What takes so long? Conducting interviews (I)
This blog post is part of a small series in which I try to explain – to myself and anyone else who might be interested – what I have been up to since I left my job as a systems developer well over a year ago and decided to write a book and publish it myself.
In particular: Why am I not done yet? What is taking me so long? And why does it not seem to bother me as much as one might think it should?
I hope I managed to convince you that these things actually take some time – especially when they are all new and unfamiliar to you. At least, I managed to convince myself.
Now I will go on and tell you about the process of finding and interviewing people for my book – and transcribing and editing these raw interviews in order to create a text that might eventually be of interest to others.
First off: In order to write a book such as the one I had in mind, I needed to find the right people to interview. I wanted them to be ordinary mensans – not celebrities, but regular people that others might relate to on a personal level. Humans like you and me.
Well. Except that I didn’t want them all to be too much like me.
I wanted diversity. But what does that mean? Age, gender, occupation, cultural background, ethnicity, annual income, level of education, … We are so used to thinking in such terms, and sometimes we forget that a human is so much more than this.
On one hand, I wanted a diverse group of people with regard to as many of these parameters as possible. On the other hand, I also very much wanted people who would not readily allow themselves to be reduced to any number of such crude characteristics. I wanted to avoid clichés and stereotypes.
My book was not to be a scientific attempt at describing a representative sample of any and all ‘types of mensans’. The notion of doing so makes no real sense to me.
What I wanted was to create a small sample – an appetizer, if you like. But I wanted it to be a sample of that which actually counts when mensans come together – and it is my firm belief that that is something far more interesting and subtle than what may be explained in terms of demographics.
In fact, I have gradually come to recognize my own inability to put this important thing, that I want to share with you, into words. My book will be my attempt to show it instead.
First, I wrote to a couple of my personal friends from Mensa to hear if they might be interested in participating.
I handpicked people that I knew to be unique and interesting, each in their own way – and put some serious work into an initial description of my idea. I figured that I would have to make my pitch a convincing one. Then I asked for their honest opinion and held my breath.
Lo and behold: They liked the idea! In fact, I was astounded at the confidence with which they told me that – yes – they might just be willing to let me interview them for such a book.
I had never thought it would be that easy. At the same time, I realized that this kind of trust would have to be matched by as much and more responsibility from me. The thought was daunting. And exciting.
Spurred on by my success, I went on to contact more people, one at a time – gradually including some that were not close personal friends of mine but whom I held in high regard and expected to tell me off politely but firmly, if they did not consider my project to be worth their time. Each time I had pressed the ‘Send’ button, I would spent the next hours (and sometimes a few nights) wondering if I had gone crazy. What was I doing, putting myself on the line like this?
Then I wrote to the board of Mensa Denmark – and when they, too, had no objections, I decided that it was time to go all-in.
I fine-tuned my project description and posted it in Mensa’s largest member forum. Anticipating a lot of discussion, I created a monster of a discussion thread, with a number of subheadings that might help structure the debate somewhat. Knowing mensans, I also made space for jokes and derailments – and humbly asked those thus inclined to use it and not make a mess of the rest of the thread. They turned out to be happy to oblige.
In the following weeks, a great debate unfolded. I received critical questions, great ideas, thoughts and tips. Gradually my understanding of what it would take to write a book and have it published grew. And in the meanwhile I received mail after mail from people who would be willing to help me out in a number of ways – including some who offered to let me interview them.
In the end I had some 20-odd potential interviewees to choose from. About half of them had been personally headhunted by me, and the other half had contacted me on their own initiative.
I realized that I had no way of knowing how the interviews would turn out – and no way of choosing among the potential interviewees up front, save ruthlessly picking those that I knew already. That wouldn’t do, of course.
After giving this some thought, I decided that the best solution would be for me to delay the decision and simply interview all the people who had offered to participate in the project.
Well, almost all of them. I did turn down a couple of people who didn’t respond to my follow-up questions or seemed unsure as to whether or not they would feel comfortable having their full names published in a book. I had to reject one woman whom I would have been happy to talk to, but who would not be available for interview in Denmark within the next year or so. – And I did also reject this one guy who sent me an inappropriate video (please don’t ask), thinking that it would somehow convince me that he was just the man to give my book a certain ‘edge’. Oh, well. I am the editor in chief, after all. I get to make these decisions.
Speaking of things that take time: Blogging takes a lot of time. I have only just started describing the interviewing process, and already this post is growing long.
To be continued…