“The most important thing was to write a piece that my interviewee would be completely happy with,” was what a writer told a colleague of mine a while ago, regarding a sculptor she was profiling for an arts journal.
I’m sure the final piece was excellent, but I couldn’t help feeling this attitude was a mistake.
As a writer, your first duty is to your reader – not to your subject.
When you interview someone, your approach should be to ask questions to which you think your reader will want answers – not necessarily questions which the interviewee may want to be asked and which might allow them to portray themselves in a perfect light.
They may be old and frail; they may be sweet and gentle; they may be offering you tea and Fondant Fancies. I’m afraid it doesn’t matter – not even if they’re the lemony ones. What you can’t do is to shy from questions that need to be asked.
If, for instance, your interviewee’s work has been criticised, then you should address this – for example, by asking how the criticism made them feel or how they dealt with it. Avoiding the subject because it may further upset them is weak.
Ask several ‘nice’ questions, by all means – then ask the odd tougher question too.
But asking questions isn’t enough. You need to incorporate answers into your piece. If you catch yourself editing or omitting material because your subject “might be upset by it” or you begin imagining your interviewee’s head resting heavily on your shoulder, glaring disapprovingly as you write, then you’re in trouble.
I’m not suggesting a stitch-up job. I’m suggesting you have to be as impartial, fair and objective as you can be.
This doesn’t mean you can’t plug the interviewee’s book or exhibition or whatever project it is they may be promoting – but it does have to be relevant to the reader. Agreeing when asked if you could squeeze in a quick mention of your subject’s new sideline in organic jam-making is likely to be a big no-no.
You don’t only owe it to your reader. You owe it to your editor – who is, remember, paying you to ask questions on behalf of the reader.
And you also owe it to yourself. Asking difficult questions and delivering to the reader will improve your interviewing and writing skills, earn you respect – and make your work more compelling to read.