For my first post I’d like to write about something I get very excited about while doing research for one of my science books—interviews! Interviews get you out of your head during the research process and out into the action of doing science. They help bring the soul into your science writing.
Interviews are important for any topic though—they reveal the story behind the data. Uncovering that story is your job as the writer, so how do you do it? And what does it bring to your book? I have a few ideas (KLK) and I asked fellow MUF bloggers Jennifer A. Swanson (JAS) and Heather Murphy Capps (HMC) for their thoughts too. Here’s what we all had to say about doing interviews for nonfiction books.
What do you think interviews add to a nonfiction book?
- KLK: I think interviews add a voice and perspective that you cannot get from traditional research. By doing interviews, you can uncover dramatic and unusual details that suck middle grade readers right in and allow experts to speak directly to them.
- JAS: Interviews add authenticity. Unfortunately, I don’t get to experience the thrill of discovering new science, the excitement of going into space or diving deep in the ocean, or even the construction of new technology in person. I get to read about them. Interviews add a spice of life and reality to liven up the subject. They also ensure that I am accurate in my explanations.
- HMC: What I like about the interview is that it adds texture and also interesting perspective from a subject matter expert. You can throw all the facts you want into a book, but without the anecdotes and personal relationships a SME has with a subject, it can – and often does – fall flat.
How do you find people to interview? How do you contact them?
- HMC: I usually reach out to the thought leaders on the subject I’m working with. As a reporter, those thought leaders were often local, and usually were excited to be given an opportunity to talk about something they love. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy – if the subject was controversial. Also, sometimes if I was reaching out to a person with large national visibility, the time it took to get an interview was challenging.
- KLK: I often look on science publications. I can usually find the authors’ contact information on the paper or online. I also try contacting the PR department at a university to ask them if any professors might be willing to be interviewed. Be persistent and patient (but never pushy) when trying to schedule an interview. One time it took me six months to get an interview scheduled, but it was so worth the wait!
- JAS: I spend a lot of time searching for contacts online. I tend to look at universities and colleges first. Since that is where a lot of the cutting-edge research starts. When I find someone that I want to interview, I simply send them an email asking if they’d be willing to speak with me. Many of them are happy to do so. Others take a little more persistence to get them to respond, and some just never respond. That’s fine. They are busy people and I respect that.
Do you like to do recorded phone interviews, take notes while speaking, or email your questions? If you record interviews, how do you do so? And what do you do if you have technical difficulties?
- JAS: For me, it’s up to what is best for the scientist or engineer. Phone interviews take more time than answering emails. Some experts have the time for a phone interview. If you do that, be sure to record it. But ask their permission first—on the record. You wouldn’t want to be accused of recording them without their permission. Others I will just send questions within the email. I’ve been surprised before, though. A few times when I just needed the answer to one or two quick questions, the expert wanted to have a phone call and it ended up lasting an hour. I learn so much from those interactions. There are many different apps that you can download. Be sure to test the app before the actual interview. For example, once I found out that a recording app I had used successfully before DID NOT record if I had my headphones plugged in. OOPS! Yeah, I didn’t find out until after the interview. UGH. So I do take notes as I go along, too. Yes, I’ve had technical difficulties, I mean it’s technology. You just do the best you can. But if you test and prepare in advance, you should do fine.
- KLK: I prefer recorded phone interviews, because they result in more natural speaking language and I get more quotable material. Sometimes written answers can be very formal and highly technical, especially when coming from someone used to academic writing. I use an app to record, and have had some issues. I think it’s best to have a backup recording device available, like a handheld tape recorder. Sometimes recorded interviews aren’t convenient for the person you are interviewing, though, especially if you are in different time zones or don’t speak the same native languages. So email interviews work best in those cases.
- HMC: As a TV reporter, all of my interviews were recorded. However, as an author I find most people prefer the flexibility of emailed interview questions, which they then have time to edit and research before hitting “send.” When I do the rare phone interview, I do it old-school—scribbling notes on a legal pad.
What are some of the most interesting details you’ve discovered through interviews?
- HMC: I have discovered fascinating details about the search for genetic cures (CRISPR-Cas9) to diseases that plague us, like malaria and cystic fibrosis.
- KLK: When doing research for my book Extreme Longevity: Discovering Earth’s Oldest Organisms, I was fascinated by the different coincidences and accidents that led to different discoveries. Like Italian biologist Ferdinando Boero and his team, who forgot to feed some jellyfish they were raising to document their life cycle, After two days, they realized their mistake and saw the jellyfish had regenerated into new ones. That’s how they discovered the immortal jellyfish! Another was when Danish biologist Julius Nielsen was in a college seminar and heard that the largest Greenland shark was caught more than 100 years ago. But he knew this was incorrect, because he had recently been on a research vessel that had caught an even larger shark. Hearing this, Nielsen decided to investigate Greenland shark size and age, and discovered that they may live longer than 500 years! I love hearing the connections like these between the events that made a scientist curious about something to the results of their investigations.
- JAS: That’s a tough one. There are SO many! Some of the most notable such as Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first US female astronaut to walk in space and also at the time of theinterview who was the head of NOAA, were so profound, that I could have listened to her for hours. I mean what she has personally done to further women in the field of science and technology is awesome. That was for my Astronaut-Aquanaut Dr. Sullivan is both. I also got to speak and actually meet Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, my childhood hero. That was awesome! Fabien was very easy to talk to and we had a lot of fun. I spoke with a few of the top climate change scientists in the world about carbon capture and reforestation. For my Super Gear book, my expert is a material scientist who now has his own medical device company that is changing the face of medicine!
And here are a few extra tips from the three of us:
- Be polite. Be professional. Be aware of their time. Remember that you are asking these people to give up a portion of their very valuable time to speak with you. So you should be prompt, prepared, and keep to your topic.
- Plan your interview as carefully as you can by planning your book so that you iron out any questions about direction, detail, level of difficulty, etc.
- Remind interview subjects that you are writing for a middle-grade audience, which means the language used to describe the topic has to be accessible to the 8-14 age range.
- Be sure to listen and let them speak. But also listen to ensure that you get what you need for your book. If you need them to talk about a specific topic, then make sure it’s covered.
- See if your interviewees have any photos they might be willing to share with you for the book. Photos from the field are hard to come by on stock photo sites. Also ask if they can recommend any papers or books for your further research.
- People sometimes get a little nervous when what they say appears in a book. Offer to send interviewees what you write about them for their review.
- Add a “special thanks” section to the book and be sure to recognize the contributions of the people you interviewed.
- Send your interview subjects a thank you and copy of the book. That is not required, but definitely a nice gesture. It sometimes works in your favor. I sent a copy of my climate change book to an expert and he did a huge shout out on Twitter about it. Went to a lot of his colleagues who all said they’d buy the book. You never know… 🙂
Thanks so much to Jennifer A. Swanson and Heather Murphy Capps for contributing to this post! Here’s a bit more about each of them.
Science Rocks! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 30 nonfiction books for children. She has presented at numerous SCBWI conferences, BEA, ALA, NSTA conferences, the Highlights Foundation, and also the World Science Festival. You can find Jennifer through her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com.
Heather Murphy Capps writes middle grade novels that weave together all her favorite things: science, magic, baseball, and poetry. She is an #ownvoices author committed to increasing diversity in publishing.
Now it’s your turn! What do you like about doing interviews? And what are your tips? Tell us in comments what you like to do!