often you can’t, but keep your mind and ears open for good commentary that can be used in other articles, after go-ahead queries, later on.

Do your homework before the interview, and follow up on leads or contacts the interviewee gives you, soon after the interview ends. If they wrote a book central to your theme, read it. Read articles or poetry they wrote. See their newest film. Know what position they take on the controversy you are covering—and why. Know who opposes them, and why. Find out what’s been proposed in the future about that topic, and what role and position do they see themselves taking.

Interviewing in person is slower, there is more protocol setting it up and you usually have to arrange transportation. If cameras and a tape recorder are involved, they must be brought, and that’s often intrusive. It’s doubly irksome if the interview is delayed, rescheduled, or even cancelled once you arrive. On the other hand, you can see the person’s animation and enthusiasm (or rancor) as he speaks. You can see if the person is sober and more or less sane. And if they feel comfortable with you, they very often say more, speak longer, and suggest other people you might interview too. Some will talk to those recommended too, to vouch for you and help you get the interview.

Probably 75% of my interviews for magazines, and nearly as many for books, have been done by telephone. Which is at least a two-step process. One, you have to tell them what you want (a short interview), for which publication (even if you only have a spec[ulation] go-ahead it’s permissible to use the name of the publication), and why (what are you writing about and why them?) Sound enthusiastic and articulate (at least lucid), set a time to call, and thank them before they come to their senses! If they hesitate, tell them it should only take five minutes, at most 10, and you know they are busy. Then be quiet and let them think. If they say no, a last-ditch question is “Is there any other way to include you in this article [book] than the telephone?” They might relent or have you meet them elsewhere (like where the drink coffee in the morning), but get them to suggest it, or even for a few minutes where they live or work.

A final advisory: be ready to do the interview right then. Many times they’ll say, “Well, I’ve got five minutes right now. What do you want to know?”

One of the best things about magazine and book interviews, you get to meet (quickly, usually) lots of famous (or infamous) people. I met five presidents in South America, Gilberto Freyre, Jorge Amado, Adlai Stevenson often, ball players, movie stars, ambassadors, governors, generals, the head of the U.N. (and past President of Colombia), and the best two guides on the Amazon River, Gluck and Ivank. Plus hundreds of very interesting, often eloquent people, many with big notches on their belts: Channel swimmers, pro ball players, comics, three soccer-playing survivors in a Chilean plane crash who had to eat non-survivors, and a man who lifted a car off a kid pinned below it.

The interviewer is the decipherer between folks with something to say (even in almost impenetrable jargon) and the rest of us who are curious and want (and should) know. Just don’t get in the way of that flow, be accurate, spell every name correctly, and have fun doing it!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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