Monthly Archives: January 2018

On the Hook

A not-uncommon circumstance highlighting one of the less-graceful aspects of my freelance game:


I had an interview scheduled for 2, and that always derails me. Telephone anxiety in general, plus the professional obligation to ask good questions, to mine from this real person all of the info I’ll need to write what needs to be written.


Too specific a prompt and you may only get a “yes” or “no.” Too general and you won’t get any info at all—or worse, still, you’ll be met with confused silence before your subject responds, “Wait…what was the question?”


It doesn’t really break down that cleanly, but there’s an art to an interview, and it doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s like a duet where your part is responsible for conjuring the other part on the spot. And you don’t know what instrument they’re playing until they answer the phone.


(Don’t think about that simile too much, please.)


I have trouble concentrating sometimes. In this case, the interviewee is 3,000 miles away, his industry conceptually just as distant from mine. If he wants to talk, that’s brilliant, but if he needs me to drag it out of him, well…that’s harder. I can stockpile six good questions, maybe, and if each of them only elicits a five-word answer, then I’m sunk.


For a 750-word assignment a few weeks ago, encompassing a spectrum of circumstances, I managed only a 20-minute interview. She was pressed for time, and I hung up the phone feeling I hadn’t properly honed my approach. It was an ultimate success, though the writing process was filled with self-doubt, assuming I’d failed to get adequate info.


On the other hand, I interviewed a sports broadcaster the other day for a quick little 300-word profile, and I kept having to make myself move on, lest we bog further in the career of Vin Scully or the charged atmosphere of a stadium or the nuances of narrating a bowling tournament. After quite a few years of fighting for questions to fly even a little bit, it’s a happy glide on thermals when they come easily.


That doesn’t happen often, though. Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at winging it, sometimes, as needed, and that helps with confidence. But every new interview is a potential soul-scarring lurch of an awkward, unproductive conversation. When it goes really bad, every instinct tries to steer you out of it ASAP, but being in it is the whole point. And once you bail, it’s that much harder to get it back.


Anyway. I called, left a voicemail, and was greeted with a text reply. “Can’t talk now. I’ll call you back later.” Could be 10 minutes, I figured. I kept my voice recorder rolling.


It’s been four hours. I can’t concentrate on the topic of the call, but I’m afraid to let myself get too focused on anything else. I’m still sitting here toying with potential questions trying to maintain at least some low-grade focus on the topic in case the phone rings and I have to do my little intro dance and then ask the right questions that get him to say stuff.


(My little intro dance often involves run-on sentences.)


There’s a certain relief when you realize it won’t happen today, but I well know that just means it’s going to have to happen some other time in the future. If I could do it without the chat, I would. But being in it is the whole point.


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