Everyone loves to talk about themselves and the things that matter to them.
To be sure of a good interview here is a list of points to bear in mind.
1. Research the subject well beforehand. Decide your angle or approach.
2. Track down suitable interviewees through organisations, libraries and industries, agents etc. Politely approach your subject with your request. Phone to say who you are, why you would like to write about them.
3. Think through what you need to know and make a list of questions. But avoid asking questions that elicit only a no or yes. Be open-ended.
4. Start with an easy one. ‘Tell me how you got started at . . .’ Once you get them talking, don’t interrupt, simply encourage and jog their memories or slip in your next question when they pause, or if they stray too far from what you want.
5. Don’t make prolific notes as your subject talks. It can be very off-putting for them. Either write it up afterwards, or better still use a dictaphone. Be friendly and get them talking, then slip it out when your interviewee is in full flow and say, ‘This is interesting, you don’t mind if I use this, do you?’
6. If they start sharing personal matters with you, you may need to turn off your recorder.
7. Save your most important questions till last. By then they will be in full flow and probably tell you more than you need.
8. If you wish to take a photograph of your interviewee, do ask if they will be happy with that.
9. If you need more info, ask them to suggest someone else who could tell you more, or talk about another subject of interest.
10. Write up the material as soon as possible after the interview. Remember that transcribing can take a long time. Keep the odd quote, the rest can be your interpretation of what was said. Finally, write and thank your interviewee and you can always ask them to check the info they’ve given you when you write it in your novel.
I often interview people when I'm working on a book, and they readily find time to share their memories with me of the work they used to do whether in the mill or munitions, farming or forestry, war or peace. One was wonderful Betty, an elderly lady I interviewed for Gracie’s Sin. Betty joined the Women's Timber Corps, a branch of the Land Army, at just 17 in 1942, being too young to join the WRNS. Here she is standing at the front of this line.
The girls were trained by foresters too old to fight, and were allowed only a matter of weeks to learn how to do the job. Betty worked most of the war in Grizedale Forest close to the German POW Camp, which was strictly for officers. She remembers that she had to show her pass to allow her to walk through the camp gates to reach the forest to work. There was a sentry on guard who would say: ‘Halt, who goes there? Friend or Foe?’
‘Friend,’ she would say.
‘Advance friend to be recognised.’
So Betty would show her pass and be allowed through.
The POWs used to march up and down the road for exercise. They’d make comments to the girls and the guard would shout at them, ‘Eyes front.’
There was a machine gun trained on them the whole time. ‘We are German Officers and if we say we will not escape, we will keep our word.’
Of course, escape attempts were common, particularly when they were out working in the forest. If they could reach the coast they could get to Ireland, but none succeeded. They would all be caught later on the fells in a sorry state. Trouble-makers were taken up to London in a blacked out car for interrogation. I found out a great deal more from Betty than I’d hoped for. It was definitely worth the hours we spent chatting.