Decorum and Dare: Crafting the Interview’s Energy
Feb 17 ● BY Emily Ellison
Derived from the French s’entrevoir, to interview is to ‘see each other’—vision gleaned from listening—as a revelation. The interview seeks to open: to unravel, interrogate, and imagine an amended world in which progress begins through questioning perspectives and terms. At the very least, the interviewer should aim to challenge their subject—human and topic—on new terrains. The interview provides space to discover and address the momentum that compels our minds into imagination and companionship—a change in energy simple as a sigh or sudden illumination. This energy is excitement, polite relentlessness, and a need to know.
So how does one prepare a quality interview?
While reading an interviewee’s work, I ask myself: What questions might the author be asking themselves? What moments in their work suggest more to be uncovered there? I like to refer to these places as the “pressure points” of a literary work, places where a topic might have an underlying energy asking to be investigated. Pressure points may involve the intersection of several threads or pertain to the work’s crux, both of which necessitate a more acute and layered response. Locating these areas of density, complication, and elevation of energy might likewise locate where other readers have questions. If the purpose of the interview is to see each other, then perhaps the interviewer’s largest task is to imagine themselves as Audience, to bring to the meal the family’s questions.
What excites you while you read? What are the thematic elements of the work, and are they in conversation with the author’s previous works, a larger literary convention, or the social climate? Most interviewers will ask their author about their processes, so it might be helpful for you to look at how the book achieves its effect through its formal qualities. Questions about processes may address inspiration, lack of inspiration, general assemblage, peer review, revision, final editing, comparison to previous works or methods, etc. Key in to your shared interests—does anything strike you as particularly innovative or difficult to pull off?
Pay attention to common themes—word choice, social climate, diction, and form, yes—but when formulating questions, care not to impose an interpretation on the content in a way that undermines authorial intent or elicits a specific, inorganic answer from the author. The questions, then, should not be too pointed or narrow, but they also should not be too broad, or else the author will most likely reply in a similar broad style. The middle ground affords an answer that can shed light on particular issues—issues that transcend the moment of the story or poem. Nothing kills the vivaciousness of an interview more than the subject defaulting into some prepared speech. So make them think. Avoid dead-end questions. Get them talking. Follow your gut when invigorated or captivated by some pleasure or unknown.
Naturally, an interviewer’s genuine interest not only renders the resulting content idiosyncratic—a product of that particular mind’s curiosity—but also propels the conversation. If we may consider the yet-unasked question as a holder of potential energy, then the unleashed question transfers its energy as a kinetic pendulum that swings from the interviewer to the subject, who should be attentive to both the waning of excitement and excitement itself. Consider the energy of a conversation as a continuous strand peaking and dipping. The interviewer has but a limited control in this environment, waiting for the unscripted and unalterable counterpart to field their crafted prompts. Because the interviewer supplies the shape of the content that the interviewee fills, the interviewer should endeavor to maintain the expansive nature of that shape, monitoring dives into flatness. Think of those expandable plastic link balls that shrink and grow when pulled. A conversation can feel full (indicating passion and complexity) or jagged (indicating disinterest or flat questions). Ideally, we want to carry roundness rather than sharp edges.
In a practical sense, how do you administer this? First we must listen to one another. Listen for inflections, those changes in emotion and pace. The interview is a form of motion, an animal of its own where two minds meet explosively. Sometimes the interviewee must pause for contemplation; this is important, as is catching a brief smile. See each other—meeting face to face often means vulnerability and greater impact. Stay present and informed. Look outward. I enjoy asking authors how their work answers to, is in conversation with, or might challenge abstract concepts such as grace or generosity or truth. If literature hopes to evoke empathy and incite change, it seems imperative that we ask how we can grow.
Energy is fluid. When moving through your questions, consider the conversation’s current direction and your dream objectives for what you are exploring. What do you wish to discover, or what causes your interviewee to burrow into their mind and radiate? How can you arrive there? Energy, at times, requires invigorating and subduing. Intent listening aids the necessary tool of adaptation.
Your diligence in the transcription process shows and can make or break your content. Neglecting the natural end of one sentence as it fades into another can alter what was said; on the other end, polishing the subject’s imperfect speech can shape a diamond. Attune to the speaker’s natural rhythms and syntax; attempt to depict their personality through punctuation. Sometimes people repeat a certain introductory phrase or trail off without grammatically completing the sentence, and you might need to omit a “so” or insert a word to conclude a dangling modifier. These edits are beneficial to the speaker as long as their omission or addition changes nothing about the content. Simple edits can really make a piece shine. You want to show your subject in the best light.
The process of transcribing interviews has enriched my understanding of grammar and, subsequently, how its application affects content. Of course, I previously knew the differences between periods, commas, dashes, and semicolons; however, never before did I so acutely consider the way a minor bit of punctuation can influence what is said. What has been truly impactful was having to listen, and relisten, to recorded speech to tease out a person’s sentences. I became highly familiar, even dearly fond, of the cadences and delights of my interviewees’ voices. Yet most people, even “masters of language,” don’t always speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences that discuss all of Point A before moving on to Point B. Instead, many people converse in a fragmented way: beginning and beginning again, trailing off, digressing, repeating an earlier A topic in the current C topic. By learning how to accurately transcribe—and, above all else, working with consideration for the interviewee’s image—I began to daily shape my own vocal projections as something akin to the projects I worked on. I also learned how to spark people into enlightenment through a series of crucial inquiries—or, just as conversation seeks to assist others, “helping them.” The interviewer’s gift is the role of caretaker and the resulting knowledge that was hopefully birthed on the spot. Whenever we speak, we have the opportunity to craft something wonderful. Why not?
The role of Interviews Editor was selected for me. Ironically, I had and still have anxiety about speaking to others because speech is a performance. I’ve had awkward moments, and I’ve had to improvise after I acquainted myself with the mind of my subject. Yet I am appreciative and in awe at how my ideas about the purpose of speaking have been transformed. I want to hear from my companion something previously untold. I want to generate novelty from myself, which frequently means permission to be unsure, raw, and available for my listener’s reply.
Most people want to be heard. The interview, however daunting that term may seem, is essentially just a conversation in which both participants agree to dance without looking away, fielding the stumbles and rises.