Art and method of the interview


Maura Flanagan

Recently, I published a two-part interview on ASweetLife with Maura Flanagan, a college classmate who radically changed her health habits and lost 100 pounds after a diagnosis with Type 2 diabetes. Read part one here and part two here.

These are my favorite kinds of stories to do. Interviews are akin to making one’s self a student of the subject. I ask in order to learn, and not to pruriently find out.

It takes both preparation and improvisation to conduct a good interview. As a teacher/scholar, when I’ve conducted studies on a teaching or learning question of interest, I usually incorporate an interview part. I really enjoy these kinds of engagements with people. And, whether the interview is for an online magazine or a research study, my method is similar. I describe it below, for other writers to consider as they develop their own practice as interviewers. At the end, as evidence that the method works, I quote Maura as to her experience.

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Second chance for the rejected

On the floor in the cellar, I found an encouraging rejection — part form letter, part handwritten note — I had gotten from an editor at The Sun and then set aside for safekeeping. The letter must have slipped out of one of those cardboard boxes I’ve marked JANE – STUFF and put on a shelf, intending to sort its contents (some day).

So, the rejection stuck in my mind for a day and prompted me to think about all the good writing out there that never finds its place among readers. A lot of writing no doubt gets turned away because it’s not good. Some writing, the kind I’m interested in here, may get turned away because it’s not a so-called good fit for the publication.

These literary misfits need a place, like the Island of Misfit Toys where cool playthings hung out and waited for the day when Santa would take them to the right child. There are cool poems, stories, and memoir that didn’t make it into one of many (low paying, highly competitive, and prestigious) literary journals.

Good yet misfitting submissions need their own Santa Claus. I have an idea for a journal, called Displacement (for the condition of having been displaced, and also the psychological defense mechanism in which emotions or desires are shifted from some original object to another one), that could be it. Continue reading

Snarky little bits

The Boss of Me, by Kathryn DeMarco

I do not know of many representations of diabetes in art or culture, at least ones that interest me. There is the movie, Steel Magnolias (1989). The Julia Roberts character Shelby, who has diabetes, is possessed by a hypoglycemic episode (really, it’s freakishly portrayed) while in a beauty parlor chair, as you probably have seen, and she later dies young.

Ann, the protagonist of the Kathryn Harrison’s novel, Exposure (1993), has diabetes, too, but does not die young. A New Yorker, videographer, crystal meth addict, and shoplifter — doesn’t she sound busy? — Ann doesn’t take insulin when she is supposed to and yet she does take that meth. Clearly, she has (out of) control issues. It’s a strange story, even stranger than I’ve described, and yet at least Exposure is literary.

Art is not required to be representative. I know that. But still, I can’t help but look for myself out there. As a woman, for example, I do like to read novels with women characters. It follows that, as a person with diabetes, I might like to read a few good novels with diabetic characters or see diabetes refracted through film, music, or visual art.

I’ve stayed on the trail, and several weeks ago I came across the work of collage artist Kathryn DeMarco, who makes self-portraits, some featuring explicit or oblique references of her body with diabetes. Online, I found her portrait above, The Boss of Me, and stared at it a long time in recognition. I’ve held the same pose, looking in my bathroom mirror, holding up my shirt to look at the white adhesive patch on my midriff, the pump held in my hand like a heavy fish still attached to the line. And the look on the face — not smiling, not frowning — is sober and forthright. Like mine, when I look at myself. Continue reading

Road not taken

While a junior at Wellesley College, I developed a crush on my not-young history professor. These things happen all the time in education — students falling for professors, and sometimes the inverse too — and perhaps even more so in single-sex environments.

It turns out I was more comfortable with my fantasies of conducting a romance with him than I was with the reality. During a moment in his office, it seemed as though Professor Zimmer (a pseudonym) was offering me an invitation, and I, out of good sense or fear or both, turned away.

That was the end of our story, but not the end of the story for me. The crush and the offer and his later, early death have taken root in my imagination, and again and again in my life I have pulled them out to consider them. About the place of this memory in my life I wrote an essay, “Dead and Gone.” The moment when the flimsiness of the crush encounters the cold fist of reality is described here:

The room was still, my body pinned in the chair and in space. Without moving my eyes, I watched the dust sparkle again in the air between us, and I looked at him and I did not look away. This was a test, and I wanted to pass it.

The office was his, and the silence was his to disrupt. “You know, if you ever want to talk about your major, or the class, we could meet again. In the afternoon, or later. We could even go get a beer.” There was a pause. “Sometimes I’m free in the evening.” And he looked at me without looking away.

I felt as though I was being dared: dared to be the object of attention, dared to interpret his offer, dared to say, Yes, I’d love to. I sat there, pinned and thinking. And the big billboard of my romantic fantasy gave way and fell into pieces. I saw us meeting in the parking lot near the town grocery store after dark, and him pulling up in the kind of old Volvo that all the professors drove and pushing open the passenger side door and me getting in, and me ducking down below the dash so nobody could see me as we drove and drove and drove away from town to somewhere he would take us. And on the floor of this car I saw all the crap that’s always on the floor of these cars, because as a babysitter for other professors and their children I had driven these cars and ferried children not my own around town in them, and I recognized the bits of cereal and plastic lunch baggies and receipts and the discarded envelopes of mail opened in the car and the gloves and winter grit and the floor mats askew. And I had plenty of time to study this stuff on the floor because my head was tucked down, and there was no view out the window for me, because I was hiding — he was hiding me — and this, I suddenly saw, is how our time together outside of school would be.

“Thank you,” was all I could say out loud. I had no words for whether I would consider history or not, meeting or not, because suddenly I knew that all I wanted was to remove myself from what would only, it seemed then, become sordid. Old car, old motel room in some other town, old dirt.

A few of my readers have seen this essay in draft, and their feedback and encouragement helped shape it. Thank you again.


Photograph, “Volvo Dashboard,” by Jean Pichot on flickr via

Scourge of the season

We are well into summer, so it must be time for a head lice outbreak. More and more people searching for “head lice” and “lice treatments” and “nitpicker” and so on have found their way to my blog recently because I have commented on this topic before. And WBUR recently did a story on the parasites.

While lice, at first, are appalling, they are not so disgusting after you get used to them. I describe my fascination with head lice, and the physical closeness they prompted between me and Eli, Lydia, and Grace, in my researched essay “Little Creatures,” which was originally published in P•M•S poemmemoirstory 9. Here’s a taste:

I dip the fine-toothed louse comb into a container of burning hot water and swirl. Captured ones float for a few moments before sinking. The lice are dark enough in the container of water that I can count them. Occasionally the count seems not to add up so I hold the comb up near my eyes to look for bodies trapped like seeds in human teeth and find them there, suspended sideways between the plastic teeth. Their lash-like legs, scurrying in air, seem always to move in this workmanlike way, regardless of footing, unable to take me in as a threat, not afraid of me as a predator in the way that mice are afraid. I make my thumb and forefinger into pliers and close over the head and tail of each and drag it down the space between tines. I feel the substance, like nut meat, and I imagine eating them. I do this enough times so I think always of eating them when they are pinched in my fingers like this. It would be so easy to eat them that I feel drawn to doing it in the way I feel drawn to letting my body go over the barrier at the edge of the falls or on the upper level of an open air parking garage. It’s that close.

I do not eat them. It’s not something that I would do.


Image credit: wikimedia commons.

Rejection is impractical.

I recognized the handwriting on the envelope as my own. A SASE, returned to me by the editors of a literary journal. More like the interns of a literary journal.

I opened it and found a flyer for next year’s literary contest. Over and over I flipped this one-page flyer, looking for a handwritten note, saying something like, “Thanks, Jane, but no.” Wordprocessed and photocopied text is all I found.

At last I actually read the photocopy. I studied it even. Ah ha! After the announcement of next year’s contest are listed the winners of this year’s competition, which I had entered. I am not among those listed, and so I deduced that — although no text is actually addressed to me — I did not place in the contest and, furthermore, I will not be published by this journal.

Hmm, thanks a lot for the completely impersonal and oblique reply, oh literary journal. It would have been a step up, you know, to receive a form letter: “Dear Writer, We have read work. It is not right for our publication. Good luck elsewhere. Sincerely, The Editors.” In fact, I would have preferred such a direct form letter. Photocopied notices of next year’s contest are not very good communicators of the “no, thanks.”

“You know what I want?” I said to Jimmy, as we stood in our kitchen, with this blue piece of paper in my hand. “I want to learn something about my writing from the rejection letter.” Here are what might be good responses. I could even imagine a literary journal creating a form letter with check boxes. Even one of these items, checked, would teach me something about my work:

  • No thank you. This still feels like a draft to us.
  • No thank you. This doesn’t fit with our editorial vision or sensibility.
  • No thank you. Honestly, we are overloaded with stuff right now, and your essay did not grab us on the first page, so we didn’t keep reading.
  • No thank you. This is potentially really interesting, but it’s too long for what it is.
  • No thank you. We really prefer to publish the Under 40 and Fabulous Crowd, and this is not that.

While I do see the benefits of preparing one’s work for submission, this kind of rejection is totally impractical. It’s like hitting a tennis ball against the back of the school wall, again, and again, and again. Sure, it’s activity, and it seems relevant to the actual playing of tennis, but it’s not deliberate practice and it won’t get ya nowhere in the game. There’s return, but no feedback.

Jimmy said two things. “You know, you have the platform to publish the essay yourself.” He’s right, and I will.

Then he handed me a 4 x 6″ postcard he got in the mail from Starbucks. “Have this,” he said.



We’ll make you any drink you like.

I’ll take the free coffee. It’ll end up being more personalized than the blue flyer I got from the journal.

Potato farmer’s progress

new potato plant, June 11

I have been wanting to report on the progress of my first attempt at potato growing, and I have been wanting to try Vuvox, a multi-media slide and collage making tool on the web. Two-for-one: I composed a story, with pictures and video, of the first weeks with my potato patch.

Note: My potatoes and Vuvox are still in beta. If you go to the Vuvox potato show, click on the play arrow and let it run through. (If you hold the cursor arrow in the collage field, you can control the speed and direction of the show, but the slide bar is clunky and to be avoided.) When you see the arrow for the video of rototilling, you can click on that, too. It all won’t take very long: 1 minute or so.

Where did I get the instructions for how to grow potatoes? The Maine Potato Lady, of course. Go to her site, and click on “Growing Potatoes Successfully” for a one-page PDF. And because she was out of seed potatoes by the time I was ready to order them, I got them instead from the Gerritsens of Wood Prairie Farm in Maine.

– Front of the envelope

I hadn’t even opened my pay stub — there it was, dropped on my desk — when I called its envelope into service. My office mate, Karen, and I were talking about things to read, journals that might consider our work, and women’s magazines that should not be overlooked.

Sometimes, you just have to write something down, and it cannot wait for the notebook.

– Audience problems

Not having an audience is a problem.

Having an indifferent audience can present another problem, especially if you are speaking in front of them. Try lecturing to sleepy students at 2 o’clock in the afternoon sometime. Watch those eyelids flutter.

Misunderstanding the audience can lead to their disappointment, or even your own. When I was in nonprofit development, I spoke at the First Annual Conference on Black Philanthropy, and watched half my audience walk out of the room one at a time because I had completely failed to understand the cultural values shared by most of the people in the room who were not me.

Yesterday, in working with a 13 year old writer, I was reminded of an audience problem that affects, especially, writers of creative nonfiction and memoir. And that problem is knowing an audience too well.

This writer, whom I’ll call Justin, is writing a personal narrative that will be developed into a 3-minute digital story, with voice over and music tracks, and photographs from his own collection. Justin is one of several teens in a local community center involved in making digital stories through my friend Lisa’s business, Storybuilders. His story mentions his mom, siblings, and, most notably, his teacher. The most striking detail in Justin’s notes for the story, in fact, involves the teacher and how she disciplines her students when they’re distracted: she spritzes them with a water bottle. Continue reading

– My new tool

For my telephone interview with physician/author Danielle Ofri, I used my new tape recorder and telephone pickup.

Olympus recorder and telephone pickup

I recommend both: the Olympus WS-331M digital voice recorder (about $100) and the Olympus TP7 telephone pickup (about $20). The pickup is neat. It plugs into the mic jack of the tape recorder, and then the ear bud goes in the interviewer’s ear. As I listened to Danielle, the ear bud recorded what I heard in my ear, or Danielle’s voice, and the recorder’s external mic captured my voice.

On my sister Sally’s recommendation, I used Express Scribe v 5.02 from NCH Software (free) to play back the audio file as I transcribed it. First, I connected the recorder’s USB terminal to my Mac’s USB port and saved the .WMA file on my desktop. Then I imported the .WMA file into Express Scribe, which allowed for lots of control (speed, volume, start, stop, ff, etc.) as I listened to the file, re-listened to passages, and typed.

Olympus recorder, with USB terminal exposed, and telephone pickup

I actually bought the recorder to tape some interviews I’m doing with students for a teaching-related research study. For that recording situation, nothing more than the recorder and a list of questions are needed. I followed the same procedure for transferring the .WMA files to my MAC, for later transcription.

The only accessory that could improve this experience of recording and transcribing is a foot pedal to control the playback of the recording. I did designate a few hot keys in Express Scribe to speed the frequent stopping and restarting of the playback, but a foot pedal would have saved even more time and hand motions.

A few weeks ago I was a beginner at the recorded interview. This nifty little setup made me feel like a pro.


Post script: I almost called this post “My new gun,” as an homage to a great, yet little-seen Diane Lane film called… My New Gun (1992). Marcia recommended it to me years ago. It’s a stealth surprise: weird, suspenseful, sexy.