John McPhee’s article in The New Yorker on the art of the interview for nonfiction writers and journalists

NewYorker_McPhee_Interview“Suppose you are in Vermont on a field trip with the world’s ten or fifteen most knowledgeable Appalachian geologists. They gather around an outcrop, and soon an argument heats up about delaminated basements, welding batholiths, and controversial aspects of tectonostratigraphy. You are on the low side of the learning curve and don’t even know terrain from terrane. What to do?”

So asks John McPhee in this month’s The New Yorker article, “Elicitation.” And anyone who has ever been a journalist or has had to interview people knows this nail biting tale. Mr. McPhee was at Time, has been at The New Yorker since 1965, and has written over 30 nonfiction books so if anyone can comment on interviewing, it would be him.

You can’t read the whole article if you don’t have a subscription to the magazine.So for those who want just the main points due to lack of funds or complete disbelief (I hope I’m not the last generation not offended by the idea of paying for content), here are the highlights:

Like a camera, a tape recorder can affect an interview by its very presence. His advice, “use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice–more like a relief pitcher.”

Don’t EVER rely on memory.

“From the start, make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.”

The interviewee will be affected by you scribbling away (or not) on your notepad, adjusting his or her pace and even content according to your scribbling. Be mindful, use to your advantage to keep the interview moving forward.

The appearance of being dumb so you can ask a question again and again until either you get it or you get an answer to a question that was being dodged or inarticulately being expressed is called “creative bumbling.” (It has a name! It must work!)

“Writing is selection.” That’s why  not it completely objective (my thoughts) because you and an editor decide what to put in and what to leave out.

Research is at your discretion: “enough preparation to be polite” is what he recommends. The research also depends on what type of writer you are. He compareshis method to a daily journalist’s trials and tribulations. Since he doesn’t have to turn in a story in a day, he stays somewhere, for weeks or months, and “fades away as I watch people do what they do.” (I’ve done both and a lot of it is personality. I prefer the latter fading-away.)

On quotes: you can “trim and straighten words,” and you have to since speech is not print, but you never make up.

“It is present something that is both verbatim and false.” His answer to quotes that can clunk up sentences with improper pronoun switching or misinterpretation is indirect discourse, i.e. “she said xxxx.”

The article is worth reading in its entirety not least because it’s nonfiction by a master of his craft. It’s riddled with anecdotes, and given Mr. McPhee was in the Show Business department at Time, he’s got plenty. Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, Richard Burton to name a few. He delves into when nonfiction risks going into fiction and how other authors have handled that situation. He goes into this fascinating post of “minders” and how he’s dealt with their presence in his interviews.

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