Intro from Jay Allison: This piece was produced as part of the Transom Story Workshop Spring 2015 session. Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.
About “The King Of The Rings”
Here are some lessons I learned making this piece:
The only thing that means “no” (as in, “No, I don’t want to be interviewed.”) is “no” itself. Unreturned phone calls don’t mean “no.” Somebody else saying that so-and-so doesn’t like speaking to the media doesn’t mean “no.” Even a glowering look — or what appears to be one — doesn’t mean “no.” So ignore “no”-ish signs and press on. That’s what Rob encouraged me to do, and it worked: I got the interview, and it unlocked the entire story. (Also, never forget that peoples’ lives are complicated; a potential source may be legitimately preoccupied in ways you can’t imagine.)
In terms of coming up with story ideas, just hanging around an interesting place and hoping for the best isn’t enough. You have to be aggressive (in a good way — curious and persistent, but not pushy) about asking questions designed to uncover story-worthy dramas and personalities. Don’t rely on your interviewees to casually mention gold nuggets.
If you’re working with kids, workers, or anybody else who might want a superior’s approval before speaking on mic, and if it makes sense for the story, get the superior’s permission first. My interviewees opened up the moment they knew they wouldn’t get in trouble for talking to me. It also helps to be very forward about who you are, what you’re doing, and why.
Asking an interviewee to repeat what they’ve said doesn’t work, in my experience. People snap into “rehearsed-statement” mode. They get flustered, and their responses don’t sound natural. So instead of asking for a do-over, rephrase the question later in the interview or find another more subtle way to get a repeat.
Jon’s Sonic ID
I was on the ferry back from Martha’s Vineyard. There was nowhere to sit, and it was cold on deck, so I wound up standing alone in a quiet stairwell, looking out at the sea through a large window. At some point, a smallish woman with a haggard look appeared. We stood in silence for about 10 minutes — nervous and bored, I obsessively photographed a fruit fly on the window — and then Bonnie struck up a conversation. I asked what she’d been doing on the Vineyard, and when she said, “Visiting a friend in jail,” I reached for my microphone. To my surprise and delight, Bonnie was happy and comfortable speaking on mic. My only mistake was chickening out when it came to asking for her last name.