Author interviews aren’t like interviews that journalists undertake (unless you’re Oprah and you’re interviewing James Frey!). You’re not trying to uncover the sordid truth — it’s a book, after all, and if there is one thing I’ve learned in my time at university spent studying English literature, it’s that books are always interpreted and no one, not even the author, has the final answer. So if that’s the case, then what is the purpose of an author interview?
My experience as a reader tells me that when someone reads a book and falls in love with it, they usually like to get to know the person who made that book. They also like to hear different perspectives on the book, and they like to learn about the craft. Readers like to relate, and that’s what an author interview is, most broadly, all about. This is becoming even more true in the digital age: just look at all of the authors who use Twitter, and more importantly look at all of those authors’ followers. When you interview an author, you’re not trying to get at any ‘truth’ — you’re trying to find some interesting opinions that may help the reader relate to the author, and that help to open up the book to more interpretation. In the best scenario, these opinions are also interesting enough to encourage newcomers to pick up the book and read it too!
The hard part is figuring out how to ask the right questions so that you get the interesting opinions. We all know those opinions are in there — you can’t write a good book without them — but, as Tim warned me before my interviews at the fair, sometimes authors just throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I just wrote it because it sounded good.’
Not to worry. The porcupette is here to help.
1. Know your goal
What is the specific aim of your interview? Sure, you want those who read the interview to relate to and become interested in the book and author — but you need to know your aim more specifically than that. Are you introducing the author to a new audience? Introducing a new book? Or are you hoping to provide intimate details about the author’s home life that only the most devoted following would ever care about? When I was at the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, my goal for the interviews was completely selfish. I interviewed George A. Walker and Kildare Dobbs in order to get some more insight into their work and also, hopefully, to pick up some catchy phrases or ideas that would help me promote that work. I did not, originally, imagine any audience other than myself for the interview (which is also completely fine, but just make sure that you don’t — like I did — change your mind after the interview is completed!). Having a goal in mind will help you craft your questions and get the results that you want. If you know your goal, you’ll know when you get off track — which helps you to get back on track. If you don’t know your goal, you don’t even know what your track looks like.
2. Read the author’s book with the interview in mind
If you are a porcupette like me, and largely new to the world of author interviews, I recommend reading over the book again once you find out you’ll be interviewing the author, even if you’ve already read it. I found it really helpful to re-read The Book of Hours and Casanova in Venice because, with the interview looming in the back of my mind, I read much more critically and observantly. I kept a notepad beside me as I read and jotted down questions that popped up. Most of these questions were not very good, but coming up with a lot helped me to pare down to what I thought were most important or interesting.
3. Prepare and write your questions down in advance
Doing this helped me to guide the conversation and always have a back-up plan if one of the questions didn’t fly. Of course, don’t follow your prepared questions too closely: spontaneous follow-up questions and answers sometimes lead to the best information.
4. Open-ended questions only
This might seem obvious, but ‘yes/no’ questions will take you nowhere. The more open-ended the question, the more expansive the answer. Also, be kind: err on the side of flattery and always offer the author the chance to debate any assumptions you may have made in your questions. Kildare and I had a pretty lively debate over whether or not writing necessarily implies an audience, since one of my questions asked about that. I won’t give away who thinks what since I didn’t have the time to write our arguments down!
Find a comfortable, quiet location, don’t rush into the interview questions and take your time getting to know each other. Small talk is important to make everyone feel comfortable, and you might learn something useful for the interview, too. I interviewed George in a room full of distractions and the two of us often found ourselves forgetting what the other just said. I liked interviewing Kildare in the pub, though.
6. The awkward silence is your friend
As soon as I thought George had finished answering one of my questions, he would think of a new idea and tell me more. Let the conversation lull, even if it feels uncomfortable, and your author might just jump in to fill the silence with brilliant ideas.
7. Taking notes is slightly overrated
This took me a whole interview to learn. When I interviewed George, I constantly had to stop the interview so that I could catch up with my notes, which threw George off track and made the interview feel unnatural. When I interviewed Kildare, I decided I would spend less time writing and more time listening. I wrote down his most important ideas, some phrases I thought were particularly ‘Kildare’ and apart from that I just made sure that as soon as I got home I typed out all of my interview notes and added what I remembered but didn’t have time to write. This worked really well. The trick is to not waste any time: the sooner you can transcribe the interview, the better your memory will be. If in serious doubt, email the author.
8. Follow their interest
You can usually tell when someone is talking about their passion: arms flail, eyes widen, the speaker leans in intently, the voice rises. So long as this passion has to do with the author’s book, follow it: ask more questions, even if you didn’t write them down, and encourage them to talk more. This is why the author wrote their book and this is why people are interested in the interview. Don’t spend time on questions that the author isn’t interested in, even if you think it’s the most insightful question of all time. Unless it’s essential to the interview, forget it. Follow their interests and you’ll likely have a great interview to show for it.
The art of interviewing is one that takes a lot of practice and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m new to the game. If you want to know more, there are a lot of interview tips for journalists on the web, but interviewing authors is a slightly different process and I hope you’ll find this short list helpful as well. If you have any tips to add, or more questions, as always I welcome emails.
And for the writers out there, how about a blog that covers what I’d like to hear from you about your work if I hypothetically interviewed you? What do you think?