Isabel Wilkerson on Interviewing in “Telling True Stories”

File:Isabel wilkerson 2010.jpg

Isabel Wilkerson doesn’t interview “in the Mike Wallace sense of the word,” according to her essay in “Telling True Stories.” In place of jarring, nail-to-the-wall interviews, Wilkerson prefers the kind that build what she calls “accelerated intimacy.” Wilkerson essentially builds a relationship with her source, using a series of steps which she compares to peeling an onion: finding that perfect center with the “truest flavor.”

The other day I conducted two very different interviews: one with the owner of a local club and one with a professor who had made a new discovery. I began my day interviewing the club owner, and our interview began with the realization that this man was a friend of my family (conflict of interest?). The interview flowed excellently from the introduction, but it wasn’t only due to the connection. The man was someone I’d categorize as ‘the cool kid.’ He was willing to talk about himself, but also willing to ask about me, and to talk about others.

My second interview began abruptly, in part because I dove into the questions too quickly. Going into the interview, I knew that this scientist would be someone I’d categorize in an interview as a ‘nerd:’ someone who would not want to talk about themselves, or you, or make small talk, but have them speak on their specialty and they won’t shut up. The professor actually interrupted by background questions to tell me what I really wanted to hear was this. He then proceeded to explain the entierety of his theories and theses with myself asking minimal questions.

I pride myself for categorizing the types of people I have interviewed, but the issue is that I merely categorize and then react. What Wilkerson has developed with her series of stages throughout the interview, is a relationship being built-no matter whether the person is a ‘nerd’ or a ‘cool kid.’

The first black woman to receive a Pulitzer prize in journalism, Wilkerson began her career in journalism at internships with the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times before rising to the position of Chicago bureau chief at the New York Times, and contuing to receive awards throughout her career. In 2010, she published “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” a book compiling the personal stories of African Americans who traveled the three major routes from the South to the North. No doubt, the aging people Wilkerson describes interviewing in this essay were for this work. Wilkerson states that she builds a granddaughter-grandparent relationship with these sourse due to their age.

In some ways, I too am building a relationship with my categorization, but people are not one-sided. By adopting some of Wilkerson’s techniques, I may be able to round out my relationship with my source and my interview, peeling that onion to its final, flavorful core.

Appendix and Sources:

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One thought on “Isabel Wilkerson on Interviewing in “Telling True Stories”

  1. deenicks says:

    I like your blog, it’s super bright and colorful and neatly organized. I also like how you incorporated an image of one of her award winning books.


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