One of our readers wrote to us asking how to do book research on a living person. So naturally, being the helpful sort we are, we’ll try to give him some good pointers while sharing it with everyone.
Obviously, whether you’re writing an entire biography or you’re merely doing an editorial piece on a living person for a newspaper or magazine, you’d best get your facts straight.
Living people sue, after all.
So you need reliable sources for your data, because any false information might possibly put a bad light on your subject, but it will surely ruin your reputation as a journalist or author and could cost you your life’s savings.
Naturally, the best source of information about someone would be to get it directly from the person you’re writing about.
“Bagging” an interview with a person of note could be somewhat tricky to pull off, but it isn’t impossible. All it really takes is asking. And after all, what’s the worst that could happen? They say no?
However, when doing book research on a living person, a first hand interview can’t be beat, so it’s worth the risk of rejection.
Alternatively, you might be able to contact someone who knows your subject personally. Again, this could also be a bit tricky because friends may not feel free to give you any information, or may simply say something like, “you’ll have to ask them yourself,” which puts you back to square one.
And of course, you’ll have to be tactful about your approach so as not to come off like a stalker or paparazzi. People tend to be more protective and suspicious when being asked about someone they know than they are about direct questioning pertaining to themselves.
If direct contact fails, your next line of approach might be to glean as much as you can about the person from their own words. Have they been interviewed before? Do they have any writing published on the Internet that might reveal something about them or their thoughts?
Looking into their genealogy might help in some cases too. Knowing where a person comes from, and the types of people who influenced their upbringing could shed some light on who they are now.
And as a last resort, look to reputable news sources such as journals, newspapers and magazines for any information you can turn into reference points. Just be sure they’re reliable, and don’t use them as your primary or only source.
Finally, to inject just a few words of caution when doing book research on a living person . . .
- Don’t go beyond what your book research gives you. Whatever information you can get on the person you’re writing about should determine the scope of your narrative. You can add your own perspective, but not your own facts.
- If your attempts at a first hand interview is rejected, pay attention to how it’s rejected. No may mean the person doesn’t want to talk to you, but it could also mean the person doesn’t want you to write about them. So be sure to get some clarity on what no signifies to them. Not that you’re obliged to honor their wishes legally, but having their approval or even their indifference could lower the risk of a law suit later on.
- And if you do get information from sources other than the person directly, verify, verify, verify. Wikipedia might be a good starting point for research for example, but it’s hardly reliable and seldom completely accurate.
Doing book research on a living person can be quite rewarding if go about doing it with the utmost respect for your subject. Respecting their privacy should trump any motive you might have for writing, because in the end, the respect you show will determine the amount of cooperation you’ll get.