Years ago, I met once a week, 9 a.m. sharp, with a therapist whom I will call Dr. Mason. We would settle in well-worn chairs, Dr. Mason, a slender, balding middle-ager in blazer and striped tie, and me, an anxious academic in Levi’s and tweeds. Sometimes I’d plunge into whatever was on my mind, but other times we would sit and look at each other in silence as I struggled for words. But Dr. Mason had a simple method of getting me to begin. He would lean slightly forward, all the while maintaining eye contact and then when he got my attention, he would nod.
I will never forget that nod; it was a signal that he was with me and I could safely express myself about whatever was on my mind, but I realize now that he was controlling the conversation. A cursory nod encouraged. Elongated ups and downs, (and the raising of eyebrows!) symbolized agreement. And if I got off course, he would alertly break his silence and redirect me. I was playing the music, but Dr. Mason was the conductor.
This is the first lesson for writers — or anyone — who conducts interviews: If you want someone to talk, you’ve got to know how to listen. And good listening is a surprisingly active process. The interviewee is your focus of attention; you are there to hear what he says and thinks, exclusively.
When I say, “interviewing,” I am talking from the perspective of a narrative or creative nonfiction writer. Interviewing for news is somewhat different; reporters usually know, more or less, the information they need to unearth. The writer of narrative, by contrast, is often seeking the unknown — the story behind the facts. You won’t always know the story until you hear it; your job as an interviewer, often, is to keep your subject talking.
This is where interviewing is not so different from therapy. Dr. Mason got me to talk using nods, winks and grimaces. In his quest to uncover stories, John McPhee, a master of the form, also employs a certain amount of manipulation, according to his friend and colleague William L. Howarth. In his introduction to “The John McPhee Reader,” Mr. Howarth writes about Mr. McPhee’s interviewing techniques. “His speech slows, his brow knits . . . When repeating answers, he so garbles them that a new answer must be provided. Some informants find his manner relaxing, others are exasperated; in either case they talk more freely and fully to him than they would to a reporter.” McPhee, for his part, maintains that his “air of density” is not purposeful, “but he does not deny its useful results.” For the creative nonfiction writer, those useful results are usually unforgettable stories.
For my book, “Almost Human: Making Robots Think,” I followed a team of roboticists who built a robot, Zoë, designed to detect signs of life — eventually, they hoped, on Mars — through the use of fluorescent dyes that Zoë sprayed on the terrain. Ideally, if all went well, Zoë would be capable of examining soil samples after spraying the dyes and then send signals back to a command post with information about the content of the soil being tested.
I tagged along when the roboticists took Zoë to the Atacama Desert in Chile, the place on Earth most like Mars, for an initial run-through. But at the outset, the dyes failed to radiate enough energy to adequately penetrate the surface and therefore complete the tests. The roboticists were stymied until the chief scientist, Dr. Alan Waggoner, determined that Zoë needed to spray the terrain with water prior to employing the dyes.
When I interviewed Dr. Waggoner weeks later in his office, I asked how he discovered that a “spritz” was the missing link, and Dr. Waggoner, who had developed his dyes after years of research and testing, first began by providing technical information about why they might have failed — interesting stuff, but unnecessary for my purposes. To keep him on track, I channeled both Mr. McPhee and Dr. Mason, nodding, encouraging and when necessary repeating my questions so that I could compose a suspenseful and compelling scene that would help my readers learn more about the science.
This is a key point to remember. It is fine and often delightfully surprising to permit interviewees to go off on tangents — sometimes they absolutely need to tell you something, and sometimes what they tell you will be valuable material to supplement your story. But you must keep the primary narrative in mind, as I did with Dr. Waggoner, doggedly redirecting him to the Zoë spritzing story, probing in a way that would allow him to reconstruct all he remembered about the day, the problem and the light bulb moment when he came upon a solution.
“What did you do when you ran out of answers? Who did you talk to? What time of day was it? What was the weather like? What were you wearing?” Dr. Waggoner wasn’t resistant, but interviewees often need guidance; they want to be helpful, but sometimes they don’t know what sort of information the interviewer is seeking, especially when it relates to narrative.
Dr. Waggoner turned out to be a great storyteller with a thorough recollection not only of the details, but also of his thoughts and impressions that day. Writing it, I recreated Dr. Waggoner’s recollections through his own eyes, a technique I call “inner point of view.” It begins when Dr. Waggoner, frustrated and exasperated, decides to take a break — and drops down on the sand to nap beside Zoë in the sun. He sleeps fitfully until early evening.
“Waggoner struggles to his feet. He needs to think without the chatter of his colleagues and the crackling of the walkie-talkie — and also without the looming presence of Zoë, haunting him. He also needs to relieve himself.”
He went for a walk. Then he found his solution.
“I noticed how bright the rocks got after I peed on them,” Dr. Waggoner told me. “The water activated the surface so that the dye could penetrate more easily and deeply.” (Eventually, vinegar was added to the water.) His story, amusing but true, was to represent one of the themes of my book — that coincidence and good luck was as valuable in the world of robotics as was good science.
Of course, I had observed Dr. Waggoner in the Atacama, so I could confirm his description or remind him about details he might have forgotten. And I had further prepared myself by talking first with Dr. Waggoner’s colleagues both in the Atacama and in his university department. Interviewing other observers allows for reference points (As in, “I asked Dr. So-and-So about that incident and he remembers . . .” ) and it further establishes your authority and professionalism. Successful interviews sometime occur on the fly, but more often than not it is anchored by conscientious groundwork.
After I reconstructed Dr. Waggoner’s story, I interviewed him again to make certain the details were accurate — both from a story and a science point of view — style and substance.
But as much as I had been able to observe, I couldn’t have written the scene that way without getting Dr. Waggoner to tell his story. Questioning him repeatedly like Mr. McPhee and encouraging and guiding and redirecting him all along like Dr. Mason, and relying on the information unearthed in my pre-interview conversations with his colleagues, I could reconstruct and recreate the scene so that my nonscientist readers could learn and enjoy at the same time — which is the challenge and goal of all who write narrative or creative nonfiction.