How do I interview people (for the press, not for jobs)?
January 18, 2006 7:07 AM   Subscribe

How do I interview a novelist?

I'll be interviewing a reasonably well-known novelist in a couple of days. I've prepared by reading his book (duh), thinking about it, and reading the big reviews. I think I know what I'd like to come out of the interview having discussed, and assuming I can get that then turning it into an interesting feature will not be difficult.

So it's not the content of the interview that bothers me, but the practicalities of making them comfortable, keeping things moving, and generally getting the best out of a one-shot situation. Ideally, I'd like to come away having had an intelligent, discursive conversation about fiction and writing like. If I had a transcript that read like those Robert Birnbaum has I would consider it a wild success (e.g. Martin Amis, Will Self). I don't particularly want to concentrate on his current novel in great detail for the whole interview.

Has anyone got any general advice about how to conduct an interview for the press? Any articles I might read (I don't really have time for books before Friday)? Any advice germane to my specific situation of reasonably high-brow novelists?

I guess interviewing musicians isn't too different, so if you've got any experience or advice for that situation, I'm all ears. In fact, if you've ever interviewed anyone for an article, what do you know now that you wish you knew beforehand?

If it makes any difference, I've only got thirty minutes (and presumably some email/phone follow-up). I already have his basic biographical information, so we won't have to waste time on that. His publicist will be there. English is not his first language, but I believe he is fluent. It will be conducted in a coffee shop. I will be recording it on a dictaphone.
posted by caek to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The general advice is to have a list of questions, but don't follow the list so closely that you ignore his answers. So you're having a conversation, you're listening to and following up on things that he says, but you also have your list of questions to fall back on and to remind you to stay on track.

When you make your list of questions, you should mark the ones that you don't want to forget to ask.
posted by alms at 7:12 AM on January 18, 2006

Alms' method is correct. Additional thoughts:

I am interviewing a large moo-load of novelists for my book. It's terrifically easy for me because they are all picked by me due to their relationship to my topics of interest, and the book interviews are more specialized in their scope than general Press Interviews for Someone that Just Published a Novel. My inquiries concern things that interest and animate these authors, and they are all emitting gorgeous and thoughtful responses.

But I've done those general-type interviews as well, and I've found these book interviews easier because I had a set focus. But even in the general interview, if you start on a narrower line of inquiry, one that you know really interests your subject, you can often use that as a starting point from which you can often cover most of the ground you want to cover.

Don't have any pre-set expectations about your subject. I interviewed a well-known local curmudgeon and was warned repeatedly that he was a jerk and a poor interview. He gave one of the most thoughtful, open and emotional interviews so far.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:20 AM on January 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've been writing for various newspapers for years, and it seems like you've already given yourself the best advantage you can: knowledge.

If you know the author's work and have a real interest in it, your interview should go fine. Try and think of it less like an interview and more like a conversation. Prepare a few questions but don't read off a list, talk to him like you would talk to anyone whose work was interesting to you. If you are truly interested in the material it should flow easily.

Definitely bring a recorder, and test it before you start the interview, make sure you can hear yourself and the novelist. Even though you have a recorder, though, don't be afraid to jot notes.

Also, if you are nervous, don't sweat it. Usually people you are taking the time to write about want to talk to you and will talk, a lot.

Above all, try not to treat it so much like an interview. Think of it as a chat with a friend, which means it's ok to talk about yourself a bit to get things rolling. If you make the author comfortable you'll start uncovering a lot of information you might not have expected.
posted by dead_ at 7:25 AM on January 18, 2006

seconded on the recorder. I usually bring one digital and one analog. Seconded on the conversation bit.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:31 AM on January 18, 2006

Lots of answers here.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:34 AM on January 18, 2006

As long as you don't ask him where he gets his ideas, I think you will do fine. You may want to read the book at least once more, but having read it at all is pretty good for a lot of interviewers, apparently.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2006

I am a newspaper journalist, and have interviewed plenty of people, including filmmakers and politicians. No novelists to speak of, but tips for interviewing a novelist will be pretty similar to those for any other interview.

First, be prepared. Not just with an idea of questions to ask, but with relevant background on the subject and his work. You have the luxury of being able to read previous press on the subject, and in those situations, I've found it useful to spend some time critiquing those other articles: what didn't get asked that should've? What questions sparked interesting answers? That will help inform your questions. (During the interview, however, don't let on you know everything there is to know. Nothing wrong with playing a little dumb. Too much agreement and head nodding and "Oh, I know about that," and the subject will skip over important and interesting details.)

As for questions, make them open-ended wherever possible. Look through your interview questions and get rid of as many questions as possible that start with "Do you..." or "Have you..." or "When..." Avoid questions that have definite, specific answers, and instead use prompts like "Tell me about..." or "Describe..." or "How..." When you're on an interesting topic, and are getting good information, strategic use of silence is very useful. A slight pause will prompt the subject to elaborate or continue. It'll seem forced, but most people want to fill up silences, and are sometimes uncomfortable talking at length about themselves. Likewise, there's nothing wrong with requests to elaborate: "Hm, Tell me more..." or "How so..." and especially, "Why?"

As for making them comfortable, you want to start off very easy, with simple, short questions. This is where you want to load the boring, discrete questions you couldn't get rid of before. Things like what their birthday is (very important if you are going to mention their age), the spelling of a middle name, or other biographical details. This will allow both you and the subject the ease into the rhythm of question and answer. If you like, you can move from these 'groundwork' questions into the meat of the interview with a disarming question, something off-the-wall and unexpected. Novelists, like other semi-public figures, will probably have done plenty of interviews before, so shaking them out of the dull routine of canned answers may make for a more interesting interview. If you have something really controversial, adversarial or shocking however, hold off on that until later in the interview.

As mentioned above, write a detailed list of questions and topics to cover, and don't look at them at all during the interview. Never, ever, ever, read a question from a page. It's unbearably stilted, and will interfere with the flow of a good, conversational interview. The value of coming up with questions is to organize your thoughts, not to provide a script. Likewise, don't have a progression of questions. Let the topic of the interview evolve organically. The next question asked should be determined by the last answer, not from the list of questions.

Ask for permission to record the interview, as a courtesy, even if it's already been discussed. And, as you will be using a recording device, make sure you have plenty of extra batteries (assume they will run out, no matter how new), extra tapes (assume they will run out), and a comfortable pad (steno or journalist's style) to take notes on, with lots of pens. You may be tempted to run the interview without notes. Don't. Having notes will help organize you during the interview, and being able to jot down questions as the come up will be helpful. More importantly, if the device fails (assume it will), you should be able to reconstruct the interview from memory, along with the juiciest quotes that you took down in the pad. If you don't take notes, and the recorder fails, the whole thing is a wash.

One more way to get good material: Colombo had it right with his "Just one more thing" schtick. As the interview comes to a close, the subject will relax. Leave a couple of juicy questions for the end, when the subject is thinking you're about to say goodbye. This is another virtue of the pad: close the pad, like you're wrapping up, and then ask a 'Just one more thing...'

It's a shame the publicist is there. That always makes things a little more difficult. How to manage them: they are not there. Don't ask them questions, don't ask for permission to ask the subject questions, and don't accept any limitations on acceptable subjects. If they insist on being a part of the interview (ugh), acknowledge them only with a "Hm." Your time with the subject is limited, and you want as much good material with them, not their spinmeister.

As you ask questions, don't frame them too extensively. It's tempting to precede a question with a statement, or an explanation of your reason for asking the question. Let the subject interpret, and if they need clarification, they'll ask. You want to spend as little time talking, and as much time as possible listening. Likewise, when you follow-up on a question, resist the temptation to put it in good, quotable language. ('So you would say that was the moment you fell in love with writing?') The response will often be, 'Yeah,' rather than a revealing, and very quotable sentence. That advice really goes for any leading question. Try and avoid.

It sounds like you may be relatively new to interviewing in general, and especially with a celebrity of sorts. Don't hesitate to ask any question. They have agreed to an interview with you, and you should be able to ask any question, no matter how probing or uncomfortable. The worst they can do is not answer. And in the end, they are not your friend, and you don't owe them anything. Don't feel as though you have to be especially nice or forgiving or gloss over anything when you write the article. Write the honest, unvarnished truth, "Warts and all," and it'll be a better piece in the end.

When wrapping up the interview, make sure to get reliable contact information for the subject (try to avoid having to go through the publicist to contact the subject), in case you have any follow-ups later, or need to fact-check or confirm anything (you often will). Plus, you'll be able to contact them again in the future (you never know). Also, give them an opportunity to add or elaborate on anything before ending the interview ('Is there anything you think I might have missed?' etc..)

Let me know if you have any other questions, and good luck!
posted by Eldritch at 8:19 AM on January 18, 2006 [7 favorites]

I'm a writer, and the only thing that will make me really comfortable is scotch.

Just sayin.
posted by incessant at 8:45 AM on January 18, 2006

All of Eldritch's advice is good.

The only thing I can add is a point specific to novelists: most of the writers I interviewed liked to talk about how their books took shape. Often I'd ask what they began with when they started writing the book and how the book changed shape en route. Many times that would trigger some interesting digressions and we could just take it from there.
posted by tangerine at 9:32 AM on January 18, 2006

If you are someone who likes to discuss books and delve deep, you are most of the way there. Know what it is that you want to know (and recognize when you're not getting it) and recognize when the interviewee says something that's worth pursuing further. If you are a good conversationalist and genuinely interested in learning more about this person, you'll probably do this naturally..
posted by winston at 10:00 AM on January 18, 2006

You sound prepared and there's excellent advice here (much better than I could give). Let us know how it goes.
posted by safetyfork at 10:39 AM on January 18, 2006

I expect to see Eldritch's great advice on the MeFi sidebar!!!

I've never conducted an interview with an author, but I read them. Other readers may be different from me, but I always hate the fact that 90% of most interviews are about (a) gossip (who was your first wife?), (b) politics (what do you think of Bush?), and (c) armchair psychology (is the little boy in the book supposed to be you?). Some of this stuff is okay, but it tends to take over the whole interview.

I want to know about writer's PROCESS. How part did he write first, and why? What did he do for research? Did he cut anything major from the story? Was there anything major he changed?
posted by grumblebee at 11:29 AM on January 18, 2006

Don't know if this was suggested above, but if you can, you MUST see the author's work location -- his house, his office, the place where he writes. I guarantee you'll find something there that will spark conversation. "Hey, you have a snow globe on your desk. Why'd you put it there? What does it mean to you?"

There could be something really interesting there -- maybe you discover that he/she collects snow globes on his many travels to Europe. Or the answer may be mundane -- "my son gave it to me as a gag gift."

But that's not really, really the point -- the point is that the conversation will go somewhere, and you'll have more questions to ask that will get to the heart of the writer as a person.
posted by frogan at 12:26 PM on January 18, 2006

Ask him if he is a complete fraud, because you have evidence that instead of making up everything in his book, as he claims, he has in fact based it very closely on his own life.

Should get a laugh if nothing else.
posted by Hogshead at 2:03 PM on January 18, 2006

Eldritch's advice is absolutely spot on, but I'd like to emphasise this part: When you're on an interesting topic, and are getting good information, strategic use of silence is very useful.

When I first started doing interviews as a student journalist, I'd tend to fill up silences with more questions - learning not to do that, and learning to deploy encouraging noises/gestures when the interviewee dries up made a huge difference. I just had a quick look through the transcripts of my last couple of interviews, and in one of them, I only really asked three questions plus the occasional 'I see...' and 'Go on...', and got half an hour of great stuff from the interviewee. Before learning the 'silence trick' I would've asked twenty questions in that time and got bitty, short replies that were harder to quote and less revealing.

It even works well with the most reluctant interviewees known to man: German techno producers!

Re: authors specifically, if there's a lull in the conversation, I would suggest asking them about other authors, especially if you know that they are a big fan of/inspired by a certain author - they will relax a lot discussing something other than the book they're promoting (and are probably sick of talking about), what they say about another author/book can be revealing about their own work, and it is subsequently easy to steer them back to their own work.
posted by jack_mo at 7:11 AM on January 19, 2006

I heard a writer quoted once - may have been John Grisham, I'm not sure - about interview technique, and one thing hesaid stuck with me.

He didn't take notes, but when the subject said something juicy, he pulled out a pad and wrote it down, and put the pad away. Then, he said, the subject would usually "spend the rest of the interview trying to get me to take the pad out again!"
posted by gottabefunky at 11:13 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

What's the standard procedure once the article is written? Should you send the interviewee a copy of the article before you send it to the paper/magazine where it will be published? If you do, what if the interviewee wants to change something?
posted by Termite at 12:58 PM on January 19, 2006

Termite- Sending a source a pre-publication copy of an story you're working on is a terrible thing to do, and, as far as I know, strictly forbidden at any reputable news source. As a journalist specifically, but also more generally as a person tasked with writing a piece of non-fiction accurately and truthfully, someone interviewing a source for an article has an obligation to prepare that piece without interference and prior restraint from anyone outside the publication: not governments, not sources.

As you allude in your last sentence, by giving a source a copy of the article before its published gives them remarkable leverage over your work. Because a writer is in the business of accuracy, the source has but to say "That's not what I said," or "That's not what I meant" to put the writer in a very uncomfortable situation. Beyond that, you may very well include other perspectives, interpretation and context for the source's information that will put them in a bad light. They obviously won't like that, but they have you between a rock and a hard place if you've handed them veto power over your story.

This is not to say that you shouldn't fact-check or call back to confirm questionable information; that is absolutely essential. But to give the piece to the source violates the implicit agreement that any moderately media-savvy source enters into by agreeing to an interview: the source provides information to the writer, with absolutely no control over how that information is used, assuming that the writer records and transmits that information accurately.

And of course an editor/publisher will be justifiably upset if you give the piece he commissioned to someone else before he gets to see it.
posted by Eldritch at 1:28 PM on January 19, 2006

Eldritch: thanks for clearing this up. This is something I have been wondering about. I thought it was perhaps standard procedure/courtesy to let the interviewed person read the finished piece. Like you say, this could easily turn the writer's job into hell. If the interviewee wants to read the article, you can of course send him a copy of the paper once it's published.
posted by Termite at 1:44 PM on January 19, 2006

Response by poster: I apologise for only just getting round to following up this question. I'm amazed by the volume and quality of advice I have received.

A lot of you have warned me about reading from a script, or not going with the flow of the conversation. I'm sure this is excellent advice. Several of you reminded me to check and double check the dictaphone I will be using. Thanks. Several of you mentioned that I frame my questions in such a way as to elicit long, interesting answers. It hadn't occured to me to ask the question suggested by tangerine on the evolution of the book once writing had begun. I will ask this if I get a chance.

I haven't been asked to submit copy in advance, and if asked to I will avoid it for the reasons Eldritch (and others in this similar thread) discuss.

I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to respond. Even if I haven't mentioned it above, it's been enormously helpful. I've read and re-read every word. In particular, I'd like to thank Eldritch, whose detailed answer, borne out of experience is fantastic!

safetyfork asked me to let you know how it goes, which I will be sure to do in this thread, so check back next week! The article itself will be posted online, and I will link to it here.

By the way, for those who are interested, the author is Guillermo Martinez. His latest book, The Oxford Murders, is a literary thriller set in, well, Oxford (highly recommended, review here). There is quite a bit of maths, physics and philosophy woven into the text. He has a PhD in maths, and spent some time here in Oxford. I'm doing a PhD in theoretical physics here in Oxford, and have a longstanding interest in science and scientists in fiction (cf. science fiction, which is different, but no less interesting) so we should have plenty to talk about. I didn't mention this in the question because I didn't want to lead the discussion down rabbit warrens specific to the book (I have my own ideas on this!).

Thanks again everyone!
posted by caek at 2:24 PM on January 19, 2006

Oh, he is an awesome writer. You are going to have fun.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:25 AM on January 20, 2006

We're still here. Hope it went well.
posted by safetyfork at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry for the extreme delay! I ended up only getting a fraction of the time I had hoped for with Martinez, so the advice was even more useful -- I had no time to waste. The transcript turned out to be a solid, interesting document. The dictaphone worked fine, I didn't look at my notes, and he seemed comfortable.

My editor asked for me to be a bit more general in my article, and I ended up spending the second half of the article discussing the phenomenon of science in literary fiction, or 'lab lit' as a recent Nature piece put it(institutional subscription probably required, but email me and I'll send you a copy for private study). I didn't use too many direct quotations from Martinez himself, but the article was certainly informed by our discussion.

So, the article itself is online here. The modestly sophisticated typography I insisted on including (drop caps, pull quotes, old style figures) and most of the images haven't survived the transition from print to the web, so I've also put up a couple of PDFs (page 1, page 2) on my personal website, which retain these bells and whistles.
posted by caek at 10:45 AM on February 19, 2006

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