’100 Interviews’ project puts new twist on old adage: Everybody has a story

Gaby Dunn missed telling stories. She couldn’t find a job in journalism after she graduated from Emerson College in 2009, and she didn’t have many freelance opportunities.

“I bet there are 100 stories I could write, but I don’t have a place to write them,” she remembers telling her dad last September. “My dad was like, ‘Well, why don’t you write down all the ideas?’”

So Dunn got out a piece a paper and compiled a list of 100 people she had always wanted to interview.

A horror makeup artist. A hardcore skateboarder. A one-hit wonder. A rocket scientist. A teen mom. Someone who was left at the altar.

Dunn posted the list on Facebook and created a “100 Interviews” Tumblr blog with an ambitious goal in mind: Over the course of a year, she wanted to find, interview and write about each person on the list.

Now, 11 months into the project, Dunn is close to the end. She’s interviewed 95 people based on recommendations from friends, family and fans of her site, and she’s written stories about each of them. She posts about two stories per week on her Tumblr, putting a new twist on an old adage: Everybody has a story.

“So many people think they’re boring, which is insane. A lot of the people who are the quietest and most unassuming people are the most amazing people,” Dunn, 23, said by phone. “Some of the people I’ve written about are crazy interesting and they don’t have any sort of outlet to tell their story, or they’re content not to.”

The more people she interviewed, the more Dunn realized there was a demand for softer news about everyday people. The blog’s followers grew last December after The Village Voice named “100 Interviews” the “best Tumblr.” Dunn said a few readers have criticized her for being too easy on some of the people she interviewed. Mostly, though, she’s gotten positive feedback and requests from people who want her to tell their stories.

“I’ve heard from thousands of people wanting to share their stories,” Dunn said. “I like that people are willing to say, ‘This is my little corner of the universe, here’s what I’m up to.’ ”

One of her biggest challenges has been figuring out what, exactly, each person’s story is. Dunn admits her interviews are sometimes “all over the place,” and that it can take a while for sources to open up. She usually starts out asking questions that get at basic biographical information and then moves on to tougher ones.

“If you delve right in, people get nervous,” she said. “But if they see that you’re interested in more than just the ‘headline,’ they tend to warm up quicker.”

Writers and journalists have long played off the idea that ordinary people can have extraordinary stories. Perhaps the most well-known example is CBS’ “Everybody Has a Story” feature, in which reporter Steve Hartman and photojournalist Les Rose traveled around the country telling stories of everyday people.

Rose, who was recently at Poynter, told me that people don’t always know what their story is. It’s the reporter’s job, then, to help them dig for it. Rose said that during every interview for the feature, Hartman would ask: “What’s been your greatest struggle?”

“So many stories are like a table; they’re wide and shallow,” Rose said, referring to a metaphor that he and Poynter’s Al Tompkins use when teaching journalists. “By asking the question, ‘What was your greatest struggle?’ you can go narrow and deep.”

Instead of asking, “Is there anything else you want to add?” at the end of interviews, Hartman would ask: “If we knew you better, what question would we have asked?”

Dunn said she’s found that people are much more likely to open up if they’re interviewed in person rather than on the phone or online. With the exception of two interviews, Dunn has done all of her interviews in person. She’s interviewed people in New York, where she lives, and in Florida, Massachusetts and California.

“I like to interview people in person because you can pick up more details that way,” Dunn said. “Are they late or are they early? Do they pull out your chair for you? What does their face look like when they answer that specific question? It gives them less time to guard their answers too. It’s more authentic.”

Not all of her interviews have panned out as she had hoped.

Dunn wanted to do a one-on-one interview with Stephen Colbert, for instance, but couldn’t work it out. Instead, she ended up asking him a question during an audience Q&A prior to the filming of “The Colbert Report.” “As a man of faith,” she asked, “how much of your success do you attribute to your own hard work versus God’s plan for you?”

She chose this question because it’s “something that I think has become a theme of ‘100 Interviews’ — and subsequently, my life,” she wrote. “How much of the good things that happen to us, our fortunes are our own doing? How much success is ‘right place, right time’ versus a dirty, exhausting, slow climb to the top just so someone else can ask you about your ‘overnight’ success?”

Dunn, who self-edits most of her stories, says the project has forced her to become a better interviewer and writer. She now edits her stories more heavily than she did when she first started the project. In a few cases, she’s gone back and rewritten some of her earlier posts and then linked to the original.

“I feel like I’m a much better writer than I was at the beginning because I have to be; I’ve written so much,” Dunn said. “And now I know I really love journalism. If I didn’t, why would I be doing this for free?”

Dunn had been juggling “100 Interviews” with a full-time job, which she quit last week. Now that she’s nearing the end of her project, she’s focused on what’s next. She has a literary agent and hopes to turn her stories into a book. She’s also considering turning “100 Interviews” into a submission site — one that would feature daily, user-generated stories about people from all walks of life.

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  • http://twitter.com/micheleweldon micheleweldon

    Exactly. I wrote a book on this shift to ”softer” stories on everyday people in 2008, Everyman News (University of Missouri). http://www.everymannews.com