"We are people's medium and their vehicle. It's so strong - this feeling of wanting to say something. People love to talk. The listener is perceived to be sympathetic, like the psychiatrist. You
just keep your mouth shut and you get it."
-- Journalist Janet Malcolm, interviewed by John Lloyd in
The Financial Times, March 9, 2003
Writers of non-fiction, i.e. reporters, have to "get it", no matter what it takes. Some people are eager to talk, while others,
for a variety of reasons, are reluctant, suspicious, even hostile. While researching my book, "Blown Away: American Women and
Guns" many people were extremely reluctant to talk to me. Yet I ended up, over the course of my year's research, getting about
99 percent of the interviews I sought, even with busy, high-level sources who, on first, second or 15th. try, appeared inaccessible.
Some tips for when you hit similar obstacles:
Have a clear objective for each interview: Why are you talking to this particular person? What exactly do you hope they
will add to your story? Have you done enough research on them to know what they are likely to tell you? What do you hope to
accomplish with your interview?
You need time, space and silence: I've done interviews while squatting on the deck of a yacht, in the unlit back seat of
a politician's car bouncing over country roads, while walking fast across a field. Sometimes I could take notes, sometimes not.
The best material is most gettable when you, and your interview subject, have the time to focus completely on your questions
without any intrusions and interruptions. An interview shorter than 30 minutes makes it tough to get anecdotes or color; I
always try to get 40 minutes, which with luck, can stretch to an hour.
Listen: It's tiring to listen carefully while taking copious notes. But people need time to think through an answer, to
develop an argument, to wander off onto a tangent or tell you an anecdote. The more room you give them to speak, without feeling
they are being rushed or herded to a specific conclusion, the more they are likely to tell you.
Empathize: There are few people, no matter how exalted or lowly their position, no matter their wealth or education,
with whom we can't find a small piece of common ground. Maybe it's sports, family, travel, the same alma mater, a love of
Southern food or French literature. Always make room for empathy. People feel it and respond.
Wait it Out: Several people whose insights I considered crucial to my book took, literally, dozens of phone calls and
broken appointments to arrange. If you find someone you think truly essential to your story, call them first, anticipating, at
worst, outright refusal, resistance and/or weeks or months of rejection. Do not give up. Be pleasant, be sincere and communicate
clearly why you truly feel their voice is essential to your project. Sure, some people just won't come through for you. But with
pleasant, polite persistence, success can surprise you.
Drop a Name: Find someone your source knows and respects: a fellow college alum, a colleague, someone from their hometown,
someone whose kids attend the same school. Since you're a reporter they have never met --- and especially if you're not on the
staff of a major publication whose attention they value -- they need a reason to think you might be worth their time. Even if
you might have their phone number handy, it can help to find, and chat with, some people they know before you contact them
directly; this lets you do some re-connaissance, perhaps lets them hear a few good things about you and signals that you've
done your homework. Especially in tight-lipped fields such as law enforcement and medicine, these personal contacts can make or
break the success of your research.