Ear­li­er this week, Andrew Nagors­ki divulged the advan­tage of spread­ing the word about your research. With the release of his sixth book, The Nazi Hunters, this week, Andrew is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Any good reporter knows all about eure­ka moments dur­ing inter­views. Those are the moments when you’re told some­thing that you nev­er thought to ask, when some crit­i­cal piece of infor­ma­tion, col­or, or anec­dote is revealed in a casu­al aside — or once the for­mal part of an inter­view is over. 

I cer­tain­ly learned all about such moments when I was a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for Newsweek. But it often took me a while to absorb what I had just learned. Some­times, it wasn’t until I walked out the door that I real­ized how valu­able the rev­e­la­tion was. At oth­er times, it wasn’t until I start­ed writ­ing my story. 

In my sub­se­quent report­ing for books like The Nazi Hunters, I kept the les­son I learned ear­ly as a reporter in mind: as much as you need to be well pre­pared for your inter­views, make sure you leave room for spon­tane­ity, even what seem like tan­gents. Peo­ple often reveal the most inter­est­ing aspects of their lives or thoughts when they are relaxed and not sim­ply respond­ing to pre­pared questions.

The oth­er part of that les­son: in most cas­es, eure­ka moments only hap­pen when you inter­view peo­ple in per­son. The odds of get­ting a tru­ly reveal­ing inter­view go up dra­mat­i­cal­ly in a face-to-face meet­ing. In teach­ing writ­ing class­es to stu­dents who have grown up in the dig­i­tal age, I’ve found that this often comes as a real sur­prise: their usu­al first instinct is to con­duct inter­views via email, which I tell them should be only a last resort.

The prob­lem with email is sim­i­lar to the one for­eign cor­re­spon­dents encounter when polit­i­cal lead­ers request their ques­tions in advance: they get back script­ed answers, even if they are in the form of a con­ver­sa­tion. With email, there is lit­tle chance of serendip­i­ty, an inad­ver­tent slip or sim­ply a per­son­al sto­ry that is not part of the planned exchange. There is almost no chance to test the per­son­al chem­istry between you and the per­son you are inter­view­ing. You can­not read the oth­er person’s body lan­guage, or even describe how they talk and look.

The dig­i­tal world does offer in-between options. If you can­not see some­one in per­son, a Skype inter­view can be the next best thing. And there is always the straight­for­ward phone inter­view. Inter­est­ing digres­sions are pos­si­ble in both those sit­u­a­tions. If you can’t get the per­son to talk one of those ways, then — and only then — use email. It can be use­ful for get­ting basic infor­ma­tion and the person’s point of view, but always remem­ber you’re prob­a­bly miss­ing a lot— unless you have met at least once in per­son on an ear­li­er occa­sion. In that case, you’re much more like­ly to be able to read the sig­nals you can’t see dur­ing a phone call or in emails.

One of the peo­ple I inter­viewed for The Nazi Hunters was Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who was in charge of the com­man­do unit that kid­napped Adolf Eich­mann near his home in Buenos Aires in 1960. This was in ear­ly 2014, when he was 87. In his Tel Aviv home, he talked freely about that leg­endary, once top-secret oper­a­tion. I was struck by how short he was, even allow­ing for the fact that he prob­a­bly had grown small­er with age. 

Wasn’t he ner­vous about con­fronting Eich­mann? He showed me his huge hands. They got that way from years of climb­ing ropes in his youth, he not­ed. Even if some­thing were to go wrong, he didn’t need a gun. The easy way to kill some­one with your hands is to break his neck,” he added. He revealed that he and a col­league had decid­ed to do just that if they were to be caught by the Argen­tine police rather than give Eich­mann anoth­er chance to escape jus­tice, despite the orders they received to keep their cap­tive alive

I nev­er would have found that out if I had con­duct­ed an email inter­view with him, or even if I had talked to him by phone or Skype. I had to go to Israel to make this hap­pen. The dig­i­tal recorders I use in such inter­views are very help­ful, but no dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy can serve as a sub­sti­tute for old-fash­ioned report­ing. When it comes to the how of inter­views, I’m old school all the way.

Andrew Nagors­ki served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, War­saw, and Berlin. He is avail­able for book events and speak­ing engage­ments through Jew­ish Book Council’s JBC Net­work author tour­ing program.

Relat­ed Content:

Andrew Nagors­ki served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, War­saw, and Berlin. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Hitler­land, and has writ­ten for numer­ous publications.