Literary Interview Transcription: Pros and Cons

Transcribing literary interviews has its pros and cons.

Right now, I’m transcribing an interview Andrea Carter Brown did with Mark Doty. I feel as if I will never get it done. I can go for a while, but then I get so cross-eyed that I have to stop. If it were my own interview, I would remember any unintelligible parts. Because it’s not, I have to send it back for fill-ins as needed.


You get to eavesdrop before anyone else, in toto.

You get insights that you might not have from the print version (inflection, pacing, etc.)

It beats grading papers.


It’s tedious, repetitive gruntwork, albeit literary.

It takes about three hours to transcribe less than 20 minutes of interview.

Finding 3 uninterrupted hours is next to impossible. Finding them 8-10 times before the end of the semester, with three papers, two exams, studying, aging parents in ill health who need you to do all manner of tasks great and small over the break, and another time-consuming and thankless job on one’s plate (not to mention one’s own little tasks, one’s own life, and–don’t forget–actually writing poems) is a fool’s errand.

* * *

I did a great interview, two hours, with Natasha Trethewey, a few years ago, well before Katrina and the Pulitzer. It never saw the light of day because transcribing from microcassette proved next to impossible. I had no money at the time to hire it out to a pro. Now I’ll be darned if I know where the “safe place” is in which I squirreled away those tapes. When I find them, I’m sending them to a professional transcriptionist. I don’t care how much it costs. I’ve been flogging myself ever since.

* * *

The next time you read an interview in a literary journal. be aware of just how much behind-the-scenes work such pleasant little conversations represent. When I was younger, I devoured the old Paris Review interviews. Now I wonder which nameless secretary had to type up the reel-to-reel, endlessly backing it up, over and over, trying to discern what was said between mumbles and background noise and crosstalk.

Definitely pick up the next Five Points, as Doty will have much to say about ordering manuscripts.

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