Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Essay: My Worst Fear as an Interviewer

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

During my junior year in college, I attended a Features Writing class and for a few sessions, one of the topics we discussed was the art of the interview. Out teacher didn't simply give examples of good interviews but she also narrated horrible ones. One example is when an interviewer asked a celebrity what his book was about. The interviewee replied that the interviewer should read the damned book and then abandoned the rest of the interview. (And after reading much author blogs, I can understand the trepidation. Book synopsis and summaries scare some authors: how can you condense your 100,000-word novel into less than a thousand words? Or better yet, why bother writing all that when some smart-ass is just going to ask you to summarize the book in a few words.) There were other examples of bad interviews but that one sticks in my mind. As an interviewer, that's the kind of interviewer I dread most.

Thankfully, in all the interviews I've done, that hasn't happened yet. Last week though, several people latched on to Pat's (of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist) interview with Glen Cook. There's already some tension right from the very start. Jeff Vandermeer for the most part attributes some blame on the interviewer. Matt Staggs, on the other hand, gives examples on how the author could have turned it around. If you read the comments section, the blame is similarly spread out. Some people think Pat should have asked better questions. Others think Cook was rude or didn't spend as much time thinking of concise answers. Larry Nolen has an example of an interview with Cook that fared significantly better. So what exactly happened here?

Let's go back to the basics of an interview. First, before anything else, a good interview should already know beforehand who his target audience is. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist for the most part strikes me as an entry-level type of literary blog. It doesn't include academia-level questions for example. With that in mind, Pat's questions to Cook isn't surprising. However, this is where the lack of synchronization comes in. Glen Cook might not be as famous as J.K. Rowling, but he's not new to the publishing industry either. I don't think he was really prepared for basic questions--especially ones you can dig up on the Internet--or for some poorly worded questions (and to be fair to Cook, he did ask Pat to clarify but the interviewer failed to capitalize on that).

This is where methodology comes in. As an author, when you're frustrated by a question, there are several ways of reacting to it. You can be a Neil Gaiman (although granted not everyone can be as patient as he is) and graciously answer it as if it was the first time you were asked that question. (When Neil Gaiman came to visit the Philippines, he gave great answers to all these questions and it was only later that I found out that these answers were available elsewhere, either in Gaiman's books or in other interviews.) Author P.N. Elrod has on her site a FAQ which are essentially "questions she's tired of hearing" so it's listed there, with the answers, so that you don't have to ask them over and over again. Or third, you can be as opinionated as you want to be. And I'm not saying that's necessarily wrong. I really liked Glen Cook's answers because well, he actually gives an opinion and doesn't play it safe. He tells you things as he sees it, which might lead to some interesting fireworks. And in many ways that's the appeal of more volatile personalities like Harlan Ellison. (And from a publicity standpoint, Pat's interview was a success in the sense that it's garnering all this attention.)

It's not all in the hands of the interviewee though. Contrary to what some people might think (especially in the proliferation of the first kind of interview in blogs), there are two types of interviews. The format that Pat follows is the Q&A style format, which basically reprints verbatim the interview that was conducted (it's also the same format that I use). The alternative is to write the interview like a feature, summarizing most points about the author (which didn't necessarily take place in the interview as this could have easily been researched facts) and including some choice quotes. That's what basically happens in the Locus Magazine interviews or John Joseph Adam's profiles for SCI Fi Wire (here is a recent example). And even if you're doing a straight-up Q&A, you can take elements of the latter by starting off the interview with an introductory paragraph explaining some basic details about the author so that you don't have to ask questions like "so what is this book about?"

Another element that comes into play is in how the interview was conducted. This was obviously an interview conducted via email. Now there are significant differences between an interview done through live chat and one via email. Perhaps the biggest difference is the innuendo. In an email, you don't get a sense of the hesitation, the fear, or even the excitement of the author. You obviously can't tell whether they're uncomfortable with the question unless it's too late (i.e. they've already answered the question). Sometimes, you can't even tell whether they're joking or being sarcastic. Having said that, that's not to say live chat will always be superior to email interviews. The latter certainly has its own advantages.

Some of Pat's readers blame the email interview process. I do think Pat failed to adapt to the email interview but let's not abandon the art of the email interview altogether. I've done almost a hundred email interviews in the past fourteen months and thankfully, while there were certainly some times when I definitely asked an inappropriate question, I don't think it ever reached a point where it was consistently disastrous or as controversial as this. Of course then again, the skill didn't come naturally and my own methodology had to be developed over time.

What's not readily apparent is that there are several methods available when doing email interviews. Saying that "this is an email interview" doesn't convey all the necessary information, at least as far as observing how it went goes (to the reader, it doesn't really matter which method you use, as long as the final product is excellent). For me, there are three types of email interviews.

The first method, and which I think Pat utilized, was to simply send out a batch of questions to Cook. Most of my interviews are done this way (and I'm flattered when people think there was an actual live conversation that occurred with my interviews--that only goes to show that an email interview can indeed be effective when done right; of course I'd like to think my interviews were a successful due to the interviewees rather than the interviewer). The advantage for both parties is that you send/receive all the questions in one email. The disadvantage of course is that as an interviewer, you can't adapt to the interview. "Shaping" the rest of the interview becomes a burden on the interviewee. This is partially remedied by follow-up questions (and I've done those), especially when the interview steers into a direction you didn't expect. There are other techniques to bear in mind when conducting this type of email interview but that would be a separate post as it's too long to enumerate all of them here. For the most part, the important thing to bear in mind is that there's less room to react on the side of the interviewer and if I were in Pat's place, some of the problems could have been solved with follow-up questions.

The second method is to send the questions via email one at a time. This obviously leaves you with much wiggle room to maneuver and one can get a sense of what works and what doesn't work in the middle of the interview. I've only done this type of email interview with Nick Mamatas and the reason this is seldom the case despite its many advantages (or similarities to a face-to-face interview) is that it's a huge time sink for both parties (and in my case, more on the interviewee's side rather than mine). For example, I think me and Mamatas resolved our interview pretty quick at five hours, but that was only because we were both available at a common time. Another thing that worked for us was technology: we were both using Gmail. Using any other email service, it would have flooded both our inboxes. The final count on both our correspondences was 48 in total. I'd love to conduct this sort of interview but it can also be the most inconvenient method for interviewees. There are also some advantages of using the email format that you lose via this method (such as having the time to ponder and edit your answers). And honestly, there are some interviews which I conduct via the 1st method that come in 2-3 months later (the longest was 6 months) that time and convenience are valuable assets for interviewees. If you do choose this method however, you might want to look into other mediums other than email. A chat room seems more apt for this kind of method. Or you might want to conduct it over Skype (it's how some podcasters conduct their interviews).

The third method is a hybrid of the first two. From what I know of Nolen, this is the method that he uses when he conducts his interviews. Basically, you send your questions in batches (i.e. the first email has three questions). This gives you some of the flexibility of the second method without requiring both of you to be hooked to your computer all day. This was honestly the method I tried in my first email interviews (JM McDermott comes to mind) but I later abandoned it because I found the first method to be more efficient (you have to bear in mind the number of email interviews--around 80--I conducted last year). However, Nolen does produce satisfactory interviews using this method so it might be a process prospective interviewers might want to work with.

Another criticism against Pat was that he used stock or even cliche questions. Personally, those type of questions work depending on the context that they're used (and if you look at my interviews on this blog [it's a different matter altogether for the interviews I conduct for external sites because they have a different target audience], there's a common thread to my questions). Again, I think what one has to bear in mind is the target audience and the format of the interview. For example, since my interviews follow the Q&A format, there's a certain "narrative" to it so to speak that sometimes you ask stock questions to fill in or start out the interview. This isn't necessary if you're doing the interview-feature. In the case of Pat, again, his target audience was the casual science fiction/fantasy fan hence some of the stock questions. It works for some interviewees and not for others.

Context for me is important. Asking an author a cliche question such as what their writing process is like only sounds repetitive if it's been asked before (something to bear in mind when interviewing debuting authors) or if your target audience doesn't have convenient access to the previous interviews where it was asked (either it was conducted in an obscure publication or the publication you're doing the interview for is a mainstream publication when it comes to genre personalities).

Sometimes, some stock questions are indispensable for their value that you can't ask them. For example, my target readership for my blog tends to be people curious about the science fiction/fantasy industry, usually writers and aspiring writers, and so I tend to ask my interviewees what advice they have for aspiring writers. There's honestly no roundabout way of asking that question, not without convoluting what I meant to ask (and that's probably one of the mistakes of Pat: some of his questions were more complex than they needed to be).

There are also some questions that have been asked that you want to ask again in the off-chance that the interviewee might give a different answer (because people change). Of course having said that, there are some questions in which the answers won't change (the interviewee's birth date won't change for example just because it's been asked a hundred times). Overall, I think this is where you start evaluating risk vs. reward. Is there a reason why the interviewee would give a different answer? I think a good example of this would be Ursula K. le Guin. In between writing The Wizard of Earthsea and Tehanu, she certainly had a paradigm shift. If you asked her what the former book was about four decades ago and today, I'm sure she'd give a different answer when you compare both answers.

Ultimately though, as far as I'm concerned as an interviewer, the interview isn't about me. Certainly there are some interviewers whose personalities are dominant in the interview--and that's certainly a valid paradigm when it comes to doing interviews--but I'm not that kind of person. For me, interviews should benefit the interviewee (although the reader/target audience should be the priority of course) and the interviewer should be in the service of that philosophy. If I conduct an interview where I look stupid or embarrassing but make the interviewee come out of their shell and appear intelligent, so be it. Thankfully, I think Pat echoes this mentality in the comments section of his interview: "Contrary to what some appear to believe, I don't feel bad about how the Q&A turned out. Truth be told, I laughed out loud on more than one occasion! I don't think that author came across as an asshole. I think he came across as Glen Cook." And in that sense, Pat should be applauded.


Clyde said...

Hey Charles,

I'm going to need to print this out as I have the pressure I feel that seems to indicate I have something I want to say, but don't know what it is.

As an immediate reaction though I think the unnamed celebrity in your first example, who walked out of an interview when asked, "What is your book about?" was being self-centered, and short sighted. The listener needs to know what the book is about... assuming you would like them to buy your product. "What is your book about?" could be better restated for touchy types as, "what is the premise of your book?" That makes it sound more intellectual-like, but it's still the same question.

The other alternative is to present the premise yourself, or ask the person beforehand if they would like to pitch the premise or have you do it.

Really though if anyone reading this is ever going to be an interviewee, you have to understand that the interviewer may be asking questions they know the answer to because they think the audience might not know the answer.

Charles said...

Depending in the scenario, I think it was more along the lines that the interviewee felt the interview didn't do his research. It didn't help that the said celebrity (my memory fails me but I think it was one of the Beatles...) wasn't desperate in selling the book.