Interviewing is useful for nonfiction and fiction writers. When we interview, we are researching, digging for information. What we ask about might not always be pretty or even seem relevant to our subject or to an audience. We are excavating raw material for our work, an entertainment we will craft later, something that will be effective if our raw material here, at this stage, is good.

Mining for Words
The raw materials we’re seeking are words. That’s what we will put on the page and those are what we’ll count on to engage our reader. We know that those words will have to be concrete and dynamic. We want to have concrete sensory information in our work, because that is what evokes imaginative experience for our reader. We will want to lead our interview subjects toward these concrete details as much as possible while giving them free reign to express their opinions and feelings, which, in terms of our information gathering, is less valuable for us, but can be crucial in its moment. It is OK and even good to interrupt your interview subject (you have to gauge this) to ask about sensory details—it can even be beneficial because sensory details inspire the imagination by driving the subject back into lived experience.

Ask questions that are specific and yield detailed information. Stick to the facts of scene: specific people, specific place, and specific time. Gently move from subjective information, summaries and conclusions, to objective information about experience. Ask “Where were you then?” “What were you doing?” Entering questions generally and then getting specific can work well. For example, you could ask, “Who were you with?” Then, “What kind of man was he?” Then, “What did he look like?” Then, “Did he have any quirks? Was there something he always did?” Always move toward detail.

An Interview Trick
Because I know I am mining for concrete detail and dynamic relationships, I split my note paper into three (I also tape record). At the top of my paper, I concentrate on “process,” what happened in order, with attention to the detail of action moment to moment. In one lower box I write down all the nouns I hear. I’ll want to follow up on these for more detail. For example, my subject might say, “I walked along the street.” I’ll want to ask some detailed questions about that street because I want to recreate it in the imagination of my reader. In the other box, I’ll write, “Dynamics.” These are the verbs—the relationships between things. If my subject mentions his father, I’ll ask about the relationship of the subject with the father. “Did you like him?” “Did you get along?” As you follow these questions of dynamic relationship keep asking “Why?” This can be a little aid, but choose methods that work for you.

They are the Subject and You are the Story-teller
Keep in mind that interview subjects think they get to tell the story. I’ll suggest that that isn’t the case. You are the writer. That is your job. Steer your subject away from analysis and meaning. You get the material and then you find and craft the story.

In interview we are doing research. We are looking for information, but we are also considering the voice. We want to get what the person says and how they say it. Notice too that most people tend to have conversational patterns. They might respond consistently in the negative or move from specific to vague. These patterns not only convey information but also character. We know information is important to our work, but the voice and manner of the interview subject will also be important if we quote the material and develop character.

Mirror information back to your subject so that your subject knows you are hearing accurately. Then tack on further questions. You will want to be recursive but also move forward. Interviewing is an art. It takes practice. It is flattering to your subject to get back to them with follow up questions, so don’t worry about covering everything your first time around. Try to stay conscious of gaps in logic, chronological gaps, and omitted details—ask about them. This is where the gold is.

Interviewing Yourself
Now a big idea: When you are writing about personal experience, interview yourself. Don’t just work from memory. Your personal history is a type of research material, but it is a poor one if what you are doing is not digging into the past but instead simply remembering in the present. Do that little trick with the paper, separating it into three to inspire some questions. Delving into detail will inspire your imagination and help you see the past more clearly. And don’t let yourself off the hook. You’ll probably be your toughest subject. Good luck.