Interviewing past the platitudes

From this past Sunday’s New York Times, a review of Craig Taylor’s “Londoners”:

Taylor devoted five years to collecting the material for “Londoners.” He gathered stories from all 32 boroughs, conducting formal interviews with more than 200 people, running through 300 tape-recorder batteries and taking down enough notes to generate transcripts of more than 950,000 words. Fewer than half the people he talked to made the final cut. Some interviews took months to set up and lasted just a few minutes. Others went on for hours.

The reviewer, a journalist herself, makes an excellent point about the challenges in interviewing:

Anyone who conducts interviews for a living knows how hard it can sometimes be to get subjects to move past cant and cliché, to leave the platitudes and drive on to the good stuff. (How many articles feature people expressing “shock and sadness” at their neighbors’ personal tragedies or noting that a murder victim “kept to himself”?)

Collecting soundbites is easy; the trope of the soundbite is so well-entrenched that most anyone will perform one in the right circumstances. Sometimes those soundbites feel – to the interviewer – like nuggets. It’s up to us to understand the difference between performance that we’re eliciting and a comment or observation that leads us towards insight.

Note: For more “Londoners” Taylor himself has an essay elsewhere in Sunday’s paper.


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