As I’ve previously written, having other sources when ghostwriting a memoir fleshes out a story with different points of view, confirms details, and helps neutralize the “unreliable narrator.”
To get these details, however, a ghostwriter often needs to interview those other sources, so this is about how to do that effectively.
Like with the entire book-writing process, you’ll need a method to maximize the information you’ll get from interviewing other people. Preparation is key.
Before you even contact the person to arrange an interview, figure out what you want from the person. Why are you interviewing them? What do they have to offer to further the story you’re writing? How much information do you want or need? How much time do you think it will take to get that information? What areas, subjects, or time frames do you want to cover in this interview?
Once you answer these questions, you can contact the person and set up an interview for some time in the future, whether in person, online, or on the phone. Agree to a place where there will be minimal distractions. Agree to meet at some future time to give the person time to think about what they’re going to say. So, let’s meet next Tuesday. That will give you time to think about the subpoena and subsequent court case, which we’ll cover, for example.
At some point before the interview, write out a list of questions you want to ask. Make sure they’re open-ended questions, the kind that begin with who, what, where, when, how, and why. Organize them in any way you want: by chronology, by subject, by which topics are easier/harder to deal with, etc.
Day of interview
If you’re going to record the interview, make sure your recording device works. I would still bring paper and multiple writing utensils to the interview as backup. If you’re meeting in person, it’s OK to bring the list of questions.
Start by thanking the person for taking the time to meet and remind them of what you’re going to cover. Establish any ground rules you need, such as “If the subject is too painful, just let me know and we’ll stop” or “Understand that whatever you say will get back to my client.”
Once the interview begins, remember two things: listen and don’t argue facts.
Ask you question, and then listen. Do not answer your own question. When you ask open-ended questions, the person will give longer answers, which you want because more information gives you more options to use the info or not. Long answers also inevitably lead to other questions, so write those down and wait for the right moment to ask them. The right moment is anytime you don’t interrupt them.
The less you say, the more the person will elaborate. People hate silence, so they’re more likely to talk more. The only time I recommend interrupting them is if they move to topics that you either aren’t ready to discuss or are irrelevant to what you’re covering.
Because memories are faulty and unreliable, people might tell you things that contradict what others told you. Don’t argue. Assume they’re being truthful. If warranted, you could tell them that this other person said something else and ask for a reaction.
Get through the questions as fast as possible. Be professional.
Conclude the interview by thanking them again. If you know you’re going to interview them again, it’s OK to tell them when you expect to come back to them and what you might cover, if you have an idea.
An interview process will make getting that additional information from other sources that much easier, giving you more opportunities to tell a more well-rounded story.
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