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Interviewing With Your Skeptical Brain

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Listen to “Interviewing With Your Skeptical Brain”

While she was a student at the Transom Story Workshop last fall, Sally Helm found herself navigating one of the hardest aspects of interviewing: lead or let go.

How much control should you exercise? Do you take charge or let the conversation develop organically? Do you interrupt an interviewee or just let them talk? How long do you let a conversation veer off topic? How much can you push back and challenge?

You don’t need to be a student to struggle with those issues. I think most reporters encounter this tension. In fact, Robert Smith of Planet Money visited during the Transom Workshop Sally attended. And, one night during his visit, Robert, Jay Allison, and the class were chatting after dinner about interviewing and Sally remembers the discussion turned to this topic.

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Listen to “The hunter and the farmer method of interviewing”

Sally utilized the “farmer method” for her first story which was about a sculptor. In hindsight, while she understands its benefits, she wasn’t pleased with the outcome. The interviews ran long and she should have challenged the sculptor more.

Sally started off using the “farmer method” reporting her second story on the 1977 Martha’s Vineyard secession movement. That, too, didn’t pan out.

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Listen to “Switching to hunter mode”

Sally explains much more about her interview experiences on this edition of HowSound. And, we feature her Martha’s Vineyard secession story in its entirety. You can find out more about Sally, as well as the piece, here.

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  • Andrew Whitacre

    1.15.16

    Reply

    Sally, thanks for letting us listen in on your process. Rob, thanks for once again letting my brain escape my bus and T ride. A follow-up for both of you…

    Do you (or interviewers generally) shy away from — or edit out — questions that might take some of the punch out of a good story? For example, in Sally’s piece, I was waiting for what seemed like natural final questions: “How have things worked out since you started sharing a state representative? Were you right that things are worse now?” The question hung in the air when your interview subject said he’s older now and wouldn’t push for secession again. I’d have been scared to ask those questions on the chance that I got the answer “Oh it turned out fine. In the end it wasn’t a big deal,” unless I knew I’d be able to make the story more about those times when we look back at our stubborn pride and see ourselves as silly.

    Or more generally, when storytellers describe places or a community as it was decades ago, do they have an obligation to mention how it’s the same or different today? Like, if I were recounting the unexpected depth of racism that showed itself around Boston’s forced busing in the 70’s, would I be obliged to describe the state of racism in Boston today?

    • Sally Helm

      2.01.16

      Reply

      Hi Andrew! Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and apologies for the long delay in response!

      I think the answer to your first question is yes, with some caveats. I did have some material that would have taken the punch out of the story, and I did decide to make it less of a focus in the final version. In my first interview with John Alley, we talked a lot about the aftermath of the secession movement. John pretty much said that things worked out okay, and that he was fine with the compromise that they came to. I tried to work that in by including his statements about how he wouldn’t be in favor of secession now, and how as you get older you learn that you have to “cut your losses and get on with things.” But I also decided to spend the bulk of the story talking about how things progressed during the movement itself, when passions were running high (including John’s own passions). This was the most interesting part of the story to me. The question of whether Martha’s Vineyard should have its own state representative was the spur for the movement, but I think the energetic way that people embraced secession had more to do with how people feel about Martha’s Vineyard than with the actual details of representation. I didn’t feel shy asking questions about how things ultimately worked out–in fact, I felt like I definitely had to ask those questions! But I ultimately decided that the more interesting thing was the way that the movement picked up steam, and so I set the story mostly in the past, coming back to the present briefly at the end to show how John’s view has changed.

      Your second question is really interesting, and I think the Boston busing example is a great one to think through. If I were reporting a historical story that parsed the some aspects of racism in Boston in the 70’s, I don’t think I’d feel that I was obligated to bring it into the present. If there was a satisfying story arc in the past, I’d feel comfortable telling that story. That said, I’d want to think about how my present-day audience will hear the story. I wouldn’t want people to come away from that story with the sense that racism is something that’s over and done with. So, I wouldn’t want to end the story by saying something like, “and then the controversy ended and it all worked out!” because that wouldn’t feel complete to me. The way that things have progressed since the 70’s would prove that wrong. On the other hand, it’s probably true in some ways that things have gotten better since the 70’s–but if I was telling a historical story, I’d still want to convey the truth of racism as it was felt at the time. I’d do that by trying to capture the way people felt and acted then, even if their view has changed now. BUT, if people’s views have changed significantly, (ie, if I interviewed some people involved in the racism who are now critical of their own actions) I think I’d feel some obligation to my sources to reflect that. I guess generally, if the way things are now substantially changes the way we think about the past, then I would feel like I needed to acknowledge that in some way. In the secession story, I tried to land on the idea that we sometimes give up our youthful passions as we get older and more practical, but to still try to convey and encapsulate the youthful passions as they were felt at the time.

      Thanks again for these questions!

  • Jay Allison

    1.18.16

    Reply

    Maybe, Sally, you’re a farmer who never goes into the garden without your bow and arrow.

    • Sally Helm

      2.01.16

      Reply

      That sounds about right!!

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