Lost in non-fiction investigations

Hi, I’m outlining a new writing project (and, as it happens, this very sentence is spoken by Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining…) and it’s the first time for me in non-fiction. It’s big and it touches sensitive material… it’s about a XX century writer and his legacy, and the key role some people had after the writer’s death. Not really a biography, but rather an appreciation of his last works and, as a consequence, the last part of his life.
I’m definitely going to interview people who (if this were a work of fiction) could be considered as “villains”. Now, I’m really at a loss as to the approach I should take with them - I’m not talking about the content and tone of the interviews: my intentions are to plunge into the heart of the matter and ask questions as candidly and frankly as I can; thing is, I really don’t know how to approach people who are important for my story but almost certainly are keeping secrets which they don’t want to share. Two years of investigations led me to the discovery of some hidden truths… but not the whole truth.

Can I get a word of advice from anyone with some experience in biographies or journalistic work? (needless to say, I’m neither a biographer, nor a journalist).
I have so many doubts about which way to go… Should I try to interview all the “good” people first? What if the “bad” people talk to each other and decide to shun me or, worse, drag me into legal quicksands? Will things get easier or worse if I wait further to get a publisher involved? Etc. Book proposal is ready… but no real first draft has been written yet.

Said as an aside, Scrivener proved to be the must-have app for this kind of writing project, with dedicated folders for works cited and its integration with Bookends (awesome), sound clips for interview transcriptions (really awesome) and total flexibility.


You’re talking about what is probably the single hardest thing about writing biographical material. Above and beyond the obstructions individuals might throw in your way is the likelihood that the people you now envision as the villains might well charm or persuade you into seeing them more sympathetically. This tends to happen at least a little bit whenever you get to know a source.

Meryle Secrest has written a book, Shoot the Widow, about writing biographies of living or recently deceased people:

amazon.com/Shoot-Widow-Adven … 393&sr=1-3

The title is based on another biographer’s tip for how to improve the process! Janet Malcolm is another writer who’s contemplated these questions, although on a more ethical/theoretical level. Her line is that it’s always a morally questionable situation, and she’s famous for her unflattering profiles, but people still talk to her. The Journalist and the Murderer is her best known book in this line.

A lot of it comes down to interpersonal skills. Journalists learn how to give a source the impression that they’re on the source’s side whether they are or not. They seem sympathetic while remaining noncommittal and they don’t offer any more information about their approach than they have to while buttering the source up with personal disclosures. For someone who’s wise to your agenda, there’s always “I’m sure you want your side of the story to get a fair hearing, but I can’t do that unless you talk with me.” To your advantage is the fact that most people believe their own position is the correct one and that everyone else will agree once they’ve been given “the truth.” It often takes getting burned more than once for people to realize that this isn’t always the case.

Hi Ptz

Welcome to the forum, and good luck with the project.

I’ve never written a non-fiction book, so take these words with appropriate caution - but the usual advice (contrary to the advice to fiction writers) is to apply to publishers with a 10,000-ish-word synopsis before you start work. That’s certainly what I’d do.

I know more about how to handle the journalism. I agree with all that lauram has said. In addition: yes, your writing may need to be lawyered, depending of course on the laws of the jurisdiction(s) where you’re publishing and what you want to say. You may even need legal advice from the outset - that’s a decision for you and your publisher(s).

Yes, talk to the “good guys” first - you’ll need the best case you can muster to put to the bad guys. But look at it this way: ideally there should be an arm’s length but continuing dialogue between the good guys and the bad guys, with you acting as messenger or interlocutor. So you take what the good guys say and put it to the bad guys, and then take the bad guys’ responses and put them back to the good guys. And so on. Only in that way will you have a chance of getting at the “truth”. So your last words to any source, good or bad, will be “Do you mind if I come back to you?” The only circumstances in which I wouldn’t try to do that are when I believe there’s nothing to add to the good guys’ story, and the bad guys may injunct me, lean on the publisher or otherwise try to block the project at an early stage. And even then I’d tell them before publication and give them a reasonable chance to respond.

As lauram says, however, you may even get to sympathise with the bad guys. It’s seldom the case that they fail to add fresh light to a story. In approaching them, all the traditional and customary investigatory wiles and ruses may need to be deployed. Personally I think old episodes of Colombo repay studying. :smiley: Seriously. You may be surprised by how willing bad guys can be to clear the air and get stuff off their chests, when approached in an inquiring but unthreatening manner. And of course there’s always “Oh, there’s just one other thing…” :wink:


Thanks lauram and Hugh for sharing your thoughts about the genre… the Secrest’s book could be a real revelation, I didn’t know about it (I’m dealing with widows, too :smiley:) -

Indeed… and I hope it will also be the most rewarding. It’s a little daunting at the beginning, but you both confirmed what I think it’s ultimately necessary - as you say, it really comes down to interpersonal skills, not to mention the energy and stamina one has to sustain for well longer than a year: travelling to meet people face to face, maintaining a network of contacts, spending hours in archives, reading illegible handwritings… I hope I’m not being optimistic when I say a “mini” biography like mine could take two years to complete.

I believe you! Incidentally, if I’m not mistaken, the first Columbo episode ever broadcast (directed by Steven Spielberg) was about a writer who murdered another writer! :stuck_out_tongue:

The Poynter Institute has a database that lists a wide range of materials to read on interviewing, everything from bibliography on the genre to practical tips on conducting interviews:

poynter.org/search/results_a … hScope=all

You might also read Lillian Ross’s two books on reporting (Reporting, Reporting Two), and The John McPhee Reader, both often taught in reporting & interviewing classes at J-schools.

Preparation is essential; so is listening, asking open-ended questions, and remaining neutral. A hostile or well-rehearsed person won’t tell you much. Little peripheral details in the setting (pictures, CD titles) are often worth noting. Your secret weapon: people with nothing to hide like to be interviewed. For many years, an annual ritual at the Washington Post was for reporters to stick a pin in the DC phone directory, call a person randomly chosen, do an interview and write a profile. Almost no one ever turned down the offer. Or thought themselves insufficiently newsworthy!