How to Conduct an Interview

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.

  1. Cause they’ve only said it offline. []

34 comments

  1. Akilah on #

    As someone who reads interviews, I would also encourage interviewers to ask follow-up questions. Even if it’s via e-mail. If the interviewee says something interesting and then abruptly shifts to the next question, it’s clear that they’ve been emailed, but I also wonder why the interviewer didn’t send another question about the response. It drives me nuts.

  2. Kristan on #

    Ditto what Akilah said! I can understand using generic questions as a starting point, but it’s more interesting for everyone if you follow up with more specifics.

    A blog-friend of mine is about to interview Becca Fitzpatrick (author of HUSH HUSH) so I’m going to forward this entry to her! :)

  3. Jen Robinson on #

    I think you make excellent points, Justine. I actually stopped doing interviews on my blog because I found it so difficult to do it well (on top of other commitments). I do see others taking the easy route with generic questions – your post explains much better than I could why that never seemed like the right option. Thanks!

  4. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I’ll tell you why interviewers like that question. It’s the fundamental difference between writers, who have an idea, then must pound through 60 or 100 or 120 thousand words of prose to bring it to fruition, versus a reader, who walks into a store and sees a cover that goes “Idea! Idea Now!” and then buys it, (or not) solely based on that idea. They don’t know if the prose is spectacular or the characters relatable or the plot gripping, but that’s what the author has been worried about for months or years. To the author, the idea is old news.

  5. April (Good Books & Wine) on #

    I really appreciate your posting this, as I haven’t conducted any interviews with authors yet (being too nervous to do so). I think this will be incredibly helpful to me when I do work up the courage. Thank you so much!

  6. Natasha (Wicked Lil Pixie) on #

    I do not interview any Author who’s works I don’t know, I just think it’s a shite thing to do and it would make me scramble around trying to BS.

    That said, I have never had an Author take issue with my questions and if I see that they’ve been asked the same question in every interview I try and get a character interview instead. I put a lot of time into my interviews and most of my blog friends do as well and I think sometimes people forget how time consuming an interview is when thought is put into it. Research, read the books, read other interviews with the Author…that all takes time.

    I also would like an Author to tell me if they took issue with any of my questions so we could change them to their liking, if that issue came up.

  7. rockinlibrarian on #

    I am actually fond of the “where do you get your ideas” question. Granted, no one’s ever ASKED me that, since no one has ever had need to interview me. But I’ve read some really interesting responses before from authors who have actually taken it seriously, and I suspect the problem may be more with the wording of the question than the question itself. Maybe it covers too MANY questions at once, questions like “How much are your characters and settings based on real people and places you know?” or “How did you come up with that one interesting idea crossing two familiar yet unrelated concepts?” or “What is your process for coming up with ideas and/or deciding which ideas are worth using?” or even, for a more general question with less of a bad rap, “What are your inspirations?” I think many of the people asking “Where do you get your ideas?” are actually trying to ask one of these questions but just don’t know how to word it. Though others probably are just looking for the magic secret to idea-mining. Anyway, I guess that comes back to what you said about personalizing your questions– asking about the background of a SPECIFIC idea is both more personal AND more interesting!

  8. Barbara Dee on #

    Great post, Justine! My favorite answer to the cringeworthy “Where do you get your ideas?” question is David Mamet’s. He says: “I think of them.”

  9. Colleen on #

    This is one of my pet peeves and I’m so glad to see you tackling it here. When we do the Summer & Winter Blog Blast Tours it is always a killer trying to come up with the questions. I have to say though that Tanita and Sarah at Finding Wonderland are without fail the most amazing interviewers I’ve seen in the blogosphere. They cover pretty much all the books by an author, discuss big ideas and small ones and do follow-ups. They are awesome.

    I had a blast interviewing NF author Sy Montgomery for the last WBBT – we covered everything from banshees to pigs to Barry Moser. But it was nerve wracking getting ready and making sure I was prepared. I didn’t want to let her down though which might be something that’s missing with lazy interviewers – they don’t mind coming across as dull or unprepared.

  10. Wendy on #

    I always struggle to find questions that are a. smart b. not already asked a million times and c. will turn me into the author’s new BFF… wait, did I say that last one out loud? Anyway, I appreciate the tips. My pet peeve as an interviewer is the author who turns the interview into whatever s/he wants to talk about.

  11. KatG on #

    I think your guidelines for interviewers are helpful, Justine, but a bit too ambitious. An interviewer is not a biographer and quite often the interviewer has limited time and needs to get the interview out promptly to help the author promote their latest work. I would revise your suggestions along the following (just my two cents about what seems to work so far):

    1) Try to read at least one work by the author, preferably the one the author has recently out and is promoting or from the series of which it is a part. If you cannot do this, at least research the novels — what they are about and the character names, and for an anthology, know which authors contributed. (If you are able to pick your subjects, best to certainly start with authors with whom you are most familiar who have books coming out.)

    2) You don’t have to read the author’s whole blog, but try to read some entries about the book the author is promoting, about writing, and definitely read the author’s bio information, at the website/blog and elsewhere.

    3) Reading other interviews with the author is excellent research. Try to read recent interviews, which tell you what’s been asked already about the new/best known books and will also give you ideas.

    4) The best method seems to be 2 email questions at a time. Once the author has answered them, clean up and format the answers and send them back to the author for review. Sometimes they like to add things or adjust their answers. At 2 questions at a time, you’re also better prepared to ask follow-up questions in response to an interesting answer. IM can be nice, but it doesn’t give you or the author as much time to consider what’s being said or research a point that comes up, unless you can go back later and hash it out with email or further IM.

    5) Try to keep the interview to the author and their works unless the purpose of the interview is a particular subject. (At least make sure some of the questions are about the fiction, anyway.) Remember that the interview is about the author, not the interviewer’s views on SFF and life in general. However, if the author wants to talk about those things, let them run.

    6) A more interesting question than “where do you get your ideas” is “how do you research your fiction.” Authors get that one a lot too, but the answers are more interesting to readers, even if the author says he or she doesn’t do any research.

  12. Doret on #

    I enjoying doing interviews. I’ve done four and plan to do more. I am still trying to get better. Though I have never asked where do your ideas come from.

    For a blog interview to come off well. Good questions amd excellent give/take from both parties are needed.

    Sometimes the question is the set up, and the author runs with it. Sometimes the answers is and interviewer runs with it. Either way both parties must be willing to have a little fun with it, and branch off into the unexpected. Especially if its a blog interview, since there is nothing to lose.

    Just giving the straight facts about the characters and the story is boring and not a great way to engage a reader.

    I think it takes a minimum of four back and fourth via email for an online interview to lose its stiffness and give the illusion that the two parties actually meet.

  13. sphere777 on #

    Here is my piece of interview advice if you are using the Internet: make sure the subject understands the scope, length, and method of your interview when you make the request.

    The accompanying story: I managed to obtain an interview with one of my favorite SF writers (and a very big fish at that). Then I sent him a message outlining a very long and involved email interview and he never responded. Further attempts to contact him were futile.

  14. Jerry Taylor on #

    Well said ma’am.

    Based on some of the inane questions I do see being published in interviews, I often wonder for whom the article is intended.

    Have you ever refused an interview due to a bad experience in the past?

  15. Brent Hartinger on #

    As both a published author and the editor of a website (TheTorchOnline.com), I can speak to both sides of this issue. First, I agree with everyone said about how annoying generic, recycled questions are (unless warned of that in advance).

    That said, as an editor of a (non-book-specific entertainment) website, I know that interviews with authors (and book reviews) rank at the absolute bottom in terms of traffic. I write for several other prominent websites as well, and they all say the same thing. Basically, book coverage is a very, very “niche” interest.

    And yet “researching” an author is by FAR the most time-consuming sort of interview-research you can do. In the time it takes to watch five movies, you can read…well, one of an author’s books.

    Basically, I and all the editors I know do book coverage not because it pays the bills — on the contrary, we would be making much better use of our resources by covering ANYTHING other than books. In fact, by posting a author interview or book review, our traffic will almost certainly take a hit that day. In other words, we’re literally penalized for covering books — our traffic would be better if we published ANYTHING else.(But we cover books anyway, because (a) a small number of people are interested in them, and (b) we think books are important!).

    In the “old media,” editors never know how little interest there truly is in book coverage, because newspapers couldn’t measure clicks on specific articles. Now we can, and sadly, it ain’t pretty. I think that’s why they devoted more resources (in terms of both space and time) to books than new media does. It’s a bottom line issue.

    I’m NOT saying, “You should shut up and be thankful for any coverage you get!” I’m just saying that I struggle a lot with the whole notion of covering books. I read voraciously, but even I can’t possibly be familiar with all the authors we interview (or would LIKE to interview). So I often rely on (cheap, inexperienced) stringers to interview authors. Or I do the interview myself and try to do as much research as I can in the time I give myself, which is never what I would like.

    I suspect things are quite different with people’s personal blogs. They can interview all their favorite authors, and that’s great. Then again, they’re not trying to make a living with their content, and their readership is much lower than the sites I work for.

    Anyway, not a criticism of this post. Just some additional, albeit depressing information.

  16. The Story Siren on #

    What an enlightening post. Interview are always something that I struggle with. I know my interviews are bland… I have a hard time coming up with questions even when I do research on an author. I’ve personally tried to remedy my lack of creativeness with guest posts, but more authors seemed to prefer interviews.

    I never even considered my bland questions being taken by the author as condescending. I never would have thought that because I ask authors, in general, similar questions that they would assumeI don’t care what they have to say. In fact, I ask those type of questions because those are the ones I WANT to know. I’d rather know what an authors favorite food is over their inspirations for writing. But I’m weird like that.

    I also have a hard time asking specific questions about their titles. What if the reader hasn’t read the book? Will that question even mean anything to them? And often times, I haven’t had a chance to read the book.

    I run into obstacles with new authors, often times they have no online presence? Where do I get my research then?

    I appreciate your tips and hopefully they will help me out in the future. It’s always nice to get the insight of an author.

  17. Alison Croggon on #

    I trained as a journalist and work as a novelist and also as a critic/blogger. So I’ve got all the bases covered. :) Occasionally, when an interesting playwright offers him/herself, I run an interview on my theatre blog (a couple of examples: Ariel Dorfman and Franz Xaver Kroetz) which I usually – not always – conduct by email. Face-to-face is best of all (I talked to Marius von Mayenburg IRL) but that’s not always practical, and otherwise I prefer email. They’re longish interviews, but that’s the kind of blog I run.

    And yes, Justine is right: as an author, I’ve had those questions where your brain goes sploink too, and am always paranoid that the writers I interview will be groaning with their face in their hands when they read mine. So I try to make them the kinds of questions that might stimulate a bit of thought and be interesting to think about. The key is research. And more research. But after that, you have to think a bit further about what you’ve read might mean for the author you’re interviewing. My personal fascination is how writers think about their work, how they approach it, what underlies their practice, so I will always ask questions that invite elucidation about their particular thought processes, and which, hopefully, will illuminate in some more general way the art they’re pursuing.

    From an interviewer’s POV, interesting questions produce more interesting answers and therefore a better piece. So it’s worth taking the time.

  18. Daisy Whitney on #

    Hi Justine:

    I’ve been a reporter for 14 years and I agree — reporters and interviewers need to do their homework and tailor questions to the subject to get the best answers. As an author now too, it’s interesting to see the kinds of questions interviewers like to ask.

    Daisy

  19. Abby on #

    Ohhh, this is a great post and thank you very much for the tips. I’ve done a few author interviews on my blog and I confess that I am not very good at it (which is why I’ve only done a few). Maybe with this advice in mind, I might seek out a few more… :)

  20. Mariah ( A Reader's Adventure) on #

    Thanks so much for these tips hopefully they will help me to conduct better interviews in the future!

  21. Craig Ranapia on #

    I think your guidelines for interviewers are helpful, Justine, but a bit too ambitious. An interviewer is not a biographer and quite often the interviewer has limited time and needs to get the interview out promptly to help the author promote their latest work.

    Up to a point, Kat. Let me put it another way: You get half an hour this evening with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and you’re not even aware of the earthquake in Haiti, let alone that she’s cut short a series of overseas visits to return home and co-ordinate the US response, that’s not just crappy and unprofessional. That’s downright incompetent.

    But time after time, I’ve heard or read interviews with authors where it is painfully obvious they’ve done no prep at all.

    Well, I’d respectfully suggest that interviewing authors isn’t just part of a sales strategy. It’s also part of keeping a vibrant arts and literary culture, and that’s every bit as worthy of being done well as any other kind of journalism.

  22. Weasel on #

    The most irritating thing I see watching or reading interviews, is when the interview is clearly going from a pre-determined list of questions and not actually listening to the answers. This frequently results in them asking questions which were already answered during a previous response. A good interview is more of a conversation.

  23. Mitch Wagner on #

    I’ve done about a million interviews in my areer as a journalist, and a dozen author interviews for my podcast, Copper Robot. I do interviews face-to-face or by phone or some other channel permitting voice communications, such as Skype or Second Life voice.

    I try to avoid e-mail interviews, but sometimes interview subjects insist on it. In that case, I send two or three questions, wait for a response, then ask follow-ups.

    I’ve also been on the other side of the interview, so to speak–I’ve been interviewed by other journalists and bloggers. In those cases, I find e-mail interviews appalling, like a foodie reacting to American teabags. I just don’t answer questionnaires. That’s just the interviewer asking me to do the work. In that case, I’d just as soon get paid and get the byline myself.

  24. jj on #

    I have done lots and lots of author interviews for one thing or another. The vast majority of authors are interesting and have something novel to say.

    But what I would point out is that interviews (as bizarre as they are) are for neither the interviewer or her subject, but the public who views/listens/reads the interview. any other construction is more solipsistic than I can imagine. Therefore, the obvious questions have a little more freight than you think.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewd someone and only later realized I don’t know the answer or the question I’m looking for.

  25. Nathalie Mvondo on #

    Justine, thank you greatly for your opinion and for these tips.

    I totally agree when you advise to limit the questions to five in an email interview, and it is the direction I had planned on taking when I started my blog. One of my resolutions for 2010 is to limit my questions to five and not more. That said and to be honest, it is sometimes difficult not get carried over. :$

    When I interviewed Stacy Whitman (Tu Publishing), I was aware of the length of my questions; but I also thought that what she had to share was so crucial, especially for aspiring authors, that it was worth doing it… That was an exception, though.

  26. Sarah Laurence on #

    Great post! I like your tip about follow up questions and might do that next time. I’ll link to your post in my blogwatch column. I’m here via a comment left on the Story Siren about author interviews.

    As a seasoned interviewer, I agree that the best answers come from specific questions AFTER you read the book. I try to give my authors a week to a month to answer in case they have MS deadlines or book tours. Then I follow up with a reminder. A few good questions are better than many. Authors should also try to keep replies concise as readers have limited time since they read many blogs.

  27. Coffeeforthebrain on #

    After reading this post I am now wondering if my interview questions that I sent her were one of the examples that drive her crazy? Being new to this whole blog experience of posting book reviews and interviews I am sure my questions were not the best, but at the time I felt they were pretty good. Now I want to know how my interview questions could be better. I also know that my students in my building love to read the responses from authors so I know at least a small group of people do enjoy these posts for what it is worth.

  28. Justine on #

    Coffeeforthebrain: Oh, no, not at all. That interview was one of my faves. You’d clearly read and thought about Liar.

    I don’t at all mind general questions in context. And the questions from your students were adorable. All round a very enjoyable experience.

    Now I’m wondering why it’s always the thoughtful people (who don’t do whatever it is I rant about) who believe it’s about them. Whereas the ones the rant is aimed at don’t bat an eye?

    Oh well . . .

  29. coffeeforthebrain on #

    Whew! What a relief! When you posted

    “Now I’m wondering why it’s always the thoughtful people (who don’t do whatever it is I rant about) who believe it’s about them. Whereas the ones the rant is aimed at don’t bat an eye?”

    I can relate to this in the educational field where we provided service after service to help all students be successful and in the end it is usually the parents and students that don’t need the services that take advantage of the opportunities.

  30. Jan on #

    This was extremely helpful. I am working on some author interviews right now and your advice is stop on. Thanks.

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