Saturate And Immerse

This highly involved research effort, sometimes called, appropriately, "saturation reporting" or "immersion research," requires that the writer be willing (and financially able) to stick with a story for weeks, months, or even years. The writer also has to be willing to move in on the lives of complete strangers and to dig deep into those lives, warts and all. Gay Talese, speaking on a panel at Yale ("New Journalism—Two Decades in Perspective") told the audience of students and writers, "You've got to do deep and thorough research—you've got to have an affair with your subject."

Mark Kramer said that he spent several years living among or around the men and women he wrote about in Three Farms, a book that takes the reader through the lives of people operating farms of different types, sizes, and locales.

The fiction writer can hole up in a garret or a cabin and work largely out of his or her memory and imagination, but the creative nonfiction writer can't work out of those sources alone. He or she must conduct research out in the real world, the raucous world, the dirty world. This requirement to work away from the studio or the study turns some writers away from this form of writing. Others love that side of the profession—it's what draws them in. I write this not to discourage you from the profession but to suggest that you keep the requirements clearly in mind: the need to work away from home, family, and friends for long stretches of time; the need sometimes to sleep in strange beds under alien roofs; and the need sometimes to live for long periods with no income other than the publisher's advances on royalties (not always available to the beginner in this field).

Not only must you undertake great amounts of research when writing creative nonfiction, you must be absolutely sure that every piece of information you produce is verifiable. On that Yale University panel, Talese said, "In creative nonfiction, the rules of accuracy must not be violated. All that we write should be verifiable." Everyone on that remarkably talented panel (Didion, Dunne, Lapham, Plimpton, Talese) moderated by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, stressed this requirement of accuracy. (They may have been reacting, too, to allegations made against the New Journalists that they ignored accuracy in the pursuit of drama. In those early days, the sixties and early seventies, some self-proclaimed New Journalists, or parajournalists, were enamored more with the joys of self-expression than with journalistic accuracy. Some were not journalists so much as advocates for favorite persons or causes—and because all of this was fairly new, they figured they must be New Journalists.)

Some of his early critics were surprised and pleased with the thoroughness and accuracy of the research conducted by Tom Wolfe in preparing to write The Right Stuff. That book presents one of the best models for writers who want to write creatively about well-researched subjects. His readers learn a great deal about NASA's space program and about the astronauts' lives in a book whose style makes it fun to read, even while acquiring all this information.

Traditional journalists have only to report the variations or versions of "truth" given them by a variety of sources and simply enclose the versions of truth in quotation marks. They're not required to figure it all out and come to some synthesis of what the truth is—in fact, they're constrained by journalistic tradition (and editors) not to introduce their feelings or interpretations at all.

Creative nonfiction writers, however, may well bring themselves into a story, either overtly or subtly, believing it only fair to let the reader gauge the writer's credibility and thus the accuracy of the facts presented. For creative nonfiction writers, concealing themselves, in a sincere attempt at objectivity, gives the reader no reference point. The innocent reader has no choice but to believe the facts, or reject them totally. According to Norman Mailer and others, facts are not "nuanced"—and we need to read of the unspoken forms of communication, the gestures; we need the nuance.

Many creative nonfiction writers feel, too, that if they include character sketches about the people central or peripheral to the story, the reader will be able to gauge the credibility of the facts presented by those people. If a person is merely named, the reader can't be sure what credibility to assign. If the person is also identified by a title, especially by an impressive-sounding title (say, director), but with no other personal background, the reader may ascribe too little or too much credibility based solely on name and title. This places considerable responsibility on the writer's shoulders to provide accurate and objective character sketches.

The only way you can be sure your work will be accurate is to do your research well. What does that mean? First of all, it means not to stint. Dig in. Read. Observe. Interview. The terms "saturation research" and "immersion research" describe it best. You must saturate your mind with information by immersing yourself in the subject as deep as you can go. The result? Your writing yields something beyond what might be expected, whether that means unexpected information or information expressed in an unexpected (creative) way.

It takes time to gather information—as I've said before-weeks, months, sometimes years. To write in a style that is appropriately creative requires time. The complexity of the subject affects the time needed. Conducting the necessary interviews involves time. There may be many people to interview, or the interviews may be few but geographically diverse. The person being written about may have such a complex life that you find it necessary to study him or her far longer than you might have anticipated. The chances are that anyone worth spending a lot of research and interview time on for a major article or book will be a very busy, complicated person living a complex life—so expect the project to take a long time; it comes with the territory.

The Purpose of Interviewing

Interviewing is usually a great part of the research effort for this kind of writing. Almost any feature article for a newspaper, a story for a news magazine, or a story for a corporate employee magazine or newsletter requires that you talk with people involved. The interview is the cornerstone for most nonfiction articles and books because interviews add so much. They add fresh ideas, ideas you might never have come up with on your own. They provide different angles, views, perspectives, insights on the person or the topic under study. They give you names of other people you might interview, people you might never have thought of or heard of while sitting back at home in your study. The interviewee may mention other authorities you should read for further information. You may hear of journals, book titles, and even specialist conferences you might attend. And, very important, interviews will provide you words, jargon, specialist language, and more detailed knowledge that will lend authority or credibility to your article or book. Lastly, interviews enable you to "people" your article or book, an extremely important element in most creative nonfiction. An article that never gives us people tends to turn us off after a while. We identify with people. Naturally, people give life to a piece of writing.

Preparing For tHe INterview

Anything that will provide you all the above information should be well worth preparing hard for. For instruction in the art of interviewing, refer to books such as The Craft of Interviewing (John Joseph Brady); Creative Interviewing (Ken Metzler); and Interviews That Work A Practical Guide for Journalists (Shirley Biagi). But here are a few tips:

1. Be certain about seemingly trivial items: the interviewee's exact address, floor number, room number. Check at least once on the agreed-upon date and hour for the meeting and confirm these details at least several days in advance.

(There's nothing worse than flying to Chicago and finding that you were to have interviewed your person the day before.)

2. Arrive early so you can go into the interview relaxed. Come well-groomed yourself, and have with you well-groomed equipment: a tape recorder with fresh (and extra) batteries, clean tape heads, working pens and pencils, plenty of appropriate tapes, and a notebook.

3. Take prepared questions to explore. These questions grow out of your own curiosity, your own intuitive understanding, your library or other research, your interviews with significant others, and from holes you've discovered in your information wherever obtained. This list is a MUST list-those questions you must not leave the interview without answers for. During the interview, of course, more questions will occur to you to ask.

I subscribe to the notion that you should prepare yourself thoroughly for the interview, but John McPhee, an interviewer of great skill, says that he acts on a different premise. He says he'd rather begin his interview as a tabula rasa, his mind a clear slate. Someone of his obvious intelligence and knowledge is never a completely clean slate, but he says that he likes to walk into the first interview with only his intelligence and curiosity to guide him. He fears that if he has studied up too much on the topic or the person, he may appear to know more than he does, perhaps unintentionally encouraging the interviewee to hold back some essential information on the presumption that McPhee already knows of it. McPhee may have a point; there's a very human tendency to show off just how much the interviewer knows— in an attempt to impress the interviewee and perhaps establish good rapport. It is better, McPhee says, to risk sounding a little on the dull side so the interviewee will take on a teacher role and provide all kinds of information that might otherwise be held back. The interviewer should, however, demonstrate that the interviewee's points are getting through and that he or she (the interviewer) is a quick and appreciative learner, just enough that the teacher-interviewee will continue in the role clandestinely assigned by the interviewer.

Conducting the Interview

The interview is an unnatural act. There's a pretense, an artificiality to it. Because of that, both the interviewee and the interviewer are generally uptight about the interview process. An analogy would be the situation when you tell someone that you want to take some candid photographs of them. Almost everyone feels obliged to act before the camera's eye. They're suddenly not themselves; they're actors on stage. Some people freeze up before the camera's implacable eye. Since most of us go through life watching other people in the spotlight, we're embarrassed and self-conscious when the spotlight suddenly puts us center stage. The interviewer must do whatever is necessary to defuse the situation as soon as possible and get things into a conversational mode.

Using the Tape RecordeR

Only that rare person with almost photographic (or audiographic) memory should attempt to rely on memory or note taking. Recording on paper what's said while it's being said is the time-honored method, and many interviewers, especially those working before the arrival of dependable tape recorders, swear that this is the best method. But I believe in the tape recorder. Tape recording has so many advantages that it's hardly worth discussing. It's been argued that a tape recorder, no matter how small and unobtrusive, makes it more difficult to develop that feeling of a conversation, which I've said is so important. But consider the alternative: What's so conversational about one of the two people scribbling away like mad, flipping back through the notebook to find something said earlier, scratching something out, asking for a quote verification, and periodically flipping back to the list of prepared questions?

Compare this with two people conversing comfortably about the subject while a tape recorder silently records everything. Certainly, the interviewer may occasionally also write something on a pad, but most of the time he or she retains good eye contact with the interviewee—one of the most important attributes of a conversation. How can you retain good eye contact while scribbling in a notebook? Plus, there's no better way to get accurate and complete quotes that can be edited down later, if necessary.

The interview is one of the most complex mental exercises you are apt to be called upon to conduct, considering how many distinct activities the brain must undertake simultaneously. I liken it to that of an air traffic controller at Chicago's O'Hare Field during the Christmas holidays, with a heavy snowfall during prime landing time. It's not unlike the simultaneous thinking processes going on in the brain of a television technical director producing a live news show with multiple "feeds" coming in live from around the world, slides coming in from a projector, film coming in from a film chain, and three cameras operating, not to mention a live radio feed from Beirut supplemented by a videotape that's just arrived by plane. In the midst of voices coming over the headphones and people handing him or her notes, the director has to instruct and coordinate (in real time) the activities of a half-dozen people—and the living-room viewer must not be allowed to sense the chaotic control room scene. Everything must seem under cool, professional control. If that seems an exaggeration, consider what goes on in the interview situation. I remind you of this not to frighten you unduly but to point up why you should be prepared—and why a tape recorder just might be your best friend.


1. You're asking questions from the prepared MUST list.

2. You're writing down the answers to the prepared list.

3. You're asking new, unplanned questions that evolve.

4. You're writing down the answers to the new questions.

5. You're thinking about all that's being said and all that's going on. (What's the idea behind that response? What other possible meanings lurk between the lines? Is something being held back? What? How can I get at any of this through a new line of questioning? Should I phrase it evocatively or provocatively?)

6. You're recapping the interview, internally and sometimes externally. (Am I getting it? Like the air traffic controller— have I got the whole picture of the situation upstairs? Am I alert to everything that's going on, or am I too hung up on the prepared Q & A's? What else should I ask now or later in view of what's being said at the moment? Should I stick to my prepared "must" questions, or follow up right now on this fascinating new stuff that's developing before my eyes, stuff I never dreamed would come up when I was making up my list? Which will finally be of more interest to my readers— answers to the prepared questions or answers to this new, intriguing but tangential material?)

7. You're monitoring the interview externally and internally— you're periodically monitoring the tape recorder dials and reels; you're monitoring your subject's answers for any contradictions occurring between what the subject said a few minutes ago and what he or she is now saying, and what the subject said in some other place and what he or she is now saying. And you're asking yourself, How can I explore that contradiction with new questions or with provocative statements? Do I sense duplicity in that apparent contradiction, or simply a change of mind— remembering that everyone does not have to be consistent forever. And you're listening for any contradictions between the words used now versus those used earlier; is the tone the same? Is the body language consistent or contradictory as the subject gives this apparent contradiction or inconsistency?

8. You're observing the dynamics and the details: Are there any repetitive gestures (that might vivify a narrative); any repetitive words or phrases; any characteristic body language by the interviewee. Is your own body language betraying your feelings (to yourself and, perhaps involuntarily, to the interviewee)? Are there environmental details that might lend authority or sensory interest to the narrative, or give insight into the person's character or lifestyle? What is the "texture" of the setting—people around, weather outside, ambient conditions in the room; any extraneous events surrounding the interview but not a part of it (e.g., the sound of workers hammering outside may affect the thinking and the emotional response of the inter viewer and interviewee—and that sound may have different "meanings" to each participant). What is the subject's behavior toward outside interruption (e.g., the phone or the intercom) during the interview?

9. What are the interactions, physical and psychological, between you and the person interviewed; between the interviewee and his or her staff, friends, associates, spouse, pets, etc. that may happen within the time of interviewing?

10. Have you taken in all you can about the exterior environment: his or her office, outer office, lobby, the building's exterior architecture, the neighborhood?

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