The art of interviewing — let’em do the talkingWritten by George Ellison
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When I started writing features for a newspaper in the late 1980s, I didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was doing. I was working as a “stringer” for a regional insert called “Smoky Mountain Neighbors,” which was published in the westernmost counties of the state by the Asheville Citizen-Times. Especially difficult, for me, was interviewing. People wanted to tell me their life stories. I didn’t want to hear them. But for about 10 years I did as many as four interviews a week.
“Just the facts, lady, just the facts,” was my mantra.
My editor, Jim Crawford, was terrific when it came to working with newcomers to the profession. Some of the more crusty veterans would have had a field day with me once they found out: (1) I had a semi-academic background; (2) most of my publishing experience to that point in time had been semi-academic in style and content; and (3) I didn’t know how to use a camera, even though I had claimed to be “pretty good” in order to obtain my initial assignment. This was back in the day when most journalists, especially stringers, took their own photos. So I borrowed a camera and went to work. None of this bothered Jim; so long as I produced copy “on time” ... that is, about three minutes before deadline.
One day, after I had been submitting copy to him for almost two years, I ventured something like: “You’ve been reading my stuff for a long time now and never have said if you liked it or not.”
He peered over the rims of his glasses, rolled his eyes, and sighed, but didn’t say anything.
“Well, do you?” I persisted.
Without looking up again from proofing the copy I had just submitted, he said something like, “You’ll be the first to know when I don’t.”
When asked for advice about interviewing, he tentatively offered several suggestions based on 30 years or so experience: “Look up from time to time and make eye contact even if you’re taking notes. Be in control of the beginning, middle, and end. But your main job is to listen. We’re not interested in your story. The most significant thing you learn probably won’t be what you anticipated. People will say the damndest things.” Or something like that. Those were the most words I ever heard Jim say at one sitting. He was a fine person.
I never became a very good interviewer and currently avoid doing them like the plague. But I did learn to listen a little better, especially if I liked someone or the subject matter or where we were. To a great extent, I was always more interested in how things were said than in what was said. I’ve rummaged around in my files and found my favorite interview … one of the few I wouldn’t mind doing all over again.
I have always envied firetower wardens. To a man (and woman) they have always presented themselves as down-to-earth sorts who do not romanticize their work in the least bit. I suspect, however, that more than one is, in reality, a closet romantic. When I heard about Pearly Kirkland, I called and asked if I could interview him at his home in the Skeenah community south of Franklin. How Pearly, a Swain County native, who was 88 when I visited him, came to live down in Skeenah is interwoven with his experiences as a longtime firetower dispatcher at three high-elevation sites in Western North Carolina. On that bright autumn day, the memories slowly flooded his mind, Pearly relaxed on his front porch, talking and laughing about the old days “up on the mountain at the top of the world”:
I was born on Chambers Creek in what now is the park. My father, Albert, was from Bear Creek and my mother, Dolly, was from Bone Valley on Hazel Creek, both places being in the Smokies. I went to he Chambers Creek School, which was a church house, but I was mainly interested in the outdoors in hunting and fishing and walking around. Jack, one of my brothers, became ranger at Forney Creek and that’s how I got into the firetower business. I’d been a logger at $1.50 a day … 75 cents of which went for board, so I agreed to go up and be lookout from the tower at High Rocks on Welch Ridge between Hazel and Forney creeks.
You can see all the south end of the North Carolina side of the Smokies from there and into the Nantahalas. I walked up to the tower from Chambers Creek and lived in the thing. What did I eat? Why I just ate rough rations – whatever was easy to fix because I had to carry the food up with me on my back on a pretty steep trail. I’d stay there the fire season until it got wet enough to come down. That’s where I picked up the habit of talking to myself. No one else up there except the bears, or I just got to talking to myself about this and that. I still talk with myself about the same things. Never have broke that habit. You get pretty much lonely in a tower during a long dry spell of nobody to talk to. …
I was at High Rocks for about three and a half years or so, beginning in the early 1940s, as I remember. The last time I was up at the tower was when they were flooding Lake Fontana. When I came down from the tower the lake was flooded and everybody had left Chambers Creek, which was along the north shore. My wife and family had up and moved and I didn’t even know where I lived! It took me awhile to find out they were down here in Keenah, which is where we’ve been ever since. My wife, Hattie, was a Woody from Forney Creek. She died three years ago. We raised seven children.
Then I was several years at Albert Mountain here in Macon County between Bearpen Gap and the head of Hurricane Creek. That was where I got my biggest scare. A storm came up that was awful. Lightning was everywhere and constant. It was kindly eerie. O my gosh, I’m not exaggerating, the bolts would strike the tower and balls of fire just flowed down the wires that grounded the tower. They lit up everything like pure daylight.
From Albert Mountain the forest service moved me as dispatcher over to the tower at Cowee Bald, which is located in Macon County near where it corners with Jackson and Swain in the Big Laurel country. I was ten years at Cowee, which I liked best because it was easiest to get to. Did I like it up there in those towers? Why no, I didn’t. It was lonely with no family and nobody to talk with.
To me it was just a job. It was hard times and firetower work was a way to make some money and support your family. That’s all. No sir, I don’t recollect anything romantic about it whatsoever.