Easy Listening: The Interviewer’s Art

By Michael Shapiro


Introduction: Interviewing is something most writers do, yet doing it well is challenging. A successful interview combines thoughtful questions, rapt attention, and deft spontaneity. It brings out the best in both the interviewer and interviewee and shares insights with the reader, listener or viewer. Following are some suggestions for conducting a successful interview.

Michael Shapiro after interviewing Studs Terkel in 2006 at him home in Chicago.

Michael Shapiro after interviewing the great conversationalist Studs Terkel in 2006 at his home in Chicago. The interview was published in The Sun magazine.

Do your homework: Read articles and use the Net to learn as much as possible about that person in the time you have to prepare. Google is helpful for digging up archive

d interviews. Look up, for example, “Smokey Robinson” and “interview” in the same search.

Study the material to prepare: The interviewee will know quickly whether you’re prepared. “If you don’t know much,” says Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, “you won’t get much.”

Talk to friends, colleagues and family: If possible, talk to people who know the interviewee to get background material. Example: I called Arthur Frommer’s daughter before interviewing him and got some great insight about his early career.

Work with others to develop questions: Terry Gross works with three producers who help her script questions. I worked with my editors at Travelers’ Tales to develop questions, especially early in conducting the interviews for A Sense of Place. Sometimes before an interview I’ll post on Facebook asking: “What would you ask…” and I get some useful questions.

Spark their interest: Think about what they might want to talk about that they haven’t yet had a chance to discuss. It could be a new book, an avid interest, or an area where they’ve felt misunderstood. Bring up issues you want to discuss later in the interview.

Avoid early confrontations: Start with friendly, but not fawning, questions. If you’re going to be provocative or challenging, do so later in interview after developing a base of trust. At the outset, you want to get the interviewee on your side by showing you care about them. Start with topics you expect they’d like to discuss. Once the interviewee trusts you, she’ll go places with you that she might not go with others.

Customize your questions: Tailor questions to the interviewee. This is especially important with a collection like A Sense of Place to ensure the conversations are distinct from one another. A set template of questions will bore the reader and won’t get the most from the interviewee.

Don’t fear silence: A technique I learned as an investigative reporter was to let someone finish what they’re saying and then wait. They’ll feel compelled to fill the silence and will often say something especially revealing. I don’t use this technique often but it can be valuable.

Push back against recalcitrant responses, but don’t be adversarial for the sake of generating controversy. Don’t be afraid of hostility, says Terry Gross: conflict can make for a good interview. When Paul Theroux asked me “Is that a serious question?” I didn’t get overwhelmed or intimidated. I told him, Yes, this is a serious question and then told him why as I asked it again. Then I got a great answer. (This was when I asked him why he lives on Oahu and Cape Cod; after I pushed back he told me Oahu for his love of marine sunlight and quoted a Phoenician saying that a day spent on the water is a day not deducted from your life.

Follow your instincts: When you hit paydirt, mine that vein. Go deeper. If you’re fascinated that probably means the reader or listener will be fascinated too.

Have a script but be spontaneous too: Write questions in a narrative order to give the interview flow, but be spontaneous too. Let new questions be triggered by what the interviewee says.

Avoid judgment. This is crucial. If a subject feels judged in any way, he or she will almost certainly shut down.

Listen! This is one of the most important, most obvious and most overlooked interviewing skills. It’s easy to think about what you’ll ask next, but some of the most illuminating segments of my interviews come from spontaneous interaction. Stay with your subject and follow him or her into unexplored territory. My interview with Pico Iyer is an example of this. As they say in Vegas: “you must be present to win.”

Learn from the masters: Read and listen to the top interviewers. My favorites are Bill Moyers, Michael Krasny (of KQED’s Forum, a San Francisco radio show), and NPR’s Ira Glass and Terry Gross. Among the master interviewers on our faculty are Don George and Phil Cousineau.

Michael Shapiro interviewed 18 of the world’s leading travel writers in his book A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Discuss Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration. He met these writers where they live, interviewing Frances Mayes in Tuscany, Jan Morris in Wales, Peter Matthiessen at the east end of Long Island, Simon Winchester in Great Barrington, Mass., Bill Bryson in New Hampshire, and Arthur Frommer in New York City. A Sense of Place has been hailed by National Geographic Traveler as “a wonderful book, full of literary and experiential allusions — a fascinating read.” The Washington Post likened Shapiro to Charlie Rose but “less long-winded,” and the Chicago Tribune called Shapiro’s interviews “illuminating, entertaining and insightful.”

Shapiro’s articles appear in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and national magazines. He won a 1998 Lowell Thomas award in the category. A Sense of Place won a bronze medal in the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year awards and was a finalist for the 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards. He’s also the recipient of the 2007 Bedford Pace award for best travel story about Great Britain and is a four-time winner of the Travel Classics award.