Imma Vitelli Shares her Interviewing Secrets

“The Interview is the Pillar of Your House.”

A story is more than facts and events. A story is how those facts and events have influenced human beings. When Imma Vitelli, a foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair Italy, spoke to NYU Florence students on March 2 2016 she described a story that was more than facts. Vitelli covered a devastating earthquake that hit the small Italian town of San Felice. Her colleagues were quick to report the facts and move on, but Vitelli believed that left out a vital element. She interviewed a pharmacist who had lost his shop in the earthquake. When Vitelli asked what he would miss most, he replied that he would miss the blackbird who lived in the clocktower and chirped every morning. Her piece of journalistic advice: One should speak to locals, or those directly involved in the story, because that is where the true story is. Facts are easy to find, but the emotion which brings the story alive can only be found through interviews.

While working on that same story Vitelli felt she needed another perspective. From speaking to the pharmacist she discovered how the earthquake had affected the living, but a cemetery was also damaged in the quake. Vitelli went to the cemetery where she spoke to a man working there, “ a gay buddhist who was the keeper a Catholic cemetery.” Vitelli only discovered how interesting this character was by interviewing him. Often the most ordinary people are the ones who truly demonstrate the impact of facts and events.

But finding people to interview is only half the battle. Vitelli advises that one should do their homework or “go to the catacombs.” If you do not do research, you won’t know the right questions to ask. The interviewee can be anyone, she said, because we all have something to say: “it’s all about mining.” A part of what Vitelli calls “mining” is respect. One should push hard with politicians, but be gentle with victims. Vitelli said “you have to respect the right of broken people with your silence.”  

Vitelli also suggests asking “Am I missing something?” or “What else do I need to know?” or “Is there something I haven’t asked you?” This will let one’s subject do the talking. Listening is key, Vitelli said, and emphasized that silence is often the best question.

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