This is the transcript of Episode 5: You’re not Lucky, You’re Just Good, adapted from our script. It’s about 90-95% correct. Please verify against the audio before quoting.
Zoe: …We did this interview, and it was not going well. and out of nowhere the guy just shows up with what we wanted. Like, we didn’t ask right question, he just volunteered it.
Z Our voices both like drop like two octaves.
R We’re both like, “everybody leave the room, we have to get to bottom of this.”
Z So we went to this next interview, based on this first thing, it’s even better than anticipated, like, it’s the dream tape for this story, and at the end of the interview, I’m like, I just can’t believe how lucky we are.
And Robert’s like, we’re not lucky, we’re just good.
I’m Jessica Abel, and we’re going Out on the Wire.
The show about making stories, step by step.
Out on the Wire is a show about how to tell stories, all kinds of stories, in any narrative medium. We go behind the scenes with the best radio and podcast producers out there, finding out what they have to tell us about story.
And together, we are making new stories, following the principles of storytelling I discovered while researching my documentary comic, Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.
Last time, we talked about both narrative arc and framing, and I gave you a new tool, the Story Madlib, to help you imagine your way all the way through the story, so that your path forward becomes clear.
We’ve been preparing and preparing…for weeks! Months! But this time, we’re going to start actually making things. Finally!
You’re going to get a whole set of tools and ideas for conducting really amazing interviews…which involves research and prep, I’m afraid. Still with the preparation…Oh, Jessica, will it never end? one day.
And we’ve got an interview with master interviewer Larissa MacFarquhar, New Yorker staff writer, and author of the new book ‘Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help’
And at the end of the show, we’ve got a new challenge for you, that will keep you on the road to building a great story.
Out on the Wire. It’s about taking risks. Putting it all on the line. Opening yourself up to the world. Telling your story.
So come on, let’s get out on that wire.
This is episode 5: You’re not lucky, you’re just good.
chapter 1: inspiration comes to those who make space for it.
Being a journalist is about harnessing luck, and having a relationship to luck. And understanding how you handle luck. When stories are memorable, when they’re great, it’s because you harnessed your skills, and then you got lucky. You got an amazing quote, you found an amazing interviewee, you found an amazing story idea that nobody else had. Your job is to harness luck as your industrial product.
That’s Ira Glass, giving the commencement speech to the 2012 graduating class at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
We’re not all journalists, but anyone telling stories can understand this idea: you prepare and prepare, you dive in deep, and then something clicks, and it’s like a little bit of magic, and you find the thing that makes an unforgettable scene, or turn, or feeling.
That thing can be a real thing in the world that you discover, or it can be an idea that comes to you because you have all the pieces so well imagined that you feel almost literally like you’re there, with the characters.
This is what fiction writers mean when they say they can “hear” their characters talk back to them. It’s because they’ve researched and written them so deeply that they know in their bones how a character would act when confronted with a dilemma.
Zoe Chace and Robert Smith have this experience regularly. We heard them at the top of the show. When I recorded this interview, they were both with Planet Money. (They had gone to Italy to report a story for Planet Money about productivity.
Robert: this is Planet Money, I’m Robert Smith
Zoe: and I’m Zoe Chase
Basically, there is a huge, documented difference between the more productive north and the less productive south of Italy. Zoe found out that Barilla pasta, that dried pasta in the blue box, has a plant in both northern, AND in southern Italy. They told the story in Planet Money Episode 400: What Two Pasta Factories Tell Us About The Italian Economy:
Robert and Zoe:
We set ourselves up to win, because either the southern plant has a lot of problems, in which case it’s a great story because you’re talking about how to deal with these two identical plants with different kinds of workers in them.
Or, there’s no difference between the plants, and now you’ve got a good story about somehow they’ve overcome this divide in productivity. Now you have a good story about how a plant faces something that’s scientifically determined to be a problem, and overcome that.
So you know, I sort of see it like chess.
Z yeah, but we didn’t know that it would be the perfect thing.
R true, I just felt confident that it was going to be a good story regardless.
You set it up so that you have a theory, you have a big idea, you have a location, you have characters, and then you know that you know that one way or another you can play those off against each other.
You set yourself up to win. By projecting out possible story arcs, Robert and Zoe saw how different truths would play out, and they were poised to take advantage of whatever came their way. And then they discovered a better truth than they could have hoped for.
Robert makes it sound so easy. But often it’s hard to understand how these ideas even apply in a given project. Already in the Out on the Wire Working Group, we’ve been developing everything from science presentations, to podcast interview series, to cabaret acts, and they don’t all fit neatly into the story tools that I’ve given you so far.
And here, we really diverge. Because sometimes your stories will be about real, live people, and the story materials are themselves interviews, such as in this very podcast.
And sometimes your stories will be about people who are long gone, or who never existed in the first place, and you’ll base most of your research on things you read or watch, and that material may or may not appear directly in the story.
And I am not a research expert. I’m not going to be able to give you a reporter’s handbook full of tools here. I can give you one basic guiding principle:
“pay attention to your attention”.
Let’s talk Trish Trash, for an example.
As I told you in episode 1, when I came up with the concept for my book, Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, it was nothing more than a funny juxtaposition of a roller derby player in space. But as I started turning it around and thinking about it, ideas started glomming onto it.
First of all, there’s actual, real Mars. I did a lot of reading about Mars, and proposals for how it might be Terraformed and colonized. I mean, I just started with Wikipedia, and found the National Space society and the Mars Society out there pushing humans towards space. And then Space X and Mars One came along.
That’s not science fiction, but it is projecting forward to tech that doesn’t exist yet, which is extremely helpful.
I read someone else deeply inspired by the actual science of Mars colonization: all three giant volumes of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, highlighter in hand.
Then, roller derby. I started going to actual, live roller derby bouts, and learning the rules (Gotham Girls!!). I bought and studied a DVD set of the reality-TV show Rollergirls, about the Austin Texas banked-track league TXRD. I watched a 1970s documentary about the sport as it was then. I interviewed players.
My initial drawing had included native martians, as well. There is no obvious way to “research” something that does not exist. But listen: I was trying to figure out how the indigenous Martians could be virtually unknown 200 years after humans arrive on Mars.
So, what if you can’t see them…because they live entirely underground?
That led me to leaf-cutter ants and their incredible nests, with miles of tunnels, sophisticated air-exchange systems, food growing areas, cemeteries, and more. And THAT led me to conceive of an entire race living in systems of caverns underground, in an insect-like caste system, but with human-level intelligence.
As I get deeper into the story, I’ve found myself reading up on genetic engineering of algae, learning how scorpions who live in the Sahara collect water, watching videos of lobsters molting, learning about carbon fibers and space elevators, staying up all night to watch the landing of the Curiosity, buying derby rollerskates, changing my desktop wallpaper to Mars, and finding curse words in Hindi.
And I used all that research to help me build my world, and my narrative arc, as we talked about in episodes 2 and 4.
The other day, as I was racing through a draft of the third chapter of Trish, I found myself thinking about this: You don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. You build structure, you do deep research, and then and having all that in place creates the space for inspiration to occur.
I was working on a scene where the characters are traveling in the Martian outback. And they’re going to be in trouble if they don’t find shelter.
They’re in this cave that’s used by natives when traveling, basically a hole in the ground. basically will be really dark in there, then, they can’t see anything. They can’t see anything. Then I thought, I know, phosphorescent algae, and so she touches the wall, whole cave is glowing with phosphorescent algae that lines the walls.
And that idea would never have come to me so easily, so joyfully, without having prepared the ground for it.
Paying attention to your attention requires being a bit of a bulldog, or maybe a bloodhound…chasing down leads, and always asking questions: Like, if this is true, how did it happen? How could I find out? Who might know? Can I just go and ask her?
The answer is Yes, by the way. Yes, you can.
Research starts before you even settle on an idea. Remember Stephanie Foo of This American Life, talking about how she prepared for her trip to Texas?
I would do a ton of research I’d read all the local newspapers and I’d read them. You know not just the recent look on news and read them pretty far back. I’d email local bloggers and personalities. To ask them if they were people. Interesting people that I should know that I should talk to. I call all the comedy clubs. And I’d ask if anybody there specialized in long form storytelling.
Once she got hold of an idea that looked promising, she didn’t wait until she saw the whites of those Texans’ eyes to follow up. She knew what she was looking for, and figured out what the story was going to be, long before that. Stephanie knows how to manufacture luck on an industrial scale.
Oh my god, yeah yeah, no no…I feel like you need to imagine the story in your head to a degree that beginners don’t understand. Like, even to the point where you think through there’s a version…the dream version of this story. What is the dream quote that you would want for the ending. What is the dream quote that you want for the beginning.
So, say you read an article about Colorado Springs. they’re hurting in the Great Recession, need to raise more tax income to keep the lights on, literally.
But to hyper-conservative community members, this is anathema. They elect a new mayor, give him CEO-like powers, not to save city services, but to dismantle them. And they do: they dissolve every city department they can, and rehire those services from private contractors. Sounds like a story, right?
let’s not have a Park service or were paying union employees to clean up the parks, let’s like fire those people and hire some company, and they’ll deal with the employees and will save some money. And we are going to do that for every department in our city of Colorado Springs.
Ira worked with Robert Smith on that very topic for “Do You Want a Wake Up Call?” on This American Life episode 459.
You get to work. Read everything you can, send interview requests to people you know are involved in the experiment. Meanwhile, you brainstorm. How can you best tell this story? chronological, right? It’s almost always chronological. So you’ve got a before, a during, an after.
And if I could describe the dream scenario…because the first two thirds you going to explain how they got to this point, and they come in and how it’s going… to now have to go to the last third, and let’s describe in the last third of this so, how’s it work? How do we feel about this? Let’s see it in action.
But how can you illustrate the difference between the before and the after? Because you can just say, here’s what it was like before, and here’s what it’s like after, but if you want us to really understand what it feels like, you need us to walk in the shoes of someone who’s been through it.
Somewhere, there’s a guy, and he used to mow the lawns for the parks department. And then they got rid of the parks department. And then some private guy came in, and he had to hire up.
And what you want to do is you want to get the old guy who mowed the lawns, and the new guy who mowed the lawns, and you know you want to do interviews with each of them, ask them how much they get paid, what are their hours, what are their benefits…how’s the job, how do they treat you, how do you feel about things…
and in the dream version of it, it’s the same guy.
And the reporter and the producer were out there, and I got the call, and they were like, he exists. We got him. He’s in the story. I mean, we made him up. And then he existed.
Here’s the point: If Ira and Robert had not researched the story, and thought the story all the way through from the beginning, before anybody even set foot on an airplane, they might not have imagined that this guy might exist.
And not having that idea would mean not looking for him when you get there. Things can get crazy when you’re interviewing. You’ve got to have a road map.
and I feel like, that that that’s what people, if you want to make things that are really special… you basically want to be a good enough fiction writer, and then hope that reality conforms to it. And then when it doesn’t, obviously you do what’s actually real.
chapter 2: questions, so many questions.
It feels like a very advanced-level radio reporting technique to be able to design the tape you want before you do the interviews.
The stage before that is just being able to write really well with the tape you DO have. And the next thing that you begin to be able to do is like, write the tape also.
“writing the tape??” isn’t that completely…unjournalistic? I mean, If you’re writing the tape, how can that possibly reflect the actual truth on the ground?
I probably write more than 50% of the story in my head. And I change it as I go along. It’s more of a hypothesis.
I talk about this in trainings. People always raise their hands and they’re just like, you know, you shouldn’t make these judgments about a story before you go out, you should be a fly on the wall, and you should just experience life, and dah dah dah dah. which will lead you to hours and hours of tape and frustration.
I say, like, no.
After you’ve done it so many times, you get so tired of getting back to the studio, and suddenly having this thought, like, oh my god, I should open with a person saying this!
And you listen back to the tape, and you realize you asked her all these questions for the end of a story, like, so, what do you make of this, what do you make of that, and you realize that, at the beginning of the story, you don’t know any of those things yet.
The number of interviews I used to throw away because I didn’t think, who is this person?
Are they an opener? Do I ask them the dumbest questions in the world in order to get them as an opener?
Or are they an ender? Are they someone who you ask deep and reflective questions about what it all means.
Thinking through your story arc, and where a given interview fits in that arc, will help you understand what questions you want to ask, and thus what kind of answers you’re likely to get. That’s “writing the tape”. It’s not handing your interview subject a script.
And here’s another tool to help you hone in on what you need to get: the pre-interview.
First of all, what’s a pre-interview? It’s when you get on the phone and ask your potential subjects a few questions to lay groundwork, and figure out if they can talk well, are they interesting and emotional. Yes, you really have to on the phone. You can’t tell if someone can talk from an email.
It’s key that you only ask “groundwork” questions. The point is to determine what you want to focus on in the actual interview, without asking any of the actual interview questions, thereby wasting the spontaneity and emotional energy that will come out when you do ask, on tape.
It’s a tricky balance. You just want to try to figure out what you think the story arc is, so that you can imagine what tape you want from the person.
You do that by asking just a few general questions like: what do you do, when did you start, when did that happen, when did it end. You are only trying to get a fix on the turning points in the story so you can come up with your questions, and then hang up the phone before you screw it up.
You can literally say “hang on, wait, don’t answer that question, Wait till we have this on tape.”
So. Get facts: where and when did this event begin, what are the major stages, where did it end. Then hang up.
And no, you don’t have to do a preinterview. But then you’ve got to figure out the story’s turning points from research, like articles written about the person, or maybe the subject has a blog.
You’ve got the big turning points mapped out. You know most of the stories you want the person to tell you. Now you need to figure out what you want to actually ask.
And if you’ve got collaborators, such as in the Working Group, this is where you go to them, and you hash it out. What are the key questions going to be? What’s interesting about this character or story?
There are a lot of basic interview questions that are likely to be useful in any situation. When I talked to Jenna Weiss-Berman, she was a student of Rob Rosenthal, he of the focus sentence, at the Transom Workshop.
Rob has sort of taught us certain questions that you can use in almost every interview that really get good responses, that get people tell stories.
Like, “Do you dream about it, about what you do?”
“when did you start,”
“what does your family think,”
“what’s your typical day like,”
Ask questions in sets of two to elicit complete sentences. “Can you tell me your name and what you do?”
What would be your life like without this thing that you do?
That’s a way to get people to explain why this thing you’re talking about is so important to them.
Rob always tells us that we should ask people to “explain things simply.”
If you don’t understand, your audience isn’t likely to. You owe it to them to ask how something works, and not settle for half-answers. Display your ignorance. Ask for help. You are not the expert in whatever it is, she is.
Like “how would you describe Ultimate fighting, if you are talking to an eight-year-old.” Like somebody who’s knows nothing about it. That especially works well for non-narrated pieces.
Jenna was in the midst of work on a story called “Knock Out.” about an Ultimate Fighter named Kaline Medeiros.
I had this girl describe what all gym equipment looked like because they custom design it, at this place…
If there is a physical thing or place involved in the story, you want to have the interviewee walk you around, narrating events. You want to have them pull out the picture album and tell you about the photos.
Or else you end up having to do it.
Listen for moments where interviewees emotion becomes more visible, Because those are places you’re going to want to really get into.Yes, even if it makes you—and them—very uncomfortable. Maybe especially then.
I alway like stuff about feelings. “What does it feel like to punch somebody. What does it feel like to get punched in the face?” These are…this is very specific to my story. You don’t ask everyone what it feels like to get punched in the face.
And when you’re asking emotional questions, or any questions, really, remember to shut up. Let silences ride for as long as they need to. Get used to being uncomfortable. You may get your best tape as a result of allowing people to go deep and really think.
And when you finish making notes, you’ve got a list of story questions around a series of story arc phases and turning points, and you’ve got a list of “feeling questions”. You need both.
And speaking of “feeling questions,” if you’re going to be saying something in your story that your interviewee won’t like, you say it to their face.
It’s hard. Yes, it’s very hard. But you owe it to them to let them hear it first, from you. And, bonus, you may very well get some extremely emotional tape out of it.
Group your questions by the major turning points or stories you want to elicit, and try not to make them too detailed, where you’ll feel like you’re reading your homework to the person.
Getting too married to your specific questions can be a problem if you end up paying more attention to your plan than to how the interview is actually happening in front of you. Unexpected, awesome things can happen now that you’ve got a map, and you want to be ready to chase them down rather than pedantically running through your list.
And once you’ve got this all done, when you look at your list of questions, are you excited to hear the answers? That’s a good sign.
I can hear you. You’re saying: Oh my god. Do I have to do all this?
No. I often don’t. But then you’re relying on blind fortune smiling on you. If you prepare, you manufacture your own luck.
Don’t be lucky, be good.
It’s a bit of a balancing act. I’m actually freaking myself out here a little, since I’m writing this script the day before I interview Larissa MacFarquhar, and I’m thinking, oh my god, I don’t even know what the roadmap looks like! How can I tell you guys to do all this stuff, and I can’t even do it.
But in fact, if I slow down and think about it, I do know what I need from her: we’re talking about her new book in terms of interviewing. It’s a book about extraordinary people who take doing good to the point of do-goodering, and it’s got essay chapters, where Larissa brings in her own thoughts and her research on the various ways people undermine altruism.
So I’ve got to ask her about how this idea came to her. Where she started and who she first interviewed. How does she typically approach interviews and research? How did she interview when she started her career? How is it different now?
How did these interviews shape the book as she went? And did they shape her? Maybe you won’t hear these questions in the final product but they’re questions I have to ask to get the tape that I need.
chapter 3: who’s the boss?
OK, so you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve researched, you’ve planned, you know where your interview is headed. You’re at the doorstep of the interviewee’s house and you ring the doorbell, and suddenly you realize…you’re terrified. What do you do, how do you act?
Hey, there. Relax. Don’t worry. You’re a pro. You’re in control.
It’s totally normal to be nervous. But your interviewee will take his cues from you. So pretend you know what you’re doing! That will make him feel taken care of, and that’s how he will relax enough to talk to you in an open and unguarded way.
You model the behavior you want to see from your interviewee.
I have a theory.
And the theory is, that people…people…it’s an unfamiliar situation to be interviewed, and so people are subconsciously looking for cues of how to act. If you go in with list of questions, and you say I’m from National Public Radio, I have these important questions, they will say, oh yes, I have this important answer. And a lot of sound of NPR right now, is because of that dynamic.
I want tape that is story, funny tape, emotional tape. And I believe to get that tape you have to act that way.
It’s not just with funny. You decide what someone’s role is in story.
Robert: You want a professor to have a grand theory? Then I will I try out theories on him. I’ll say, you know, isn’t Europe like an onion? Once you peel off the big economies, get down to the little economies… and they’ll be like. No, that’s wrong. And I’ll say yeah, isn’t it like a cruise ship, where everyone’s trapped on the ocean?
J ha ha ha
R They’ll say no.
J do you make these up ahead of time?
R No, it doesn’t matter.
What you’re doing is modeling big picture behavior for them.
And they will eventually, they’ll say, no, you know what it’s like, it’s like a kids camp, there are the counsellors, there are the kids, they are trapped there for a month, but they know the parents are coming… I don’t know.
And the great thing is that they will do it better. That’s why we go to them as experts. But if you don’t model something for them then I think they just want to sound like the rest of NPR
And either I’m very lucky or this technique is working.
And we all know what Robert really thinks
Ira talked about this in Radio: An Illustrated Guide, the book we made about how This American Life puts their show together, that inspired Out on the Wire. He said there that he sometimes tells a personal story to get interviewees to open up.
If they sound like they’re reading from a press release, David Kestenbaum recommends asking, “Are you reading from a press release?” He says, from experience, that that one is guaranteed to get you some interesting tape.
And don’t be afraid to play dumb. The television presenter Louis Theroux has made a career of pretending to know less than he lets on, in order to ask tough, probing questions.
We could spend a lot of time here talking about the specifics of interviewing for audio, how to hold the mic, where to sit while talking with your interviewee, that kind of thing, but it’s pretty technical, so we’ve put together a podcast bonus on my site, at the show page. If you’re interested in making broadcast-quality tape, you can find that extra at jessicaabel.com/podcast, in the episode 5 show notes.
The best interviews feel like the best conversations. But they’re not the same thing. You need to think through your story structure to figure out what you’re going to have to get from the person before you show up. You’ve got to be ready to be a little bossy, setting up properly to capture the best sound. You’ll be curious and emotional, to inspire the same emotions in your interviewee.
But once you’ve done all those things, you’re in a position to manufacture your own luck, to “harness luck as your industrial product.” And getting lucky is a high. You know you’re making your work better than it ever could have been without it.
zoe and robert baseline
Z Had this memory producing this tape in Detroit with Jackie Leyden, I was producing her, I had worked with her so many times. We had pretty much designed story. But then at bar on outskirts on town, because we were looking at how abandoned Detroit was. And we were just talking to people in the bar. And then this woman told story that neighbor had hanged herself no one had found this person.
You’re just like, I mean what? Abandoned homes in Detroit.
And it was actually really funny, because I was the one with the mic, getting this tape, Jackie across bar. Getting this story thinking where the fuck are you, but we were both getting the exact same story from diff people. And we find each other, we get the story, get out here, shut the door, turn the music off, get the story. that’s how I was taught to work.
R by the way, you think you were lucky?
R you were good. Seriously. You were good. Not luck, I don’t think it’s luck.
You putting yourself in the situation, right questions, you’re in the right place.
When I started reading Larissa Macfarquhar’s new book
Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
I knew that she would be the perfect person to talk to about interviewing. You might know her work from The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer, responsible for extraordinary pieces such as her 2013 profile of the recently deceased Aaron Swartz, which set off a whole discussion on the ethics of prosecution of digital crimes.
Her new book is about altruism, do-gooders and extreme cases of people living their life for the benefit of others. She spent years researching and interviewing her subjects, and the many ways we non-extraordinary givers justify our suspicion of people who devote their lives to altruism. I asked her about her methods.
Larissa MacFarquhar: Effective altruists one of the things they believe is that it’s necessary to be very rational and you’re giving. you should…. If you really want to help other people. You shouldn’t do what most move your emotions and spontaneously you should do what you think to be the most effective way of helping other people typically, low cost medical interventions in the Third World like bed nets, Or like deworming medicine that are very cheap that have a large effect.
I originally thought, I want to know more about people who live extremely moral lives I want to know what. How their principals feel to them or their principles. A joy to them giving them purpose in life forward. Are they a burden? Do they feel crushed by the?. There is the sense that there must be brought something wrong with such a person who would want to do such a selfless thing. Andthat’s when I became really fascinated by this hostility and skepticism and I thought this. This needs further investigation.
Jessica Abel: How do you normally obviously this. This project through some what we’re generally out of this original idea of how do you normally go about finding and building your story ideas.
LM: This is very difficult. I find it’s the single hardest part of my job which is kind of pathetic because I usually write profiles and so all have to come up with the name. You would think that couldn’t be too difficult but you just need to find someone who’s work and life you can make exciting. And it’s harder than you would think to find just the right person. So what happens is I will come up with a list of ideas my editor will come up with a list of ideas. And we’ll go back and forth and eliminate the ones we don’t like as much and settle on one we can agree on.
JA: So for for the material that went into your new book. How much research did you do before you actually got in touch with people to start interviewing.
LM: Well usually I do an enormous amount of research if I’m writing about somebody who is a well established figure in a field. I’ve often spent a whole months.Reading. Reading what they’ve written if if there are some kind of a right there. Well I was writing about people who did not fit into those categories they had not written themselves for the most part. and they were people whose lives were so unique that. It was difficult to figure out what I would read in preparation so often I didn’t prepare it all. though I always try to mean once I was going to interview. A young woman named Julia Wise who did end up in my book she believes in giving away as much of her money as she possibly can and I thought I should meet her. And this woman at the time I think she was twenty four or twenty five years old and I thought my gosh. What can I possibly reach to prepare there’s probably nothing. Because she’s so young but I decided just what the hey I’ll just type or name into Google and see if anything comes up. And what I have to lies is because she was twenty four twenty five. She had written a blog. Since she was sixteen and it was a wonderful blog. It was. It was almost like a diary but it wasn’t very personal it wasn’t talking about her boyfriends or her moods with her parents or anything like that they were more kind of one hundred centuries style. Miniature essays about things that occurred to her. It was exactly what I wanted. And so I read her blog from her from the age of sixteen till the present which was then. As I said when she was twenty four twenty five.
And so in fact by the time I came to meet her. I knew more about her than I’d known about almost anyone I’ve ever interviewed. And that was wonderful. I had a really good sense of how her mind worked. What she loved what she hated what disturbed her what made her joyful. All kinds of things.
Well also the great thing about interviewing Julia and her husband Jeff. Kaufman whom I wrote about in the book is that these crucial. Choices were being. They were making those choices as I was talking to them I talk to them over a period of four years. And in that time. They set up the parameters of their moral lives. Which would guide them for so Julia. Was trying to decide whether or not become a social worker she wanted to become a social worker she wanted to for years. But she was conflicted about it because you make very little money as a social worker and she felt that even though she would dodoing some good. As a social worker in her work she felt the most important thing she could do for other people with to give money away. And another huge decision that they had to make while I was talking to them with whether or not have a child. And again. Julie had always wanted to have a child she’d always dreamed about the children she would have the games she would play with them the meal she would cook them. The toys she would make for them. And then she realized that even though she would be a very frugal mother setting her children to public school. Clothing them in secondhand clothes. Even so having a child would be very expensive and with taken away a huge amount of money. From what she could otherwise donate and. She came to realize andthis going to sound. This sounds crazy to people that she’s not wrong to Chief realized that by having a child of her own she would be in effect. Killing other people’s children. Because she would be keeping for her own child money that she would otherwise donate for medical interventions. Elsewhere. And this was an credibly difficult question for her to wrestle with she wrestled with it for years. Ultimately they decided that not having a child was the point at which they would be so unhappy with their lives that it would potentially destroy their whole mode. Moral motivation and so they decided it was necessary to have a child to keep them. Committed
when you’re when you’re in your interviewing So you read her blog you had with her. You know can we talk. Are you willing to do this. What do you have to ask for from her in order to get to know you going to get what you need. And then how does the actual. How do you actually manage all that interviewing.
I usually say. Initially. What the minimum I need to make this work. And this goes for a profile of a New Yorker or a chapter in my book is two separate interviews. Of at least two hours each. And I say two separate interviews because I need time in the middle to remember all the things I forgot the first time. Ideally listen to the tape of the first interview and realize all the times I interrupted, because I wasn’t paying attention, or I didn’t follow up on something that he or she says it was incredibly interesting. I need to be able to correct my mistakes. so I need at least two two-hour interviews. In the case of. It’s but it usually I end up talking to people. More than that and in the case of Julia and Jeff what happened is I probably interviewed them a total of four. Or possibly–probably four times.
JA: Right I don’t just that there’s not very much dialogue in the book thatyour writing is a beautiful and I feel very much like I got to know these people and…But you don’t quote them very much. Is that some thing that you that you find you think is typical of your work or is that something you chose for this particular subject.
LM: It’s something I do sometimes. Because even though. Quotations would seem to be the most direct way of gaining access to a person’s mind, because after all that’s how their thought came out of their mouth. Actually I feel that quotations can sometimes be distancing. Because it. They reinforce your sense. Albeit I think unconsciously most of the time that you’re outside that person you’re, you’re listening to them. You’re observing them speaking. You are separate from them.
Whereas if you translate those sought. Into. Paraphrase. As describe the way a someone is thinking rather than quoting them telling you what they’re thinking. It’s much more intimate. You feel much more as though you were inside the person’s head. Going through the thoughts with them than if you’re listening to them talk. You can. You can decide whether or not you believe that they see the world or themselves accurately but you are also feeling what it’s like to be them. And that’s what I wanted.
There are so many different reasons for using quotes are not using quotes I mean one piece I wrote a couple of years ago that was almost all quotes. Was a piece about. Aaron Swartz who was a an Internet entrepreneur and activist to kill himself. In January twenty third teen. And in that case. I thought but with Aaron who just killed himself. The important thing about him. Right now is that he’s absent. He is not present. He’s gone and. This was an enormous fact in the minds of everybody I spoke to his friends and his family and not just. He was not just absent. Many of them felt that he had abandoned them. And so I thought how do I convey this. This sense of absence and devastation to the reader and I thought, well one way I can myself abandon them. I can abandon them as the author I’m not to be holding their hands I’m not going to be taking them through the story in the way that a writer usually does. I want them to feel that they’ve been deserted.In the midst of this distressing story and. By using only quotes from other people. I hoped to convey a sense of Aaron’s absence.
JA: How do you know when you’re finished doing your interviewing and research.
I’m sure I mean it’s funny. Often the first interview. Is so revelatory Tory and extraordinary I and others can be almost that much but often you get so much in the first interview that the subsequent interviews are largely a matter of fleshing out stories and thoughts that the person is alluded to the first time you spoke with them and. So. Often you realize that you’re done when all of those ends have been tied up when all of the stories you started to talk about have been told in their entirety. And when you’ve clarified what the person meant by various things they said.
For me. What I’m trying to ask is two things One is because I’m often writing about people who are extremely good at something extremely wise or smart about something and I’m trying to get at two questions one is, why are they so good at what they do. What is it about them. And the other is why did they fall in love with this particular set of ideas or way of living a life? and, once I get the answers to those two questions in a way that makes sense to me and feels true to that person. Then I can say all right. I by no means. Have sounded. The bottom of this person but I have a story I can tell.
Thank you Larissa MACFARQUHAR for talking to today that was really amazing.
Thank you so much Jessica for having me on.
Find out more about Larissa and her work, and links to get your copy of Strangers Drowning, in the show notes.
Now for this week’s challenge. Remember, we post new full episodes every two weeks. At the end of each episode, there is a challenge, designed to get you working on a narrative project of your own.
The challenges build on one another, so that over the course of the season, you move forward with your project.
And I know you may lack the collaborators that I recommend consulting in this episode. So I strongly recommend that you join the Out on the Wire Working Group, where you can post your responses to our challenges, and get feedback from our crazy-smart participants.
Even if you’re listening to this episode weeks or months after the initial release, you can post your work in the discussion devoted to each episode’s challenge.
You join the Working Group by going to my website at jessicaabel.com/podcast, and signing up to receive my newsletter.
OK, Here’s your challenge:
This week I want you to do an interview. Even if you’re writing fiction. (Remember my interviews with derby players?)
But before you do the interview, I want you to conduct a pre-interview or do research and map out major plot points and turning points. Create a list of questions. Think through “feeling questions”. Make your map. This map what you’ll post on the Out on the Wire Working Group, to get help building the best plan for your interview.
If you’re working on an idea story, where there is not necessarily a chronology to hang things on, first of all, look for one. But if that’s not working, figure out what questions are likely to produce major idea groups or plot points or facts. Search for anecdotal hooks you can use to help audience get through, and understand the stakes.
I want you to put together your chronology, turning points, and list of questions into a post no longer than 300 words, and post it on the Working Group for feedback and further refinement before you actually interview.
Once you’ve got all these questions written, you may feel tempted to send them to the interviewee beforehand.
Don’t do it. You want your interview to feel like a super-interesting conversation with a friend. The kind of conversation where both of you leave excited, buzzing with the new ideas it sparked. If you’re going to a coffee shop to meet a friend, do you send your topics of conversation ahead of time?
Don’t forget to wear headphones, set up properly, and check that your recorder is charged before you start. Make a quick test to make sure it’s working. And it may seem silly, given that you’re sitting there with your mic out and your headphones on, in front of someone who’s agreed to an interview, but ask permission to tape, on tape, before you begin.
When you’re done with your interview, take notes immediately on what struck you, what seemed like the best quotes. Jenna Weiss-Berman had a cool idea for how to do this quickly and naturally:
I have these voice files, like after I do an interview, I feel like it’s fresh, I get a lot of ideas, so I just hit record on voice recorder on this [iphone].
[ummm ok, shhhheeee. she was a…she wasn’t a fighter in high school. She wrote an entire musical about the history of the Portuguese uh, take over of brazil. The downside of entertainment which is the way that she has to look. Yeah.]
Then listen back and make a log of the tape, where you write down a few key words and phrases from each sentence, so that you have a physical document you can look at and edit. As you go through, listen again for great moments. Full transcription isn’t necessary except for bits you plan to actually use, so don’t waste time noting down every um and ah. The idea is to take notes on the tape without ever stopping the recording.
Ben discovered a few sites that do pretty decent machine transcription, which you can use as a base for your log. Input your tape, and as you listen back, you can edit the machine transcription where it came out garbled, instead of starting from scratch. We’ll put links in the show notes.
Please, do NOT post your complete interview on the Working Group! We want to help everyone get set up for the best interviews, but we can’t do that if we’re getting 40-page interview transcripts to read.
What you’re going to post is…
Do post any questions you may have about the process, of course.
If you’ve got questions about equipment and techniques, I can’t recommend Transom.org highly enough. I’ll post a link to that, too.
As you probably know, we post workshop episodes in intervening weeks between the full episodes, where Matt and Ben and I discuss some of the most interesting work posted on the community that week.
Work posted by SATURDAY November 14, 2015, at midnight Pacific Time, which is just one minute before my 46th birthday, will be eligible to be featured on the next workshop episode. But don’t worry: We will always ask permission before talking about your work on air!
And if you’re listening after that date, you can still post and get feedback! We just can’t talk about your work on that show.
Again, you can get access to the group by signing up on my website: jessicaabel.com/podcast
I’ll have show notes on this episode, including
- Links to resources
- and links to all the stories we talked about
- and for those who plan to record audio for broadcast, we’ve got a few tips for how record the best quality tape.
on my site, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.
You can also get show notes emailed to you, if you’re on the newsletter.
Out on the Wire is based on my new graphic nonfiction book about how the best producers on the radio and in podcasts make their incredible stories. Get your copy of Out on the Wire: the Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. go to jessicaabel.com/outonthewire.
And listen, we’re not ad-based here, but we are crowd-funded. If you’re getting something out of this show, we would love love love to have you join our fabulous patrons on Patreon. We’ve had a whole bunch of new people join us there recently, and they’re getting everything from downloads of Matt’s original songs for the show, to more interview clips with Ira Glass, our complete interviews with Stephanie Foo on ideas, Jonathan Mitchell of the Truth on story structure and sound, And now Larissa MacFarquhar on interviewing.
We’ve got links to our Patreon at my website, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.
You can find me on twitter at @jccabel. Benjamin is @BenjaminFrisch.
We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Those links are on our webpage.
Produced by Benjamin Frisch, with music contributed by Matt Madden.
Made with the support of La Maison des Auteurs, Angouleme.
And special thanks to Brahm Revel, our cartoonist colleague and voice actor this week.
See you in a week with Benjamin Frisch and Matt Madden for a discussion of some of your work from the Out on the Wire Working Group in our workshop episode!
and then in a few weeks with…Episode 6: Proof of Concept.