Theresa Sjoquist - Photo Michael Cunningham

Useful interview tips to help new biographers get quality information from interviewees.

If you already know a bit about the subject of your biography, it will be easy to come up with initial leads to potential contributors to your research. These will mainly consist of people who knew your subject and who will provide newspaper articles, books, audio tapes, videos/DVD’s, photographs, letters, and other assorted memorabilia.

Anecdotal Contributions to Biography
Much of the research information is often gathered through interview, is anecdotal, and generally subjective. Beware using information that you only hear once.

If you notice for instance, that several people tell you that your subject was a bit unkempt and constantly had dirty fingernails, then this is a useful piece of information. Watch for repetition of these small pieces of anecdotal information which may seem negligible as a one-off. They often lead in surprising directions.

Biography Interview Tip
Don’t just accept it from two or three but ask subsequent interviewees, “A few people have mentioned that so-and-so was unkempt and their fingernails were almost always dirty. Did you ever notice such a thing?”

This approach will tell your respondent that they can safely admit something because someone else has already let the cat out of the bag. Once an interviewee feels that the information they are giving is not breaking any taboo or confidence, they will often like to offer more information which you might not yet have heard.

After you have turned the tape recorder off, be alert for new information. People are often inhibited by being recorded or interviewed. Once they feel the ‘official’ part is over, they may surprise you with snippets of information that didn’t come out in the interview. Some of your best research leads come immediately after the interview is over. If you think your interviewee will accept it, switch the recorder back on or jot down a few notes, but generally it’s wiser to just memorise what is being said and write it down as soon as you get to your car.

Make a point of asking each interviewee if there is anyone else they know with whom you should speak. Most of your leads will come from people with whom you have already spoken. Ask their permission to use their name when following up the lead. Occasionally you’ll be refused but mostly, by using your referee’s name, you will have won the confidence of your new potential interviewee.

Always behave with integrity, and offer your gratitude. You never know if you need to come back for more information.

Enjoy the process.

©Theresa Sjoquist