Spring 2002

Interviewing Sources

‘The center of the onion is what you want.’

By Isabel Wilkerson

Peeling the Onion

Seven Steps of Interviewing

  • Introduction
  • Adjustment, or feeling-each-other-out phase
  • Moment of connection
  • Settling-in phase
  • Revelation
  • Deceleration
  • Reinvigoration


We can’t really write these beautiful stories, these narratives that we all dream of, unless we can get something out of the mouths of the sources and get the elements that we need to write these stories. And you can’t get those elements—the color, the detail, the anecdotes—unless you can get them to feel comfortable enough to tell you anything.

So, because of that, I only really interview in the strict sense of the word when I have to. I try to do everything else that I can to make sources feel comfortable enough to talk with me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t ask questions. It means I ask lots of questions. But what I mainly try to do is to be a great audience. I egg them on; I nod; I look straight into their eyes; I laugh at their jokes, whether I think they’re funny or not; I get serious when they’re serious. I kind of echo whatever emotion they seem to be sending to me. I do whatever it takes to get them talking.

I call these more guided conversations than interviews. And it helps me to kind of relax as I go into the interview situation, because I realize that not everything is really on the line when it comes to the question. What’s much more important is that there is an interaction that gets me what I want. The formal interview is not really conducive to someone bearing their soul to you, and that’s what we want them to do.

I want to deconstruct what a lot of us talk about, which is the onion theory. It’s a cliché, yes, but we refer to it all the time, peeling away the layers of the onion. And I want you to picture the onion.

The outer layer of the onion is orange, it’s dry, it’s brittle. And when you peel an onion, you tear off the outer layer of the onion and you throw it away because it has no use to you. You don’t even think about using it because that’s not going to be what you want in whatever you’re making. The next layer is shiny and rubbery and limp, sometimes a tinge of green. And you won’t use it either unless it’s really the only onion you have, and you have no choice but to use it. And believe me, this is relevant to the interview.

The center of the onion is what you want. It’s crisp and it’s pungent, and it has the sharpest, truest flavor for whatever you’re making. It’s the very best part of the onion. And it also requires very little slicing. This is very important, and I hope you remember this part because it comes out later when you really apply it to the interview. It requires little slicing because it’s already small, and it’s compact, and it’s highly concentrated. And it’s so perfect that you can just—the quality is perfect, the size is perfect. You can just toss it right into whatever you’re making.

The same goes for the interview process and the quotes and anecdotes that you’re trying to get. The first thing out of a source’s mouth is often of little use. Amazingly, sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s not. It’s usually quick. It’s snappy. It’s something that the person will often tell you to make you go away. And it’s the bone that they toss at you that they think will suddenly give you what you want. And often it’s really not. It’s that outer layer that’s brittle and brown on the onion.

What we want to do, whenever we sit down with a person, is to get to the center of the onion as fast as we can. And that’s why I call it accelerated intimacy. Basically, this is the reporter’s attempt, our attempt, to achieve in a few minutes the trust that could otherwise take years to build, so that the source will tell you virtually anything.

The very beginning of this whole process is basically the introduction.

The second phase is what I call the adjustment or the feeling-each-other-out phase. You’re getting words into your notebook, and it feels like you’re making progress because you’re getting answers from them. The source is just getting used to you taking notes.

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The next phase is what I call the moment of connection. And this is where you may detect that you are not getting exactly what you want. And you begin to think about ways to break the ice that might sort of call up something that’s universal, whether it’s the weather or the traffic. We all have some way of sort of making a connection with this person that we hope will accelerate the process of getting to know them.

The fourth phase is what I call the settling-in phase. This is where, because the person has not shooed you away completely, you begin to gain a little confidence that this person is stuck with you.

The fifth phase or stage is revelation. That’s when the source is feeling really comfortable, comfortable enough to reveal something very candid or deep. And this is often the problem for us. The source often can’t even believe they’re saying this to you, which is a very good sign for us, but not in the way that you might expect. Because often whatever they say may be of importance to them but has no meaning for us at all. It has nothing to do with what we’re writing about. But the reason why it’s so important is because it suggests that it’s a turning point in their sense of trust in us, and it’s a sign that we may be able to now get what we really want.

The sixth stage is deceleration, where things begin to wind down. So you begin to decelerate. You try to bring closure. You put your notebook away as a sign that the interview is over. And then what happens? The source doesn’t want it to end because, you know, you have a contract. The contract is—You’re a reporter, you listen to me. I talk as long as I want to and you take notes.

I call the last phase of all of this reinvigoration. And that’s where the source feels free to say almost anything, and they make a revelation or comment that could be the very best quote of the interview. Suddenly, the notebook is closed and they feel so comfortable because now it’s not real anymore.

The reason why I want to emphasize this last stage of reinvigoration, where you have that source basically in the palm of your hand, [is that] you don’t want to lose that magic, that moment. Because they don’t even realize how close they’ve grown to you in this very short period of time. And for the sake of the story that you may be working on, you really want to make the most of that moment, because when you get back to the newsroom and you realize, oh, I should have asked them this, or why didn’t I mention that, and you get them on the phone, it’s not going to be the same. But that putting away the notebook phase where they are there and they trust you, that is a moment that you want to make sure you get whatever questions you can in because that’s when you get that center of the onion that will make life so much easier when you get back to the newsroom and start writing.

[If the source then says something you might want to publish], what you want to do is you want to bring the notebook back so that they see that—that’s a signal that, remember, I’m still a reporter. I’m still doing my job. But in all of the many interviews that I’ve done, my general sense is I don’t believe they think that this is not going to make it in per se. They’re often not saying anything different than they’ve been saying all along. It just means that the pressure is off. The tape recorder is away. The camera is no longer on them, and they feel more comfortable. And then they can say it in a way—finally, they get it right.


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