What takes so long? Conducting interviews (II)

In my last blog post I explained a bit about the process of finding and choosing people to interview for my book. I told you how I found some 20 potential interviewees and decided to postpone the picking and choosing and simply interview them all. – With their consent and a common understanding that I would not be able to publish all of the interviews.

So. Surely it would have to be all downhill from there? Go out, speak to those people, write down what they say, publish the book. The end. Right?

Not quite so. You see…

Reading up on the subject

I want to write a book about members of Mensa Denmark. It is to be a book about the people. Real, concrete, living, breathing, bleeding, laughing people.

Who they are. What they do. How they perceive themselves, others and life in general.

I do not want to write another academic book about ‘The g Factor’ or about ‘The Mismeasure of Man’.

I also do not intend to rewrite the history of Mensa: Society for Highly Intelligent. – Victor Serebriakoff’s account is old, but it is a classic and still a good read.

Neither do I mean to more generally explore the (intriguing) world of high IQ societies, such as it was recently done by Swedish journalist Linda Leopold in her book ‘Smartast i världen: IQ-sällskapen från insidan‘.

Nevertheless, I do want to include some basic material on the what’s and why’s of IQ tests as well as at least a short introduction to the history and organization of Mensa. I would also like to be able to refer my readers to relevant literature on various related topics. And in any case I need a good sense of what others – inside as well as outside of Mensa – might perceive as ‘related topics’ in order to meet or at least acknowledge those expectations.

So as part of my preparation for the interview process I posted a request for tips on ‘good reads’ on Mensa’s internal member forum – and then I started reading. I am still reading.

This takes time, but it is worth it.

Preparing questions

What do you want to know? What do I want to tell? What are my interviewees prepared to share? How do I pose my questions in such a way that everyone will be happy in the end?

In order to be able to ask the ‘right’ questions, I again used Mensa’s forum to gather inspiration from other members. Later, I created a small questionnaire and asked friends and family to help me out by formulating any questions that they might like me to pass on to my interviewees.

I also toyed with the idea of making a similar questionnaire and ask random people on the street to fill it out, but in the end I never got around to actually doing this. It would probably have been a nice exercise, forcing me to leave my comfort zone and all, but – oh well.

Finally, I made a special questionnaire specifically targeted at the group of prospective interviewees. I wanted to know what they themselves would be interested to know about each other – and share about themselves. In addition, I used this small survey to establish a common understanding of the premises of my work and collect their consent to the process that I had in mind – as well as to get a feel for their personal limits in regard to using full names and pictures and such.

After having collected all of this data, I used the incoming questions along with some of my own ideas to prepare a common frame for all of my interviews. In particular, I was able to formulate four broad topics to help me structure each interview:

  • Childhood, school, work, hobbies
  • Central life experiences and deliberate choices
  • Intelligence and other personal qualities
  • Mensa – why, when, how, etc.

For each of these topics I prepared a number of specific questions. I deliberately prepared more questions than I expected to ask during the interview, because I wanted to be ready to let the conversation twist and turn and live a life of its own. This was important to me, because I didn’t want all the interviews to follow exactly the same path but rather to take on a form that fitted the situation – and the interviewee.

Before each interview I spent some time looking up details on the person that I was about to meet and talk to. LinkedIn, Facebook, Google – these are pretty good tools to do just that. The internal fora of Mensa also provided a great deal of background material and ideas for additional questions.

I consider this preparatory work to be one of the most important steps in my book process. Possibly the most important. Knowing some of my interviewees personally and having access to quite a lot of information about all of them up front definitely allowed me to ask better questions – not only in terms of question content, but also with regard to formulating the questions in a way that created a friendly and relaxed atmosphere for them and me during the interviews.

This way I was able to ask questions that someone else might not have gotten away with – simply because it only makes sense to discuss them in a setting of mutual trust. I know this, and my interviewees know that I know. This makes all the difference. If my book turns out as a success, this will be one of the main reasons.

Man længe nok må sige,
at kærlighed er blind,
det bli’r dog lysets rige,
hvor ret den strømmer ind.
Og han har aldrig levet,
som klog på det er blevet,
han først ej havde kær.
From “Nu skal det åbenbares”, by N.F.S. Grundtvig.
Quoted from here.

Scheduling the interviews

Even knowing the 20-odd people that I meant to interview, it took some time for me to set up a date with each of them. I don’t much enjoy speaking on the phone (quirk alert), so communication generally took place by mail – which probably suited everyone fine, but it does take time. Especially when your mail ends up in someone’s junk folder, or when that someone is away on holiday, or when he is caught up in his work and is not available for an interview this month, or…

On top of this, I had to take the traveling expenses into account. Making nine trips to Copenhagen and three to the center of Funen (Fyn) to interview the twelve people on my list, who lived in these places, was impractical. Instead, I tried to group the interviews two or three at a time and arrange overnight accommodation for myself in between.

Luckily, I had a lot of help from other mensans. Thus, I only spent a few nights in hostels. Most of the time I was invited to stay with someone who just happened to live in the vicinity of where I needed to be. And on more than one occasion I managed to arrange for my interviews to take place at times when I also had some other business in those parts of the country.  In this way I was able to keep the expenses down – and spend time with friends at the same time.

Conducting the actual interviews

This was great fun! And slightly nerve-racking at the same time. Each interview left me exhausted – especially those that went particularly well. But I learned a lot. And I got to know some great people really well and discuss interesting stuff with them on a very personal level.

I spent some time doing so. And I don’t regret it for a moment.

Transcribing the interviews

Before embarking on this entire project, I went out and bought a dictaphone, and this I used to record all of my interviews. This left me with more than 46 hours of audio.

46. Hours. Of. Audio.

That is a lot. And as any linguist will know, transcribing 10 minutes of audio takes an hour or more – sometimes a lot more – depending on the level of detail, format, number of speakers, etc.

Well… I did manage to work a bit faster than that. After all I didn’t need my transcript to be exact down to the smallest sound. But still, it did take me a lot of time to make transcripts of the kind that would meet my needs.

Working intensely for an entire day (7-8 hours) I might manage to transcribe 2 or even 2½ hours’ worth of audio. Some days I wasn’t really up to working intensely for that long… Ehrm… More often than not I should say. You try it for just a few days – then you will understand.

On the one hand I did get slightly faster along the way, as I got the hang of it and found out how to use keyboard shortcuts to start, stop and rewind the sound track as needed while writing. On the other hand – I am human. I get tired. I get bored. I get distracted. Even when I am very motivated.

Overdoing it for three or four days is no good, if this results in you having to take a break for a week to be able to look at your computer without screaming. There has to be a balance in it, and when you are the boss, you have to find it for yourself.

So, yes, transcribing my interviews took a lot of time. Especially because I very much needed to do something else in between in order to not go completely nuts. Sometimes I was able to switch between preparing, conducting and transcribing interviews in a very constructive way.

Sometimes I just needed to get away from it all and concentrate on something that had absolutely nothing to do with my book. Like making cheese. Or arranging a hackathon for women. Or learning Japanese. Or… You see – it is not all bad.

I think I will take a break right now :)

Coming up next: Editing and typesetting.

Leave a Reply


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: