Sunday, 22 January 2012

Interviewing for a book

One of the reasons that I'm back in Britain is to meet and interview several people for a possible new biography.  The subject of the book (can't reveal the name yet!)  lived through the 20th century, so there are many people alive who knew them, which is both a blessing and a difficulty. 


When I wrote the Catherine Cookson biography many, many people wanted to talk to me and seemed desperate to give me information, but hardly anyone was willing to be quoted publicly because they feared a backlash.  To a biographer, information you can't reference is virtually worthless.  You have to be very careful of the libel laws in England, because they are much more stringent than anywhere else in the English speaking world.  People's feelings matter too, even if the material you have is true.   So I have to be very sensitive to those who are still alive and may be hurt by something I publish.  That is always a big dilemma for the biographer.

I love talking to people and am always impressed by how kind they are and how generous with their time. This week I'm just having exploratory chats in order to establish the background, so that I know what information I'm going to have to ask for in further interviews.  The most difficult interviewees are often people who work in the media, or are prominent in public life, who may ask you to submit questions in advance, which is difficult if you haven't met them before and don't know how close their relationship was with the subject, or what material they have in their possession.  You simply don't know which questions you need to ask.

There are some ethical rules for interviewing - always ask if you can record the interview, if that's what you intend.  Only once have I recorded secretly - a meeting with a very difficult individual who was denying information he'd already given me over the phone and was threatening to sue me if I quoted him.   I feared he was going to misrepresent my own words in the tabloid press, so I recorded our conversation just in case.  Recording is better than taking notes (though I take a few of those too, just in case there's a glitch) because you spend a lot of time writing rather than listening and it interrupts the flow.

I try always to let the interviewee have a summary of the interview afterwards, particularly the parts I want to quote from, so that they have the opportunity to draw back from publication, and to correct any errors that I might have made. 

I do lots of homework beforehand - reading as much material as I can and trying to make sure I've got the relationships clear.  I once interviewed someone who was a twin and got the twins' names the wrong way round.  Very embarrassing and very unprofessional.   

There's usually a list of questions in my notebook, but other questions come up in conversation and you have to be prepared for them  - like ripples in a pond, you can go a very long way from the starting point!

So, a very interesting week and it's not over yet.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds very exciting! Look forward to hearing more

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