I freelance as a local reporter for my rural, small town’s weekly newspaper. Many of the articles I write are coverage of local issues. Town government, education, and opioid use disorder are my three major ‘beats’ of reporting.
I’m also assigned features, which in the realm of local reporting usually means a profile of a person at a specific moment in their life — they’ve started a business, they’re closing a chapter, they’ve accomplished something big.
When I’m really able to settle into them, features my favorite type of writing to do. They’re also my favorite type of interview to conduct.
Some of the people I’ve gotten to feature in my local paper include a dairy farmer standing on the precipice of handing his 100-year-old family business over to his daughter; a woman who, following a tragedy, committed to herself and started her own business; and a woman who’d just returned from Germany, where in commemoration of Kristallnacht, she visited the village her ancestors left — some by choice, some by force.
They all involved interviews.
When I was starting out, I heard the word “interview” and I thought, “Okay, great, I should make a list of questions.” So, I’d sit down before going to any type of interview and I’d write down a list of questions based on what I knew about the subject.
This is 100% useful for some types of interviews. For example, if I’m interviewing an expert, it is helpful to do my own research in advance and then, during the interview, ask that person to explain facts to me through a lens of their own experience. Going in with prepared questions is also important when I’m asking a public official to explain a decision they made or their thoughts on a matter that will affect the public.
But those aren’t the types of interviews I’m talking about, here. I’m talking about features interviews. And I’ve found that conducting an effective feature interview isn’t about working my way through a list of questions — it’s about recognizing that something’s happening and I’m a part of it. I see my job as to experience it and tell people what it was like (and often more importantly, what the person I shared the experience with was like).
Conducting an effective feature interview isn’t about working my way through a list of questions — it’s about recognizing that something’s happening and I’m a part of it.
It was when I started to settle into the idea of myself as an experiencer that I started to really feel the art of the feature interview in my bones. And that’s when my writing started to have some sizzle.
Here are the elements I’ve discovered to be the special sauce of a good feature interview.
I don’t think of it as an interview.
I think of visiting a place or talking to a person (or both) as an experience that I need to be present for. In the realm of local reporting, this is similar (but less dry) to covering a board meeting. I have to be there to report on it. For a feature, I have to be in the presence of the person, often in their space, to relay their story to the world.
I go in with open eyes. I observe, interact, and I’m curious. Curiosity leads to asking questions. Answers give me more to observe, to interact with, and to be curious about. If I’m genuinely there for the experience and I’m authentically curious within it, the rest will come.
I give myself time.
I don’t get there and immediately start thinking about when I’m going to leave. One of my favorite articles I’ve ever written involved being left alone in an art gallery for “as long as I needed” following the death of the artist whose work comprised the entire gallery. I could have glanced around and gotten out of there. I lingered. The writing benefited.
I record everything.
There was a recent Twitter controversy about whether or not to record interviews. To each his own, but I’m on team “Record.” In features writing in particular, I find that recording allows me to simply be present in the moment, which in my opinion is the most important thing I can do.
When I’m reporting at a board meeting, I’m sitting with my computer open and I’m typing while the board meeting happens. I type very fast, which means I can usually get every word people say as they say it (I still record for backup, just in case).
I know an interview has gone well when the person I’m interviewing has forgotten that I’m recording.
But when I’m doing an in-person interview, I always record, and then I either put the recorder down on a table or, if the interviewee and I are on the move, I carry it nonchalantly in my hand. I know an interview has gone well when the person I’m interviewing has forgotten that I’m recording. When we’re making eye contact. When our interaction has gone from “I’m here to ask you questions” to “I’m here with you. Let’s share some time. Show me what you do. Tell me about this. Walk me through it.”
I do carry a notebook, though.
I still bring a notebook. It’s a good prop — weirdly enough, people expect a reporter to have a notebook and pen. I think having them with me puts people at ease.
I also typically do still write questions down in advance, just in case I get there and the dynamic between me and the subject is akin to a dead fish handshake. That’s only happened once or twice. Usually, I have the questions in my hand the whole time and I never glance at them.
Lauren Harkawik is a fiction writer, essayist, and freelance local reporter. She lives in Vermont.