NO DANGER WITH STRANGERS: Conduct - and Prepare for - Interviews That Will Get Even the Haters to Talk

By Nelson, Dean | The Quill, July/August 2017 | Go to article overview

NO DANGER WITH STRANGERS: Conduct - and Prepare for - Interviews That Will Get Even the Haters to Talk


Nelson, Dean, The Quill


I love the movie "Almost Famous." It has a compelling story about a kid who wants to write about rock music; it has good acting (Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Francis McDormand, Zooey Deschanel, Jimmy Fallon, and a one-second appearance by Mitch Hedberg); early scenes are shot in my home town of San Diego; it's based on an experience of a local celebrity (Cameron Crowe); it has good music and more.

But one of the main reasons is it's also an instructional movie about interviewing.

Early in the film you see the 15-year-old William Miller character get rejected for the interview he wanted, but he improvises when another band shows up and he sees an opportunity to interview them.

"Hi, I'm a journalist. I write for Creem Magazine," he says, holding a copy of the publication in the air.

"The enemy!" one of the musicians yells. "A rock writer!"

"I'd like to interview you or someone from the band," William says.

One of the band members dismisses the young journalist with a pointed expletive, and they keep walking toward the stage door.

William, however, wasn't just any 15-year-old kid.

"Russell. Jeff. Ed. Larry," William says to the band members, instantly gaining credibility. "I really love your band. I think the song 'Fever Dog' is a big step forward for you guys. I think you guys producing it yourselves, instead of Glyn Johns, was the right thing to do. And the guitar sound was incendiary."

The backstage door opens and they pull him in with them.

For 22 years I have conducted interviews with great writers at the annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea in San Diego. The writers include Dave Eggers, Mary Karr, Amy Tan, Anne Lamott, Ray Bradbury, George Plimpton, Rick Reilly, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Bill Moyers, Nikki Giovanni, Chris Hedges, Bill McKibben, Michael Eric Dyson, Tracy Kidder and dozens of others.

I have also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, USA Today, Voice of San Diego, San Diego Magazine and several other magazines, websites and newspapers, where I have interviewed a lot of people from all walks of life. I have interviewed the famous and obscure; I have interviewed those I admire and those I despise.

This experience (and watching "Almost Famous" a few times) has helped me reach some conclusions about the process of interviewing. There are reasons why they work and why they don't, why you get a good-spirited conversation and why you get crickets, why you get great quotes and why you get clichés.

Despite the importance of data journalism and all other online methods, there is still a fundamental need to tell stories that involve human beings as sources. Our stories need their analysis, perspective, tone, insight, detail, nuance, color or shared humanity. Regardless of whether our sources are shy or outgoing (and whether we are shy or outgoing), all journalists need to know how to talk to people.

And no matter how many or how few interviews you have conducted, there are some universal points to consider that will make your interviews better. You may even get a source to say to you, as the band member did to William, "Well don't stop there!" even when he had just called you the enemy a few moments before.

IT STARTS IN YOUR HEAD. WHO DO YOU WANT TO INTERVIEW?

When a magazine hired me to write about a contentious race for district attorney in San Diego, I made a list of who I would need to talk to. The incumbent DA and the challenger, of course. I would need their perspective on their own qualifications and on their opponent. Who were the other stakeholders? People in the DA's office, people who used to work for the DA and the challenger, other attorneys, police officers, the previous DA, local politicians, people who experienced the court system under this DA.

That's a pretty big list, but they all didn't need to be lengthy interviews; only a few did. What made this manageable is that I thought through who I wanted for this story and why I wanted their perspective. …

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