How To Interview A Bat

How To Interview A Bat – Petra van Cronenburg

It was born as a joke: my interviews of more-than-human living beings in my podcast NatureMatchcuts. Or how a bacteria blob once formulated: „these being beings“. At first, I was afraid it would seem too silly or childish, but the feedback shows me that people like it. And many seem to learn more from it than from any dry lecture-style text. That’s when I decided to make it my brand because I had started in a very similar way in my professional training. But this time it’s a challenge! How the hell do you interview a bat and a cactus?

AI Image of a Batman-like hero standing in a cactus garden. Holding a pot with a thick-leaved plant.

I’ll never forget that situation in the mid-1980s. I was still quite new to journalistic professional training at a large regional newspaper and was pretty excited. I was expected to write my first lead story. My colleagues and my trainer would be watching me critically. At the time, I didn’t realise that men were having fun giving female trainees the most complicated topics or the most difficult interview partners. Journalism still was an extremely male-dominated world. We had 2 female trainees and 20 male editors. So that they could then make a mockery of our failures. My topic was science. Extremely complicated science.

I had to interview one of the world-renowned luminaries in AI research and write my lead story about 1980s artificial intelligence which had nothing to do with nowadays debile LLM systems. „Write it that Aunt Erna can understand it and talk about it at the market“, said my boss of the local newsroom and laughed inwardly at my anticipated failure.

When I entered the research centre for the first time, I felt dizzy at the mere sight of the computer centre. There was no internet for everyone back then, we wrote our articles on mechanical typewriters. How could I write about that for Auntie Erna when it was a new wonderland even for me? So I sat opposite this world luminary and knew from my lessons: you have to break the ice. Try a joke. I plucked up all my courage and got started: „I forewarn you. I have to write about your research in such a way that Aunt Erna understands everything and can talk about it at the market. You would help me a lot if you explained your work to me as if it were about bratwurst.“

The scientist laughed and we talked two hours about bratwurst with a lot of fun. (Now you know why AI took this crazy turn, Auntie Erna is to blame). My article was a resounding success and was later even used as a teaching example. The male colleagues were visibly silenced when the research centre sent me praise. From then on, I was the specialist for the complex, the highly complicated stuff. „We need bratwurst,“ someone once shouted in the editorial conference.

My seemingly childish interviews are the bratwurst to have fun understanding complex stuff.

„But how do you make that?“ a colleague asked me. Well, behind the scenes, it’s hard work. Perhaps it is even more work than a lecture text. First I read tons (feels like that) of scientific studies for my topic, say bacteria in sourdough and the microbiome. Like in every journalistic research, I then choose the most important ones and the good points for writing. Then comes the famous brain click. I’m not a scientist. I am a journalist and a writer. Therefore, I am free in my presentation. As a journalist, I love the facts and work with language. I can find metaphors like bratwurst and break complex stuff into small stories. As a writer I am even freer: I can play with bratwurst. I can cut it into slices and use the slices as wheels for the vehicle of my imagination.

The rest is pure fun. Like for a fantasy novel, I imagine how my interviewees communicate or perceive. Then comes my micro-macro-amplyfier, a kind of interspecies translator. A product of chance, born out of the desperation to interview bacteria from cow dung. It worked so well in terms of sound that it is now part of my studio like the Tardis for Dr Who.

Scene from my podcast episode 4 – interview with a bacteria blob.

You like my podcast and my work?

My next episode (last day of January) will be part 2 of „When Gardeners Run Wild“. I asked my audience on Mastodon which gardener I should interview and it was the bat. It will be a challenge because the bat doesn’t come alone, they work with a certain species of cactus. But hey, I interviewed famous people and difficult people. I’m not going to shy away from a cactus now!

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