Julie James and the Art of Interviewing
I saw Julie James make a reference to interviewing different individuals for her books. It struck me as something I hadn’t heard of before even though I am sure that other authors have undertaken this task. You often see thanks to various individuals in the acknowledgments but I’ve never seen any one write about the interview process. Often readers forget that no matter what the genre is research is an important component of writing. I asked Julie James if she would write an article about her interviews and she agreed. You can find out more about Julie James books at her website: http://juliejames.com/
I remember being asked, after the release of my first two books, if it was fun to write about lawyers since I am a lawyer. In both of those books, the main characters were civil litigators at large firms, just as I had been. And in response to that question, I used to say, rather enthusiastically, “Yes! Because it means I don’t have to do any research!”
Well, that couldn’t last forever.
With my third book, Something About You, I decided to branch out into the world of criminal law. The book features a heroine who is an Assistant U.S. Attorney and a hero who’s an FBI agent. When it came time to write the first scene at the heroine’s workplace, I realized that I was kind of . . . well, faking it. In law school, I’d taken several criminal law/procedure courses, and afterward I’d clerked for a federal appellate judge, so I was familiar with the types of cases federal prosecutors handled. But I didn’t know the daily minutiae of that world as well as I had known the law firm environment depicted in my prior two books.
Luckily, a law school friend of mine is an Assistant U.S. Attorney, so I asked if I could interview him for the book. I think he’d braced himself for some sort of in-depth, investigative journalist-type interview, but instead I asked him questions like: “How many other lawyers do you share a secretary with?” and “When you meet with FBI agents, do you go to their office, or do they come to yours?” It was the little details I was after, those things that would make the scenes in my book feel more authentic.
On top of adding authenticity, I’ve found that doing interviews can inspire new ideas. For example, in A Lot Like Love, the heroine owns a wine store, so I asked the owner of my local wine shop if I could interview her and shadow her for a day. In addition to becoming more familiar with her daily routine and picking up great anecdotes, I learned that the store had a panic button underneath the main bar that connects directly to the police department—a detail I used in the climax of the book.
To date, the most substantial research I’ve done for a book was for my current release, About That Night. This is my third book set in the world of the Chicago FBI and U.S. Attorney offices, and when plotting the story it occurred to me how helpful it would be if I could actually see the offices I was writing about. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any FBI agents. So instead, I simply looked up the phone number for the Chicago field office and cold-called the Special Agent who handles media inquiries. I explained that I was a local author writing a series about Chicago FBI agents and asked if I could have a tour of the office. Of course, I fully expected him to say no, but figured there was no harm in asking.
He said yes.
Actually, his exact response was, “Sure! When do you want to come in?”
Emboldened after that, I called the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s office and asked if I could take a tour of their offices, too. The media rep there was more cautious at first, and asked several questions about what I wrote and what kind of information I was looking for, but in the end he very kindly agreed to give me a tour as well.
Now, this is the part where I could spend a long, long time talking about how incredibly gracious both the FBI and U.S. Attorney media representatives were during those tours—I saw the command room, toured a bank robbery floor, had an interview with the First Assistant U.S. Attorney (the second in command at the office), toured press rooms, met with division heads, and filled an entire notebook with everything I learned—but since this article is not titled “Julie James’s Ode to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Offices—aka ‘It’s an Interview Room, Not an Interrogation Room,’” I’ll simply say this instead:
None of it would’ve happened if I hadn’t asked.
Just recently, for the book I’m currently writing, I interviewed the former General Counsel (now CEO) of a major restaurant/sports & entertainment corporation. I’d known that I was aiming high with that request, but figured, heck, it couldn’t hurt to ask. After all, the worst someone can tell you is no.
And shockingly, they might actually say yes.
I’ve refined my interview technique, and now I ask about more than just the environmental details. The heroine in About That Night is another Assistant U.S. Attorney, and since being a federal prosecutor is such a large part of who she is, I wanted to really get to know her world. So, I re-interviewed my AUSA friend, and also interviewed another AUSA who used to work at my former law firm. This time, I asked questions like, “What’s a really bad day for you?” “What’s a good day?” “What’s the moment in your career that you’re most proud of?” “What are some of the most memorable cases you’ve worked on?” I’d like to think that having a better understanding of my character’s environment, goals, and ambitions makes the world that I’ve created in the book seem all that more real.
Bottom line: no one will ever criticize your writing for getting something “too right.” Talking to someone who’s walked in the shoes of your characters can provide you with a wealth of information that will make your story that much richer. Generally speaking, I’ve found that people like talking to authors. And if they don’t?
The worst they can say is no.
Great post. Thx Julie. :)
I think it’s very true that people will be willing to talk to authors. There’s nothing more annoying than knowing a lot about a particular field, only to have it massacred by an author in a book you might otherwise have enjoyed.
Some readers aren’t going to pick up on all the tiny details, but there will always be people who really appreciate the effort!
(Personally, I’d appreciate it if people who tried to write Australian characters actually spoke to an Australian or two first! God, some of the disastrous “Australians” I’ve come across in books over the years!)
I can agree wholeheartedly with this. Alexa Snow and I have a book out in May with the two leads working as hedge fund managers. We researched it, of course, but their jobs don’t impinge a lot on the book, so it wasn’t in-depth. How to open a coconut without a knife, on the other hand… Our final line editor used to be a hedge fund manager in NYC and went through pointing out half a dozen changes in terminology that really helped to ground the book and give it a more authentic feel. We were so lucky there.
Very interesting post, Julie. Congrats on the new release!
I’ve had some good interview experiences and some not so good. For one of my books I did a ride along with a gang unit police officer–slow night, but I got a lot of questions answered. My recent release features a border protection officer, and I toured the port of entry here in San Diego. Fascinating tour, but the media contact was difficult to interview. She didn’t know the answers to my questions, or couldn’t answer for security reasons. I felt awkward and unprepared, like I should have had different questions. Maybe something more general (“What’s a good day for you?”) would have worked better.
I’ve found that most of my interview requests are granted, and that most interviewees tell me more than I want to know. I wish I could interrupt them. Although both of my above examples are women, I think men are easier to interview.
I’m going to have read a book about interviewing. Before your post, it didn’t occur to me that this was such an important skill for authors. It really is.
Very interesting article but I have one question. What is a “bank robbery floor?”
Great post. Everyone always laughs when I get annoyed at books being wrong research wise in my former work field. My thought is — why does it hurt to ask?
Great article, Julie.
Interviewing people is such an essential part of what I do, I guess it just never occurred to me most readers wouldn’t know that writers had to do this. Like you, I’ve always found most people wonderful to deal with, and am constantly amazed at all the doors that open to me when I simply work my courage up and ask. The one contact I’ve had with the FBI was just as positive as yours was — I was dealing with their Washington media liason, Rex Tomb, over the phone, and after answering my countless questions and suggesting alternative ways that my characters could act to be authentic, Rex invited me to meet with him in person when I came down to a conference in D.C. the next month. The only problem was, “the next month” was October, 2001, and by that time the FBI was so busy dealing with the 9/11 aftermath they weren’t even taking lunch breaks, let alone meetings. So Rex, very apologetic, offered to set me up instead with a retired FBI man he knew, who still lived in D.C. I took the meeting, and it went so well that man became the inspiration for a central character within the book.
I’ve learned it’s the things I don’t know I don’t know that can make or break a book, and I don’t know that I don’t know them till I interview the person who does know (if that makes sense. I’ve only had one cup of coffee, here).
Over the years I’ve sat down with an actress, a field archaeologist, a very engaging group of women who worked in WWII covert intelligence, a journalist, an artist, and too many more people of all walks of life to list properly, and they’ve all helped me to get my facts right, and to make the books better.
I’ve learned to ask one final question, before I wrap up the first interview: “What do most writers get wrong, when they write about what you do?” Some of the answers are awesome.
As an unpublished author and a professional researcher, I really appreciate this article. Especially your thoughts on what to ask. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I’ve already bookmarked it in my “research” folder.
@Jill: Thank you! As I was reading your comment, I thought of another good source for potential interviews/research for authors: writers’ conferences. At RT last year, I attended a workshop taught by retired FBI agent, basically on the subject of how to write realistic FBI agents. Similarly, I was a speaker at a mystery writers’ conference this past February, and while there I attended a workshop taught by an FBI agent who works in the cyber-crime division. In both cases, I talked to the agents after the workshop and found them very approachable–both gave me their cards and offered to answer any questions I might have.
Any of these conferences, like RT, with “expert” programs can be excellent sources for research. These people are already putting themselves out there, wanting to provide information, so they’re likely going to be particularly amenable to answering questions.
Ha, ha. Interviewing is my favorite part of my job. :)
Well, okay, I do love the writing, but since I am interviewing top-notch chocolatiers and pâtissiers…who ALWAYS like to show off their very best work by feeding it to their interviewer…it’s pretty much always just one of life’s pure joys.
@Jayne: That probably makes it sounds even more exciting than it was–although I still found it fascinating. I simply was referring to the floor where the bank robbery unit works. Many of the floors–terrorism, etc.–are not accessible to civilians for obvious reasons, but he wanted me to see some agents doing their thing.
@Susanna Your comment completely makes sense. When writing lawyer characters outside of civil litigation, I like to say that I know enough to know how much I don’t know. In the book I’m currently writing, one of the characters is a corporate lawyer and even though there were hundreds of corporate lawyers at my former firm I had no clue what they did. Frankly, none of us litigators did. They did “deals” and went to “the printer.” That’s about all I could tell you. So an interview was definitely in order there.
Also, I’ve found that there is a lot of “interviewing” I can do informally. For example, at a wedding this past fall I sat next to a divorce lawyer. No clue if I’ll ever write a divorce lawyer character, but it’s certainly possible, so I figured I might as well ask about his job. I opened with this: “So. . . I bet you see a lot of interesting things in your line of work.” He talked for forty-five minutes straight after that.
Oh, and I love your wrap-up question! I’m jotting that one down…
@Heather: Glad you found it helpful!
@Laura: I’m jealous. And making a mental note to add a pastry chef character to one of my books. : )
Great post! And I’m jealous of the fact that you all can interview people without having to go through IRB review processes. Not that you should!
This might be more information than anyone wants, but I use this book for the interview section when I teach methods of qualitative data collection and analysis:
Robert Weiss, Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies.
It’s one of the better books out there (as you can imagine, interviewing well is as much art as science).
Fascintating Julie. Love hearing the behind the scenes stuff.
I mean fascinating – sorry
Wonderful advice. Because of my day job, I know a lot about criminal defense practice and working in a small law firm, but not a lot about civil litigation. Of course, one of the main characters in my new project is in civil litigation at a large firm. Julie, can I interview you about your experience in that area of law?
@Julie James: I know just what you mean about the corporate lawyers Julie – I used to work in a law firm in the personal injury/civil litigation area and I never did get around to asking the corporate lawyers what they did – every time I thought about it I fell asleep :D
@Ellie Now how ironic would it be if I said no after that post? : ) Sure, email me through my website and we’ll set something up.
@Kaetrin: Although I always heard stories about how they got to play pool and order drinks while waiting at “the printer.” That part doesn’t sound so bad. : )
So interesting, thanks for the post.
@sunita: your IRB reference startled me. I’m not used to my work-world (clinical data management and analysis) colliding with my personal-interests-world. If anyone had to go through IRBs and the informed consent process for this type of interview, um, well they probably just wouldn’t do the interview :)
I was surprised when I interviewed three city planners from three different cities and found out how much their jobs varied. The size of their departments, chain of command, job responsibilites, even their vision for their communities, was different for each planner. Also, when I interviewed a retired fire marshal, I found out that not every fire marshal is an officer of the law (with a gun and the ability to make an arrest). It depends on the community they work in.
Sometimes having wiggle room is great for a writer. We can construct characters to suit our story, but it’s good to know where the wiggle room is!
Hey, Shelly and Sunita! IRB administrator here! Is your Human Subjects Training up to date?? : )