Monday, December 13, 2010

Mentor Monday: The Phone Interview

If you write nonfiction for kids, it's likely you'll be interviewing an expert on your topic. In most cases, it will be unavoidable. It is, in fact, mandatory in most cases.

Unless you can afford to fly or drive to your expert, you'll need to conduct your interview on the phone or via Skype. Some folks find this prospect absolutely terrifying. But, if you want to have a career as a children's writer, you must put these feelings aside. Editors expect nonfiction writers to use primary sources. Including talks with real experts as part of your primary source research could make the difference between you getting the assignment or not getting it.

Besides, talking directly to an expert opens doors for interesting, kid-friendly (and editor-friendly) side material you may not find by reading an article.

To me, the most surprising thing about doing phone interviews is how much easier it becomes once you've done one. You realize that people are not ogres. Most are, in fact, delighted to talk about their chosen field of expertise. In my experience, experts love talking to children's writers because it means introducing kids to a topic that has fascinated them for many, many years – in some cases it's a passion they developed during their childhood.

Here are some tips to make your phone interview experience much more enjoyable.

  • First, find your experts. As you research your topic, take note of the names that come up. Also note where you first found that person's name. If you're unable to locate the expert, you can contact the original author of the article or blog where you discovered this expert's name. He or she may have the expert's contact information.
  • When you have an expert's name, do an internet search to find out more about that person. You'll likely find other references and, most likely, contact information. If a search offers no direct way to contact your expert, keep digging. If you can find what entity the person works for, a call to the switchboard can get you started. I've been known to find people just by knowing their home town and then doing a search through
  • Be aware that you may encounter the gate-keepers – people who feel it's their duty to protect their bosses or colleagues from talking to you. You must persist. I once needed to interview a well-known politician in my state. It practically took an act of Congress to get to her. I kept trying. She was none to happy to find her 'people' had made it so difficult to gain access.
  • My preferred first contact is via email. I write so much better than I talk. In an email, I can take my time to introduce myself and tell the expert why I want to talk to her. On the rare occasions when I had to make a cold call, I had a loose script prepared that outlined the same things – the reason I want to talk.
  • Tell the expert the age level you're writing for, and the general direction your manuscript is headed. I avoid giving specific questions ahead of time. I find that some experts will stick solely to the questions asked ahead of time. I prefer a more open conversation.
  • Tell the interview subject that you will probably need no more than fifteen minutes for the initial conversation. Fifteen minutes seems to be reasonably do-able for even the busiest expert.
  • If you do have to make a call, never expert to conduct the interview right then and there. I always find it best to set up the interview for a time in the not-to-distant future. That said, if your first contact is through a phone call, the expert might be ready for you right then and there. Be prepared!
  • Being prepared means learning all you can about your subject. It is not the expert's job to give you a basic education on the topic you're writing about. An educated interviewer can speak with confidence about a subject.
  • By the time you're talking to your expert, you should have made a list questions to ask – just five or six should do at this point. On your notepad, suggest to yourself possible follow-up questions, but be flexible. If you don't get to all your questions, you can arrange for a follow-up questions at a later date.
  • I usually start the conversation with general house-keeping questions that lead me into the heart of the matter. These are simple things like the correct spelling of the person's name, his or her title, the name of the institution/department he or she works for. I also ask for the person's physical mailing address so I can send a copy of the work when it's finally published. This opening gambit seems to quiet my racing heart so I can just ease into my first real question.
  • Once the person starts talking, be sure to listen. It's easy for your mind to be anticipating the next question, but you may miss something important if you do. This is the case even if you're recording the conversation. You need to be ready to ask a follow-up question if you hear something interesting or unusual from your expert. Also, don't be afraid to ask for clarification if you don't understand something.The expert is going to want you to get it right.
  • I sometimes find little gems when I ask the expert what surprising information they know that may have not made it into print. It's yielded some great stuff that I've used – including an interesting power struggle between archaeologists and cops I chronicled in Bog Bodies. The expert was delighted that I was so interested in that aspect of the story. It was one that no other writer or journalist had felt important enough to cover. It made fascinating fodder for a kids' book.
  • If your expert veers too far off on a tangent, be prepared to bring her back. Its tempting to let the expert ramble, but your time is valuable, too. Think ahead to some polite and gentle ways you can get her back on track.
  • Try to end the conversation at the agreed-upon time, unless your subject is still giving you fascinating information. Also, be aware of your interview subject's energy level -- don't drag the conversation along when she's clearly ready to quit talking.
  • End the conversation by asking if you can contact your expert again, and her preferred form of contact. You may also want to consider asking if she can suggest someone else you should talk to. She may be able to put you in touch with other experts. Networking is a great writers' tool.
  • Some people like to record their conversations. I find it helpful, but not absolutely necessary. Transcribing a whole conversation is very tedious. My preferred method is to write while the expert is talking. I explain that I am handwriting my notes, and will sometimes ask the person to be patient while I write. I find this helpful, because it tends to slow down the conversation, and gives time for the expert to think as I finish writing. Silence can be golden!
  • If you do choose to tape record, you must ask your subject if it's okay to do so. Most folks say yes. 
  • Should you send your subject a copy of your manuscript to see if you got the facts right? Some of your experts may ask for this. I try to avoid it, but in some cases, I've sent it. For Ice Maiden of the Andes the expert got back to me with his (minor) corrections after the book had gone to print. I saved those corrections for a future reprinting.
  • Be sure to follow up with a note of thanks. And don't forget to send a copy of the published book or article to your expert if it's appropriate.
Phone interviews are a piece of cake!


Mur said...

"I sometimes find little gems when I ask the expert what surprising information they know that may have not made it into print."

You've also been very successful in getting subjects to share family photos for your stories when you've made these personal connections.

Terrific entry, Jet!

I'm Jet . . . said...

Ah, I didn't think about that aspect, Mur! Yes, it has been helpful in that way.