Monday, April 11, 2016

How to Interview Authors Pt 1 - Interviews Can be Awesome (But Often Aren't)

Author interviews are a dime a dozen, so how many of them are worthy of your time, and how many are just white noise? I'm not saying some aren't worthwhile. There can be something to be gained by reading even an average author interview, but with every hipster and their blow-dried poodle running some kind of author interview/latte appreciation blog, there's just so much emailed-in, beige-carpet dross around, it can be a real splash of ice-water to the face to read a smack-down between two people who genuinely care about their topic of discussion.

Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice
I've been interviewing authors for a couple of years now (you won't find my interviews here, but in magazines and elsewhere on the inter-webz. I gave up writing for free a while back) and I've learned some really important lessons I'd like to share. The fact is, the difference between a could-find-this-crap-anywhere interview, and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a really interesting person isn't much, but it takes some commitment from both sides.

Let me make it clear before we go any further, I'm not trying to paint myself as the all-perfect, all-knowing, bard-king of interviewers. Far from it. I've certainly submitted some interviews for publication of the 'dental tug-o-war' variety. The interviews I'm least proud of are the ones in which I've obviously struggled for either continuity, or content. These were - without exception - interviews for which the interviewee had a declined a face-to-face, in favour of an emailed sheet of static questions. Hence:

Lesson 1. An Emailed Interview is Your Last Resort

If you're an interviewer with even the slightest affinity for the subject of your interview, gird your loins and face your interviewee. I learned this lesson very early on from a small-time hack going by the name of John Scalzi. Mr Scalzi is a man who knows what it is to sit on both sides of the table. When I first contacted him about doing an interview he immediately agreed, on the condition it was a Skype discussion rather than an email full of, you know, words and stuff.

John Scalzi - Lock In
He didn't want to dick about writing answers to questions he'd most likely had thrown at him a hundred times before. May as well just cut and paste! I was the interviewer. I was the one getting paid for publication of the piece. Why should he have to write it out for me? All John really wanted, of course, was what any interviewee would want: a genuine discussion about his work. I was terrified. He was only the second person I'd ever interviewed for cash and the man has a formidable intellect and business acumen.

But it was amazing. We nattered for maybe ninety minutes and I loved every second of it. What I didn't realise at time the (but John understood all too well), is that the difference between a written, and a spoken-word answer to a question is the true difference between a very good interview and a very average one. When an author sits down to answer a bunch of emailed questions from all sorts of interviewers who think they're asking cool and interesting questions, but are actually just asking the same questions as everyone else, they do so with a stiff drink and a heavy heart.

When an author talks to an actual person, however - like, face-to-face and shit - even if they've answered a similar question before, you never really know what's going to come out of their mouth. It could be rehearsed, or it might just be spur-of-the-moment gold.

Lesson 2. People Say More Interesting Stuff When They Can See Your Ugly Mug
Jennifer Fallon - The Lyre Thief
Some authors don't do face-to-face. They're either terrified they'll say something stupid and everyone in the writing community will call them Dumb-Dumb for the rest of time, or maybe they resent being asked to climb out of their jim-jams to talk to someone who might just be a dick. Who knows? Who cares? You can't control that.

What you can do is ask the author to participate in a Skype interview. They can only say no, right? Actually - not true. They can also say yes, and most often do. When they say yes it's awesome because it provides you with the chance to get a really good interview. People (authors are people) interact with human faces much more readily than they do with computer screens full of words, or a tinny voice emanating from a small telephonic device covered in earwax. Authors hear enough voices as it is!

If the interviewee can see you smiling at something they've said, or nodding in agreement, or simply making a gesture of acknowledgement of some kind, they will take that as a cue to provide more information of that type. Sometimes you don't even need to ask a question because you've guided your subject to the topic simply by offering visual encouragement. You're not being tricky, or deceitful. You're employing the tools you would subconsciously use in normal conversation with anyone you might encounter in your day-to-day life.

Lesson 3. Don't Ask Dumb-Ass Questions
Should be a no-brainer, right? Remind yourself before the discussion begins that you're unlikely to be the first person ever to interview this particular author. If you Google their name with the word "interview" after it, and get two or more pertinent hits, it's probable questions like, "When did you first start writing?" or "What inspired you to write?" aren't going to generate original answers.

John Flanagan - The Ranger's Apprentice
The answers to those kinds of zombified, could-literally-be-asked-of-anyone questions will already be available to any twelve-year-old with access to the internet, probably on a half-baked blog called 'Book Blogs R Sus' or some such. You are styling yourself as an intelligent interviewer. There are hundreds of people out there, just like you, also styling themselves as intelligent interviewers. The author's publicity agent has provided you with a free copy of their client's book - a free copy of a year or more's worth of hard toil on the part of their client.

Aim to repay that investment by at least attempting to avoid the dumbest of dumb-assed questions, while at the same time asking yourself what it is your audience would really like to know about this awesome person. Leave the brain-dead questions to others. Ask your author about the things that set their work apart. What was it about their writing that inspired you? What made you feel whatever it was you felt while reading their work?

Don't be confrontational but try to push them for the story behind each answer. Don't pause after each answer to read out your next question. Keep the momentum of the conversation going by being as fluid as you can. If an author shoots off on a tangent, taking the discussion in a completely different direction than you envisaged, let them go. Follow them into that deep, dark forest. Authors can be pretty messed-up individuals. Chances are they're about to launch into a topic they're passionate about, which will be fantastic for your interview, and your likelihood of selling it to a publisher.

In short, keep cool, try not to fanboy, and don't be a dick. While you may be giving the author an opportunity to promote their work, they're giving you their time, and the potential to sell your interview for money. Be respectful of their work, even if you didn't enjoy it. Remember that your opinion might not be shared by your readership so examine as many angles as you can. Most of all, try to have fun! It will shine through if you can.

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