The title for this post is taken from something one of my interviewees said to me this week. It rang true for how I proceed with all of these interviews.
Whenever I receive an email from a prospective interviewee, I tell them that an interview takes about an hour and that there is no preparation required. Basically, just come, it will be fun. The only expectation I have on them is that they choose the location. I tell them they should pick something meaningful to them, because it forms part of the chapter, and of course it tells me something about them. The location is almost always captured as interpretive details on the story because this book is meant as a celebration of Toronto, as much as it is about celebrating cycling here.
When we meet, I spend a bit of time watching them for the typical characteristics I’ve come to expect with a cyclist in Toronto. Their hair, eyes and skin will be very healthy, indicating lots of time out on the bike. Their eyes tend to sparkle with mischief and they are alert and engaged in what is going on around us, and in the political arena. The second is not always the case, but they are certainly aware of the infrastructure they use. Most interviewees are artistic and creative. They are optimistic and generous and patient. And they all love their bikes.
Some of them, especially the advocates, become slightly impatient when I don’t have a list of questions prepared, as if I have not done my part. I suppose my methods do seem laissez-faire, especially to those whose time is precious and who are used to be grilled. I don’t grill, but the bike stories come out nonetheless, with very little prompting. To start, I only ask two questions. I want to know their age and whether they name their bikes.
The age thing is important. In some chapters this is a germaine detail because of what they do on the bike. I don’t want anyone to read a chapter on riding around the Great Lakes and thinking they’re too old to try this. My interviewee was 68. (Actually, she and her friend are preparing to fly to Sault Ste Marie tomorrow morning to begin their last trip: Lake Superior. They have booked three weeks for this challenge. Pretty cool.) Some interviewees are very young for what they do, some have lived a lifetime in a few short years. Often, their age matters in their bike stories. In addition, they all look at least 10 years younger than they actually are.
And to those who do name their bikes, this second question matters. To those who don’t, it’s treated as laughable at first, and then they realize that actually, maybe they do have a name for their bike. Almost invariably, those who ‘do not name their bikes’ use a generic pet name. One interviewee calls his bikes by the Sanskrit for Two Wheels. You see, most bikes are viewed as having personality, as being reliable and trustworthy. They are almost invariably treated as a separate entity with a soul.
And then, I push a few buttons and the bike stories just sort of fall out. Even the advocates are surprised, for the most part. The very occasional interviewee whom I’ve had to draw information out of has actually given me a great deal of information just by their modest approach. One of the advocates was uncomfortable sharing just how much work he does on our behalf in this city, so I pieced together the bits he was giving me and did the math. Because I had seen him at virtually every cycling event in the city and had noted him as an organizer for events intended to make cyclists aware, I understood his passion, and I could see his determination to get others to feel as strongly. One of the bike messengers kept saying, “Oh, no one will want to read this,” to which I replied “Actually, this is going to be a key chapter. What you are telling me will resonate deeply with readers.” You see, he was a friend of Darcy Allan Shepard, and I didn’t know this until he began to tell his bike stories.
Most interviewees have no idea what they will tell me, and then the bike stories tumble out, madcap. I love watching their faces light up as they realize they do have magnificent stories to share and that they can inspire others to get out on a bike. For those few who are disillusioned with the politics or who feel their work carries few successes, I write down everything they tell me (knowing that later I will spin it positively and affectionately) and then I say simply, Tell me a happy bike story. I don’t know why, but that always works. They can always come up with something, and it’s always something worth sharing.
There is one other cool point about this process that I should share. I’ve never had a repeated story, or if I have, it’s always got some pretty neat twist to it. Here’s an example. Recently, I interviewed a woman on a three-wheeler. She has MS and rides the bike because it’s the only form of independence she’s found. She rides it because she has to, basically. Not a week later, someone responded to one of my cards, and she too rides a three wheeler. My first thought was that I already had this story, and I was disappointed. I met her anyway, because I’ve learned to keep an open mind. This second woman rides a three wheeler because she wants to. Her famous line is, “Why does it have to be two wheels?” They are both meaningful stories that stand on their own merit. It’s awesome.
Want to ace a bike book interview? Be yourself. It all comes out naturally, organically. The process is delightfully painless, unless you expect to be grilled. Sorry, no grilling allowed! I never know what I`m going to hear, or who I`m going to meet, but I do know that every bike story is spectacular and inspiring.
You’re gonna want to read this book. It’s been an extraordinary gig, and I feel honoured to have been the one to see the need to write it.