Controlled Chaos: Tips for Conducting Interviews

If you’re a blogger, a freelance writer, a journalist, or even a student with Ooligan Press, your chances of needing to interview someone at some point in time are pretty high compared to the general populace. Some people have the foresight to prepare by majoring in journalism or doing an internship. The rest of us pretty much make it up as we go. For the untrained legions, here are some tips to help your interviewing experience go smoothly.
Practice with people you know. The first real-time interview I conducted was with my brother. It’s nice to interview someone you know well, most notably because you won’t be nervous. It’s very low-risk, so you can focus on the conversation instead of the butterflies in your stomach. If you’re planning to interview someone you don’t know, I highly recommend conducting an interview with a good friend or family member first. Be sure to treat it like a real interview for maximum effectiveness.
Prepare like crazy. This is the time to unleash your inner perfectionist. The first thing you should do is research your interviewee and their profession. This will allow you to choose an angle from which to approach the interview, which I recommend doing. Make sure it’s interesting, then fashion your questions according to that angle. I interviewed my brother about how he prepared for auditions, and I talked with singer-songwriter Ginny Owens about the intersection of art and faith in her work. Unless you exult in winging it, I also recommend actually writing out your questions ahead of time.
Record real-time interviews. I have outstanding typing-while-listening skills, and I successfully typed during my over-the-phone interview with my brother instead of recording it. Since it worked so well, I used the same technique later when I interviewed Ginny Owens, whom I’d never met before. As it turns out, she talks a lot faster than my brother. I had trouble keeping up, which distracted me from the actual conversation. Next time, I’ll record the interview so I don’t miss anything. (As a side note, don’t forget to let your interviewee know that you’ll be recording them, and make sure they’re okay with it.)
Be flexible. Since you prepared like crazy, you’re free to be flexible during the interview itself. You’ll still be asking questions, and your interviewee will still be giving answers, but insofar as you’re able, treat the interview like a conversation. Keep your eye on the clock so you don’t abuse their generosity, but be willing to go off script; anything can happen, and actively listening and responding will allow you to ask follow-up questions if your interviewee says something you weren’t anticipating.
Give yourself plenty of lead time. Conducting an interview sounds simple enough: you think up some questions, you ask the questions, and you type up the responses. But there’s more to it than that. Interviews might get rescheduled. They might require some follow-up later. Transcribing the recording will almost certainly take much longer than you think, and when you’re done with that, you still have to put it in some kind of order or incorporate it into an article. That can take a while too. So unless you enjoy being stressed out, give yourself plenty of time between the interview and your due date.
I hope you find these tips useful when you schedule your next interview. I learned most of these the hard way. You’re welcome.

An Interview with Lynn Darroch

Ooligan Press recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lynn Darroch, the author of our upcoming jazz history release, Mastersounds. Darroch, an accomplished musician and writer, is well known for his stories, and his answers to our questions didn’t disappoint!

When did you first become interested in music, and in jazz in particular?

My mother sang songs from her youth around the house, and my father loved music—his trumpet, though never played after the War, sat like a sacred totem, golden in its case lined with purple velvet; together, we watched Ralph Gleason’s jazz show weekly on public TV and went to see Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Sometimes my dad would sing a solo in church. I wanted to be like him.

I started playing clarinet in school band at age ten, and kept at it through four years in the orchestra in college. [I] also played alto and tenor sax in school jazz band and in a rock-and-roll band called The Rivieras. We wore blue blazers, crew cuts, and tight pants. I had an excellent teacher in Corvallis named Harvey Brooks. I remember him taking my horn to demonstrate a jazz lick or a figure in a Mozart concerto; after he handed it back for me to try, the taste of bourbon and cigarettes lingered on my mouthpiece.

And then I traded music for writing. Fortunately, circumstances conspired to offer an opportunity to write about jazz and related subjects for newspapers, books and magazines. For a while that was enough . . . until the urge to be on the bandstand got so strong that I started turning the stories into tales arranged with live musical accompaniment. Jazz showed me how to navigate such changes, how to be agile, improvise with what you’re given, and how to raise your voice in harmony in an ensemble.

Do you have favorite jazz composers or musicians?

I’ve enjoyed and admired the work of many jazz players and composers, from Duke Ellington to Esperanza Spalding. There’s all kinds of beauty, though—I’m also listening to tango, various African music, Latin American pop and folkloric styles, soul, and flamenco. Jazz excels at absorbing other traditions: it’s inclusive, a mirror of America (or maybe, these days, the dream of America).

Both before and during World War Two, Portland had its own jazz scene called Jumptown. What can you tell us about the music that was coming out of Jumptown?

There has always been a lot of collaboration in music; wherever musicians gather, they exchange information. And gather they always do, because music is seldom an individual practice. And music knows no borders, so it always travels, as it did with the minstrels of medieval Europe and the touring bands of mid-century America.

When the number of jazz musicians reaches a critical mass—say over one hundred professionals—there’s enough to sustain a vibrant scene creatively. But professionals only gather in those numbers when there’s enough work to sustain them financially. From the 1930s through the early 1960s, the Pacific Northwest had both, with most of the “jazz” centered in black entertainment districts [such as] along Portland’s Williams Avenue, where most of the [city’s] black and Asian people lived. There were also many white-owned nightclubs, dance halls, theaters, and restaurants where some forms of jazz were played by both white and black musicians.

In those decades, here as elsewhere in the country, jazz techniques and approaches were shared primarily on the bandstand and in jam sessions where even aspiring players got a chance to learn from veterans. Whenever touring jazz bands came through the Pacific Northwest, the musicians would seek out jam sessions and play with resident artists.

Racial issues between people of color and whites were stressful before, during, and after the war years. What part did race and race relations play in the formation of jazz music in Portland and in the greater Pacific Northwest?

Racism and segregationist laws divided jazz musicians in that era, but in varied and complex ways. Across the country, white union musicians, unwilling to admit blacks who would compete for their jobs, encouraged the formation of separate unions. And so in 1913, The Negro Musicians’ Union formed in Seattle. And though the white union did agree to admit black members, most jazz musicians of African descent chose to stay with the black union.

But white and black musicians played in bands together, though often such mixed groups were allowed to perform only in “Black and Tans,” where patrons of both races were welcome. Many white musicians learned to play jazz in jam sessions led by black musicians along Williams Avenue and Jackson Street [in Seattle] in the 1940s and ’50s, including bebop saxophonist Don Lanphere, guitarist Larry Coryell, Glen Moore (cofounder of the band Oregon), and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who led The Tonight Show Band for many years.

What role(s) and opportunities were available for women of color to be both performers and patrons of jazz music? Was there a Pacific Northwest female performer or patron who pushed for equal rights?

Like Esperanza Spalding today, just being a leader, an instrumentalist, and accomplished artist is making a statement for women of color. The two top early jazz bands in Seattle were led by women—Evelyn Bundy and Edythe Turnham, both pianists. After her marriage to a fellow musician, Turnham made their home a gathering place and home away from home for black jazz musicians, who often had no public accommodations available to them. Myrtle Francois, originally from New Orleans, owned a nightclub on the corner of 12th and Yesler in Seattle, and played drums and sang in her own house band in 1949. Bassist Marianne Mayfield led a trio in Portland during the ’60s and ’70s, holding down a day job as a fifth-grade teacher. Vocalist Linda Hornbuckle, known as Portland’s Soul Diva, had a full-time job with the Multnomah County Health Dept.

Representing. Working in the community. I think that best describes the ways women of color who are jazz musicians have advocated for equal rights in the Pacific Northwest. But of course I have a lot to learn.

From the 1930s onward there have been many great jazz players in the Pacific Northwest. Some were local, and many were from New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans. How did this mix of local and out-of-town talent contribute to the creation of a local Pacific Northwest jazz sound? Can you describe what that sound is like? How has it changed through the years?

What’s developed here, distant from centers of celebrity and power, was shaped by and reflects the environment, the economy, and a music community that grew up in a kind of isolation often found out West, where artists are aware of movements elsewhere, but not always in step with them. Neither is this a place to attain fame and fortune. It’s rare for jazz artists who remain in the Pacific Northwest to establish a national reputation without first attaining it elsewhere.

Some jazz artists with reputations already established have also chosen to live here for precisely those reasons. And that’s the key: the values shared by artists who choose the Pacific Northwest, whether native-born or immigrant, have determined the character of the region’s jazz scene. That’s true whether the style is avant garde . . . gypsy swing, chamber, funk, or mainstream. Because the region some call Cascadia is a place as distinct and powerful as the Mississippi Delta or the coast of Southern California. And, the artists who live here share to a large extent a love for the landscape — and the values of others who do.

Many of us here at Ooligan Press are excited by this project and to be working directly with you. Can you tell us your thoughts on working with Ooligan Press, and what are some of your ideas and dreams for the Mastersounds project?

I want to thank the press and in particular Margaret Schimming’s team for assistance transcribing interviews, digging through thirty-five years of monthly magazines, and offering advice on organization and focus. I look forward to more as the process continues. I taught at colleges and universities for twenty-five years and believe in the kind of project-oriented process you’re using. And who wouldn’t enjoy working with colleagues who are self-directed, helpful, and have a stake in the project themselves?

On a personal level, my question from the beginning has been: How can I make this the book of my dreams? Together, I’d like to create a book that’s well-written and designed to reflect the subject matter as well as make it accessible and captivating, a book that’s lively, useful, and tells a story about the Pacific Northwest that’s not been heard before, a story that celebrates an emblematic aspect of our distinctive regional culture. Jazz is a mirror of culture, and I’m convinced that all true culture is local.

Jazz is the art of collaboration, too, so working together on this project reflects that spirit. I’m providing the tunes, but we’re performing them together, with the goal of making beautiful music that reaches as many people as possible.

For more on Lynn Darroch, visit his website, and don’t forget to follow the progress of Mastersounds on the project’s Start to Finish page!

Conversation with alumna and instructor Amanda Gomm

Amanda Gomm graduated from the book publishing program in 2011. Since then, she’s started her own ebook press, Digital Bindery, and started helping Ooligan students learn digital languages and the process of converting print books to ebooks as an instructor in the program. This spring Amanda was kind enough to share some of her insights into the world of ebooks and ereaders and talk about how her time in Ooligan Press has influenced her career.

How did you first become involved in e-books?

I got involved with the Digital Content department before I had started the program. It was a lot of fun and combined a bunch of things I knew how to do into a nice package of nerdy bookness. Tom McCluskey (another Ooligan grad) and I were always discussing the tragic state of ebooks during class, and one day we decided that we should do something about it. We started Digital Bindery right before I graduated from the program.

How did your time in Ooligan help prepare you for your current work?

My experience at Ooligan Press helped prepare me for the broad requirements of digital publishing. It taught me the vocabulary I needed to communicate effectively with publishers who are still unsure about this newfangled ebook thing. Digital publishing also requires an understanding of editing, design, production, marketing, and management strategies. Being able to work with all of the departments at Ooligan gave me the foundation I needed to translate all of that to the digital platform.

What was your favorite class or project that you worked on in Ooligan?

My favorite class was Intro to Publishing. I took it during the summer with Dennis Stovall. I wasn’t in the program yet so this was my first real glimpse into what publishing was all about. The class was inspiring and convinced me that this was the direction I wanted to go. I still wear the shirt we made for our fictitious publishing house—The Beat Press.

One question many people ask, and have been asking for a while now, is whether or not ebooks will replace printed texts or simply exist as supplemental components to their printed counterparts. What are your thoughts on the question?

I think we’ll eventually get to the point that printed books are the supplemental counterpart to the digital book. A quick survey of what’s happening in educational, academic, and technical publishing illustrates that print books are no longer enough. Technology, current events, discoveries, and rapid changes in the way we communicate make the printed book at high risk for obsolescence before it gets into the hands of readers. Print books will always have a place where readers read for pleasure or [where] the book is art in itself, but that’s only a fraction of why people read. When it comes to reading for information, where do you go first? A book or the internet? The internet is quick, easy, and current. If an ebook can be that in addition to being a credible, curated resource, it will trump a printed book (and Wikipedia) every time.

Michael Shatzkin, author of the Shatzkin Files blog, argues that the limited discoverability associated with ereaders is one of the primary reasons bestsellers remain ebook bestsellers. Do you have any thoughts on how discoverability might evolve or what the next step could be to help optimize the variety of choices for consumers and provide the diversity this technology seemed to initially promise?

Discoverability has always been an issue for books. In the current landscape, the only reason ebooks would be any more discoverable than a print book is because they’re easier to distribute. Ebook retailers tend to function in very traditional ways, leaning on the old brick-and-mortar model of bookselling. Ebook retailers with their own ereading platform have been experimenting with in-book social experiences for years but these have been pretty clunky, underused, and distracting. So far all of the best discoverability tools made possible by changing technologies are also available for print books. Therefore, best sellers are best sellers regardless of format.

Ebooks have provided massive diversity in the book market already. We are flooded with new titles to read; the problem now is sifting through the noise. Recommendation algorithms and social recommendation sites are where we will see discoverability focus for the next few years. This fits with how our media consumption habits are changing. We are happy to take recommendations as long as they are tailored to our specific wants and needs.

What are some of the main misconceptions people have about ebooks that you encounter in your work at Digital Bindery?

I work with publishers, so we avoid a lot of the misconceptions readers have about ebooks (like that ebooks are free to make). When I work with a publisher for the first time, there’s always an educational process where we explain the differences in designing for digital, limitations of the reflowable format, and different retailer requirements. Occasionally we run into a publisher that has to be convinced to thoroughly proof the ebooks, but as ebooks have become more legitimized as “real” books this has happened less and less frequently.

What, in your opinion, are the best ereaders and why? Or is it really a matter of individual preferences?

The best ereader is mostly a matter of personal preference. eInk versus LCD displays, the weight and size of the device, amount you’re willing to spend, where you choose to purchase your ebooks, whether you want a dedicated or multifunctional device—these things have no right or wrong answers. As far as fidelity to the digital design, there are some that are better than others, but they’re all developing very rapidly. Kobo ereaders are the most interesting to me at the moment. They come in the largest variety of sizes and displays and they support independent bookstores.

As a consumer, if I have a choice of where to purchase an ebook, I will always look for a retailer that offers the book DRM free. I don’t intend to violate copyright, but I will read it on my computer, my phone, my tablet, and my eInk device and I don’t want to have to commit to one reading app or brand of ereader. An ebook that has DRM will be associated with the account I used to download it and I cannot transfer the file around and read it when and where I want to.

An interview with Sean Davis

Sean Davis is a busy guy—he’s a writer, an artist, a playwright, a mentor, and a teacher whose positive influence is all over the Portland community. Still, in preparation for the publication of his Iraq war memoir The Wax Bullet War, Sean managed to find time in his truly packed schedule to answer a few questions about himself, his book, and what’s next.

When did you begin creating art?

Early, four maybe? The best memories I have from childhood were of my mother painting. My brothers and I always had crayons, colored pencils, watercolors. But we did all sorts of things. I remember when I was ten we made everyone in the trailer park come out to see this huge production. It was our version of Star Wars and it lasted about ten minutes before we all ran into the woods leaving all the crazies of the trailer park scratching their heads. Later we ended up with one of those old cassette recorders, the type where you push down the red circle and white triangle button to record. We’d do whole radio shows. If you pushed the buttons down halfway you could distort your voice. We created hours and hours of stories. I wish I still had those tapes.

How long did it take you to write The Wax Bullet War? Can you tell me about your writing process?

Years. It’s a war book, and it was very difficult. The first story I wrote [for it] was “The Kid,” [which became the chapter of the same name], and I wrote it in third person and it was still too close. I didn’t set out to write the book, but I knew I wanted to be a writer and nothing else came out. I was in grad school and every story kept being about all these traumatic experiences I had in the military and then coming back and trying to find some footing. I remember late nights at my desk writing it by hand into my notebook and laughing and crying. After I had a half dozen stories, a good friend of mine told me to find a beginning and it just made sense to go back to re-enlisting the day after 9/11. Of course the first few drafts of the book had everyone’s real names and more characters. I had to make it a bit more reader friendly.

What was the most challenging part of writing The Wax Bullet War?

Allowing myself to write my story. Being in combat is a sacred thing, and there were hundreds of people in my unit experiencing the same war through a different point of view. I let someone I respected who was one of my bosses in Iraq read a few chapters thinking he’d enjoy it, but he surprised the hell out of me when he didn’t like it. He said I was doing myself a disservice. He said he remembered me always being steady and unafraid and the book made me come off as this guy who had moments of uncertainty and fear. From his perspective I accomplished all the tasks given me without hesitation or trepidation, but in reality I was scared most the time. Dealing with his criticism was difficult, but I wanted to show the real story. The Wax Bullet War could never be an action war movie with a dashing and fearless protagonist. This is a story about a regular guy trying to make sense of the chaos of war, the hypocrisy of the bureaucratic system, and the near impossibility of becoming a civilian again.

How do you feel your experiences in Iraq shaped you as an artist and a writer?

Iraq was only a few months of my life, honestly. I don’t know. I spent most of my adult life training to kill people and blow shit up, so I guess the question is, “How did that shape my creativity?” I grew up in a small town, and because of that I had small views on many topics. Traveling around the globe, seeing how people live in [developing nations], and living in Europe for a couple of years helped broaden my horizons. I spent some time in Haiti in 1995, which showed me not all people value life like we do in the United States. I’ve always had jobs with dead people as an occupational hazard. I’ve worked in emergency rooms, traffic reconstruction, security. Working so close to mortality takes a toll on everyone, I think. In Iraq people shot at us daily, mostly mortars. That was new. I don’t know. I guess after that I don’t have problems with trivial things like talking in front of audiences, or job interviews, or whatever. I always figure, how hard can it be? It’s not like they’re going to shoot at you. I’m not afraid to do what I want to do with my life instead of getting stuck in a job I hate. There is one thing, after living through something you weren’t supposed to live through: you really appreciate life. I don’t waste a lot of time watching television, waiting in line, or following rules I think are dumb.

Your book details the way you used creating art as a way to work through trauma. If you could give one piece of advice to other sufferers of PTSD hoping to do the same thing, what would it be?

Oh man, you know, I hate the term “PTSD.” It’s used as a catch-all nowadays. There is so much bundled up in that one little acronym. I can only speak on my issues, but the reason I want this book to be a success is because I want to help other who are going through a hard time transitioning back. I believe there are three main problems. One, combat veterans come home and find themselves without a mission. When you’re at war, your main reason for being is to accomplish the mission. When you get back and there’s no mission, some believe they have no reason to be. Two, we are asked to do things, no, told to do things, that society would usually lock people up for, by that same society. If someone told you this morning that you’d be alone in a room with someone who’s killed people you’d feel a bit apprehensive probably, right? Our society condemns violence, punishes violent offenders, until they need someone to do violence on their behalf. So when these rough men get back from doing their violence, they no longer fit in. Three, many people can’t get over the horrific shit they had to live through. The feeling of never being safe that comes from people actively trying to kill you, from seeing the dead and dying, from the horrors of war. Art gave me a mission again and calms me. When people appreciate a painting I created or a story I wrote, I feel like I am a part of society again. The trauma will always be there, but that’s something we all have to live with. I don’t have general advice for all the others going through difficulty, but I would tell them they’re not alone and it’s hard but not impossible to come back from it.

What are you working on right now?

I started a nonprofit with a friend of mine and fellow combat veteran called A Rock or Something Productions a few years back. Our mission is to help veterans transition back into society by getting them into the arts. Through this I’m editing our second anthology of poetry and prose by veterans and their family members. I’m also the veterans’ service coordinator for an opera called The Canticle of The Black Madonna, which is about a combat veteran who came back from Afghanistan having difficulties. I’m getting veterans involved in the project. It’ll be at the Newmark Theatre next September. I write essays for a couple magazines and one of them connected me with a European film crew who wants to interview veterans for their upcoming film Human—The Movie. They’re interviewing people in sixty different countries and they’re stopping in Portland at the end of the month. This summer I’m producing a series of one-act stage plays written, directed, produced, and acted in by veterans and their family members. This project is called In Theatre and will be performed over three months at MetroEast Community Media. I wrote a play and will direct it there. I paint at least a few days a week. My art hangs at Six Days Gallery in the middle of the Alberta Arts District. I work at the gallery a few days a month. And finally, I’m always looking for a class to teach. The life of an adjunct is hard.

Do you plan on writing another book?

Ha, yeah, I mean of course. I’ve been working on a novel on my free time. It’s about halfway done, as far as the first draft goes, but I think my next book just kind of snuck up on me. I’ve been writing short nonfiction stories, and I send them out to lit mags. Suddenly, I realized I had almost fifty thousand words. I plan on writing a few more and then sending that out to see who wants to pick it up. The stories range from when I was pulled out of school by my alcoholic and less-than-responsible dad at noon to go pan for gold in the woods for the rest of our lives (that lasted three months) to when I moonlighted as a male stripper for middle-aged women in Germany to when I was paid by rich people to waterboard them so they thought they were better prepared to travel overseas. I’m fairly certain that I can’t stop writing.