Monday, October 20, 2008

Talking Book

I've been reading a lot of author interviews lately out there in NetPubLand, and while most of them are informative, and a couple have convinced me to check out the author, on average they've got about as much pizazz as a nice cup of lukewarm milk. You know, that stuff people who aren't lactose intolerant drink before they snuggle under the covers. I know because halfway through my interview sojourn I was ready for a nap.

I think it's the inherent niceness factors involved in interviewing on both sides. The questions asked are usually the earnest nice variety from sincerely nice people (okay, obviously I have to exclude Sean Lindsay from this group.) The author, who doesn't want to come off as a jerk, is nice back. I've done a couple of interviews like that myself, and honestly, there's no room for anyone to be anything but nice -- hence the bed time beverage result.

While a lot of people in Publishing hold the niceness factor in high regard, the fact is that it's usually pretty boring to read. When an interview is boring, it comes across like filler and the opportunity to reach and interest the reader is wasted. So the next time you interview an author, consider fine tuning your questions with the following:

Laugh ability: Give the author a chance to tell a funny story, joke or anecdote about themselves, their work or the biz. Questions like "What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you since you were first published" "Name one odd thing you do when you're working on a book" or "What makes you laugh no matter what's happening" give the author a chance to share some humorous insights, which then entertains the reader.

Other Hats: Every author has at least one area of expertise or interest other than writing; make it your business to find out what that is. If you discover the author has an interesting or unusual day job or hobby, ask them about it and how it relates to their work. If the author has an extensive background in another field, get them to contrast it with working in publishing.

Flaws: We all tend to relate more to people who are human like us versus the Mary Sues who do everything perfectly. Ask the author what frustrates them, what about themselves or the work that they'd most like to improve and/or if they've worked to conquer any difficult aspect of the writing life.

Change: Authors know all too well how tough it is to succeed in the industry. Ask them what they would change about Publishing to make it better, what they think would encourage more people to read, and in what ways they hope to make a difference now and in the future.

Colleagues: We've all read authors talking about their favorite authors ad nauseum. Ask the author to name a new writer they think is promising, an author who has passed or is no longer writing who they miss the most, the one writer they'd love to collaborate with, have as a mentor, go on a retreat with, etc.

Finally, the book: After a brief description or synopsis of the author's current release (keyword here is brief), get the author to talk about other aspects of the story. Who was the easiest character to write, who was the hardest, and why? What haunted/amused/challenged them about this particular story? What do they think the book says about them? What do they hope the reader gets out of it?

I think the key to a great interview is to give the author a chance to be a person instead of a persona. Everyone can be nice and bland, and a few authors will probably go that way because they're afraid to do anything else, but the rest are like hidden treasures. Dig a little under the surface, and watch them shine.

Related links:

My unconventional 2006 interview with author Shannon Stacey.

SF Crowsnest's interview with author Joely Sue Burkhart showcases how a writer can be nice during a fairly standard interview without being boring.

The Laugh Doctor, Dr. Cliff Kuhn, interviews world famous comedian Gallagher about humor, health and life in general.

“So, Do You Always Wear White Underwear?” – How to Write an Exciting Interview by copywriter Guillermo Rubio


  1. I like reading Jim Hines' blog for this same reason. He is nice without being bland. He's deeply thoughtful and funny too. (Hmmm, kind of reminds me of some other blog I like.)

  2. Having been interviewed by professional journalists, I was accustomed to follow-up questions and sometimes phrased answers in such a way as to provoke follow-up questions that would lead the journalists away from their prepared material and into stuff I knew was more interesting and quotable.

    Then I started doing interviews via e-mail with non-professionals who have their list of questions and who then post the answers on their blog or Web site without any editing. Comments that should have provoked follow-up questions fell flat and the "good stuff" was never included because the follow-up questions were never asked.

    These days I presume there won't be any follow-up questions and try to pack everything I can into my answers. Occasionally, I even ask myself a couple of questions if I think the interviewer has overlooked something that might be interesting.

  3. Anonymous2:37 PM

    Man, for those who have a paranormal bent, I'll tell a fun place to do an interview...although they do them on the radio, is Raven Radio with Mandy Roth and Michelle Pillow.

    I did one with them and it was a lot of fun. They ask goofy questions, they talk about books...lots of fun.

  4. Good advice ;) I recently read an interview with Gennita Low on Marjorie Liu's blog and it contained pretty much all the elements you recommended. A great interview!

  5. Thanks for the link, PBW! I'm always afraid I come across as a total maroon!


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