Interviewing Authors: A Look at Process

I interview people for a living.

My methods are certainly not universal, but they’re how I get by. Generally, it starts with an assignment or a pitch.

When I’m assigned an interview, there’s a 50/50 chance an editor hands me prep materials. I’ve been given a two-inch-thick file and told to have the questions ready in an hour; I’ve also been given a name and told when to file a story. Regardless of how much or how little an editor gives me, there’s a single constant: I won’t conduct the interview until the editor sees my questions.No matter what, at least one other set of eyes sees my questions before the interview goes to print.  Whether I’m assigned an interview or bring it to an editor, I do as much legwork as possible.

When I’m doing research for author interviews, I’m being paid to scour the life of another person and come up with thoughtful, interesting questions. Their career trajectory, educational background, other interviews and reviews, their twitter, blog, website—if it’s on the internet or in print, I’m going to read it. Reading other interviews is one of the more important pieces of prep. There are questions people  ask over and over, and if you make an entire interview out of those questions, you’re doing it wrong. The Basics of how they started out, what inspired their book, their research methodology, aren’t bad questions. But instead of recycling those basics, use them to create unique questions. If you want to ask how their background connects with their work, lay a foundation of questions about their work as a whole first. Paint a clear, relevant picture of their career before jumping into the intriguing, unusual questions. These are about going into detail or under-discussed facets of their work, not writing questions that make you look deep for asking them. Questions you ask for your own sake are the ‘sexy’ ones; deep, existential questions about art and life and meaning.

You’re not here to satiate your curiosity, you’re here for the people reading the interview.

I’ve written the ‘sexy interview question.’ They almost never see print. Somehow, by the grace I call Editorial Mercy, my editors have either caught them before the interview, or seen them in my filed story and quietly culled them before print, taking me aside after to explain just why that Neat Question was in fact impersonal, rude, intrusive, out-of-the-blue, or asked at the wrong part of the interview. It’s not enough to write good questions. An interview needs as much care as fiction; you’re telling a story. Asking a question at the wrong time throws off the interview, sets your groundwork on fire, and ends with no one happy. This is why oversight, as simple as a friend or colleague looking your questions over, is important. I’ve had interviews saved before they were even conducted by someone pointing out “You’re asking this question twice” or “You should ask this at the end.” As for your questions specifically, prep in advance. Practice saying them. If you can’t ask them smoothly or tailor them in the moment, your ums and uhs don’t just become stutter marks to wade through during transcription, they make you look distinctly unprepared.

At the interview, try not to interrupt. It’s not a sin to deviate from the next question to pursue an interesting piece of information, but avoiding interruption allows your subject to talk, which is ideally why you are there.

Interviews don’t stop when the tape does. Thank your subject for their time. If you’re doing an interview where you’ll be taking photographs of them as well, take them at the end.  After ten to thirty minutes of questions, authors will often unwind some; that degree of relaxation versus initial stiffness will net better pictures. Even if they’re not the type to smile in their photos, they’ll read  more relaxed; and even the happiest, nicest author in the world needs time to warm up. Don’t touch them or invade their space without asking, whether to smooth a collar or move a displaced lock of hair. Clear directions can generally fix a visual issue without having to make physical contact.

If the interview touched on emotional topics, leaving one or more of you drained, you’ll need to decompress. It will help you finish the article, and keep it from haunting you for days. You can do this with them if it feels appropriate. Journalists aren’t therapists, but a compassionate, quiet presence is something people don’t forget. If you have the time and emotional bandwidth, sticking around to let someone talk afterward is something they rarely forget.

When your time with them is done, and you’ve finished your decompression, you go right back to work, transcribing audio and processing photos. If something is missing from your notes, say a question you could have or should have asked, or a spelling you’re unsure of, politely e-mail them as soon as you can, and continue doing everything you can to finish your interview. When it’s all packaged together — the interview, photos, audio if required — you can hand it off to your editor. After that, you wait for it to run.

I’ve always intended to email authors the night before an interview will publish. I manage it maybe 50% of the time; often, I get them a link the day or week it runs, thank them one last time, and move on to the next assignment.