R. Shapiro photo


by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

November 2008

"Nothing enlivens an interview as much as allowing someone to tell what he thinks in his own words."





There are loads of opportunities to publish interviews from your local paper to major ones to blogs. Literary magazines usually have interviews with writers and editors. All you have to do is query an editor. Of course, if you know someone famous who is extremely hard to get to such as Osama Bin Laden, you will be able to publish your interview anywhere. But sometimes an interview with a homeless person or the resident of a trailer park can draw a lot of interest.

It’s all in the way you write it. Nothing enlivens an interview as much as allowing someone to tell what he thinks in his own words. Even if you are the most brilliant writer, nothing will be more interesting than the other person’s words in an interview. Speak in his voice. Be true to how he puts sentences together.

Think about an interview as an opportunity to get to know someone. The more you really want to get to know that person, the better the interview will be. It is also a great way of learning about other professions, backgrounds, attitudes. Not every word that the person says will be put in the essay, but his words can help you create an interview that will inform and entertain the reader. Humor, regionalisms, lingo, words of his trade will convey the interviewee’s enthusiasms and personality. 

The first step in doing an interview is to get permission from the interviewee. If you make a good impression, you’ll be able to get more interviews.

"Be honest about why you’re doing the interview . . ."






Formulate your questions in advance so that you aren’t wasting the person’s time and be able to give the person a sense of what you might be asking so that he will be prepared and also know whether he is willing to answer those questions. Better to be upfront than to get thrown out of someone’s office. Decide how much time you need and tell the interviewee. Be honest about why you’re doing the interview unless you can afford large lawsuits. Some of the people interviewed in the Bill Maher’s Religulous. Make sure you keep in mind the difference in the person’s time zone. Waking someone up at 2:00 am will not help you win him over. Let the person you are interviewing decide when it should take place. If you’re asked, suggest a range of time such as “any afternoon next week,” or “any time on Monday or Thursday.” Let it be up to the interviewee on how he would like to be interviewed, in person, by phone, etc. If he has ease in the format, the interview will go much better. Take some time to just chat in order to gain the interviewer’s trust. Also, something may come up that is more interesting than anything you planned to ask. Go with it. If the interviewee rambles on about his grandchildren when he’s supposed to be speaking about the use of solar energy in his business, don’t just fire other questions at him or sit there and snore. Instead, refer to something the interviewee has already said. “Getting back to what you said earlier…” is a good phrase for this. Ask open-ended questions rather than “yes” or “no” ones. “Why do you write for teens?” is a better question than “Do you like writing for teens?” At the end, as if there is anything further the person has to add. Sometimes you get your best material then. A tape recorder is often better than taking notes which can keep you from making eye contact with the interviewee. 

"Email interviews are best when the person’s input will only be a part of the interview."





A lot of interviews are done by Email today. It gives your interviewee a chance to organize his thoughts instead of speaking off the cuff. It also gives busy people leeway in when they are going to respond. Email interviews are best when the person’s input will only be a part of the interview. But this wouldn’t be a good form if you want a personal interview where the person’s gestures might mean everything. For example, “I had nothing to do with it,” John Bartholomew said, but his shoulders were hunched, his head down.

Often you will use a Q and A format for this and sometimes that is how it is printed. Make sure you give the interviewer a deadline.

William Zissner in On Writing Well says that “the nonfiction writer’s rare privilege is to have the whole wonderful world of real people to write about. When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would a valuable gift.” 





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/