Gay Talese is a master at getting interviews—or making do without them, in dire circumstances. He details a case in point in his recent memoir, “A Writer’s Life.” Talese had flown from the U.S. all the way to China, setting up camp in Beijing, to interview Liu Ying, a 25-year-old midfielder for the Chinese soccer team who missed the winning kick in a Rose Bowl game against the U.S. in 1999. Unfortunately, Talese’s contact with the girl was both censored and limited by the Chinese Soccer Association, and he didn’t have enough material to write a story. So he asked his contact at the Soccer Association if he might also interview the player’s mother. Soon Talese was forging relationships with other members of the girl’s family, visiting her mother and grandmother at the family’s centuries-old courtyard house along a “hutong,” or “ancient alleyway,” leading to the Forbidden City. Eventually, through his relationship with Liu Ying’s mother, he was able to interview the soccer star herself many times, uncensored.
This was not the first time Talese used a back-door technique. To gather material for his now famous profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Talese interviewed members of Sinatra’s huge entourage and observed Sinatra from afar. (Because of his illness, the singer had canceled a scheduled interview.) Talese credits his success, both then and now, to persistence. “It’s about selling yourself,” he explains. “It’s all about hanging around and meeting people.”
Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of Creative Nonfiction, has had several similar “backdoor access” experiences. “Persistence is the key,” he says. “If it doesn’t look like you’re going to get your access by going straight to the boss, don’t waste your time. Go around him, and you’ll get there in the end.”
Gutkind used the “back door” to gain access to the organ transplant world for his book “Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation” because he knew that approaching the surgeons in the field right off the bat would be difficult. Surgeons, like famous Chinese soccer stars, are busy people. So Gutkind started attending patient support meetings and befriended a few patients. Unlike the surgeons, the patients and their families had all the time in the world: The patients were always in bed, while the family members would always be sitting around smoking, drinking coffee and waiting for the doctor.
Gutkind spent an average of four hours a day, five days a week, with his subjects, sitting in their hospital rooms and accompanying them to doctor appointments. “Over nine or 10 months, the doctors were seeing me all the time because I was with the patients. At that point, it was just natural for them to ask me what I was doing, and that became my entry-point to their part of the transplant world.”
“You simply need to be willing to take the time,” Gutkind says. “And it’s frustrating and costly. You’re investing this time, and it usually doesn’t seem like you’re getting anything back. You could be immersed in your subject for an entire year and not even have a first chapter.”
This is one reason that readers turn to books: because they don’t have time to experience everything for themselves. Instead of spending a year with the subject, readers get the experience in the time it takes to read just a chapter. It is the writer’s job to gain that access for the reader, and the process can be a painstaking, often creative, sometimes frustrating and time-consuming part of writing a story. Gaining access requires an ability to change strategy and be flexible but mostly to like hanging out with more than just the central stars.