from Cagey to Quotable

Whenever I ask aspiring magazine writers why they don’t get started writing queries, they say the same thing: “I’m afraid of interviewing people.” And their fears aren’t unfounded—I’ve written for more than 100 magazines and have probably interviewed more than 1,000 people in the past seven years, and every once in a while, even I’m still stumped by the silent source or the interviewee who talks so much that I spend more on cassette tapes than I make on the article.

Case in point: I recently had to interview the general manager of an amusement park for a trade magazine. Try as I might, I couldn’t drag any useful information out of this guy. “What’s your park’s attendance?” “Not allowed to say.” “How many people do you employ?” “That’s top-secret information.” “How much did it cost to build that new ride?” “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” Because I was unable to get the information I needed, the article was killed—and I haven’t been asked to write for that publication since.

Even the most hard-boiled journalist breaks into a cold sweat when faced with interviews like this. So I spoke with four talented writers who are masters at the craft of talking up their sources to find out how to handle the interviewee from the Ninth Circle.

1. Run-on Rhonda

We’ve all had an interviewee who, when asked about the health benefits of carrots, launches into a half-hour monologue about how her mother used to force her to eat carrots when she was young, even though she hated them, and ever since then she can’t tolerate the color orange, and now Halloween decorations cause her to hyperventilate, and …

Stop! Here are some tactics for keeping the Run-on Rhonda on topic:

SET A TIME. Let your source know up front how much time you’ve set aside for the interview, so she can time her answers accordingly. Also, “I tell the source that I have to turn around the article in 48 hours—even if it’s due in a month,” says Myatt Murphy, a former fitness editor for Men’s Health and a freelancer who’s written for Cosmopolitan, Prevention, Esquire and others. If the interviewee has a sense of urgency, she tends to focus a lot faster.

FLATTER HER. If your source still runs at the mouth and over her allotted time, appeal to her vanity: “This information is so interesting, and I wish I had more time to interview you. But I have five more questions I need to ask, and I don’t want to use up all your valuable time.”

DO YOUR RESEARCH. Chances are, someone has already covered what you’re about to write, and you can find this information online. “From this, you can get a general sense of what principle things you want to discuss,” Murphy says. “That will help you focus the interview.”

TAKE IT ONLINE. Tell the interviewee that you’re very sorry, but you misjudged the amount of time the interview would take—and would she mind if you e-mailed her the remaining questions?

CUT IT SHORT. “I try to politely cut them off,” says Monique Cuvelier, who’s written for such magazines as Family Circle, Portable Computing and Psychology Today. “When they get off track, I interject a lot of ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘yeses’ so when I do interrupt with a question, it’s not out of the blue.” She then steers the interview back on track with a relevant question.

2. The Wrong Guy

You’re in the middle of an interview and you realize that the person you’re talking to is completely inappropriate for your article. The source’s PR rep told you he was a nutrition expert, but you discover that he actually sells herbal Viagra over the Internet. Here’s how to ditch the dud:

LET HIM DOWN EASY. Cuvelier usually says, “I’m so sorry, but I think I misunderstood what your expertise is. I’m afraid I just wasted part of your morning.” “I take the responsibility on myself,” she explains. “They’re not my boss, so I’m not concerned about being self-deprecating in front of them.

SAY “BUH-BYE.” If the source is actually trying to sneak his way into an article he knows he’s not appropriate for (believe me, it happens), he may not let you go so easily. In that case, as soon as you realize that the source is a no-go for your article, it’s best to tell him that he’s answered all your questions, thank you very much. Then give him a disclaimer: “I have to let you know that just because I do an interview, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be quoted in the article—though I’ll try my best.”

3. The Product Plugger

No matter what question you ask, the Product Plugger manages to turn the answer into an ad for his product, service or company. “What should small-business owners do to attract talented employees?” “Well, if you have a great product like our automatic peach defuzzer, which retails for the low, low price of $19.95, the employees will come flocking to your door.” “How should small-business owners price their products?” “They should price them low, like our automatic peach defuzzer, which retails at the low, low price of $19.95.” Here’s how to deprogram the Product Plugger:

BOOST HIS EGO. Say something like, “Your peach defuzzer is so wonderful and successful, you must have done a lot of research into the market. Do you have any insider comments on X?” That way, you’ve already gotten the product plug out of the way, so the source can answer your question minus the self-promotion.

BLAME THE EDITOR. “What I say is, `Look, this will never make it past my editor,’ ” says Juliet Pennington, a reporter for the Sun-Chronicle (Attleboro, Mass.), a freelance travel writer for the Boston Herald and a writing teacher at Curry College in Milton, Mass. Tell the source that you’ll be sure to mention his product, but that blatant pitches will be cut by the editor. If he wants his quotes to appear at all, he’ll have to tone it down.

PARAPHRASE. If all else fails, do what Cuvelier does to salvage the interview and paraphrase your source’s answers. “I present the quote to them: `Would you agree that X, Y and Z?’ ” she says. “Then, if I want to use a direct quote, I look for punchy two- or three-word phrases.”

4. The Blow-Off

If a person agrees to an interview, you expect that when you call, she’ll be there panting with anticipation—right? Sorry, but that’s not always the case. Sources get called away on emergencies, or they forget to record the interview in their Palm Pilots, or sometimes they’re just not that interested in being interviewed. Follow this advice to corral a source who flakes out on you:

COMMIT HER. When Jennifer Lawler, author of more than 20 books, including Dojo Wisdom for Writers (Penguin Compass), was stymied by a no-show source, she says, “The next time I had to interview someone, I got her to answer a question or two during my first contact to set up the interview.” Not only does this tactic give you an idea of whether the source is truly interested in talking to you, but it also makes the source feel invested in the scheduled interview. “They feel like they know me a little more, and it’s harder to blow me off,” Lawler says. You can ask your preliminary questions via phone or e-mail.

DIVERSIFY. If you have just one source and she blows you off, you’re up the creek. Try to have one source for every 500 words plus one extra for good measure. So a 1,500-word article will have four sources. Even if one of them ends up being a no-show, you’re still in good shape.

5. The Monosyllabic Marvel

This is the source who can’t or won’t respond to your questions, grunting yes or no to every query or dancing around your questions without actually spitting out an answer. Use these tips to get the words flowing:

DE-SCARIFY IT. When Cuvelier schedules an interview, she doesn’t call it an interview, which can conjure up scary images of Barbara Walters peppering sources with incriminating questions. Instead, she calls it a “chat.” And when she’s doing the interview—er, chat—she doesn’t say things like, “OK, question number five …” or, “My next question is … .” She transitions into her questions naturally to keep the conversation flowing. One good way to do that is to say, “That’s so interesting. And what about X?”

WARM HIM UP. Try starting with some warm-up questions that will help ease the source into the interview. Stuff like: “How’s the weather where you are?” and, “Hey, how ’bout those Knicks?” If you have anything in common with the source—maybe you both have teenage daughters or you recently visited his home town—bring it up. Once he starts feeling more relaxed, you can hit him with the more relevant questions, like, “Is it true that your company is dumping toxic chemicals into the public water supply?”

PREP HIM. For some articles, you can send the source the questions ahead of time so he can prepare himself.

GO VIRTUAL. If you sense that the interviewee is uncomfortable being interviewed, you can do what Lawler does and ask if he’d feel better doing an e-mail interview. “Some people really are more comfortable responding in print,” she says.

BE QUIET. “A lot of people, like me with my type-A personality, have trouble with silence,” says Pennington. “Sometimes someone is just formulating his thoughts, but you’re already on to the next thing because there was a two-second pause.” So maybe your interviewee isn’t reticent after all—you just aren’t giving him a chance to respond.

BE HUMBLE. “My philosophy is that the source doesn’t have to be talking to me,” Cuvelier says. “So I’m humble, and I think that takes me pretty far. I thank the source profusely and try to remember how busy these people are and how nice it is for them to be taking this time out of their day.”

6. The Jargon Spewer

You’ve scored an interview with the foremost expert on your topic. Huzzah! But when you interview her, she talks so far over your head that she might as well be speaking Farsi. Here’s how to bring the expert down to your—and your readers’—level:

EXPLAIN YOUR READERS. Tell the expert that the audience you’re writing for doesn’t understand the topic as well as she does. Ask her, “If you had to simplify this for a patient/client/child, how would you explain it?”

SPELL IT OUT. If the expert hits you with a word like “tetrahydrodipicolinate,” don’t fake it. Ask her to spell it.

SAY IT AGAIN, SAM. “When they throw out a word you don’t know, repeat it,” Murphy says. “Sometimes you have interviews where you listen to the tape and you’ve coughed halfway through the word, and you have no idea what that person said.” If you repeat it, then you’ve heard the word a couple of times—and the expert can correct you if you get it wrong.

These tips will help you become an ace interviewer who can handle even the most problematic interviewees like a pro, while getting the info you need to make your articles sparkle. As for me, I can’t wait to try out these talk-producing tricks on my next Monosyllabic Marvel.

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