Interviewing someone without looking them in the eye

January 9, 2015 • Posted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, radio, Uncategorized, writing by


Turns out I’m in good company when it comes to interviewing people without seeing what they look like. Laura Hillenbrand (award-winning author of Sea Biscuit and Unbroken) and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross were both quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently saying they actually prefer interviewing people that way.

The article explains that Hillenbrand has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. She has been mostly confined indoors ever since, and she doesn’t get out to do face-to-face interviews with the people she writes about. The New York Times Sunday Magazine article says most reporters would regard this as a terrible handicap, . “One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation.” More from the article:

Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote.

Terry Gross told the reporter that she began doing this out of necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Now she believes there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she told the reporter. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.”

Hillenbrand never met Louie Zamperini face-to-face but she interviewed him for hundreds of hours over the phone while writing Unbroken, her story about his life. She said that doing the interviews without looking at Zamperini allowed her to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”

I know what she means. Hearing the life stories of the memoir-writers in my classes every week without looking at them as they read? It has taught me something. Maybe, just maybe, we put too much stock in appearances.

Cheryl On January 9, 2015 at 8:10 am

I think maybe, just maybe you’re right.

bethfinke On January 9, 2015 at 9:15 am



Janet On January 9, 2015 at 9:15 am

I agree! This is true too when working in communities and with people who are not like you, whether it’s race, economic status or whatever that is different. People can get hung up on appearances and judge others based on sight not word. Thanks.

bethfinke On January 9, 2015 at 9:46 am

Hadn’t thought of that, Janet, but of course that would be the case. Thanks for pointing it out.


Shelley On January 9, 2015 at 9:42 am

Most interesting! Facetime and Skype are even worse than face-to-face, in terms of distraction. Even cell connections could be a problem. Back to the landline argument!

bethfinke On January 9, 2015 at 9:50 am

Oh, yes. That thing about cell phones where you can’t talk over each other and have to pause after every line? It makes conversations stilted. I thought we’d get rid of our land line after Flo died, but we’ve kept it so far. Whether interviewing or not, it just makes phone conversations so much more pleasant.


Penny Matzelle On January 9, 2015 at 10:05 am

Great article, Beth. Thought-provoking and interesting, as always (said the woman who often must write articles about events and happenings sight-unseen). Thanks for your ever in-“sight”-ful view of things.

bethfinke On January 9, 2015 at 10:09 am

In-“sight”-ful. Sure can tell you’re a writer, Penny –thanks!


Doug On January 9, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Interesting perspective

bethfinke On January 9, 2015 at 1:06 pm

Thanks — maybe I should have added that even though I can’t see a person,I prefer being with them face-to-face to interview them. I often need to be walked outside after the interview, and more than once I received the best quote of the interview as the person was escorting me outside.


Nancy B On January 10, 2015 at 11:21 pm

I didn’t know that about Terry Gross. Funny, it ‘sounds’ like they are together. I guess just an assumption on my part or good editing.

bethfinke On January 11, 2015 at 9:31 am

I think the key is that the person being interviewed is not on a cell phone

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