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Friday, April 3, 2015
Narrative Writing Toolbox

Crafting stories starts with the interview

By Tom Hallman Jr.

When you think about where your story starts, I bet many of you believe it’s when you’re at the computer crafting that perfect opening. In truth, the story starts with the interview. And if you can’t get the interview, you can’t write the story.

Obviously, I’m not talking about press conferences, city council and school board meetings, or breaking news events where a public information officer is on scene. My focus is on the intimate stories that most resonate with readers.

I learned how to interview from the best teachers: cops and detectives who wanted nothing to do with me when I was a cub reporter assigned to the police beat. Cops didn’t want to talk with reporters because they knew they had nothing to gain. So I’d show up at a crime scene, or in the detective division, and get one of three responses: swear words, “no comment” or the number for the PIO.

But I kept coming around, learning how to be persistent without being a pest. I learned how to see a gathering of cops and — by looking at body language — figure out which one would be the best for me to approach and with what approach. I learned how to structure an interview, when to ask a question and when it was best to let silence do the work for me.

My constant hurdle was just getting them to talk with me. Freedom of the press meant nothing. Why should they let me in? What was I seeking? How could I explain what I needed?

If you can answer those questions, you’re on your way to the first stage of an interview: the meeting where the person you want to talk to checks you out. Remember, they choose. They say yes, or no.

Let me give you an example of how this works in the real world.

I wrote a brief news item about a young man in a small town who accidentally shot and killed his best friend. A few months later, I received an email from the grandfather of the dead man’s fiancé. He’s read my stories over the decades and thought there was a “Hallman story” here.

He told me the dead man’s family were attempting to forgive the shooter. That’s clearly a powerful story.

But the email contained this critical passage: “One thing, whatever ground work you need to put in place, whatever the mechanics of journalism dictate you start with (his granddaughter), get her trust and then do the work you are so good at.”

Last month, after a series of telephone calls with the young woman, I was told I could come to the family farm to meet some of the dead man’s family. When I got there I was introduced to the mother, father, brother, sister and fiancé as well a friend.

Now what?

I strategically chose a seat where they could all see me. I sat in a chair up against the wall, the rest of them in a semicircle in front of me. Hanging in the air were the unspoken questions: Why are you here and what do you want?

I needed an answer, just the way I once needed one when a robbery detective — the one who months earlier asked when I fell off the turnip truck — motioned to a chair next to his desk and asked me what I wanted from him.

Here’s what I did in that living room:

I told them I wasn’t there to take notes. In fact, I said, I didn’t even have a notebook with me. I said this was an opportunity for them to meet me, to learn about me and have a conversation with me as a father, man and storyteller.

If they didn’t want to tell their story, I understood. I’d leave right then and they’d never hear from me again. But I’d driven more than an hour and asked them to hear me out. As I spoke, I made sure to look at each person in the room, making a connection, however brief.

Who was the most influential person in the room? Who seemed the most in pain? Who clearly didn’t want me there?

And then I started talking. Not about the facts of the tragedy that brought this stranger to their home on a Sunday afternoon. I talked about my life and journey, the kind of stories I’d written and why. I explained the approach I took when I was allowed into someone’s life. I gave them a primer on what narrative was and how I’d report — getting in their heads and hearts, asking seemingly dumb questions that would not make sense until the story was written.

I studied body language, seeing the mother nod, the father sit back, his arms crossed across his chest. I took note of the tears and the silence. I asked what they needed from me, telling them to ask any question to help them decide whether they wanted to let me into their world.

I was honest, saying I wasn’t sure what the story was about. To do it justice, I’d need their help. Some of the issues, I told them, would be painful. What I’d require was their honesty and vulnerability.

I told them that I had an idea what the story might be about. I asked if they wanted me to tell them. Nods all around. I spoke of the great themes that would ultimately be the foundation of any story I might write: loss, anger, grief and forgiveness.

I sensed they were emotionally spent. I stood up and thanked them for their time, telling them it was time for me to go. I told them they should discuss this in private with no pressure from me.

The next morning I received an email: Yes, we will talk.

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