Are you “authentic”?

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Climate change marchers in Montreal.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a word much used these days.

Being true to oneself.

Being yourself.

It’s an interesting challenge if you grew up in, or married, or married into, a family that’s heavily invested in a certain kind of person — and you’re not really that person at all.

I’ve seen this firsthand with several women I know and it’s extremely painful to hear and see the tremendous stress it creates. Worse, obviously, to be that person and be told constantly what a disappointment you are.

One chose to leave her faith, to the shock and dismay of her parents. Another is living a deeply conventional life, and is simply not that person.

One of my favorite songs, Once in a Lifetime, by one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads:

 

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?”

We choose our lives from the best place we know how, at that time. So we sometimes choose the wrong partner, university, job, city or friendships. They feel right then, but as we grow and become more intimate with ourselves, we see how poorly these choices now fit, like a suit of armor that once (likely) protected us — and now constricts our movements in every way.

My first husband, a physician, was “perfect on paper”, a handsome, bright, musical, ambitious man. He was, at first, kind and funny. But he was someone unwilling or unable to do the work of marriage with me, and left me barely two years after we took vows, to remarry. I should have had the guts to not marry him, as I knew it wasn’t a good fit. I did, hoping and determined to “make it work.”

But my second marriage allows me to just be who I am: messy, creative, spontaneous.

In the U.S., the workplace is structured in many ways that insist on denying who we are, whether our sexuality, the fact we are pregnant or soon hope to be (again), the fact we have aging or ill parents or relatives or dear friends who need our caregiving. It’s a country predicated on, and dedicated to, profit and productivity — not human connection or kindness. Work til you drop, dammit!

So if your authentic self more deeply values connection, or creativity, or freedom, or less conventional options, you may find yourself — however authentic — isolated, alone and filled with self-doubt and recrimination.

If only I were…not myself.

Be yourself.

 

Be your blessed, unique self.

The week I learned some family secrets

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By Caitlin Kelly

Intimacy isn’t easy.

A new friend — of about a year, someone a decade younger than I but the mother of teenagers — recently told me I had disappointed her. She took the risk I wouldn’t listen or that I would get angry or get defensive. I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge thing (to me) and I apologized for disappointing her and she seemed mollified and relieved we had discussed it calmly.

I am glad she took that risk because a friendship soured by unspoken disappointment can’t last.

But on reflection I wrote her an email to explain why, in some ways, I’ve hurt and disappointed people I care for unintentionally. I’ve done a lot of therapy so at least I have a clearer understanding why.

Intimacy with oneself is often a work in progress.

When you come from a family where everyone’s feelings were routinely ignored or dismissed, taking others’ seriously and responding to them quickly, just isn’t how you behave.

I really hate unpacking my family history, since it’s weird and painful and the polar opposite of the Hallmark card closeness, trust and kindness that is soon about to be celebrated again in the U.S. with Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukah.

 

The very word “family” is used in much American advertising as a proxy for close, loving stability — when for many people it’s just not that at all.

 

A total stranger who writes a blog about crime fiction has been researching my American maternal grandmother, great grand-mother and grandfather — whose marriages were legion and some deemed so scandalous, (thanks to their wealth and social prominence), they made the newspapers.

He recently emailed me to share his findings. They were…enlightening. But also unsettling to read about people I knew as entries in public documents.

My grandfather, an author, who my mother only met twice and I never met, (long since divorced anyway), apparently added a “von” and the letter “H” to create the name von Rhau — which sounds pretty Euro-aristocratic, as he hoped.

He was actually Henry Rau from Staten Island.

I knew none of this until last week.

If of interest, here are his blog posts; first part, second part.

My maternal great-grandmother ended up as the Countess Casagrande on Park Avenue in New York City, (yes, really), while her daughter kept marrying and re-marrying at dizzying speed.

I knew my mother had a very rough emotional childhood, despite plenty of material wealth.

 

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An extraordinary story of survival

 

So when it comes to “normal” behavior, our family is not the place to look for role models or sterling behaviors.

My late paternal grandfather, a self-made millionaire in Vancouver, had an affair with his sister-in-law and kept the boy with his own family; my father has four adult children, two by wives (divorced, dead) and two women he did not marry. I haven’t even met one of them.

Why tell you any of this?

Because when you meet someone new, as my friend did when she met me  — and they might be fun and funny and charming — and I am all of these things, they might also be carrying some tough history as well.

And when you hit those spots,  which I call emotional bone bruises because they’re not visible, it can be difficult to open up or to explain.

No wonder I married a small-city preacher’s kid whose emotional life and financial history could not be any more different than my own.

I also find it ironic that I come from a family that so resolutely avoided discussing our tangled histories — while I have made my living persuading total strangers to share some of their toughest moments with me for my two books and decades of journalism.

Do you carry some difficult stuff from your own family of origin?

Do your intimates know about it?

 

How does it affect you and your life today as an adult?

 

Life, wealth adjacent

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A program that gets low-income New York students out onto the water — into boats they built by hand

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you heard of the Gini coefficient?

It’s a measure of income inequality, invented in 1912 by Italian statistician Corrado Gini.

I pay attention to it since I live in the United States — whose income inequality is the greatest in a century — and grew up in Canada, a nation with a much greater sense of the common good, and which creates public policy accordingly.

I’m also so aware of this because, living in a wealthy county north of New York City, I see it every day.

My town, 25 miles north of New York City, has massively gentrified in the 30 years I’ve lived here, as Brooklyn hipsters, priced out, have stampeded north, bringing man buns and McLaren strollers and Mini Cooper cars with them.

The other day a black Maserati blasted past me on the road and I’ve even seen a Lamborghini in town, a place once mostly filled with dusty Saturns and Civics. Today we have a local restaurant whose owner and whose ambition we love, but we watched three separate customers look at the menu and leave, saying his prices were too high.

And yet, our town retains real diversity — with public housing projects, multi-family homes, many rentals and, recently, million-dollar riverside condos.

I drove into Manhattan the other day to my hair salon and watched a woman laden with shopping bags struggling into her West Village 1800s brownstone townhouse door — a home that today would easily sell for $5 million or more; here’s one — just down the street from my salon — for a cool $28 million.

We are OK, compared to so many Americans, in even having savings, in owning our apartment (OK, still with a damn mortgage!) and having decent health and work.

But it’s bizarre to be surrounded by people with so many more zeros to their annual income, property values and assumptions about what’s “normal” — many women casually sporting a Goyard carryall that sells for $1,150, more than our mortgage payment.

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The organ was a $250,000 donation — from one parishioner

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We attend a gorgeous little church, built in 1853 by the same architect who designed New York’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and some parishioners are extremely well-off. (The photos on their website are all by Jose Lopez, my husband.)

Some women live nonchalantly supported  by husbands working in corporate law or on Wall Street, in enormous houses. Annoyingly, they seem to think my  career in journalism is some cute hobby, as they chirp: “Are you still writing?” or just ignore me because I’m clearly not rich and raising a brood of ferociously ambitious children,

This is the time of year when we’re asked to pledge, i.e. make a firm monthly financial commitment, to the church. There’s a chart in the parish hall showing a small group of people — fewer than 10 — give $20,000 to $30,000 a year, which is more than I’ve earned in some freelance years.

We’re debating how much to give. I admit that we’ve never pledged, but almost always add to the collection plate.

My family of origin had plenty of money, on both sides, and I enjoyed a childhood of material privilege, attending boarding school and summer camp. So wealth doesn’t intimidate me, nor do I spend my days lusting for more stuff.

But American “success” is always predicated on highly visible signs of wealth and power — hence the need for status-signaling clothing, accessories, housing, cars, nannies (some have three), exotic vacations, etc. So if you’re not “keeping up” you must be some sort of loser.

 

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East 70th Street, Manhattan

Jose and I chose a much less lucrative career path, journalism, which is why we drive a 20-year-old Subaru and have lived for decades in a one-bedroom apartment. (We also have decent retirement savings, a less visible decision.)

And yet, you have to be wilfully very ignorant to ignore the incredible poverty that also surrounds us, poverty I finally confronted personally for 18 months when I was a Big Sister to a 13 year old girl, a formal mentoring/matching program.

Sharing a squalid house with a bunch of relatives, her mother having disappeared years before, she lived only a 20-minute drive east across the county from me, but might have lived on another planet. I had never grasped that even knowing how to use a public library was a specific and essential skill for future success in a highly competitive economy; she didn’t know.

It snapped me into a deeper awareness of how wide these divisions are.

I wish I had some smart answer to this.

I do not.

 

Do you see this kind of income divide in your area?

 

 

Tea time!

 

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Oooooh, macarons!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m a huge tea-drinker, usually a daily pot around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., brewed in a little green pot, a happy and comforting way to hydrate.

I collect teas wherever I go, the two latest, bought in upstate New York, Millerton, at Harney & Sons. Can’t wait to try them. I also brought some home from Santa Fe, NM, after our visit in June.

 

 

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My current go-to is PG Tips, sometimes called “builder’s tea” as construction workers apparently like it as much as I do. I enjoy Earl Grey, Irish and English Breakfast and love Constant Comment, orange-spicey.

 

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When in New York City, I love to visit a few favorite tea-rooms, and have often been to Bosie Tea Parlor, which recently moved from a spot I liked better (small room, quiet side street) to Laguardia Place, much bigger and in the middle of NYU campus.

I also really like King’s Carriage House, in a tiny 19th century house on the Upper East Side.

To buy teas, I head to two of my favorite spots in all of Manhattan — and not very far apart. Porto Rico Coffee and Tea has shelves lined with huge, battered, ancient tins with every possible kind of tea, sold by the pound, or smaller amounts. The room, from 1907, complete with tin ceiling and weathered wooden floor, is amazing — and also sells teapots, mugs, strainers and, of course, coffee. I go to the Bleecker Street store, but there are four in Manhattan to visit.  (You can also order online.)

Close by, on Christopher Street, is another tea shop, McNulty’s, also a 19th century set piece, opened in 1895. I love its atmosphere and feel like I’ve stepped back in time every time I open the door.

 

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My daily pot of tea, usually at 4 or 5pm — relaxation, even in a busy workday, is one of my priorities

 

Here’s a recent New York Times’ story about where to have tea in various fancy hotels.

In London, I enjoyed my tea at the Ritz, in Paris at Le Loir Dans La Theiere, (The Dormouse in the Teapot, a reference from Alice in Wonderland.) The Ritz’ price goes up to (!) 60 pounds per person in 2020, a splurge at $77.83, for sure.

 

 

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Pleasure matters! A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

 

In my hometown of Toronto, I always head back to the Queen Mother Cafe on Queen Street; it’s not a tearoom, per se, but I love the atmosphere of the 165-year-old building and its cosy Art Deco booths and lighting.

Here’s a list of some tearooms in the U.S.

 

Do you have a favorite tea or tearoom?

Old dreams, new dreams

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Where to? Tokyo has long been on my list…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.

If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!

But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.

Then what?

My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.

I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.

 

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We only get so much time….

 

The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.

I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.

New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.

Will any of these happen? Who knows?

It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.

It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.

 

Nap time!

 

Some (belated) thoughts on Fleabag

By Caitlin Kelly

I hope by now you’ve heard of this show, and seen it…a two-season television series created by and starring 33-year-old Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who this year won the Emmy for Best Comedy, Best Comedy Actress and Best Writing.

The show’s first season — deeply British — probably turned off a lot of viewers: her character, whose only name is Fleabag, is sex-obsessed, sarcastic, guarded and has behaved really badly at times. She’s mourning the recent deaths of her mother (breast cancer) and best friend and London fellow cafe-owner (traffic accident.)

She’s not perky and likeable. You want to shake her by the shoulders as much as give her a hug.

But the second season, which I recently binged, is much less comedy and so often the smartest and deepest look I’ve ever seen at what we want when we think we want sex — and we crave something much deeper and more lasting.

And so much more elusive.

And, of course, she wants it from….a Catholic priest.

It’s really difficult, if you have a certain kind of family of origin and a certain kind of sexual history — OK, mine — to watch Fleabag and her out-sized and inchoate yearnings and not feel deeply seen.

Her sister Claire is spiky and angry and married to a really awful American. Her father is  unable to share emotions or show Fleabag how much he loves her, instead forever kowtowing to his new wife-to-be, who is (the amazing Olivia Colman, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Actress in The Favourite) an even more awful person, simpering and selfish and passive-aggressive.

This brought back wayyyyyyyy too many memories for me of how my father (equally allergic to feelings and discussion of same) always makes sure the women in his life take precedence. Fleabag seems to have no pals and her sister is too often freaking out over something to be a reliably loving presence.

Fleabag also bounces off men (literally) like a pinball, until she meets the hot priest. I’ll save you the spoilers, but suffice to say he’s the only character finally able to challenge her and puncture her flip, glib defenses.

I also recently saw the original one-woman show that was the initial idea for all of this and it is astonishing, with lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone.

She is a bloody genius.

 

Have you seen it?

 

Thoughts?

The value of “slow fashion”

 

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My faithful sewing kit

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve never been a fan of “fast fashion” — rushing to snag some of the thousands of garments pumped out by cheap labor for mega-corporate brands like Zara and H & M. Zara, for example, releases a staggering 20,000 new designs a year, the idea to keep luring shoppers in for more, more, more merch.

The cost to the environment — terrible!

The New York Times just published a smart guide to buying less, and less frequently:

Even though many retailers say they’re addressing sustainability, “the clothing that they make still doesn’t have any greater longevity,” said Elaine Ritch, a senior lecturer in marketing at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Faced with this reality, the concept of “slow fashion” has emerged over the past decade as a kind of counterbalance to fast fashion. The idea: slow down the rapid pace of clothing consumption and instead buy fewer more durable items. It’s an idea championed, for example, by the fashion blogger Cat Chiang, Natalie Live of the brand The Tiny Closet, and Emma Kidd, a doctoral researcher in Britain who launched a 10-week “fashion detox.”

They are sounding the alarm, in part, because the negative impacts of clothing extend beyond the landfill. The chemicals used in making, dyeing and treating many fabrics are so harmful that the E.P.A. regulates many textile factories as hazardous waste generators. And overall, apparel and footwear produce more than 8 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the harmful effects of human-caused climate change.

To anyone living on a tight budget, the suggestion to buy less is risible — if you can’t afford stuff, you aren’t buying it.

But also laughable to anyone who grew up  before the very idea of “fast fashion”, as I did, pre-Internet, in a country (Canada) with fewer retail choices, lower salaries and higher taxes. We just didn’t buy a lot because…who would?

 

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I lived in Paris the year I was 25, life-changing in all the very best ways, and have returned many times since, ideally every two or three years.

French women, beyond the wealthy, are discerning and typically very selective, adding a few key items a year — not every day or week or month. Small city apartments don’t have enormous suburban dressing rooms, for one thing.

They also know that great grooming matters just as much.

Although I live near New York City, with ready access to some of the world’s fanciest stores, I often spend my clothing and accessories budget in Canada (I know where to go!) and Europe. I like the colors much better (lots of navy blue, browns and camel — American color options often glaring and weird) and the styles and, key — higher quality.

I’ve always had a sewing kit, accustomed to mending and sewing buttons back on. I’ve always used a cobbler to re-heel and re-sole shoes; I have one pair bought in 1996 still looking amazing, (OK, Fratelli Rosetti on sale.)

I don’t enjoy shopping for clothes (needing to lose a lot of weight is certainly very de-motivating in this regard) but am a sucker for great accessories: boots, earrings, shoes, scarves, a fab handbag. (My latest — which draws daily compliments everywhere — is a black woven leather handbag found in a Santa Fe consignment shop for $120, less than half the price of a store downtown.)

 

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My beloved Birks, bought in Berlin, seen here on the streets of Rovinj, Croatia

 

I prefer neutral colors to prints, low or flat heels to higher ones, simple cuts to anything with frills or flounces. I shop maybe two or three times a year. I find it tiring and there’s no one to help in any meaningful way.

Recently back in my hometown of Toronto I bought a pair of boots, low, black suede; with tax, $280 Canadian ($211.00 U.S.) Yes, pricy, but with my typical intent of wearing them for at least three to five years, a lot.

This year I finally tossed out a pair of black suede flats that had seen a decade of wear.

ENOUGH!

With CPW, cost-per-wearing; the more you use an item of clothing, the more you amortize out its initial cost. A black pleated ankle length dress I bought in 2016 from Canadian brand Aritizia ($100 on sale, reduced from $150) is still an elegant, hand-washable four-season stand-by for every occasion, from a professional meeting to date night to a very elegant Toronto summer wedding reception.

Were I a wealthy woman, and lost the weight, I would — I admit — buy a few more clothes, but much nicer ones, from my favorite designers: The Row, Dries Van Noten and Etro.

Having terrific style is rarely a matter of being wealthy, but being selective and consistent.

As Coco Chanel once said: Elegance is refusal.

Everyone needs an editor

By Caitlin Kelly

Like those narrow bits of whalebone that once shaped women’s corsets — invisible aids to visible beauty — editors save writers daily.

They catch our grammatical errors, query an assertion, challenge an opinion. The very best are gentle-but-firm and help us create terrific material. The worst are butchers.

Yet writers very rarely publicly acknowledge how essential their skills are to our more obvious success.

 

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Each story we read has been edited,  some more rigorously than others…

 

One editor recently made a whole pile of new enemies on Twitter when he declared that  most of the writing he reads is only made useful thanks to editors. That self-satisfied burn was not appreciated.

But a recent New York Times Book Review piece recounted how zealously and carefully one writer had been managed by her book editor. And nowhere does she explain (!) that this is now as rare and luxurious an experience as having a car and driver, butler or valet, let alone all three. I know no writers getting this kind of literal hands-on attention to their work.

By Ruth Reichl:

Susan’s ability to read my mind astonished me; our editing sessions often felt like a visit to a psychiatrist. I’d arrive at her cluttered office every few months to find my latest pages sitting in the middle of her desk, covered with pencil scrawls and festooned with little yellow Post-its. We’d pull up chairs, eat lunch (always sushi), chat about our families. Then we’d push the plates away and go through the manuscript page by page. Susan would lean across the desk, fix those large expressive eyes on me, point at a paragraph. “Are you sure he’d do that?” “What are you really trying to say here?” “I have a feeling you don’t like this woman. Can you put it into words?” Answering her questions, I’d find myself saying things I hadn’t even known I thought.

The late editor, Susan Kamil, sat beside her in her office, going over Reichl’s work line by line. This, in an era when even agents have little time or energy to spare the plebes, let alone the P & L-obsessed editors they hope to sell us to.

 

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I won’t soon forget getting the notes on my last book, sitting in a motel room in Victoria, B.C. while visiting my mother. My editor, who had previously worked for NASA (it is rocket science!) liked chapters 11 and 12.

What about Chapters 1 through 10?

I panicked. That is a lot of revision!

A dear friend, also a writer, gave me very good advice: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

Thanks to Courtney’s calm and thorough suggestions — certainly not in her office, nor line by line or page by page — we got it done. Then, just as the book was going into final production, we went at it again, tweaking a few pages.

Digital story-telling makes it too easy to later fix a published mistake. Book editing is a high-wire act in comparison.

This past summer offered me the highs and lows of what it means to work with an editor. One, a rude young woman with very little understanding of the collaborative nature of this endeavor, left me shaking with frustration. Another, a man my age, has offered some direction, but has given me tremendous autonomy on a major story, the most complex in many years.

Like all writers, I will be nervous until it goes live, hopefully in the next few months.

That final moment of submission — yes, double meaning — is always scary!

 

Home again

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Much catching up to do!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I hadn’t been gone that long — 23 days — since my six-week vacation in Europe in the summer of 2017, a big splurge worth every penny.

This trip to Canada involved stops in six cities and towns, and eight places I laid my head at night. Jose and I drove up to Ontario from Tarrytown and worked together on a story for the first time, he taking photos and I doing many interviews.

We were lucky and grateful to stay with friends in four of these, saving money on food and lodging and enjoying renewing our friendships. I only get back to Toronto maybe once a year.

Jose drove home and back to work, then I had a solo week in Toronto, meeting with some very high level sources, so was a bit nervous but it went well. The final four days were time to relax and enjoy the city: St. Lawrence Market, a great Italian restaurant called Terroni and three new younger women friends I met at Fireside.

On top of that, I was dealing with a topical treatment for a skin cancer on my right shin, gout (!) and joint pain from the medication I have to take to reduce the risk of another breast cancer. And 80-degree heat.

But I soldiered on.

 

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A view of Niagara Falls as our bus headed south to the train

 

The pain in my leg was excruciating — so this week, at home I finally saw the doctor to find my leg was infected, hence terrible pain. Now on antibiotics.

Home, grateful for silence and my daily and weekly routines.

I’ve lived in this one-bedroom apartment half my life now, but I am always glad to return to it.

 

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Somewhere in upstate New York — it’s a 13-hour journey from Toronto, with two of them spent at the U.S. border — but some of it is gorgeous!

 

Home nurtures me for the next adventure!

The art of interviewing: 11 tips

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been interviewing people for a living — journalistically — for decades.

These include the former female bodyguard for New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on 9/11 (global exclusive), a female Admiral, Olympic athletes, an NHL coach, convicted felons and just regular people, aka “civilians”, people who may never before have spoken to a journalist and realized that every word counts.

My 11 tips:

Always start and end with a sincere thank-you for their time and attention.

 

Very few people have to speak to us, and for some, it can feel like an ordeal. The more warm, empathetic and human you are, the better it will go. Yes, some interviews are very tough on the subject, even adversarial. That’s also our job. But being an efficient robot is rarely the best way to elicit great stuff.

 

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

 

Nothing is ruder than waltzing into someone’s home, office, or life without knowing who they are, why you are speaking to them and how they fit into your story. Do your homework! It shows respect and will, always, elicit a deeper, richer exchange as a result.

 

Consume everything you can on this person before you speak so you’re easily able to reference their books, videos, TED talks, podcasts, essays, journal articles.

 

Obviously, if you’re writing 300 or 500 words, you can’t afford to do this. But a story of 1,000 words or more means digging deeper. Few moments are as flattering to an interview subject than letting them realize you’ve really done your prep on them and their ideas and accomplishments. Sometimes I go all the way back to college or high school yearbooks and friends from those years.

It only appears social.

 

A great interview can be conversational or feel like it. There are times I just lay down my pen and stop writing,  preferring just to listen, watch their body language and take a breather. I also, when it feels legitimate, may share a personal detail with them that’s relevant to the story and its focus. This can build trust. Why would anyone just spill it all to a stranger?

 

Allow at least 30 minutes unless you truly only need a very quick quote.

 

My interviews are routinely 30-45 minutes, often an hour, sometimes 90 minutes and (whew!) rarely, two hours. After that I am utterly whipped and so are they.

 

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One of my old notebooks — coffee stains and all!

Tape or take notes on paper or computer — whatever works best for you — as long as you are accurate!

 

Do what works for you. Fact-check!

 

Make sure, whenever possible, no one — pets, children, the mailman, an assistant, your cellphone — intrudes and interrupts.

 

This is a sacred space. Don’t check your phone! Create intimacy and trust. Focus.

 

Allow plenty of time beforehand, certainly when doing this face to face, to find the right place, settle in, use the washroom and steady your nerves.

 

We all have those “ohhhhhh shit!” moments — your kid melts down as you’re leaving the house, you feel ill, the bus/train/subway is slow or late or cancelled. Give yourself plenty of time to get calm. Your subject needs to feel confidence in you.

 

Ask them who else they consider essential for you (and your audience) to understand and explain the story properly.

 

If you’re done your job well, they’ll share some great intel they might not give someone less skilled.

 

 

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What’s the story’s direction?

If this feels comfortable, consider sharing the focus, length and direction of your story, and maybe some of the other sources you’re speaking to.

 

Some journalists totally refuse to do it. I do this, judiciously, for strategic reasons.

 

Ask them, at the end, what you failed to ask.

 

Always.

I also coach other writers to excellence for an hourly fee. Details here!