The tape recorder would seem to be God’s gift to writers, allowing them to access complete conversations long after the fact and quote dialogue with confidence. During the writing process, having tape recordings or transcripts at hand can be invaluable. On the other hand, the process of procuring those tools may outweigh their convenience; many creative nonfiction writers—whose projects often depend on establishing long-term, informal relationships with their subjects—believe that tape-recording actually hinders research.
“Taping makes me a lazy interviewer,” says Alex Kotlowitz, former reporter at The Wall Street Journal and author of “There Are No Children Here.” “When you’re taking notes, it forces you to concentrate on what you’re hearing, to think of the next question,” he told Robert S. Boynton in an interview. Taking handwritten notes keeps the writer on his toes.
Richard Preston, author of the true horror story of the possible outbreak of the Ebola virus, “The Hot Zone,” echoes Kotlowitz: “A tape recorder cannot capture a scene. A scene is kinesthetic.” He claims it is simply unrealistic for him to tote a tape recorder everywhere he goes. He’d rather focus on the scene and the character, and not worry over sentences that have to be arduously transcribed later. Recording can lull the writer into accepting a false, superficial sense of the truth and can intimidate subjects rather than relax them. Most important, according to Preston and other writers of his ilk, a transcript does not tell a story (the interactions, the reactions, the facial expressions) while a narrative does.
Not that making do without a recording is easy. Writers who don’t record generally take shorthand notes at a manic pace, run straight home and type their notes up, adding details about scene and character that they noticed during the interview. But some writers, including Ted Conover, winner of the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award, take no notes at all. “Taking notes alienates the very people I need to get close to,” he says. (Conover’s subjects often consist of hobos, immigrants and others who distrust reporters.) Instead, he comes home and frequently writes “six to eight pages of exhaustive, single-spaced notes.” He feels the presence of a tape recorder or a notepad would compromise the truth of the story he is trying to collect.
Gay Talese shares this point of view. By using a tape recorder, a writer can present a subject “in the passive posture of a monologist,” he writes in his essay “Not Interviewing Frank Sinatra.” “Since my earliest days in journalism, I was far less interested in the exact words that came out of people’s mouths than in the essence of their meaning. More important than what people say is what they think, even though the latter may initially be difficult for them to articulate and may require much pondering and reworking within the interviewee’s mind— which is what I gently try to prod and stimulate as I query, interrelate and identify with my subjects.” The result, according to Talese, is “the insight that comes from deep probing and perceptive analysis and old-fashioned legwork.”
Talese maintains that the original New Journalists of the ’60s— writers like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer—were also wary of tape recorders. But other writers, including Jon Krakauer, author of the best sellers “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” champion using a recording as backup. “Sure, there are situations where you can’t record—like when you’re in the back-country for weeks and have to use batteries sparingly—but it is always better to tape if you can,” he insists. “Do an interview in which you simultaneously use a tape recorder and compare this to the handwritten record. I bet you’ll find that you got many of the quotes wrong in your handwritten notes. Often you get the intent or the meaning right, but you miss the idiosyncratic phrasing, the precise inflections, the unique qualities that make a quote ring true. Quotes not based on a taped interview often sound more like the writer than the interview subject.”
Obviously, tape-recording also affords the writer a certain amount of protection. A subject can’t legitimately claim that he never said something if you have his words, to the contrary, on tape. But a subject’s words tell only part of the story. The creative nonfiction writer asks: What is real? Does a recording rob reality of its color? How can you best discover the story beneath the story? Writers must ultimately find their own answers to these questions. Undoubtedly, the answer will depend, at least in part, on the writer’s ability to recall what was said, on her style of interacting with subjects, and—perhaps most importantly— on what will work for each subject, in each story, carefully considered, case by case.