Tom French Interview

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Adding narrative writing techniques will increase reader interest, as well as strengthen journalistic writing. Tom French, a master of the narrative writing form who is on the Indiana University School of Journalism faculty, shares his observations in a video interview with Indiana University graduate student Tara Bender. Read more about narrative writing in an article Bender wrote for the Fall 2011 issue of Quill & Scroll magazine and in an online exclusive Q & A Bender conducted with French.

TB: What is the best place for students who have never worked with narrative journalism techniques to start?

TF: You have to start with the original conception of what you’re writing about. For example, high school journalists always want to write about cliques. I tell them, Yes, interview experts on cliques, but also walk into your own cafeteria and draw a map of the territories. Observe what you can observe an ideally talk to the people in those groups. I’m stunned by how often professional journalists write about children and teenagers and don’t talk to children or teenagers. I’m a big believer in moving beyond big people with big titles. That’s the case whether you’re 16 or 66. I’m not trying to get high school journalists to get away from facts. Narrative is about conveying felt experience, what it’s like to live in it. You still need those nuggets of information, but narrative is more about the lives in that nugget of information. Start with a stronger focus. For Homecoming, maybe there’s a teacher who is the adviser for the junior class, and her students win Best Float every year. Have you ever tried to make a Homecoming float? It’s hard! It needs to be a human story, not just an overview.

TB: Do you think student journalists are intimidated to move from traditional “reporting” to creative writing techniques in their stories?

TF: Actually, I think a lot of high schoolers find it easier than just interviewing because they’re hanging out with someone at their own school. All narrative is is storytelling. We as a species are hardwired for storytelling. Long before newspapers — even paper — our species was telling stories by drawing pictures of antelope on the walls. Every night our brains write in narrative form. Our minds convert pictures into stories. Storytelling is a very natural fit. Some people do struggle with it because they disregard that natural instinct and go for the inverted pyramid instead.

TB: What sort of time commitment should be involved in the observation and interview stage?

TF: I think if you can even devote 15 minutes or an hour to observe somebody with immersion reporting — if you’re profiling a teacher: watching him or her teach, if you’re writing about a coach: watching him or her coach — it’s nice when you have weeks or months, but honestly you don’t necessarily need that much time to get interesting things and to learn some things and to get some good scenes and some good insights into the person you’re writing about. And the other reality is that in most high school publications you have limited space. Actually in most publications, whether in high school or elsewhere, space is very tight. So if you have lots and lots of room, then you can write a book, and then hanging out for long periods of time can really pay off. If you have a really limited window, then you’re probably not going to have room for that much, so I actually think you can learn it’s really valuable to spend 15 minutes, half an hour, or an hour.

TB: What is your process like? Do you do all of your observation and interviews first, or do you write as you collect information?

TF: I take notes throughout, and if I can, I organize my notes as I’m going so I have some sort of sense of what I have, to see what’s the best of what I have. But I find it very hard to write until I’m finished with my primary reporting because I don’t really know yet what the story is. Sometimes I know This scene is going to be really important, like the flying Elephants. In my last book, Zoo Story, I was writing about the life of a zoo, and near the beginning of my reporting, the zoo brought in, along with the San Diego Zoo, eleven elephants, wild elephants from Africa, on a 747. Well, I knew right away that that was going to be a really good scene. It was really going to take the reader to the heart of the questions I was raising about zoos and freedom and captivity. So that one was a no-brainer, but usually it takes a lot longer to figure out Ok what exactly is the story? Which scenes are going to really help me explain and illuminate that question?

TB: What should students know about going into the narrative writing process with preconceived notions about their subjects? How can student journalists balance their own voice with telling the subject’s story?

TF: You’re always surprised. I think it’s good to have some ideas or theories, but honestly life confounds our theories, and it’s usually much more beautifully complex and messy than our theories. And good reporters are open to that. I think it helps for students and for everybody else to know what their baggage is. So, for instance, if I’m going to do some reporting in a high school, it’s useful for me to know that I have a problem with authority — which I do. I have a serious problem with authority, which helps with teenagers — not because I’m going to act like them, but because I understand them when they rebel against authority. I still feel that. That kid, that adolescent, I’m in touch with inside of me. It helps because if I’m going to write about the principal: Ok, Tom, you’ve got this issue with principals and authority figures, and you need to put it aside because the principal in whatever school you hang out in, he or she has a very hard job, and they’re giving it their best. And, you know, there are good principals, and there are lousy principals, but if I start off disliking the principal, it’s not going to go well for the story, for the reader, or for anyone. So it’s useful to know what attitudes you have that you’re not internalizing. In terms of my voice, I’m not 13 anymore, so when I write about 13-year-olds, and I try to approximate their voice, unless I’m really, really careful about it, I’m going to end up looking very foolish. But I think the voice that comes through, whether I’m writing about a 13-year-old or a 16-year-old, or actually anybody, is someone who thinks that their lives matter and that I want to take them seriously — not reverently or accepting everything.