Interviewing for Writers – Part II
In those posts, I encouraged you, my fellow writers, to leave your dark and dingy garrets, take a big breath of fresh spring air and get out there in the field and find some ‘experts’ to interview in hopes of bringing a more informed and authentic tone to your writing.
Many of you wrote to say how much you appreciated this gentle reminder and also appreciated some of the tips I’d discovered over the years. Tips aimed at getting the most out of any interview. Well, I’ve got a new one: ‘how to know when to just shut up and listen’.
You see, in preparing for these posts, I had the opportunity to interview someone I’d hoped to talk to for a very long time. My wonderful friend and tennis teammate Liane, who just happens to be a retired deputy sheriff.
Cool! I thought.
Guns, pepper spray, tasers, handcuffs! Here was my chance for an inside glimpse at some real life police procedural issues and crime scene investigation techniques.
My pulse raced. My heart fluttered. My curiosity galloped unchecked.
What wonderful nuggets I’d mine for future stories. What wealth of little known technical details I’d unearth.
In truth, my actual interview turned out to be so much more interesting and unexpected than I dreamed. Partially because, early on, I decided to throw out the ‘rule book’ and just shut up and listen.
In the end, my ‘interview with the Sheriff’ proved a powerful reminder to this writer that strong characters drive plot. And interviews.
Liane lives in a home not unlike mine, in a peaceful gated community in California. Her home is surrounded by a courtyard pool and lush garden fringed with palm trees. The back terrace overlooks golfers scooting up the fairway in their electric carts as they whack their way up the 8th fairway.
But Liane’s life wasn’t always like this, as she explained in our interview.
The excerpts that follow are taken almost verbatim from our interview with some understandable changes of names and locations to protect my subject’s privacy. Before we commenced, I explained to Liane only that I was doing this for a blog post for fellow writers and that my topic was ‘interviewing for writers’. As a retired peace officer, Liane knows a thing or two about ‘interviewing’ and I think appreciated the idea that writers would actually get ‘out there’ in the field and interview people for their stories.
I also explained to Liane that on a personal level, I was also interested in her experience as one of California’s pioneering female deputy sheriffs and, in particular, what factors in her life motivated her to take that career path.
Liane spoke, I typed. I type fast and she proved extraordinarily generous in sharing her story with this writer.
I tried to take down her words with a minimum of interruption (hard for me), but I think you will appreciate the ‘flow’ of the interview and seeing it in this form may help you with your own interviews.
As friends and confidants, occasionally we digressed into areas not strictly about ‘the interview’ (most of which I have have omitted here, as occasionally we got a little bit sidetracked).
You can decide for yourself where my questions worked, and where they missed. In the end, I’m delighted with the result and hope you will be too.
Paula: I’m interested in your early life and what caused you to join the sheriff’s office?
(Here, my hope was to start with a fairly open-ended type question).
Liane: I grew up in California. Dad was in the military, in a mobile construction battalion. He was a carpenter by trade. They built things. They repaired things for the military all over the world. CEEBEEs – for construction battalion, but they were known as the “SEABEE’s.
Paula: I know, I saw the movie with John Wayne, Right? The Fighting SeaBees.
What about your mother?
Liane: My Mom was raised in Long Beach, her mother and father had come to California from Plymouth, England where my grandfather worked in the shipyards. His company moved him from England to Long Beach and my mom was born in Long Beach.
Paula: Did she work outside the home?
(Here, I asked this question solely because it was in the back of my mind that perhaps Liane’s mother had been a strong role model. That perhaps she had influenced Liane to seek what, at the time, was a very unconventional career for a woman).
Liane: (Pausing) My mom contracted polio when I was 2 years old. You may remember that there were big epidemics and scares all across the nation in the 1940’s. When Mom fell ill she was confined to Rancho Los Amigos, the long term care facility for polio in Southern California. She was in an iron lung for a while then eventually learned to walk with two crutches. Then one crutch. She could scoot across a room and smack your butt faster than you could blink. But really, they had nothing in the way of rehabilitation like they’d have today.
I remember she had several different surgeries. She had falls and was unsteady on her feet. Broken knees. She went through a lot, physically. She had four girls and I was the oldest, only my mother’s family came from England, so Mom always said, ‘you are the ‘eldest’ instead of ‘oldest’.
Paula: Did she have an English accent?
Liane: Mother did not have an English accent, but my grandmother did.
Paula: What happened when your mother got ill?
Liane: During the war, my Dad was overseas on the US Indianapolis; deployed in the Pacific. I don’t know… he may not even have been notified she was ill.
I know we lived with my mother’s family, – her parents and her sisters. She –my Mom– had a support group in Long Beach. We lived with her older sister because the polio hospital at Rancho Las Amigos was near Long Beach, and that is where she had to go.
Do you know how they discovered whether you had polio? They’d ask you to put you chin on your chest, and she could not. And that is when they diagnosed her and she found out she had polio.
When Mom got ill, I stayed with my mother’s family. I had my aunt and my grandmother, – we stayed with both of them at various times. My aunt– she was my mother’s oldest sister, –my mother was the baby. But her oldest sister, the one that I stayed with was like (Liane pauses) like the ‘Matriarch’ Very English, married to a lovely man. Uncle Lloyd. He built model railroads.
(You have no idea here how I had to resist asking about the model railroads, but even I realize you need to stay on track at times, so instead I asked):
Paula: So you were the eldest? Did the other children live with you too?
Liane: My mother ended up having four children: me before polio, one during polio, and two after she had recovered. After she’d spent a lot of time in rehab. But she still walked on crutches.
(Here, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that my expression was not exactly neutral, since next Liane commented:
Liane: Even as a young person, a little girl, I remember thinking, “What were you thinking?” I knew where this was going. I was the eldest. Mom can’t work. Dad’s overseas. Guess who is taking care of everyone?
I wasn’t even a teenager yet when I thought this. My second sister was born when I was just two, about the time Mom’s polio was discovered. Then two more girls after that. My mother’s sisters also had girls, so I had all girl cousins, except for one of her siblings who had a girl and a boy. He was the only boy.
By the time I was six, all my sisters were born. A four year old, a two year old and a baby. And me, “the Eldest”.
Four little girls, six and under. But we did have lots of support from the family.
I remember that by the time I was 7 or 8, I did lots of fetching and carrying; cooking and cleaning, under Mom’s supervision. She could walk with one crutch and she cooked in the kitchen while I mostly did the dishes and cleaned the house and also did the chores around the yard, because remember my Dad was also not there. Sometimes, we were on military bases where the yard and outside areas were taken care of by the base, but mostly not.
Note: It was at this point in the interview that I totally abandoned any notion of interviewing Liane about her life as a peace officer. I recognized early on that this was an extraordinary story of an extraordinary person.
A story worth telling. I decided to just run with it, and see what I discovered. Sometimes, you just need to recognize when to rip up the ‘playbook’ and this was one of those moments. My ‘sheriff interview’, I decided, would just have to wait for another day. Instead, I jumped on the chance to discover something about ‘character’.
Paula: Did you always live in California?
Liane: Mostly California, but sometimes my Dad would go where the construction battalion’s were building. The only time we got to go along was when he was sent to the Aleutians, up in Alaska. They shipped up private tutors for our education. The Island was called Adak. It wasn’t that far north. The Aleutians go way down and we were at the Southern tip. I remember we got snow but it wasn’t bad. Mostly I remember it as a great adventure with these fabulous private tutors for our school. A school with only four kids in my class.
Paula: Was there one teacher in particular that inspired you?
Liane: The name of the teacher I liked so much… I can’t remember her name! I can see her…
When I was in high school in Alaska, I had more than one teacher. I remember three different ones for different subjects: math, literature, and general education. Mr. Nicholls was the male teacher and there was a Ms. Sutter or Sutton, — she was one of the women teachers.
(Liane’s voice intensifies with enthusiasm).
I remember it was really academically stimulating. So much more so than my public high school in California. I loved being at school. I loved education. It was an escape for me, being away from all those baby girls. Being responsible for just myself. My learning. My homework.
Paula: How old were you when you went to Alaska?
Liane: 14 when we went to Alaska. For some reason, when I first started school, I started in the 1st grade. It ended up that I was always a year younger than anyone else. So when I graduated I was only 17, when everyone else was 18.
Paula: Did you graduate in Alaska?
Liane: That was one of my great sorrows. I loved Alaska. I got to do a lot of things. Had privileges and freedom and education. I remember it was almost like being in a small private school. Then suddenly, two months before I was supposed to graduate, we were moving.
Paula: Just like that, with no warning?
Liane: I recall we knew a little in advance. My family was trying to plan so the kids didn’t have to move. But my Dad’s battalion moved and he couldn’t be excluded, so back to Oxnard, and back to Oxnard High. I had friends… I knew some of the military kids. (Liane shrugs). I went from being privately tutored in Alaska back to a great, big class.
I didn’t like it at all.
Paula: And then what happened? (Here, I am trying to get back to my goal of asking open ended questions, just let ‘Liane’ tell me what she thinks is important’.
Liane: I graduated, I wanted to become a nurse, so I was taking community college courses, the basics, and I needed to work, so I went to work at Camarillo State Mental Institution.
I’d just turned 18.
Paula: What was that like?
Liane: They had some wonderful training, specialized training, to be a psychiatric technician (like a nurses’ aide). I learned a lot about mental illness. We had dorms for the patients, with private areas for the more unbalanced, those that were severely mentally ill and violent. But for the rest of the population, almost like ‘dorms’ or wards in a regular hospital.
Most of the patients wore state issued nightgowns and things, we went through some very advanced training – classroom training and training with people on the ward – learning physical restraint techniques and how to be non-confrontational.
(Liane pauses and looks at me).
It always is amazing to me they would hire younger people, like me at just 18, to do this kind of work. I got paid something like $300 a month. I thought I was doing quite well.
Anyway, I stayed at the Camarillo State Hospital at least a year and I found the work interesting – we were drudges. We cleaned… did all sorts of things, not just working with patients. They were happy to have us scrub the floors. I still remember using one of these giant industrialized buffers.
(How is that for a striking visual image?
A seventeen-year-old girl, rolling down the hallways of the state mental hospital, with a giant buffing machine).
I could hardly remember the thing.
But we’d go through 6 to 9 weeks of training and learned all about mental illness (book learning) then some training about how people act when they have mental illness, how you react and fit in… what your roll is supposed to be. And then you get there and find you are scrubbing floors. I guess we had some naïve notion we would be working, helping these people. But instead, there I was, scrubbing floors.
I was young, very young, they later changed the rules. Later, they (the State) could still hire them that young, but later they could only work in particular areas of the hospital.
Paula: Did you experience much violence?
Liane: Sometimes they (the patients) would flip out. Would want to hit someone or grab someone’s hair. We didn’t work alone. We had pagers. But most of the violent people were segregated. They called them dorms but they were really cell blocks.
We wouldn’t get the more violent people, they had specific staff for those inmates. But we sometimes supported them.
But this was a state run hospital and the pay, the benefits… sick leave… all pretty good.
Paula: Did you have any friends that went to work there or how did you know to apply there (at the State Mental Hospital).
Liane: I was looking for work that would allow me to get away from living with Mom and my sisters. I took both the County and State exams and this was the first one that came open.
My next youngest sister, – she was angry when I left. The younger ones spent a lot of times with various aunts and uncles. I guess you’d call it a gypsy kind of life.
Paula: Was your mom angry when you left home?
Liane: Mom grew up the baby of a family. They were well-to-do. She was naive when I was growing up, I think when she met my Dad, she was 18 and he was 19 and her family were appalled and did not like him at all. He was just a kid from the mid-west. His people were farm people. They did not know his family, where was he from. Nothing for them to connect with. Not what they’d planned for her.
I had a one-sided view of that all my life.
Always from my Mom’s family.
Never Dad’s family.
We only once went to Indiana where my Dad was from. I’m not sure why it didn’t work out. We went out to the farm and then soon we were back in California.
When Dad got out of the military, he worked at various construction jobs. We were very poor. He was a carpenter, so always dependent on who was hiring and whether he could get work.
He eventually went back into the service, they had benefits and pay and that’s how he got back in (to the military) at an older age.
Liane: Anyway, when I worked at Camarillo, I got my own apartment at the beach. I met my first husband at a military base function.
(Liane shakes her head, almost in disbelief).
We were such babies.
So, anyway, we got married, because you couldn’t have sex if you didn’t get married and we wanted to have sex of course.
So we’d been married a couple of months and we talked about going to where he was from, going to Pennsylvania. His plan is to live with his Mom and his Stepdad until he got organized and a job. His mother was the whole mean step mother thing. very Irish, – she had such plans for him, and in her eyes, he’d married this California tramp who ruined his life.
In Pennsylvania, everything was like being in a foreign country to me.
They were Catholic. I converted. We’d always gone to the Protestant ‘church-of-the-day’, but I became a Catholic convert in the days when there was no birth control. In hindsight, it was horrible living with his parents – they had two girls and a boy, (my husband) and his mother was an Irish Catholic mother and he was the only son. He was going to rule the world and be president of the US. She was passive aggressive in front of her son, then outright nasty to me when he wasn’t around.
But his sisters were nice. One of them lived three houses down, the other a few blocks away, and they were married to very nice men, so I had some good support.
In Pennsylvania, we got our own apartment, but my husband, he could not find a job outside of the military. So we moved back to California. Where my parents were. He (my husband) went back into the military, and was re-stationed, and I went to live with my parents until we got our own place.
Our first child, our son was born in 1961. But then a couple of years later I had an ectopic pregnancy and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. I passed out, but they had to operate and do a partial hysterectomy. It was four more years after that before I got pregnant again, – I had only one working fallopian tube and ovary. I didn’t think I could get pregnant, but then later I had a girl.
(Here, Liane is jumping around a bit here, but I don’t want to interrupt the narrative, because I can tell she is thinking back and remembering these very emotional events).
Anyway, back to when we were first moved back to California. I had our son, and I didn’t… I was very Catholic, I knew things weren’t working, I made a huge decision to get a divorce. We were kids. He was running around, having affairs. I was maybe 19 or 20. I was so young; I didn’t know what to do. Looking back though, I was quite mature for 19 or 20. I knew (the way things were with my husband) it wasn’t right for my son.
The priest said… (Liane pauses) the priest didn’t say I would be ex-communicated. He said I would be a sinner in the eyes of the church. I said then: “well, forgive me father for I have sinned.”
I still went to church for a long time. I remember they had a special room, — off to one side of the alter,–for the moms and children.
(Again, as the interviewer, I know that Liane is reminiscing, wandering a bit as she remembers, which is only natural, but I don’t want to interrupt the narrative flow, as almost everything she tells me is a surprise to me and I am impressed by her courage and character and want to learn more).
So, by this time, I’m separated, living with my parents back in Oxnard, then I got a place of my own, had babysitters who could take care of the baby and I went back to work, back to the Camarillo State Hospital.
I worked all the time, went home to the baby. I didn’t go out. I had friends from work, some of the older women, maybe in their thirties? They sort of took me under their wing. I remember the ones who were so wonderful to me were the middle-aged Mexican women, because I think they had sympathy for me. Part of their culture was to get married young; have babies young. They were wonderful.
The Church may not have recognized divorce, but they sure knew.
I went back to my first husband.
Part the Church, part because life was hard, part because I was still in love with him. I can truthfully look both my children in the eye and say they were ‘love’ children, at least on my part. I didn’t even think I could get pregnant, then my daughter (Liane smiles) she was my miracle.
When the second baby was born, we were still in the Oxnard area. We stayed together for about years, off and on. We did not get divorced at that time after all. By then, we were in the height of the Vietnam war, and he was in the military.
Then, when he got out, he joined the Sherriff’s department.
Paula: He did? (I’m surprised, because this is Liane’s story of becoming a Sheriff, and this is the first I’ve heard of her first husband having been one too).
Liane: Yes, he got out of the military, joined the Sherriff’s department. We had the two kids and I worked here and there at little dime store jobs once in awhile but I missed working. Yet, at the same time, I felt it was really important to be home for the kids. But then, we separated again.
I remember I was looking for jobs that offered benefits: sick benefits, vacation benefits, and they had a competition for civilian jobs for the county of LA and my fist work position was at one of the jails and that is how I got into the Sheriff’s department.
I was only there a week and already so many were saying “you are so much more capable than this.” I was making $300 a month, yet the deputies were making $600 a month.
I remember saying: “I couldn’t do a job like that.”
But they talked me into taking the test, so I did.
Paula: And what was that like?
Liane: There were blocks of tests, physical, mental… agility.
Paula: What did your husband think about this?
Liane: By then we’d separated. He thought it was less support for him to pay. I didn’t want his support, I told him to take his support and what to do with it.
And it was wonderful, I applied and I got a phone call that I got in! I remember very mixed feelings. Relief, fear, panic. What have I done? And happiness. Man, I’m going to make this money, I’m going to support myself, I’m not going to have to worry about how I was going to look after the kids.
I was 24 years old.
Within a year, I bought my first house in Garden Grove, California.
Here, I look at my watch.
I’ve been at Liane’s for almost two hours.
I know that I’ve stayed longer than I’d planned. I’m fascinated by ‘her story’, a story of courage and determination, born of circumstance and necessity. I know I haven’t asked all the questions I’d planned to ask about her pioneering work as one of California’s first female deputy sheriff’s.
But I’m not going away empty handed. Liane’s story reminds me that in our writing, if our characters are to be believable and heroic, we must craft for them a ‘backstory’ as compelling as Liane’s story.
We must find our protagonist’s motivation; their inner hopes and fears; that which drives not just your characters, but also your plot. Ultimately, you must find that which drives your story, forward and keeps your readers wanting to ‘read on’, just as, in my interview, I wanted to keep Liane talking, to find out ‘what happened next’.
I still have a million questions for Liane. My writer’s curiosity is unsatiated.
I still want to ask her about what it was like at the Academy.
Where she was assigned when she completed her training and started in the field.
What those early experiences were like and whether she was lonely and frightened?
Whether she was ‘accepted’ by her male colleagues or met with resistance and prejudice?
Whether she reads crime fiction and, if so, what she thinks about the way peace officers, (particularly women police officers), are portrayed?
Oh yeah, and I still want to ask Liane about the handcuffs and the pepper spray and the tasars.
Sure, I can ask my writing buddy (Vancouver police officer Sean Sommerville, who writes under the pen name, Sean Slater) about these things. But I’d like a woman’s perspective, too. But all this will wait for another day.
Liane and I have tennis team practice this afternoon and it is time to wind thing up. But today, I know my “writer’s time” was time well spent.
Some photos I looked up afterwards, because I was curious:
1. Iron Lung Ward, Los Amigos Hospital:
A very interesting video on the history of Camarillo State Mental Hospital