Professional Ghost

Interview technique – tips for a successful collaboration

It’s perfectly normal for authors to get tied-up with the practicalities of writing a book, which is why many seek out a ghost in the first place. The idea of producing 70,000-plus words just seems a bit too daunting. If that is the route taken though, the biggest challenge by far is the interview process. This is when an author conveys to their co-writer exactly what they want in their book, from crucial facts and details, to the overall tone and emotion around it. It is, by far, the most collaborative stage of the collaboration.

It can take time for authors to settle into this stage. They may have all the information in their heads, but it is not always easy to relax and let it all pour out, particularly if the material is of a sensitive nature. Some authors may find themselves relating a string of amusing anecdotes as a protective mechanism. Funny stories are fine, and can really light up a book, but more substantial detail is required too. At the other end of the scale are authors who want to go into minute detail of every aspect of their lives. Not all of it will be relevant to the book. In all cases, the onus is very much on the ghost to help an author feel at home and steer them towards a meaningful narrative.

To keep things on track, it helps to stick to the plan agreed at the beginning of the collaboration (see ‘Beginning, middle and end – where do you start'). The plan may change a little as you get into the detail, but it is a great way of keeping things flowing. The parties can agree that for the next interview they will discuss, say, chapter four, and can prepare accordingly.

Alternatively, it can be effective to talk through events chronologically. The first interview could be used for childhood and growing up, the next for early career and so on. This can be very useful for the ghost. On a purely practical level, they will be able to easily locate material on tape, or in their notes. It also helps build a picture of the author’s motivations: childhood experiences often explain a lot about a person’s character.

There are often aspects to a story an author will find it hard to discuss. If these occur early on in the chronology, the ghost might possibly wait until both sides know one another better before raising them. Even then, a ghost should keep something else up their sleeve in case the very mention of the event sees the author clam-up completely. In this case, a ghost can steer the conversation onto safer ground and return to the tricky subject at a later time.

From a ghost’s point of view, two of the most essential elements here are careful preparation and then well-crafted questioning. Interviews should dig below the surface, yet be couched in a way the interviewee feels comfortable answering. The best questions to gather information for a book are often open-ended, beginning with words like ‘how?’ ‘what?’ ‘where?’ and ‘when?’. These conversation starters encourage expansive answers and produce an abundance of information. If a ghost has done their homework and found out as much as they can about the facts surrounding key events beforehand, they won’t waste of everyone’s time by stopping the flow to ask detailed, yet already available, factual information.

Having asked the question, ghostwriters should always know when to shut up and listen to the answer. This does take some skill, not least because in the relationship-building process ghosts are always tempted to help their authors out by prompting them when they look stuck for an answer.

Interviewing is a two way process, where both sides play a key role. Get this crucial stage right though and the actual writing part of the process will flow.