Finding Nemo—and other interview subjects

Have you ever read those “how they met” articles, the ones about engaged or married couples and how they came to be? The Washington Post and its Express spinoff started two such series several years ago, seemingly modeled after the popular Vows column in the New York Times. I love reading these. They’re a glimpse into other people’s lives via such esoteric details and bits of luck, real and created, and full of both surprises and “aha” moments.

Finding people to interview can be a bit like those stories or like movies such as Sliding Doors (I haven’t seen it, but it seems emblematic of a range of rom-coms in which people almost didn’t meet). Often, of course, one tracks down the right person through research or is simply assigned to go talk to so-and-so. But then there’s that element of chance. Just for fun, how have I discovered good interview subjects? Let me count some ways:

• Sitting next to her at Thanksgiving dinner. Just last weekend, I struck up a conversation with my tablemate, who turned out to have an interesting job. Naturally, I thought of a series on people who have interesting jobs and asked whether I could pitch her story. Bet the editor likes it—this woman works for a popular, upscale establishment in a cool, unusual capacity.

• On a date. A few years ago, I had brunch with a fellow who was training in Spanish with the Department of State. The date didn’t go anywhere; I liked him, but he was soon to be shipped to Guadalajara. Several months later, though, came an assignment for which he would be a perfect source. He’d mentioned his last name. That and “Guadalajara” weren’t much to go on, but I managed to track him down through State’s training facility, and the story was a success.

• Through a lead that didn’t pan out. This one’s pretty common. As one example, I was researching medical mysteries for Washingtonian and source-hopped to someone at the Wilmer Eye Institute, who told me an amazing story about a boy born blind who connected with the one doctor who would take a chance on an experimental surgery. Nope, my editor said; out of our territory. “Darn,” I thought, and then, “Oh, good! Now I can pitch it to Baltimore!” Where it became a feature to be proud of.

• Getting lost. Or just wandering around. Dennis and I were poking across an obscure Greek island, off the tourist path, when we passed by an open first-floor window and saw a woman tossing a shuttle through a wooden loom. Inside, she showed us her handiwork—and I reached for a pen. Dennis got out his camera. The result: an international travel story in the Washington Post.

• Saving string. Ever keep something around because “this will be useful someday”? I tell my students the story of reading a profile of Heloise, the hint-meister, many years ago and finding a half-sentence in the middle identifying her as a vegetarian. In Texas—that was interesting. Not knowing what would come of it, I kept the article. Two years later, my subconscious set to work on it and … aha! Off went a query to Vegetarian Times, which led to a fun Q&A with Heloise on the back page about how she survives in carnivorous cowboy-land and how everyone thinks she’s her mother. It’s one of my favorite clips.

• (Re)discovering someone. I met “Chuck” back in the ’90s through work. Later I met his wife, Georgiana, and over the years we built a friendship. Later still, I learned she was a wedding officiant—who by the late 2000s had performed more than 2,500 weddings! “The woman who’s performed 2,500 weddings” seemed an irresistible tagline, and soon an editor found her as delightful as I did. I should take my own advice and pitch her story again elsewhere.

• Through failure. If at first you don’t succeed … but too many writers stop there. A quote from the director of a crisis hotline had stuck in my head for years after my boss at Washingtonian turned down a pitch: In the small, dark hours, it’s “so quiet that the ring of the phone is shattering,” she’d told me. “Suddenly there are only two people on the planet, just you and the caller. There’s an intimacy level with the client that doesn’t exist in daylight. You can hear the person sucking on a cigarette.” (Isn’t that an awesome image?)

More than a decade later, having an plum assignment elsewhere, I spent a year researching and writing it only to get slammed: “This is not the kind of story ______ would ever publish,” my new editor said. Ouch! So, round three: I sent the completed piece to Washington City Paper. It ran on the cover—at one-third the size and for less than one-third the pay, but it ran. I got my cover story, the organization and the director who’d so inspired me got their press, and the public got educated about a vital human health issue. Ultimately, that’s worth it.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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