One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Interviews

I’ve been an intermittent interviewer for six years, doing a couple a year on average. I enjoy the process and try to strike a balance of questions no one else will ask with questions that are asked often because people want to know the answers. (Never “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never asked that question, and I promise you I never will.) I have kiddingly patted myself on the back several times when an interview is well received, “reminding” everyone the key to a good interview is in the questions.

Turns out I was right.

I never expected anyone to care enough about Wild Bill to want to ask the author about it. Thankfully, I was wrong about that. I’m in the process of replying to my fourth set of questions this week. Each interview has been unlike the others, and each has been fun. The questioners have approached Wild Bill, and me, in unique manners, so the questions have forced me to think about different things, and even to consider things I hadn’t thought of while I was writing the book. The interviews have been even more gratifying than the good reviews, in part due to the give and take, and, I think, because I’m flattered that someone took enough of an interest in the book to want to know more about where it came from. They have been an unadulterated blessing.

Some interviewers can get away with a list of stock questions they ask everyone. These interviewers either A) are well-known in their own right, or B) have a list of kick-ass questions. Anyone can generate a list of five questions off the top of their head, the questions they hope get asked at a book signing. Those are fine to work into a longer interview, but they don’t tell anything about this author and this book the reader couldn't have found elsewhere. They aren’t the way to get thoughtful answers unless the questions are unique and versatile. (Not “Where do you get your ideas?”)

Based on my experience on both sides of the equation, the best way to get a good interview is to make it obvious you read the book, and have generated questions based on things you found in the book. I don’t mean just about the story; many authors are reluctant to reveal spoilers in their own work. (What can you expect from prima donnas?) Ask about the writing, the characters, something unique about how a plot point was handled, the setting, any influences. Sure you can work in a few like “Why do you write in this genre?” or “Can you recommend a few books?” People want to know that and authors are happy to tell them.

If you really want a good interview, pick something from the book that stands out and ask about it. I have been lucky enough to interview Timothy Hallinan and Leighton Gage, who set their books in Thailand and Brazil, respectively. Both are witty, articulate, and fun. I doubt either of them could give a bad interview from inside an iron lung. Pick out something that stood out about either Thailand or Brazil and let them run with it. They’ll do the work for you.

The key to a good interview, like the key to any relationship, is to make the author feel as though you’re doing this interview because you want to interview that author, not just “I do a series of interviews and I couldn’t think of anyone better.” Don’t kiss ass, but don’t be afraid to stroke the author a little. I doubt you’d get good responses if the tone of the interview is, “Your book is a piece of shit, but I wondered how anyone could write something so horrible.” They may not warm to you; authors have egos, too.

And, if you ask “Where do you get your ideas?” you deserve whatever happens to you.

(Many thanks to Charlie Stella, Tim Hallinan, Pat Browning, and Karen Treanor for teaching me how much fun it can be to be the interviewee.)

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