war on the rocks

Entry 24: Art of the Interview

January 16, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 24th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I wrote 485 words, but today was a weird, busy day. I was totally undisciplined on social media and got sucked into too much Twitter, in part because I inadvertently offended somebody, which bugged me more than it should have. Excuses, excuses. I just sort of let myself drift, impulsively checking Twitter and Facebook in the middle of other tasks.

There were other distractions too. My Politico Magazine piece from last week got a renewed surge of interest for some reason, including from a few TV stations who wanted to talk about it.

Also, Victoria University published a researcher profile on me today that’s basically my life story, or at least one hagiographical version of it. My self-consciousness about it muted my brain power today. It’s well written and accurate, but I definitely don’t feel as shiny as I come across in the piece.

The biggest formal time commitment today was conducting research interviews with folks in Washington. I’ve been doing them for a couple weeks. In case you’re wondering, it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare to interview people in different time zones with busy schedules of their own. Between prepping for the interviews, conducting them, and then cleaning up the notes afterward, I lost a solid four hours out of the work day.

It’s worth it though. For the Obama era in particular, almost nothing’s been written about it, and the decisions from the past eight years—for better or worse—saddled the Trump administration with the world’s biggest security problem. The interviews help fill in a lot of holes. Occasionally I also get a juicy quote or two.

Aside from the logistical hassle of the interviews, there’s a bit of an art and awkwardness in conducting them.

The art is that they’re mostly with senior policy officials, and as a rule senior level folks don’t do formalized, structured questions that allow for the researcher to make identical comparisons across answers. You can’t treat people accustomed to operating at the top of the policy food chain as an object of research, even when that’s what they are. You have to couch your questions in a conversational approach that lets them pontificate. I guess it’s more like a journalistic approach to interviewing.

The awkwardness—aside from personally knowing some of the people—is that 90 percent of interview subjects want to be off the record, or on deep background, so you have to take care to preserve their anonymity. Sometimes the content of their interview can be a dead giveaway of who they are, which is a problem. My adaptation is to rely as little as possible on interviews for book content, and instead to use the interviews to corroborate the narrative I’m constructing from other, more easily discoverable sources. I’ll still draw on the occasional quote or reference if it helps drive a point home, but mostly interviews confirm that what I’m writing is the most correct interpretation of events.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.