Craft Lesson: Persuading kids to talk

Craft Lessons

Any reporter who has tried to interview young children knows how laconic and reluctant they often can be. Even open-ended questions designed to initiate conversations are answered with “Yes”, “No,” “I don’t know,” or worse, silence. But there’s hope.

For nearly a decade, John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter for The Washingon Post, has perfected the art of persuading children to share their experience and thoughts about a fraught subject—their devastating experiences with gun violence as victims and witnesses to mass shootings and those traumatized even by a single death. In 2018, Cox was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a portfolio of his stories on the topic. He is the author of “Childen Under Fire: An American Crisis,” a new, disturbing, but must-read book for gun owners and parents. In a recent interview, he shared his techniques with me.


The first time you meet a kid they tend to go one direction or the other; either they desperately want your attention and want to talk to you and will say anything or they don’t want to talk at all. They’re very shy and standoffish and pretty closed up,” Cox told me.


“I talk to them like an adult. I explain who I am and what I’m doing and why,  that I work for a newspaper and I’m here to tell their story if that’s okay with them.”

Cox often likes to talk to kids “in the spaces where they’re most comfortable, which is frequently in their rooms because they want to show you their toys and the things they like the most. I’ve always used things like making sure my eye level is not higher than theirs. I don’t want tobe above them physically, I don’t want them to think I’m an authority figure because I’m not. And I want them to know that they can always stop talking about something if they don’t want to talk about it.

Repetition is another key technique, he said. The more he shows up, the more relaxed the children become. That’s his approach to reporting: “always show up and keep showing up…because good things happen in the reporting process when you’re there, and you’re there again and again and again.”


Cox recognizes that reporters believe children will be recalcitrant subjects, but he’s found the opposite. “Ultimately, kids love attention, like any of us. If you’re sincere, and genuine in your interest, they can sense that and they’re often willing to open up, even about the hardest things they’ve been through.”

THE MEANING HIDDEN IN FRONT OF ME: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH THOMAS FRENCH

Interviews

Thomas French with his daughters Brookie and Greysi

Thomas French teaches journalism at Indiana University. For nearly three decades before, French worked as a narrative project reporter at the St. Petersburg Times/Tampa Bay Times, specializing in serialized storytelling. Angels & Demons, a story about the murders of a mother and her two teen daughters while visiting Florida, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1998. French is also the author of four nonfiction books. Most recently, he and his wife Kelley co-authored Juniper, a book about the premature birth of their oldest daughter.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

I’ve learned so many things over the years. I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest things about being a journalist is that it asks you to keep learning something new all the time, every day. I guess the single most important lesson has been the realization that meaning lies everywhere around us and within us. 
One time I asked a subject of mine – a self-taught scholar of many disciplines — what she liked to read for her own enjoyment. Her 12-year-old son, listening to the interview, blurted out, “She reads puppy books.” I asked what a puppy book was, and the boy grabbed a worn and dog-eared romance novel off the shelf — The Golden Barbarian, with the cover showing a young maiden melting in the arms of the aforementioned savage —- and said, “You know, they fall in love, they get married, they have puppies.” Then he handed me the book with a knowing grin and said, “Check out page 192.”
I loved that this brilliant woman’s 12-year-old son knew where the dirty parts were in her romance novels. It was one of those details so beautiful that I knew right away it would end up in my final draft. But it wasn’t until much further down the road, after this woman ended her marriage and decided to raise their five children on their own — all because she was sure that there was another man waiting for her, a man better suited for her — that I realized I had missed the meaning of this woman’s devotion to her puppy books. She was lonely. She did not believe that the man beside her understood her or truly knew her or was right for her. She wanted to find someone who would love her the way she deserved, and by God, she found him not long afterwards and married him and moved with him and the kids to a big house in France.
The mystery of who this woman was and what she truly wanted had been in front of me the whole time, hidden inside The Golden Barbarian. And I had missed it. I had overlooked all of these big things waiting inside this little detail.
It was just another reminder, one of hundreds over the years, that I need to pay attention to everything and look for the meaning hidden right in front of me.


What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

 Okay, so I read this passage once in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso’s astonishing retelling and reframing of Greek mythology. It was an insight the writer had about the multiple versions of each myth and all the heroes and gods and goddesses.
“Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths,” Calasso wrote. “But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo.” 
Those lines hit me like a thunderbolt. I was about 35 at the time, and I knew that in those few decades I had already lived several lives and had already died and been reborn several times. And if that was true of me, then it had to be true of all of us, not just mythical figures, but the human beings whose stories I was trying to chronicle. And when all of this washed through me, I realized I had a lot more digging to do in my reporting. Because up until then, I hadn’t recognized the multiplicity of each person’s experiences. I hadn’t seen it, because I hadn’t known to look for it, and once I did learn it, my reporting instantly went deeper.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

Wow. On my better days, I guess I’d compare myself to someone who digs, a miner maybe. Anne Hull once scribbled me a note on a piece of scrap paper and gave me some advice that I’ve held onto tightly ever since. I hope she’ll forgive me for sharing it: Don’t turn back. Understatement. Insight. The scalpel. Tool into the past without misty eyes but with the compass and charts of an explorer. Tunnel there . . . As the boys in Princeton, W.V. say: Get dirty, brother.


What is the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

 I’ve been extremely lucky in my writing life to have learned from so many great journalists. The best advice I ever received — and I received it from many — is the same advice I give myself every time on deadline and the advice I give every writer I work with, whether they’re doing a quick daily or burrowing inside a massive book.
“Keep going.”

Craft Lesson: Devote yourself to outlining

Craft Lessons

There are many ways to find the order that is right for your story. 

Make a list of what you want to say.

What piece of information should be at the beginning?

What piece of information should be at the end?

What belongs in the middle?

Ask the questions the reader will ask and put them in the order they will be asked.

Assign values to quotations.

Then there is the outline , the writer’s tool that summarizes the main points or important details before you write your story. It’s a map, a guide.

I’m not talking about the type, festooned with Roman numerals, that your teachers demanded during your school days. Yucck! But when the story, especially, is narrative nonfiction, an outline allows the writer to pull back from the mass of notes, interview transcripts, scenes, quotes, statistics, observations and other material collected during the reporting phrase.

If your interest is fiction, before you write a novel or short story, the outline lays out the important scenes before the drafting begins.

Whichever method you choose, ordering is a crucial part of the writing process.

I recently encountered an extreme method of outlining from a writer who describes herself as a “devoted outliner at the start.” Lizzie Presser is a reporter for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization. I Interviewed her about her story, “The Black American Amputation Epidemic,” one of two pieces that won the 2021 National Magazine Award for public interest,

I asked Presser to unpack her writing process as part of an annotation for Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates the art and craft of narrative nonfiction. The resulting conversation amounted to a master class for anyone interested in that challenging but immensely rewarding form and the art and craft of the outline. 

For this story,” Presser told me, “I printed out hundreds of pages of interviews and transcribed scenes and tried to read through them within 24 hours so the material was fresh in my mind. I usually outline on a computer, but in this case, there was so much that I wanted to use that I started cutting up paragraphs and quotes and details and laying them out on the floor. This is the most difficult and the most exciting part of the process for me. I’m trying to craft a narrative with suspense at the same time as I’m trying to construct a logical argument. Once I’d laid out my outline on the floor, I left it there for weeks as I tried to write through it. I would move pieces around on the floor to see how changes would play.”

Granted such efforts demand time — in Presser’s case, she spent a total of two months to report and write her story–that may be beyond the reach of many writers. Still, there’s no reason why you can’t try a limited approach for a daily story or a takeout due in a week. Whatever your deadline, Presser’s approach to outlining longform stories is inspirational and instructive.

More importantly, it contains lessons of value to those who practice as well those who aspire to model such excellence. Even if you lack the resources Presser had, there are nuggets of methodology that you can still apply to your next story.

At the very least, you can devote yourself to outlining, choosing which approaches to take that best suit the time and reporting you have collected. Even on deadline, outlining can map a story that enables readers to understand its meaning and message through a coherent structure. 

Turn on the Valve: Four Questions with Sean Tanner

Interviews
Sean Tanner

Sean Tanner is a rising star in the Irish literary scene. His work has appeared in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, The Lonely Crowd, The Holly Bough, The Forge Literary Magazine, and The Moth Magazine among others. In 2017 he won the Hennessy New Irish writing award for first fiction, and in 2018 he received the John McGahern award for literature. In 2021 he was awarded a full literature bursary (scholarship) from the Arts Council of Ireland.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. What there is though, is a reluctance to write poorly. I think sometimes you just have to turn on the valve and clear the crap out of the pipes before you can get the good stuff. Once I realized this, the whole thing became a lot easier for me. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?


All of it I guess. Any kind of success I’ve had has been a surprise to me. Every time I get an acceptance, I am surprised and elated. I remember my first big acceptance, I genuinely thought it was a prank. I thought it was some cruel friend having a laugh at my childish ambitions. I googled the email I got the acceptance letter from and everything. This is not uncommon either from I hear. How much success will it take to convince me I am a capable writer? A lot, probably.


If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

I guess I’d be like the intrusive drunk who has no respect for your personal space, the one who leans in too close and breathes whiskey fumes in your face while whispering some illicit confession, hoisting an unwanted confidence upon you, as you listen appalled, and embarrassed.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you? 

I think you can apply this to any artistic endeavor, not just writing. It’s a quote from the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk : ‘“A genius is the one most like himself.”
Not saying I’m a genius or anything, but this struck me as important when I read it, and to me it says something important about voice and integrity, and how that translates onto the page.


CRAFT LESSON: Braiding your narrative to tell a complete story

Craft Lessons

More and more, as I read and closely study excellent narrative nonfiction, I’m struck by how many talented writers rely on braided structures, moving smoothly between two or more storylines.

 Another term for this approach is digressive narrative. This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re detours, sometimes quick, other times lengthy, from the primary story arc.

I became aware of it after binge-watching Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” This must-see network political series, which ran for seven seasons between 1999  and 2006, dramatized the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff.

Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. In a Feb. 2020 essay for Nieman Storyboard, I focused on one telling example: the attempted assassination of President Bartlett and the severe wounding of his deputy chief of staff. The plot digresses to follow the creation of an upstart campaign that launched an obscure New England governor into the White House. (The story features links to the episodes on YouTube along with the scripts for the two-parter. I also showed how novelists use digression, using J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

I also found, producing annotations for Storyboard, how many narrative nonfiction writers also digress from their primary story arc, braiding multiple storylines to tell a complete story.

Here are two examples of braided narrative nonfiction worth studying. 

The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I. ” by Jason Fagone of The San Francisco Chronicle. The story tracks the situation of a grieving man who decided to try a unique Artificial Intelligence program to have a “conversation” with his dead ex-fiancee. “Jessica” is transformed into a chatbot that responds to prompts. Fagone braids the couple’s backstory, and a programmer’s quest to program video games that generate emotions, along with a remarkably accessible guide to the world of A.I. and its possibilities and potential pitfalls.

Her Time,” by Katie Engelhart, published in the California Sunday Magazine, tells the extraordinary story of an Oregon woman’s underground journey to die on her own terms before dementia left her unable to take the needed action when she was ready. Engelhart braids that with the history of the right-to-die movement and the contentious debate about whether patients with dementia should be allowed the legal right to die, with assistance, before they are deemed incompetent.

Not everyone, as I wrote, is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in 2020 at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”

I think you can overdose on digressions, as you can on any writing technique. But used judiciously and with skill, they can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth examining. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or “The Jessica Simulation” and then experiment with your own stories.

POWER THROUGH: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH ELLEN GABLER

Interviews
Ellen Gabler

Ellen Gabler is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Since joining The Times in 2017, she has covered health and medical issues in addition to reporting on sexual harassment. Ms. Gabler previously worked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a reporter and deputy investigations editor.

At The Times in 2018, Ms. Gabler was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment and misconduct. She has also received the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in National Reporting and shared with colleagues the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, Scripps Howard, Gerald Loeb, and National Headliner awards, among others. 


A native of Eau Claire, Wis. Ms.Gabler has a bachelor of business administration from Emory University and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She began her career at the Stillwater Gazette, in Stillwater, Minn. and has worked at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

To not be a wimp about it. Writing well is hard. It takes planning, dedication, re-writing, thinking about your reader, and listening to those who edit/read your work. I’m often stunned by the amount of drafts I go through on some of my most important stories. The re-reading, re-writing and re-thinking of ledes, sections, endings, transitions and everything else can be exhausting and maddening. But, that is often what it takes to pull together a really strong piece.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise ties in with the biggest lesson. I’m surprised that writing can still be pretty challenging, despite the fact that I’ve been a reporter for nearly 20 years. But the good thing is, now I KNOW it is challenging, and remember that I just need to power through. And every story is different. Some come easier than others. I’ve also learned to enjoy the process more, and think of it like I’m training for an athletic event. I swam competitively through college, and we spent years practicing our starts, turns, finishes — really fine-tuning every part of a race. Writing is the same. The training never really ends, and every time you do it, it is going to be kind of hard. So you have to accept that and jump on in.

if you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

To me, writing is a lot like building a snow fort AND putting together a puzzle. To build a snow fort, you need enough snow. To write a story, you need enough “stuff” or reporting to build the story. Often times when I’m having trouble writing, it is because I don’t have enough “stuff.” Getting all the snow to build your fort can be a pain. The same is true with reporting. But, you need to do the hard work of getting all of the “stuff” before you can write.

As for the puzzle part, that’s pretty self-explanatory. Even though it is ALSO often a pain, I do love the part of writing where you get to take all of your reporting and make it fit together. I like being surprised by how it turns out, and really delight in the little moments when you find the right transition or perfect place to put a quote.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

To remember that you are telling a story, not writing a research paper. I think a lot of times as investigative reporters, we can be boring. Your story doesn’t matter if no one reads it, and so it is really important to try to write in a compelling and approachable way.

Although to be honest, there isn’t just ONE best piece of writing advice. I have gathered up little pieces of advice over the years from listening to other reporters talk about their work, and simply from reading. The more you read, the more you notice what works and what doesn’t work. Then you can apply it to your own stories. 

GUEST CRAFT LESSON BY SUE HORNER: FIVE WAYS TO HELP MAKE NUMBERS MAKE SENSE

Craft Lessons

“Adding whipped cream to millions of Starbucks Corp. drinks emits 50 times as much greenhouse gas as the company’s private jet.” – Eric Pfanner, Bloomberg News

If you’re going to use numbers to make a point, be sure you’re helping make those numbers make sense. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Do the math, and give numbers context

“Over a period of between 40 and 70 days, a lake formed, growing to more than 0.5 cubic kilometres in volume – as much water as it would take to fill the Houston Astrodome more than 400 times.” – Andrew Findlay in Canadian Geographic

Researcher Jake Hofman says perspective helps people recall unfamiliar numbers, estimate numbers they hadn’t seen before, and detect errors in “potentially manipulated numbers.” Instead of saying “Americans own almost 300 million firearms,” for example, he suggests, “To put this into perspective, 300 million firearms is about 1 firearm for every person in the United States.”

2. Make a large number understandable by comparing it to something known

“The travel and hospitality sector lost almost $4.7 trillion in 2020 – as much as if all 7.9 billion people in the world threw $595 straight into a garbage bin.” – Ann Handley

“To store a gigabyte’s worth of data just 20 years ago required a refrigerator-sized machine weighing 500 pounds. Today, that same gigabyte’s worth of data resides comfortably on a disk smaller than a coin.” – IBM


3. Make a small number or size understandable by comparing it to something known

“Above all, atoms are tiny – very tiny indeed. Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.” – Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

“A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year.” – Kenn Kaufman, via ScienceNews


4. Show significance without actual numbers

“[The alligator gar is] a toothy giant that can grow longer than a horse and heavier than a refrigerator.” – Tammy Webber in the Toronto Star

“A new calculation shows that if space is an ocean, we’ve barely dipped in a toe. The volume of observable space combed so far for E.T. is comparable to searching the volume of a large hot tub for evidence of fish in Earth’s oceans.” – Lisa Grossman, ScienceNews

5. Make time relatable

“[Sir Richard Branson’s] round trip, from New Mexico to the stars and back, will last about 90 minutes, or roughly what it takes to drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls.” – Vinay Menon in the Toronto Star

No matter how well you’re able to help readers understand numbers, try to use as few as will get the job done. “Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs,” says Roy Peter Clark. “Readers don’t learn that way.”

Sue Horner loves being the “go-to” writer for small communications teams who need writing that has warmth and personality. A full-time freelance writer, she launched Get It Write in 1991 and has used her experience as a corporate communicator to help companies connect with their employees.  She is particularly known for turning complicated, dense information into readable and understandable content for feature articles, newsletters, profiles and more. Clients appreciate Sue’s ability to find the human angle in any story, capture the essence of a discussion and provide a fresh perspective on a routine subject.

Four Questions with Nicola Twilley

Interviews
Nicola Twilley

Nicola Twilley is co-host of the award-winning Gastropod podcast and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her first book, “Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine,” was co-authored with Geoff Manaugh and published by MCD, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in July 2021. She is currently writing a book on the topic of refrigeration for Penguin Press.

.What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

I’ll give you the lesson I have learned and learned again, but still fail to apply far too frequently: write your notes and thoughts down as soon as possible. Sometimes when I’m reporting, especially when my schedule is packed and I’m tired, I get lazy and let my smartphone do the work, figuring I’ll just take some photos, record the conversation, and go through it all later. Then, at the end of the day, I collapse instead of jotting notes and mentally reviewing what I experienced. But, while I believe in photographing and transcribing everything (no better way to relive the interview and capture the nuances of voice, as well as details I might have missed in the moment), looking at photographs and transcripts later just doesn’t yield all the same richness that bubbles up when you sit down at the end of a long day of interviews and let your mind tell you what was important.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I can write! I grew up thinking that, if I was good enough to be a real writer, I would already know — the way athletes know whether they’re good enough to be professional by university or before. I thought it was a matter of innate talent, and that, if I had that kind of talent, someone would definitely have mentioned it at some point. I didn’t know any writers, so I had no real-world point of comparison, either. It wasn’t until my husband started a successful writing career that I realized that, if he could do it, maybe I could too. (He also believed I could, which helped!)

if you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

I’m a combination detectorist and carpenter. The reporting part is all about finding nuggets — you can develop a sense of where they might be and how to extract them, the way detectorists find buried treasure. The writing is carpentry — I can’t start writing till I have my first sentence, but then it’s a relatively straightforward matter of joining everything together so it forms a pleasing structure, and planing it down to try to get rid of anything extraneous. A slow, careful, craft-ful assembly process.

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

To write my notes and thoughts down as soon as possible! (See answer 1; this came from Michael Pollan, and, whenever I have the discipline to follow it, I am grateful.) My favorite piece of writing advice to give to others is to read good writing. I firmly believe that beautiful language is contagious. That, and use the right dictionary.

Craft Lesson: How to Cope with Emotional Interviews

Craft Lessons

Like countless others, my heart went out to the victims and families and friends of those who lived and died in the shocking June 24 collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside, Fla. I also had in mind the reporters who descended on the scene and faced the painful task of interviewing survivors and the loved ones of those dead or still missing. 

In my two decades as a newspaper reporter, I became well-acquainted with that aspect of the job. At one point, if you’d asked me about my beat, I’d have replied, “Death.” 

More times than I can count, I was dispatched to write about those left behind after the unthinkable happened: a child killed by a school bus, the high school friends of a classmate killed during a failed 1980 rescue mission to rescue the American hostages held captive by Iranian revolutionaries, the bride-to-be caught in a crossfire between police and a desperate parolee. My father had died when I was ten, and that often proved an effective way to show empathy for people I imposed on at one of the worst moments of their lives. Death binds. 

When I was teaching at The Poynter Institute, a reporter once emailed to ask about the appropriate response when a subject breaks down and begins to cry during an interview, a common occurrence.

“I’m not a very touchy-feely person,” the reporter said, “so I feel as though it would come across as fake or forced if I were to make myself give the subject a hug or touch their hand or something similar to that. But I feel so heartless simply continuing the interview while they dab at tears.

“Most often, these subjects are essentially strangers whom I have engaged in an emotional interview, so I feel as though I would be crossing some sort of line by moving closer to them or touching them or crying with them as though we were close friends.”

For help, I touched base with Joe Hight, then managing editor of The Oklahoman and no stranger to covering trauma in the news. 

As a reporter and editor, he covered the first mass post office shooting in 1986 in Edmond, Okla., the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the aftermath of killer tornadoes. 

He was also president of the executive committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s “a global network that brings together journalists, educators and health professionals to improve media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy, as well as the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.”

As reporters increasingly face emotional interviews after what seems like an unending cycle of mass shootings, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events, Joe’s advice remains timely. 

“You are not the only journalist who has struggled or will struggle when interviewing people who become emotional during an interview,’” he counseled.

“Certain interview questions may prompt an emotional response, especially if the subject is remembering a loved one who died tragically. It’s your response afterward that is important.

“Most people don’t need a hug from a stranger, and all of them don’t need a fake or forced response. They need someone who’s compassionate and human.”

I wish that Joe’s wise advice had been available to me as I sat with friends and family who were grieving a loss. I’m grateful, though, that it may offer help for reporters who find themselves, as they inevitably will, in that situation someday. His tips:

First of all, don’t stop the interview because someone cries and you feel uncomfortable. If you do, you might deprive the person from expressing natural and proper emotions.

Simply express again how sorry that you are about the situation or loss and then be especially sensitive to the subject from that point on. Put down your notebook and ask whether there’s anything that you can do to help, such as getting a tissue or a glass of water. (You might even want to bring tissue yourself if you think the interview could become emotional.)

When the subject becomes somewhat composed again, ask softly “Are you okay?” and then “Do you want to continue the interview?” If the answer is yes, politely express that you’re taking notes again and ask the next question in a soft tone. Then be patient and listen.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject for talking to you “during these difficult times.” Then ask if you can call later to check on facts or quotations, and possibly on information that may have been missed.

If the person sobs uncontrollably or cannot respond further, it’s then that you should consider discontinuing the interview until a later time. Before leaving, ask whether the subject wants you to contact someone or needs anything else. Then ask whether it’s okay to call or return at a certain time. A simple nod may be the reply.

Finally, if you are troubled by what happened during the interview, be sure to talk to someone who’s a sensitive and trusted listener so you can debrief from the emotions that you absorbed yourself.

​​

Horrible Messy Drafts: Four Questions with Lois Kapila

Interviews

Lois Kapila is the editor and a reporter at the Dublin Inquirer, an independent reader-funded newspaper in Dublin, Ireland. She has worked at The Statesman newspaper in Kolkata, India, and freelanced for anywhere that will publish her. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism and European Journalist of the Year. 

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

To not be afraid to think. It sounds stupid but for a long time I think I was scared to think, as if by asking questions about what I’d been told or engaging too deeply with what I was reporting on, would be biased in some way.

It took me a while to get past that, to realize it was okay to not just be a scribe, and to clock that following a fair, journalistic process—and thinking a lot and asking plenty of questions along the way to all kinds of people—was the most important thing that helps you get as close to the truth of something as possible. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I’m doing it. I still can’t get over the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to meet, and listen to, and talk to, so many people. I hope I always stay surprised. I dread the day when I take that for granted.   

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

Can I be a mapmaker? Trying to chart out the world so we can see where we stand and where we’re headed or could go—although, I’m thinking ideally more here-be-monsters than AA road map.

Or maybe a glassblower, training for years and years to craft something simple and clear. (I guess that’s also turning hot air into something beautiful, hmmm…)

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Write drafts. Horrible messy drafts. And start them straight away and don’t get hung up on how ugly they are. That, of course, is one of the many things I’ve learnt from you by the way, Chip.

Like pretty much everybody reporting and writing these days, I’m so pressed for time and if I don’t start writing as soon as I start reporting, I don’t have the breathing space to revise and cut and rearrange and spot gaps.