Everyone has something interesting to say if you take the time to listen.
The Interview Chain is a series of conversations—each interviewee was asked to nominate someone they admire as the next link. Starting from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames, the chain wended its way for over 23,000 miles, alighting on three continents and gathering up personal perspectives on issues that really matter in the world today.
The interviewees include a theatre director, a rabbi, a philanthropist, a sculptor, a New York Mayoral candidate, a pioneering documentary maker, and a man who rescues giant trees. Some have worked in challenging places—Kabul in the time of the Taliban, a Romanian orphanage, immigration detention centres, remote Indian villages—while others have found themselves caught up in extraordinary situations such as the Rwandan genocide, the Ferguson uprising, and the UN Climate Change Negotiations.
As part of its worldwide book tour, Tomes and Tales interviewed Lynn Farley-Rose about her interview endeavor that took her around the world, culminating into this fascinating chronicle of strength and endurance towards whatever life throws our way. Thanks to Holland House Books and Zoolo’s Book Diary for helping me connect with the author and feature The Interview Chain on this blog.
INTERVIEW WITH LYNN FARLEY-ROSE
- When and how did the idea of interviewing strangers first occur to you? What turn did you envision this project would take?
I guess the idea of collecting some stories had been in my mind for a while but the moment when it really gelled into a full-blown project was while I was standing on a railway station and just thinking about all the different people there and how all their stories were unique. My mind wandered and landed on the idea of getting each interviewee to pass me on to the next one—as a strategy I thought that it would give coherence to the project and also that it was likely to result in some interesting and inspiring conversations. Then all I had to do was decide who was going to be my first interviewee and I describe how I did that in the introduction to the book.
2. As an interview link, you were entirely at the mercy of your interviewees’ recommendations. Was there any skepticism or concern about who each one would lead you to, considering every single person would ultimately influence the entire chain?
That’s such an interesting question and one I speculated about a lot. Yes, you’re absolutely right. One of the foundations of the project was that I wanted the interviewees to decide who to pass me on to so that the chain grew organically and that could have gone anywhere. But I think that the model of asking each person to pass me on to someone they found inspiring was most likely to go in the direction of people who wanted to do something good in the world and that is indeed what happened. I wouldn’t have rejected an interviewee’s choice and asked them to choose someone else, because that would have been breaking an important premise of the project. I think it is important to listen to all sorts of different stories and points of view but I would have found it difficult if anyone had expressed opinions that were, for example, racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. I would have asked a lot of questions to try and understand what was going on for them but I may well have felt that I had to bring the chain to a premature end.
3. You started writing the book before the pandemic struck and virtual calls became the norm. Was the initial plan to visit people personally? Did your interviewees consider the places where their references lived?
I had initially assumed that all of the interviewees would be in the UK. I don’t know why I thought that as now that seems naive. So yes, I rather loosely assumed that I would meet all the people in person. That worked for the first ten and when my tenth interviewee chose a man in Rwanda as the next link I was a bit thrown. But in the context of her story it made perfect sense because that country had played such an important part in her life. So once I had realised that a video interview could work well (this was several years before we all got used to the Covid-Zoom era) I welcomed it. And no, I don’t think the interviewees’ choices were limited by location. In the end I think the range of locations added a richness to the project.
4. Aside from the interviewees’ personal stories and your questions about their lives, one common question would always be, “Who would you recommend I meet next?” How did each one answer that question, knowing that they influenced the links of the chain?
I am grateful that they all thought so carefully about who to choose.
5. Did an interviewee always have an immediate answer for the person they admired the most? Were you ever given multiple names?
That varied. They all knew when they agreed to talk to me that they would be asked to pass me onto someone else as it was a fundamental part of the project. Some had already decided who they would choose before I even met them and others asked for time to think about it after they had met me. A common question was ‘what kind of person would you like—man or woman etc?’ but I always deflected that back to them because I didn’t want to influence the path of the chain.
6. When an interviewee briefed you about the next person, did you conduct any research of your own before meeting them? What was the background work involved, aside of the main interviews?
Mostly the interviewees gave me very little information about the next link, just their reason for choosing them and how they knew them. And that suited me well. I wanted to find out about the key things the person had done but I wanted to let them tell their story in their own way. If I had already known a lot about what they were admired for then I might not have been able to focus so much on them as people with all their various influences and motivations. By letting their story unfold they often came up with reflections that I might have missed in a more rigid structure. In a few cases, I realised from the introductions that the people were well-known in their field so in those cases I did do a little background reading just to make sure that I wasn’t going to neglect key topics.
7. In The Interview Chain, the initial respondents are all women, from a younger age group, predominantly based in the UK. Gradually the links begin to include men, senior citizens, Asian and African participants, and a fair number of priests and rabbis. When you started the project, was there any consideration over gender, age, race, ethnicity, religious background? You had no say in who you would be led to. What if the respondents skewed towards a specific group? Was there any thought to enlist a diverse crowd, or was the plan always to let the chain build up organically?
Absolutely always organically. I just wanted to see where it led me but it was wonderful that in this case, it ended up being so diverse.
8. You frequently mention your gratitude towards the participants, because all you could offer them in exchange for their stories was tea. How was it leading a project with no monetary compensation involved? Did you or your publisher ever worry that people might not be motivated to participate or take time to speak with you?
I think that the chain model helped to build trust. The request to do an interview came from someone that the person already knew and valued (ie the previous link) and so that in itself was a recommendation for the project. Everyone who took part seemed to understand what I was trying to do.
9. From the publishing perspective, how has your experience been with writing non-fiction books? Are they easier or more difficult to pitch than novels?
That’s a difficult question to answer as I don’t write fiction, though I may do one day. I think that in both cases it’s important to have a strong idea that can be described quite simply, and to believe in your project. And of course it’s undeniable that there’s a lot of luck involved. So often it’s down to who you meet—it’s important to talk to people, join writing groups, etc.
10. What readership were you targeting for this book? Considering the people we meet are regular members of society, and not celebrities or famous names, what were you hoping to achieve by introducing readers to complete strangers?
Anyone who is interested in contemporary issues and how they affect people. I think the fact that the interviewees are not famous is important in showing that there are so many ways of making a positive difference in the world. We can’t all be politicians or international aid workers but the things we do influence other people in all kinds of ways.
Some great questions there. Thank you so much!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
It was while she was working on her PhD in developmental psychology that Lynn Farley-Rose became fascinated by what people do to cope when things gets tough. Her first book, 31 Treats And A Marriage, was a personal account of reconnecting with life after years as a wife and mother, when everything was overturned by unforeseen calamities. This led her to wonder about other people’s stories, particularly on the question of where people find strength and inspiration. In writing The Interview Chain she talked to many remarkable people, each of whom had wise words to share about the human world—about things that help to make it a kinder and more connected place. She can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/treats_and_more