In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 177.
I used to dread research. Well, I liked reading. If I didn’t have to talk to anyone in order to complete a manuscript, that was fine by me.
But there are drawbacks to relying on books and web searches: You can’t control what someone else chooses to write about, and you may do a lot of sifting in order to find mere snippets of what you’re looking for, an offhand mention in an article about something else. If you’re fascinated by, I don’t know, the smells that permeate an immunology lab, maybe you’ll find information about that and maybe you won’t. There are things a writer wants to know that the expert herself may not realize are actually compelling—and therefore has not written about. I like to imagine my characters in particular spaces, to know what they are doing in their offices or kitchens until I figure out what I need them to do. But Googling what, say, a doctor does upon entering an exam room may or may not help you out. What will help is a half-hour conversation with a doctor, who can tell you what she notices about a patient’s posture, expression, and conversation. Or if your character’s kid has a rare health condition, a chat with a person who has actually raised a child with that condition can reveal small but meaningful details that wouldn’t show up in a newspaper article about the illness.
My point is that sometimes even writers have to talk to people. Once I tried interviewing, I discovered it’s my favorite kind of research. I’ll give you an example of how it’s come in handy. In researching my novel Wine People (Zibby Books, 2023), the first thing I did was talk to someone like my characters: a woman who’d worked in wine importing. She gave me reams of invaluable information, but one of the best tidbits was about what kept her from returning to the business. I thought she’d say the obstacles were her family, her kids, the travel. Instead she said, “My teeth.” The harsh young wines she had to taste are murder on teeth, it turns out, a detail I included in my book that readers mention to me again and again. I’d never have gotten it from Googling.
So what do you need to get started as an interviewer? Begin by asking around. E-mail the people you know who might have direct experience with the subject you’re interested in or might know someone who does. I began my primary research for Wine People by interviewing a friend who owns a wine store, which was a low-stress way to figure out what I wanted to know. Then I asked her who else I should talk to, and she sent me to three others. Those people later connected me to still more people. Another strategy is to put out a call on social media for the people you hope to connect with. I posted on Facebook that I was seeking wine professionals of all stripes, and that alone yielded at least half a dozen replies. Depending on how esoteric your topic is, you may find that the challenge is not finding people to interview but finding more than you have time for.
Once you have scheduled an interview, you have to decide how to conduct the conversation. If you want to meet in person, great. But a call or Zoom meeting also works well, especially for busy people who don’t have an extra hour to drive somewhere and back. Make it easy on your subjects! Be sure to record your interview (and to ask permission to do so ahead of time). You can do this on your phone’s voice memos, on Zoom, and so on. The benefit of recording is that you can focus on the conversation in the moment and not have your head down while you’re scrawling notes. By all means, jot down a word or two to highlight key points. But tech is your friend here.
You may feel as if you have no credentials to do this, but that’s okay. Just say what you’re there for: I’m a writer working on a short story, and I don’t know where it’s going yet. I’m getting to know the world of the narrative and just have some open-ended questions. And so on. Be honest about how you might use what interviewees tell you: If you’re writing an article for a newspaper, for example, you should let the person know whether you intend to quote them using their real name. If you’re going to write fiction, will you disguise everything except a small detail or anecdote?
There are pitfalls to interviewing people, which I have generally learned by falling into them. For instance, even though you are having the time of your life asking question after question, and your interlocutor may enjoy telling you about her life, you have to watch the time. Try to aim for thirty minutes, confirm the duration before the interview, and stick to it. You can always ask if the subject is amenable to a follow-up call or e-mail, but try to get what you need from that first conversation, and don’t assume another is forthcoming.
Try not to waste your precious interview time on anything you can read about. Books and the internet are perfect for the boring and bureaucratic stuff. I literally bought a book called How to Import Wine, and it was my go-to for basic process descriptions. But I focused my interviews on more experiential questions. Understand your characters and the situation they’re in. What are the blank spots in your story? That’s a good place to start. Ask the subject about the little things: sensory details, tiny moments that signal something is wrong, what success looks like in their field, or any random memory that comes to mind as they talk. Tell them not to worry about whether what they say is useful. Maybe it won’t be—but it might take you somewhere exciting. Sometimes you luck out and a person offers up exactly what you want. Other times the person might not have what you need. How they think, what they recall, or their experiences simply are not what you’re seeking. If this happens, try a few more questions, thank them profusely for their generosity, and save the file in case it yields something you may grasp later.
Interviewing wine insiders made my novel stronger by giving me a much clearer sense of the world in which my story was set than I could have invented on my own. It helped me figure out what the story would be and informed my characters. And it was more fun than I’d expected. The only true struggle was to stop interviewing and start writing.
Michelle Wildgen’s fourth novel, Wine People, was published by Zibby Books in August. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times’ Modern Love column and Book Review; and other publications.Art: Michal Czyz