Yes, but did you ask?

‘One of the primary joys of being a writer comes from the people you meet and the situations you get in.’ Sarah Marshal, Portland Review (April 2012). Getting into these situations takes a little chutzpah. Personally I’m an advocate of the ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ philosophy. If I’m really interested in a topic or a person I will ask for interviews. I wouldn’t say that I was ‘ballsy’ but I don’t see the benefit of staying mute.

For example, as a first year writing student I approached Toby Young, author of the hilarious book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Young generously gave me the interview, and I wrote up my piece. My teacher (David Astle) allocated points for chutzpah but David chided me for my final line. It read:

‘“I love being married and I love being a dad,” Young tells me. But when I ask him to elaborate, he declines.’

The goal of this line was to draw on the idea that there was a public Toby Young and a private one (or that’s what I told myself). But David saw that it revealed something else: I wasn’t prepared to ask the difficult question.

‘It’s a really common fault in emerging writers,’ says Margaret Simons, award-winning journalist, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She’s referring to, ‘an unwillingness to do the difficult interview’ – a trade skill that has traditionally been taught in the newsroom.

Toby Young's book (also made into a movie) is about a writer who asks difficult questions.

Most emerging writers fear that an interviewee could become angry. Some simply don’t want to interview those with highly contentious or disagreeable opinions. Others don’t ask for interviews because we think we know what the interviewee will say. But as Simons says, ‘You don’t know. We’ve basically got to discipline ourselves to do those difficult interviews. It’s part of the job. It’s not an escapable part of the job.’

You may think you can fudge over your lack of questioning. But Simons says it's evident in your work. In its simplest form it shows in a bias (because you’ve interviewed people from only one side of the debate). More subtly it can be evident in the quotes (or lack of) from your main interviewee - like my first-year profile on Toby Young. (I didn’t want to push it. After all, Young is a hero of mine).

I ask Simons if she has any tips for those who do find themselves in an awkward situation with an interviewee. ‘Well,’ she takes pause, ‘Deal with it.’ We both laugh - but that’s the sum of it. ‘It’s not necessarily wrong to make people angry,’ she says. ‘They might not like the line of your questioning. But most people are mature enough to handle that. Usually what happens is that the reporter’s own discomfort with emotion in an interview… prevents us from doing the best possible job.’

Simons says her newsroom training taught her to ask the difficult questions, ‘If you filed a piece that didn’t have the other point of view, then you were told to go and get it.’ She recalls one incident during her cadetship where, ‘I was being fed a line by one side of [a] campaign and failed to get the other point of view.’ She ended up being on the receiving end of, ‘an extremely stiff and entirely justified,’ letter to the editor. She says she’d effectively ‘taken the drip… and people tend not to see it as taking the drip when it’s a point of view which they agree with.’

I like to think of myself as media savvy. I watch our local program, the ABC’s Media Watch. I think I can recognise bias in work. But I take heed in the fact that I am outside a newsroom of any description, working alone and very much within my own head. Though I like to see myself as objective I know I must take care. In the new media galaxy writers must be certain that we’ve asked the difficult questions.

If you’re in Melbourne (or will be in late August) checkout the schedule for the New News conference at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.

For writers of long form non-fiction Simons recommends:

What cost news’ ($19.50/$21.50) and the discussion afterwards ‘New News: Future of Journalism’ (free).

Also, Alan Missen’s Keynote ‘Oration Literature and Global Citizenship’ ($27/$30).