Interview with Gail Sedorkin

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Is interviewing a skill everyone should have?

Gail: Whether we realise it or not Interviewing is a skill we use every day, even to find out what time your train is leaving, or what your friend did on the weekend. So it’s an essential skill. 

Magdalena: The book tends to be focused on the type of interviewing relevant to journalists. In what way might the techniques you suggest differ for say, freelance writers, or arts oriented interviews?

Gail: I don’t believe it does differ all that much, except perhaps in the types of questions asked, or the angles taken. All the basics – such as being prepared, listening closely, following up, using body language, being polite – remain the same.

Magdalena: What inspired you to write this book?

Gail: I was always fascinated as a journalist that there was this incredibly difficult stomach-churning part of the job that was never taught at university, or on-the-job. The idea of having to talk to someone you had never met, about something you might know little to nothing about, AND get a good story, can be very daunting, especially for young journalists. I interviewed Jana Wendt the other day for another book for Allen & Unwin and she summed it up perfectly: ” It’s like being parachuted down into unfamiliar territory and then having to put on a four-act play!”

Magdalena: Were you worried that much of what you were writing was common sense?

Gail: Definitely not. A lot of what we covered was in fact because we had spoken to young journalists and they had suggested the areas that should be covered. Areas such as ‘whether to shake someone’s hand’ etc were from student and cadet suggestions.

Magdalena: You reference Kerry O’Brien quite a lot in the book. Who are your other interviewing heroes, and why?

Andrew Urban is probably also at the top of my list particularly for the interviews he does on “Front Up” for SBS. He is exceptionally good at the Icebreaker and being able to encourage people to talk. I also think Chris Masters is exceptional, Vivian Schenker is very natural, and I like the way Jana Wendt can keep her cool even when being badgered by interviewees such as Rupert Murdoch. 

Magdalena: Are there personal qualities that make a good interviewer?

Gail: Being curious, interested and motivated and probably also respectful.

Magdalena: What is the most important technique that an interviewer can use?

Gail: I think preparation and listening are both essentials, though you won’t get anywhere without preparation.

Magdalena: What was the best interview you ever did and why was it so good?

Gail: I once did a radio interview with someone who was an Egyptologist, and it was a very natural conversation, and I was genuinely interested. There were lots of natural pauses, laughter etc, which I thought would be edited out, but it was used on a State program in its original state and I was glad that it 

Magdalena: You have a section on “Horror Broadcast Interviews”. Have you ever had an interviewing disaster/horror?

Gail: Definitely! One of my very first interviews where a rather forceful businessman decided I was taking too long to ask questions, so he started dictating to me (complete with punctuation). 

Magdalena: What would you recommend as the best method for recording a phone interview?

Gail: Do you mean if you’re not in a studio situation? A suction cap device works quite well, but I believe they now have a special microphone built into an earpiece which can be used. Of course both legally and ethically the interviewee should be informed of the recording.

Magdalena: Are you working on a new project or book at the moment? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it.

Gail: A colleague of mine, Barbara Alysen, proposed another book for Allen & Unwin which I am working on together with Mandy Oakham (both also journalism lecturers here at Deakin University). The book is called “Reporting in a Multi-media World” and is designed to cover all aspect of journalism (online, freelance, digital…) that young journalists may have to deal with. It deals with basics such as “How to find a story” but also covers areas such as photography and videojournalism. We have just submitted the manuscript and hope to have it on the shelves by February 2003.