I’m always very flattered when someone wants to do an interview with me. I jump with joy. People are interested in what I think! They want me to blather on! I am a woman of many opinions so being offered the chance to opinionate in multiple places is most pleasing. Thank you everyone who’s ever asked. I truly appreciate it.
However, many of the questions I get could be asked of any writer. Sometimes they could be asked of any person. It’s a bit lowering to suspect that the interviewer doesn’t really care about my particular pearls of wisdom—they want any old writer’s wisdom.
Let me make it clear that I don’t mind being asked generic, could-be-answered-by-anyone-with-a-pulse questions if the interviewer forewarns me. Just today I got a very sweet email from someone who runs a writing website for kids and teens. She specifically said she was writing to many writers and getting their response to one of a long list of questions. I will definitely be answering one or more of those questions.
I just wish the people who ask for an interview, but then send the same questions they send everyone, would preface their request by saying “My blog has five questions I send all my favourite writers. Here’s the link to the questions. Let me know if you want to take part.” Rather than, “I think you’re wonderful! I love your work! Please let me interview you!” Followed by the same five questions they ask everyone.
My friend Scalzi just ranted about this. Another friend, who I won’t name,1 gets cross about it too. They feel that the interviewer is doing zero work, but expecting them do loads, that the interviewer just wants easy content for their blogs.
Now, while I agree with some of what they have to say, I think there’s more to it than that. I’m convinced that the biggest problem is that most of these interviewers have little experience with interviewing and don’t know how to go about it. Learning to be a good interviewer takes time. It’s a skill. And not one that many people are taught.
Thus I thought I would share my tips. While I’ve never been a journalist, I was a researcher for many years, and that involved interviewing gazillions of writers, fans, and publishing people.
Justine’s guide to conducting a cool and interesting interview with a writer:
1. Research your subject. Read as many of their books as you can find. Read reviews of their books. Read all the previous interviews you can find. If they have a blog—read it. Yes, the entire thing. Or as much as is available online. If they’ve been blogging since the dawn of time (i.e. 1998) at least read a year or two’s worth of the archives.
2. Ask questions that are informed by this research. Rather than asking generic questions such as “where do you get your ideas” look at their responses to that question in previous interviews. Here’s Maureen Johnson talking at length about where she gets her ideas:
Almost every writer I know hates this question. We are, by nature, a lazy people. Hard questions disturb our state of mind. This is one of the hardest of the hard, topped only by things like “How do you write a book?” and “Why are there so many headless girls on the covers of your novels?”
Instead of asking her the question she hates being asked you could ask her why she thinks writers hate this question so much. Because, clearly, it’s not because writers are by nature lazy. Maureen Johnson certainly isn’t—ten seconds of research on her will reveal that fact. But, wait, she’s already answered that question:
I always try to make something up . . . some weird, cobbled-together, IKEA-quality answer that will definitely fall apart the second you attempt to deconstruct it. This is because, for me, there IS no answer.
The ideas just come from my brain. I store stuff up there, and the brain monkeys play around with it and put together different combinations. They come to me with stuff all the time, as your brain monkeys must do for you.
So why not ask why she thinks there’s no answer? Or why she thinks this question is asked so often. Writers seem to emphasise that the ideas are the least important part, yet people who aren’t writers seem convinced it’s the most important part. What’s up with that?
3. Conduct a subject-specific interview. One of my favourite recent interviews is over at Racebending.com where I was interviewed about the casting for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of the interviews I’ve conducted I’m most fond of this recent one with Doret Canton of the Happy Nappy Bookseller blog about YA & girls playing sport as well as this one on lying and the links to being a novelist with John Green. Having a specific topic helps you focus your interview and often leads to really interesting exchanges.
4. If you’re conducting your interview via email try to start with around five questions. More than that can overwhelm your interviewee and cause them not to answer straight away or, you know, ever. I know my heart sinks when I’m sent interviews of hundreds of questions. Even if they’re really good questions. Actually, especially if they’re really good questions because those are the questions that make you think and as well all know thinking is hard. Also fewer initial questions allows you to ask fun follow-up questions that bounce off the answers you’ve been given. This can also make an interview seem more like a conversation than an interview, which is always a good thing.
5. Think about doing an interview via IM. Now, some authors are going to shudder with horror at the very idea. It is a considerable timesuck. If they agree, many will probably tell you they’ll only give you 30 mins or an hour. But the results can be very pleasing. Scott has done several IMterviews on his blog. Here’s one he did with Robin Wasserman and here’s one of my fave interviews, conducted by Tempest Bradford, of me and Ekaterina Sedia about being foreign writers in the USA.
Since I said that any more than five questions is overwhelming I think I will stop at five tips. I’m sure the experienced interviewers who read this blog will add more in the comments. I hope mine will be helpful to some of you.
- Cause they’ve only said it offline. [↩]