Tell me about your mother.
October 23, 2007 10:20 PM   Subscribe

I need to come up with interview questions to ask a writer.

I'm going to be interviewing a fairly successful writer, and would like some questions that aren't what I'm coming up with by myself ("So... do you like sushi? What kind? Cool.")

Is there a way journalists structure good questions? Is there a list of them somewhere? Can you give me some examples of good questions (so I can steal them from you?) I would like to find a dozen or so questions that are open-ended enough that they'll elicit more of a response than "Yes." but not so vague they're essentially the Terry Gross-style "Tell me about being a writer."

Subjects I would like to address are the person's work, background/how they came up as a writer, and future plans.

Google thinks I want to know how to ace a job interview, no matter how I rephrase my query.

Thanks! I'm embarrassed I'm asking a question again, just a week after my last one. Apparently I need a lot of help at the moment.
posted by thehmsbeagle to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It would help if we knew who the writer was. And if interviewing is something you'll be doing more of in the future, check out the books of Lawrence Grobel (in particular, Name Above the Title and Endangered Species); he also has a book on how to interview people (The Art of the Interview) but only 50% of it is interesting.
posted by dobbs at 10:27 PM on October 23, 2007

I'd steal from the interviews of Robert Birnbaum if I were you; here's an archive. The thing holding his interviews together is that he is INCREDIBLY well-informed about the work of each writer he interviews.

My own experience with interviews is that you absolutely never know what will get you what you want, even if you already know what you want. My most successful two questions of all time may have been: "So how was turning 40?" and "You're at least moderately wealthy; will you know when to quit?" One was vague-random, one was sorta hostile-honest; both got amazing answers. Sometimes it doesn't take any questions at all. So I guess I'd say; draft some questions that will surely elicit the answers you most want to know and then, when they don't actually answer them, say "Tell me more!" Or "But how does that work?"

Actually my third most successful question might have been "Were there Jews in your high school then?" Because it was SO random and offputting and not about anything that the subject took such major pity on me that I got everything I wanted after that. Heh. So I guess my advice is: Don't be afraid to be an idiot?
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:28 PM on October 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

Dobbs, I can't tell you who it is- what if they vanity-google themselves and find all the questions I ask? They'll realize that I'm a total dumbass, which is information I'd like to hold in reserve.

I think I should have included in my question that I'm not and don't ever plan to be a journalist of any kind: this is like one of those reciprocal interview things. Like Interview magazine, only with dorky writers instead of fabulous actors.

Thanks for the link and tips, RJ Reynolds. I may or may not steal your "Were there Jews in your high school then?" concept, depending on how poorly the interview goes.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:36 PM on October 23, 2007

Could you say just a little bit about the type of writing? Fiction? Academic writing? Journalism?
posted by Mr. Justice at 10:44 PM on October 23, 2007

(Oh, for the ability to edit the original question with new information.)

Mr. Justice, you're right, I should have included that. The person writes fiction in various forms: novels and films.

Sorry for my many omissions, all. I clearly should have thought harder about my question before posting.

(Now do you see why I need your help? I'm a terrible question-asker.)
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:49 PM on October 23, 2007

They best tip for interviews is: NEVER ask a question that can be answered with "Yes" or "No." Always form your question in such a way as to elicit the most verbal response.


"What was the first thing you wrote that made you realize you could be a writer?"

"What other authors in your genre do you enjoy reading?"

"What piece of yours do you think would work best as a movie, and why?"
posted by amyms at 10:54 PM on October 23, 2007

posted by tangerine at 11:09 PM on October 23, 2007

I've interviewed several writers, ranging from a Booker-winner to an obscure Baltic poet, and what I've found to be the best way to work is to prepare a small number of questions, no more than can fit on a page or two of a notebook that can fit in a pocket, and only refer to it when the interview hits a lull. Otherwise I just ask questions that come into my mind while the writer is speaking. I would split the questions between incredibly generic ones (how do you write?) to very specific ones (are you afraid of getting labeled as the writer who writes about animals?). In my experience the questions at either extreme would elicit the best answers.
posted by Kattullus at 11:24 PM on October 23, 2007

Interviewing is a dance, and generally, the best interviews come from when the interviewee is leading. So it becomes the interviewer's job to pick up on the clues of where to go next.

Most people worth interviewing are thinkers, and most people are interested in their own thoughts. It may have nothing to do with their profession, or current project, or anything you can research. If a musician has just had the best bagel of his life, and you can hit on it, it may be a strange interview, but it will be full of passion in a way talking about the latest CD might not. Then it becomes your job as a writer/editor to mold that passion into something the audience will enjoy.

So interviewing isn't about good questions as much as good follow-ups. Find and follow what the author is thinking about in the moment, and go wherever his/her passion is willing to take you.
posted by ochenk at 11:40 PM on October 23, 2007

I think it would be fun to ask at least one "meta" question... like, "what's the one question you really didn't want me to ask you today?" (but you need to be ready with fun humdinger if you get a non-answer, like "Oh, I don't mind answering any questions.")

I'm always quite curious how fiction authors view their characters, both literally and emotionally... like, do they mentally have a very defined physicality for them? Do they see their faces, know their physical mannerisms? Do they look like people from real life? Or are they composites of features from real people? Or entirely made up? Or something much more fuzzy? I would ask questions about this... and maybe something like "If you and Character X (a character from one of their books), lived together, who would do the dishes? Who cooks? What is their most annoying habit?"

I might ask, "Have you ever been interrupted by a Person from Porlock - and if so, what were the circumstances, and what was lost?" I would ask "What is the greatest blooper to ever make it into print in something you've written?" and, "do you ever include 'easter eggs' or hidden messages or private jokes in your books, and if so, are you willing to share an example of this?"

and, maybe...

"Have you ever been deeply affected by any fan communication, for better or worse?"

"If you were banished to an alternate universe forever, and that universe were one of your books, which one would it be? Why?"

or maybe:

"If you woke up tomorrow morning to find that you are suddenly no more than a character in another author's work in progress, who would that author be? What would be the nature of the story, and your role?"

My. I could go on. And on. But lucky for you, I won't. :)
posted by taz at 4:29 AM on October 24, 2007

One of my editors once gave me some often-useful advice: at the end, if they're not rushing off, ask: "Is there anything else you'd like to mention?" It gives them the chance to bring up their hitherto unknown influence that green polka-dot socks have on their work, for example.

Some things I tend to ask people in interviews:

- What is your working process?
It's very personal, and it often gives you good material to ask follow-up questions.

- How do you feel your craft/technique/approach has evolved over time?

- Tell me about how business considerations intersect with your creative goals.
(I interview musicians, so I'm usually dying to know what projects they actually want to do vs. what they feel they ought to, and it can be interesting to watch them dance diplomatically around the topic.)

Also, I'll second the advice to go with the flow of the interview, ask questions that build on things he/she has already said, and enjoy it. It's a chance to talk to someone intelligent and thoughtful.
posted by bassjump at 5:03 AM on October 24, 2007

Here's an article on a man who teaches interviewing, from American Journalism Review. I have found it helpful in guiding fledgling interviewers. The page includes links to suggestions on "What to do" and "What not to do."

One of the most important things to do with a fiction writer, IMHO, is to read deeply into the works, if you haven't already.

Good luck.
posted by sacre_bleu at 5:46 AM on October 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have interviewed only one author in my life, but here's what i did: I read the book I was interviewing her about/for. She, and her agent, was amazed that I had done this, said I'd done this, and wasn't lying about it because I could talk intelligently about some plot points, etc.

This might not apply to your situation, but it does restate something someone upthread said: be familiar with the person you're interviewing and their body of work. I think that's the most important thing.

As for possible questions:

"Have you had any crazy fan experiences?"

"What was your favorite book as a child?"

"How has your writing process changed with the advent of comuters?" This may or may not be relevant depending on the age of the author.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:43 AM on October 24, 2007

"Have you had any crazy fan experiences?"

Make sure to ask this as "What crazy fan experiences have you had?"

As even if they haven't had any they'll give a longer response.

Try these:

What's the most off-base interpretation anyone has made about one of your books?

What do you hate the most about writing?

If you had to fight Cormac McCarthy to the death, how would you prepare?

How do you feel about eBooks?

What do you do when you're faced with a blank page and don't know what to write?

What's your view of poetry?

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
posted by drezdn at 7:06 AM on October 24, 2007

Oh, one thing. Writers are craftspeople, they usually love to talk about the craft of writing.
posted by Kattullus at 7:15 AM on October 24, 2007

well, it depends on what you envision your article being like - to a certain extent you can control the conversation. You can ask stupid questions (favorite food, flying experiences) as icebreakers, as long as it relates to something that they wrote, said, or did.

I used to interview actors [largely dumb] and directors [mostly smart] a lot. They get asked the same crap over and over again, so google about and see what they've talked about extensively - it will avoid canned answers.

Second, comment on stuff they may have said in the past (it depends how inflammatory you want to get). I had a great conversation with Melvin vanPeebles about his interview in a hughes brothers documentary that was not about his movie, but did a great portrait of what he was about. You can also ask for more elaboration, or their reactions to stuff that was said about them.

Read some stuff, and ask about specific passages, the intent, the inspiration. Many interviewers don't bother, and it's heartening for them. Book titles are a good arena, relationships between characters. Do they reuse ideas?

Tie their work outside the literary arena - artists of all kinds are contextual. Ask them what they think of some current event related to their book, or the close of independent bookstores, or whatever.

Have a couple of provokers in your back pocket. I asked Bruce Campbell how his life would change if he suddenly became an A-list celebrity, and he went off on me. It completely touched a nerve, but it was fantastic.

Write more questions than you will ever possibly need. You'll focus, and you wont' run out of time.

Finally, writers, no matter how famous, don't get that much attention. Ever. So, to a certain extent, genuine interest in their work goes a long way - don't you like to talk about yourself?
posted by beezy at 10:16 AM on October 24, 2007

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