As a former newspaper columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and as a freelance reporter, I’ve always had my tried-and-true approach to interviewing for a story.
I always read voraciously beforehand. I prepare a list of questions and printed them out on a single sheet of paper. I never rely on a tape recorder. I've mastered the knack of speed-writing while maintaining eye contact with my interviewee. And as I proceed through my list of questions, I know how to push for the answers. And push. And push some more.
But when I went to Lithuania to do research for We Are Here, my family-story-turned-exploration-of-a-post-Holocaust-society, I ended up abandoning some of this journalistic style of interviewing in favor of something different. Something softer.
Again and again, I found myself laying aside my list of questions. I let people talk, and I listened – with notebook in hand, of course.
One evening, early in my visit to the land of my Jewish forebears, I sat down at a café in Vilnius with a woman I’d never met before. I had my list of questions for Violeta. I was bent on finding out a series of facts about Holocaust education in the decades after the war.
But to my amazement, within moments after we ordered glasses of wine, Violeta let loose with a wail of pain about her tumultuous marriage. She had a story of her own that she wanted to tell.
For a while I fidgeted, worrying that unless I reined her in, we’d never get around to my agenda. I was afraid the interview would be a waste of time.
In fact, though, by not trying to steer the conversation in the direction I thought it should go, I wound up getting closer to the truths I was after.
Eventually we did get around to my questions – some of them. But what I learned from Violeta’s heartfelt expression was worth at least as much as her answers to the questions I’d thought up ahead of time.
After thinking it over, I came to see my encounter with this woman as a kind of metaphor for what is happening in the cauldron that is present-day Lithuania – a cauldron boiling and bubbling with radically disparate worldviews and historical perspectives. I had my view of the trauma Lithuanians should be confronting. Violeta had another.
What happened across that checkered tablecloth taught me a great deal. Had I barreled ahead with my prepared list of questions, I would have missed something important.
A few weeks later, in my ancestral town of Rokiskis, an elderly gentile man named Steponas asked to meet with me. As a boy, he had witnessed the horrors visited upon the Jews in 1941. Now he wanted to “meet with a Jew” before he died. Would I be that Jew?
Once again, in full journalist mode, I drew up a list of questions. “Why did the massacre occur? Did everybody see it? In your opinion, could it have been stopped?”
On the appointed day, I arrived at Steponas’s steep-roofed cottage with my notebook and my pounding heart, ready to scribble down the answers.
But that didn’t happen.
Without looking at me, Steponas laboriously made his way into the front seat of the car with his cane. He asked the driver to drive slowly through the town.
Once again, I worried that I wouldn’t get the story, that he wouldn’t give me what I needed, that I wouldn’t get the “goods” I needed to deliver in order to fulfill my (self-made) contract with my readers.
But I sat still and listened. As my guide translated, I wrote down Steponas’s words.
“They took everyone,” he was saying. “Even children and old people. It was all on my eyes. I was watching.”
What I learned from Steponas that day was not raw data but something else – something immeasurable, about the texture of bystanderism, the trauma of witnessing, the human capacity for evil and for good and for the gray zone in between.
In Lithuania, I came to appreciate the value of a looser style of interviewing. No less than its tougher journalistic cousin, I learned, the “soft” interview requires a certain skill set, one that gets better with practice.
You still have to find out as much as you can ahead of time. Your ability to train intelligent attention on what your subject is talking about – to communicate an intense and informed interest – can be vitally important in keeping the person talking.
You still have to be able to speed-write while keeping your eyes on your subject.
You still have to care passionately about getting to the bottom of things.
And of course you won’t be well-served if you forget all about what you came to find out in the first place.
That said, I found that letting go of the reins while interviewing can reap rich rewards. Give it a try.
Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.