Getting the Interview
Interviewees were not pre-prepared. I randomly stopped them and asked them to talk to me. All interviewees were asked their permission to record, never asked their last name or any contact details and were offered the opportunity to make up a first name if they chose. People were remarkable open. It took me a little time to find the right approach. I wouldn’t tell people the subject of the interview when I first approached them, I would ask as follows:
“Hi I’m interviewing 200 random people in New York as research for a book I’m writing. Can you spare me a few minutes to give me your thoughts, completely anonymously. I just want your honest opinions and you’ll never hear from me again after this”
About 60% of people I approached agreed to talk to me. Those that didn’t were pressed for time, or just naturally reluctant to talk to a stranger about any subject, but I didn’t give anyone a chance to reject me upfront on the subject. ie they had no clue what it was about before agreeing to give me some time. Only once they had agreed to talk did I tell them the subject at which point only 9% then retracted their agreement and didn’t want to continue. I was a little economical with the truth concerning how long I wanted. Interviews usually lasted between 10 minutes and 1 hour, with an average being about 20 minutes.
I got off to a bad start using structured questions and after a few months I scrapped it all and started again. With structured questions it was very hard not to lead people. So I re-started and boiled it down to an open question:
“tell me what you think of god, and by god I mean whatever ‘god’ means to you,– maybe nature is god, or it’s the god of the Bible, or Vishnu, or maybe there is no god and it’s all a man-made idea. I’m not interested in what you think of religion, but what you think of god”
Then if they dried up I’d ask
“tell me how you were brought up in terms of any faith in your upbringing, what changed if anything, and where you are now”
I recorded the interviews and had them all transcribed, but going into it I hadn’t realized how impossible it was to read a transcript. In retrospect the brilliance of Studs Terkel was not just in his obvious charisma getting people to open up and talk, but also in his editing. Boiling down what people said into digestible chunks that maintained their voice. The editing was significantly more time and work than I anticipated but again I wanted to do them all myself to ensure consistency.
On average: A 20 minute interview = 6 page transcript = 1 page edited speech