The images of America’s great black woman writer, at 84, show a certain magnificence in the way she frames that thing that makes her Toni Morrison. I see it in her profile and in the way her voice is captured inside a sound booth as she reads her latest novel God Help the Child. It’s hard to describe. If I could find the right words to relay the right sentiment they would burst like colours strewn across the sky in yet another stunning sunset. I guess to experience Morrison’s tellings is to fall in love with written words because she exploits them in a manner to make us feel. Like how the sun rises and takes its bow splendidly, flowing silk ribbons and all. To witness it is to feel it. Similarly, I’ll never forget that moment reading Beloved when I stopped everything, mid-everything, and went back two pages and reread. When she had us in that shed. I was shaken. Or how I actually felt sorry for those angry women because Sula had all their husbands but couldn’t be bothered to want them.
Ghansah must have enjoyed time with this golden author because it certainly feels like it. Considering that she was assigned to write about a Nobel laureate on her 11th novel, I understand her challenge was not to lose the reins nor lose the reader. I keep reading. Forget the dishes. I’d rather absorb more about this storyteller who moved with other novelists to become such a memorable part of our rites of passage. And she was more. Ghansah reminds us just how radical Morrison is as a keeper of the word; how she applied her editorial might back in the day and gave us critical writers who told the world, with every page, that black lives matter. Even then.
“She was more humanist than nationalistic, more visionary than didactic,” writes Ghansah. “But to some extent her editorial work was political. ‘We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes,’ Morrison said in her 1981 keynote address at the American Writers Congress. ‘We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.’”
Seen. Writing and reading have never stopped being the political exchange we recognize as self-therapy. But Morrison has told us it’s a collective movement of writers radical in thought, direction, and style that reflects an immeasurable power—one lighting our path to the places we need to go.
Exactly what is it about a difficult time that makes us want to write?
“I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.”
– John L. Sullivan in Preston Sturges’s film Sullivan’s Travels 
Years ago, my friend told me she stopped journalling. We were in our twenties then. Everything tortured us, although we acted like nothing did. “I was only writing when things weren’t going well,” she explained. Lost love, lost opportunity, lost anticipation. She said she suddenly realized anyone reading her diary would mistake her life to be a sad one, something far from the truth. She had loved happily—people and moments and herself. “When everything was wonderful, who had time to write?”
Maybe being confident and daring is nothing compared to the loss we can share with others. Especially when we throw it into a space, either cyber or head, fact or fiction. After a while, writing about struggle and loss for so long with so many other losers gives way to a certain flair in style. We share with a unique flourish, so it’s nice (Ok, therapeutic. Duly noted.) to put pixels to the page and explore with one another what develops.
That Picture: The typewriter. Indeed a universal symbol representing “The writer.” Slip in a blank page, one that stares back at you. Now what do you have?
Let’s be honest, not every interview we get with someone shines. It happens. Sometimes we crash. The timing was wrong. Interruptions. Bad audio. And sometimes, we’re the reason behind that dashed opportunity.
I once accepted an assignment to interview an actor and submit an article the same day. I knew little of this man and even less of where his career was heading. The only thing I did remember happened years ago.
While promoting one of his films, this actor was involved in an accident where thankfully no one was hurt, but the property damage was exorbitant, making headlines the same day. Footage captured of the incident was sensational. Great material for the news networks, but not so great for the actor who appeared at fault. I held on to that accident almost subconsciously. Figuring I had little time, I did little research.
I got the actor on the phone and it happened quickly. My lack of preparation crept up and tripped me as I spoke. I stumbled over nothing. After my three opening questions drew mono-syllabic replies, I realized I had no way of engaging him because my questions were not really questions—at least nothing that could give me momentum. There I was, tapped for a question and flailing for something, anything, I could pull myself up with and go.
So I mentioned the accident. That’s right: I brought up a 6 year-old headline and asked him to respond. It was a bad and desperate move. The actor, now angry, must have felt he was in time travel. I tried something I knew was not going to work. We both knew that.
When I later called the editor to explain that there would be no article, I omitted the part about the interview getting cut short. The truth was, the angry actor was so annoyed, he decided he had nothing to talk about.
My hard lesson? Never wing it. Your play-by-ear move can come off as you not having much of a clue. Remember, your interviewees actually want to talk about their work in a meaningful way. Have a well-informed idea of where you’re going before you pose your first question.
Always do your homework.
Good, solid research unveils your map, a course of action. You chart it. It’s yours.
Plan it out.
Glean your best questions. Meaning, brainstorm some questions, then make a shortlist and pull out your strongest. Confirm how much time you have and decide how many of them you’ll ask. A natural order will emerge.
In other words, be open to arriving in a place you can’t see from where you’re standing. Sometimes you start moving in one direction but you’re not sure where it will lead you. Your interviewee says something you didn’t fully expect. Be open to following that lead.
You ask a question and the subject digresses and shares something else. The discussion moves from her best-selling book to the vacation she took on a picturesque and serene Caribbean island. Can you use that? Did that vacation inspire any part of her novel? Why mention that island now? Ask a follow-up question. Take a second to think about it. If your research was solid, you might know how to use that tangent, or keep it as a colourful aside. Some of your best interviews come from similar moments.
For an idea of such a moment, read Donna Minkowitz’s interview with award-winning, science fiction author Orson Scott Card (Salon.com, February 3, 2000). Before meeting her subject, Minkowitz was a self-described, breathless fan of Card’s work, particularly his book, Ender’s Game. She lays out, in extravagant detail, how their interview lands her somewhere she never expected. And while she did her research, Minkowitz missed an important fact: Card was an outspoken opponent of homosexuality.
As soon as you throw out that first question and a response emerges, listen carefully. But don’t overdo it. Never make the mistake of letting your interviewee go long while you, after allowing rambling stretches say, “Go on. I’m just listening.” While lending your ear is vital, your subject needs to know you have a plan. That is, lead the discussion with relevant questions and follow the answers.
Enough said. Try it for a few seconds and allow your subject’s last words to settle before moving to your next question. Sometimes, slowing the pace of the interview allows your subject to relax and offer more.
Establish eye contact.
If you don’t do this for your in-person interviews, you miss an opportunity to connect. Take notes, but look up occasionally, keep the gaze, and write at the same time. Sure, it takes skill. The more you do it the better you get it.
Repeat some of the story.
Your job is to get the facts right. When your interviewee tells a story explaining how something happened, repeat a portion of that story. So you arrived at the protest in the afternoon, and the police were already there, some in conversation with the organizers. What happened next? Your subject will appreciate your keen attention. If you missed a detail or got something wrong, it’s a chance to be corrected. Oh, you arrived in the morning, and the police were already there.
If you’re not sure of the right question to ask next, be truthful. Had I told the actor that I wasn’t following his career and wanted to share what was new with our readers, I’d probably get a response.
Save the inflammatory questions for last.
Make sure you have what you need before posing a question your subject might not appreciate. Regarding my lesson with the angry actor, it’s not that I never should have mentioned the infamous accident, it’s that I dropped it into a weak interview where I had nothing. Get what you need first and then ask a tough question. Should your subject cut the interview short, you can later decide if you’ll include his reaction with what you already have. That accident was years ago and you appear to have recovered. But audiences still remember it. Looking back at it now, how has that moment affected you over the years?
You might be surprised. A compelling response might follow. Or, your peeved subject might get up and leave in a huff. But then you’re free to describe how the door just missed him on his way out.
Do share: What are some of your best interview tips or your worst mistakes?
Years ago, a feature article I wrote for Word magazine appeared (without my knowledge) in a novice publication called Prelude. I’d expand further on the unacceptable practice of reprinting a writer’s work without her permission, but the magazine folded after one issue so I’ll save that rant. The feature profiled Carl Cassell, an artist and restaurant owner who invented a method to creating his art. I was already irked by Prelude’s brazen lift, so imagine how I burned over their misspelling of Cassell’s name in the article’s heading.
Never assume you know. Instead, assume the opposite.
This advice applies to bloggers, tweeters and anyone else writing for an audience. Misspell a name once and watch your credibility as a writer lose weight. Smith might be spelled Smyth, Ford might be Forde, and Poyce might be Powys.
In our shrinking world, we’re meeting people from diverse ethnicities and we come across unfamiliar names. Going that extra step to learn the correct spelling is non-negotiable if you’re attempting to identify someone in writing.
I must admit I have made the mistake. One time, influenced by my amateur sensibilities, I was ready to argue all day that Siobhan is every writer’s trap, and, “doesn’t Chivonne make more sense?” There’s just no excuse for getting it wrong.
In his newsprint reporting course, he automatically failed any assignment that did not accurately identify its subjects. A misspelled name is inaccurate. Might seem harsh, but the A-chasers checked and checked again.
Don’t just do a Google search. Websites can easily follow the wrong leader.
Ask your interview subject for a business card. When it’s time for spell checking, refer to it.
Ask to spell their names during your interview. Now you’ve got it on record.
Google it but also check multiple sources for the right spelling.
When in doubt, call your subject by phone. Confirm by spelling their name back to them aloud.
Remember, when checking with your source “s” can sound like “f” and “t” sounds like “b,c,d,e, g,” etc. You might come off as anal but try saying the phonetic alphabet to be sure. For going to that level of detail, you’ll be appreciated and respected. More importantly, you’ll be right.
Ever spell someone’s name wrong in writing you shared? What were you thinking at the time you made the mistake? What happened?
I recently read Wired magazine’s “Sore Subject” (October 20, 2012), a report and editorial response addressing every journalist’s worst fear: doubt. At issue is an article by Noah Shachtman. The piece, “Russia’s Top Cyber Sleuth Foils US Spies, Helps Kremlin Pals,” profiles Eugene Kaspersky, creator of the Kaspersky internet security software.
Here is what can happen to interview subjects once they’ve read through your published account. Cries of foul, misquotes and inaccuracies emerge and get thrown about. That is precisely the situation in Kaspersky versus Shachtman. Most interesting in this case? How the magazine weighed in. Wired deftly presented points of argument from first, the “Russian security-software magnate” Kaspersky, followed by highlights of Shachtman’s blogged response.
The lesson: record that interview. Sure, you might think it’s a good habit to send the draft copy of your article to your subjects for preview (uh, why?) but first, understand people’s tendency to suffer sober second thoughts. It’s a natural inclination for interview subjects to reconsider what they said. More often than not, they’ll ponder long and hard, especially after people start reacting to their words.
Given that natural instinct, a recording clears up that fog, where sober second thoughts wander ironically in confusion. Faced with the very serious accusation of misquoting, a journalist gets to say: “You said it. I wrote it, I recorded it. Here it is.”
If—in addition to your pages of short-hand scribbles—a recording exists, then managing editors need only request a listen of what was said. As it turns out, Wired stands by its writer, going so far as to state: “Wired believes that Shachtman’s story is fair and accurate.”
Did Shachtman, a seasoned journalist, record his interview with Kaspersky? Did he quote the man from recordings? I don’t know. But if a digital version of that contested interview does exist, then a publication can easily settle the dispute standing by what was said and not by what was meant.