I wish I’d had an article like this when I started out as a shy young reporter for the Montgomery County Sentinel, where I worked for a few years between high school and college. I could write decently but had little experience, so I was assigned lightweight human-interest stories: the father and daughter who were members of the volunteer fire department; the man celebrating his hundredth birthday who credited his long life to “wine, women and oysters.”
One of my first assignments was to interview a young priest who volunteered at a big public high school as an ad hoc counselor, informally making himself available to anyone who wanted to talk. He was personable and kind, barely older than the students—or me. He was also a dream interviewee. He practically dictated the article, slowly down when he knew he was delivering a good quote. This interviewing business is cake, I thought.
More often than not I’d stare nervously at my telephone, which in our crowded newsroom was only a few feet from the telephone of a reporter with decades more experience than I, before making a call.
Not being an investigative journalist (which The Sentinel still proudly employed) I didn’t often find myself in hostile situations, though tension sometimes arose unexpectedly. I remember an octogenarian woman who had lived on the same street in Rockville her whole life. My editor wanted a charming account of the changes this woman had seen in her hometown. I found a cranky, bigoted woman who didn’t want to talk and had nothing positive to say about the development in her neighborhood, where now “You have to go 'round Robin Hood’s barn to get anywhere.” But then, I’d never heard that expression before, which made the interview worth it.
Interviewing a close family member, as I did for “Farewell, Aleppo,” poses whole other challenges. English is my father’s fourth or fifth language, and until hearing him on a tape recorder I’d never noticed the slight irregularities of his syntax, which I tried to smooth out without losing a sense of him and his background. His tendency was to downplay his experiences, which in his mind were just about doing what needed to be done, while I had to determine how to play them up without making Dad feel he appeared boastful.
Years of conducting interviews have given me lessons in efficiency and confidence, yet each interview is unique. An interviewee is not just raw material that we have the liberty to shape to our needs but a unique collection of stories, memories, lessons learned, regrets, wishes and second chances. Our challenge is to evoke them as faithfully, as respectfully, as possible, whether we love them or endure them, whether we have known them our whole life or just for the length of a phone call.
“[T]he writer has the responsibility to be fair to the subject, who trustingly and perhaps unwittingly delivers words and story into the writer’s control,” McPhee says. “Some people are so balanced, self-possessed, and confident that they couldn’t care less what some ragmaker says about them, but they are in a minority among people who put their lives in your hands.”