Interviewing tips from a novelist

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Apropos of nothing, I was struck by this passage from Lisa See's The Interior: A Red Princess Mystery, which I was reading this morning on Beijing's subway Line 1. See's novels, like the "Inspector Chen" series by Qiu Xiaolong, are meant to convey the texture of modern China via crime procedurals. From my perspective, great excuse to do "research" while enjoying noir fiction.

In this passage, See's protagonist, inspector Liu Hulan, has gone back to the rural village where she spent the Cultural Revolution years to investigate a suspicious death. In civvies and without identifying herself as a cop, she interrogates a village couple. The young man had been the fiancee of Miaoshan, the woman who has recently died; he is accompanied by his new love interest, a hot number named Siang. The investigator taunts Siang about her cozying up so quickly to the young man:

"I'm sure that Miaoshan's mother will be comforted to hear of your grief and that you have come to offer solace to her daughter's fiance."

Siang's cheeks reddened, but she said nothing.

Hulan [the cop] let the silence stretch out. She was in no hurry, and the longer she kept quiet, the sooner these two would wish to fill the void. Siang noiselessly etched a groove in the dirt with the edge of her tennis shoe, while Tsai Bing [the man] looked around nervously. Finally he said, 'I didn't see Miaoshan so much anymore...'"

The "let the silence stretch out" approach, which is not discussed as often as it should be, can be a surprisingly valuable interviewing technique. The truth is that most people who are being interviewed would like to think that they are providing you with "interesting" information, which reflects well on their knowledge, insight, sense of humor, general bonhomie, etc. People want to be liked and to feel as if they're holding up their end of the conversation. Obviously this doesn't apply in a 60 Minutes-style hostile interrogation, but in most non-adversarial interviews, the subject wants to feel that he is holding the interest of the questioner.

Thus informal body-language signs that you're getting bored or disappointed usually prompt an interviewee to try harder and say more. The strategic use of silence can send such a signal, since people become uncomfortable and think that the silence is their fault. You can't do it very often, but every now and then it works great.

In only one circumstance have I found the "I'm getting bored" approach to be ineffective. That is when interviewing Japanese corporate or political officials. If I act as if they're telling me what I've heard a million times before, generally they've seemed more satisfied than uncomfortable. If someone's goal is to stay On Message no matter how it makes him look -- think, Scott McClellan handling questions about Scooter Libby in the late Bush years -- these psycho-warfare tricks will be futile. But for you aspiring young interviewers: remember to give strategic-silence a try.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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