How (Not) To Conduct An Interview

It’s a reasonable assumption that I must have gotten to talk to lots of interesting people for my book on people seeking the Garden of Eden, just like it’s a reasonable assumption that I got to visit lots of beautiful places (Ohio and Missouri are nice, but hardly paradise). And I always feel a little sheepish when I confess that yes, the few people I did interview for the book were fascinating, but most of the characters, and the information about those characters, came from archival rather than human sources. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with archival research, but because my book(s) are narratives about people, I know that those pieces of character and information that I get from talking to actual people are worth their weight in gold.

The problem is, I’m scared of interviews. Always have been. I put them off, cut them short, find workarounds. It’s not that I’m terrible at interviewing people. My husband, who has overheard more than one phone interview, says it was one of his favorite parts of reading Paradise Lust to see just how much story I could squeeze out of these brief interactions. The subject of the only chapter of Paradise Lust that relied mostly on interviews has become a friend who sought me out for coffee when he visited New York on a family vacation.  I’ve never had a combative subject, a boring conversation, or anyone quibble with the interview text after publication.

But still I lack confidence. For my new project, which takes place entirely in the 20th century and has a much larger pool of living subjects, I knew I would have to conduct many more interviews than I did for Paradise Lust. I already conducted a few, just for the proposal. But my list of un-conducted interviews is much, much longer. Approaching, scheduling, conducting, and transcribing interviews is a process I stretch out even beyond its intrinsic logistical problems for reasons of anxiety. Take my most recent interview, which took seven months.

I knew I needed to talk to someone from Sweet Honey in the Rock, the African-American consciousness-raising a cappella powerhouse, because they performed a song based on an excerpt of “The Prophet” which popularized the book widely during my childhood. Last march, at the AWP conference, I spoke to my friend Alicia Oltuski, who is such a fearless interviewer that she is conducting a series of them without an overall writing project to put them in, just because she wants to interview. Inspired, some weeks later I contacted her to ask her advice about contacting famous people out of the blue. Would she recommend messaging, say, a Grammy-winning  a cappella legend, on her Facebook page? She answered diplomatically: it’s not ideal, but sometimes your only option.

So I hesitated some more: was it my only option? I ended up finding an email address for the speakers’ agency that represents Bernice Johnson Reagon, which I hoped was close enough. I wrote them a very polite request and hoped for the best. (I find that after sending out an interview request, I relax, because that’s the hard part for me; whether the interview comes through or not, I’ve tried.) The next day, a swift and polite rejection arrived. This was  a first for me–like I said, usually I interview people who I know people in common with, or who would have a vested interest in talking to me. So, shut out, I waited a couple more months to pursue the interview I still needed. Then there was the small matter of planning and having my wedding in July which I guess is a pretty good excuse for not following up sooner.

Then in the late summer, as I started to ramp up the proposal writing process before starting up my  day job in the fall, I got my courage up again. I looked online for the name of the Sweet Honey in the Rock singer who had actually written the music for the song in question. She of course had a website, with a personal contact address. So I emailled her. And waited. And this time got a very nice reply, I would be interested in speaking with you, call this number. I think I waited  a while to do that, too, since even though I presumed the interview would take place by phone, I still hate calling people. When I finally did, I reached a tired-sounding woman who said, very nicely, that no this was not a good time to talk, would I try her on Sunday afternoon? So I did, and got her voicemail. If you’ve ever heard Sweet Honey in the Rock’s music, the person I was trying to interview provided the baritone voice for thirty years, she conducts choral workshops all over the world, and her voice message is like hearing from a more resplendent James Earl Jones. It is glorious. “If I am driving when I receive your call, I will call you back when I reach my destination. I suggest you do the same. Be well.” I left a gracious message. Then didn’t hear back.

This is the point at which I usually cave. I don’t want to bother this lovely lady; I rationalize; it’s not such a big deal that I talk to her anyway, etc. It took me another couple months to re-boost my courage, by reminding myself that the interview itself really couldn’t go wrong: it didn’t matter what her story about “The Prophet” song was, it was just crucial to include her as a piece of the puzzle of how the book from 1923 had made its way so widely in the world.  I didn’t need to know her whole life story, I only had two questions for her: how did you come to write the song? And what did it mean to you? And then, just when I swear I was about to try again, I got an email from her:

I’m still interested in talking to you, I apologize for the long delay and hope you haven’t given up on me, I retired from Sweet Honey in the Rock in May and have been extremely busy with my own projects that I’ve been putting aside while on tour for 30 years…I’ll be in New Jersey doing vocal workshops at a school in New Jersey next week and should have time between 4 and 7pm: give me a call.

Hallelujah! Reader, I must confess that even though I was in the enviably rare situation of having a complete stranger kindly contacting me to be interviewed, I was still terrified of making that call. But I determined to work through the anxiety, and called her near 7pm on Monday. Left a message. Got home on Tuesday in time to call but sat there, terrified, until the window of time had passed. On Wednesday, emailled her to see if we could instead set a time to talk on Friday. Nothing. Had to work until 7pm on Thursday. At work, got an email from her saying we could set up a time to talk Friday. I looked at the clock: my student that hour had finished their tutoring session early, it was 4:30 and I had half an hour until my next student. I should email her now, asking if I could call her now. So I emailled her. And then without waiting for a reply, I stepped out into the stairwell at work, the only quiet place for a phone call, and tried her again. By some miracle, she answered.  We had a perfectly lovely conversation for about fifteen minutes, with me scribbling notes in my work notepad, highly caffeinated and in semi-disbelief that I was finally getting to fill in a piece of the puzzle of the book I’d been researching for nearly a year by then.

Then there’s the post-interview euphoria, the sweet relief that happens while you’re typing up your notes, watching them magically transform from scribbles going all over one page because I didn’t want to risk missing something when turning the page, into five pages of long quotes, interspersed with references and other things to check. The section about the songwriter and her role in the legacy of “The Prophet” might end up taking up just a page or two in the book when it’s finally done. But it took eight months to achieve.  I think about this when I read other narrative nonfiction books containing interviews: I hope that other writers don’t have the same crushing anxiety I do about pursuing a subject, but I know there are also many other reasons why getting an interview would take as long as it did for me. And I have nothing but respect and sympathy for the troubles they go through, just to get those little precious nuggets of story for you, the reader.


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