Denning on Martin, 'Actuality Interviewing and Listening: How to Conduct Successful Interviews for Nonfiction Storytelling, Actuality Documentaries and Other Disciplines'

James R. Martin
Robert Denning

James R. Martin. Actuality Interviewing and Listening: How to Conduct Successful Interviews for Nonfiction Storytelling, Actuality Documentaries and Other Disciplines. Orlando: Real Deal Press, 2017. 131 pp. $22.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9827023-6-9

Reviewed by Robert Denning (Southern New Hampshire University) Published on H-Podcast (March, 2021) Commissioned by Robert Cassanello (he/him/his) (University of Central Florida)

Printable Version:

Everybody needs to start somewhere, and James Martin’s Actuality Interviewing and Listening provides a very brief introduction to documentary filmmaking and the techniques that the author has found useful in conducting interviews. The author is a writer, producer, and director of independent documentary films, and has also written Documentary Editing and Storytelling (2018) and Listen Learn Share: How and Why Listening, Learning, and Sharing Can Transform Your Life Experience in Practical Ways (2018). He received various awards for his documentaries, including an Emmy Award for Fired Up: Public Housing is My Home (1988).[1]

The author is a video documentarian, and approximately half of the book is dedicated to issues relevant to that role, including video equipment, lighting, interview locations, framing, shooting “B” roll, coordinating camera and audio crews, and video editing. Since this review was commissioned for H-Podcast, it will focus primarily on the book’s usefulness to audio podcasters who use interviews for episode content. Producers of scripted podcasts that do not rely on interviews will not find much of interest here. Video podcasters may find some of the video tips useful, but those chapters are written more as an introduction to video production than a detailed how-to manual.

Martin is a documentarian in what he calls the “actuality” style, where “the information collected on film, video, still photography or some form of audio recording is edited into a story that represents the actuality the interviewer experienced and observed” (p. 12). Actuality documentaries are interpretive and subjective, though the documentarian should try to avoid irrational biases or ideologies. This style “is about exploring reality, current issues and other subjects with the purpose of informing and possibly bringing candid insights and truth to the viewer” (p. 17). Actuality documentaries use interviews to help narrate the story that the documentarian wants to tell.

This book is most useful to podcasters when the author focuses on the preparation and conduct of interviews. Interviewers should prepare questions ahead of time that are intelligent but not rambling, and a combination of open-ended and closed-ended, but they should be ready to ask follow-ups that can vary based on the interviewee’s answers. Be careful when choosing the format of the question. Either/or questions, for example, may yield useful information but can also be manipulative. Confrontational questions may elicit dramatic responses but can also backfire if the interviewer comes across as a bully.

The interviewer’s most important job, according to Martin, is to listen to the interviewee. Be present, nonjudgmental, empathetic, and patient. Don’t think about the next question until the current question has been answered. Ask follow-up questions. Ask for clarifications or for more detail. When interviewing face-to-face, look for nonverbal cues, body language, and facial expressions, which might provide useful context to the verbal answer. Challenge the accuracy of the answer if necessary. Rephrase the question if the interviewee seems to be avoiding a straightforward answer. Ask the interviewee if she has anything to add after answering a question. Keep recording until the interviewee walks away in case something interesting comes up after the formal interview has ended.

These tips and tricks will be useful for first-time interviewers, but veteran interviewers will yearn for more detail and analysis than the one- or two-paragraph descriptions provided here. Given the author’s long career in documentary filmmaking, the lack of specific examples in the text was surprising to this reviewer. Instead of providing those written examples, the author includes lots of photos and references to finished documentaries, but there is very little behind-the-scenes commentary here from his own career. The author includes more of that type of commentary in the sections on video production than in the sections on interviewing.

Actuality Interviewing and Listening was self-published, and the book would have benefited from another round of proofreading and revision. There are numerous inconsistencies in grammar and formatting that interfere with the reading experience, including incomplete sentences, changing subject header formats, and spelling errors. The writing style is that of a textbook, with section headers in every chapter and short section lengths. Occasionally the writing becomes more vivid and enticing, especially (to this reviewer) the description of the development of his short documentary on the career of a radio DJ in the late 1970s.[2] There is no conclusion of any kind to end the book; it ends abruptly after a brief discussion of narration in editing scripts. This material would probably work better as a website or e-book than a physical book. There are dozens of full-color photos, frames from video documentaries, and other graphics interspersed throughout the text. The author included full URLs to relevant, and often interesting, documentaries, but clicking on a link from a website or e-book would be much easier than manually copying a lengthy URL from the book to a computer browser. This book will get a novice podcaster started as an interviewer, but it will probably not remain in their collection for very long.


[1]. See (accessed March 14, 2020) for more biographical information.

[2]. James R. Martin, dir., “Studio A: A Profile of a Disc Jockey,” YouTube, July 18, 2012,

Citation: Robert Denning. Review of Martin, James R., Actuality Interviewing and Listening: How to Conduct Successful Interviews for Nonfiction Storytelling, Actuality Documentaries and Other Disciplines. H-Podcast, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL:

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