Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Questions Questions

Recently, Stuart was blogging about plans to do an interview to put on his website. I was going to quote a piece of it here, but his archives are all blank.

(No, blogger is still not playing nice with Sandra. I’ve been shut out of comments for about 18 hours now – maybe longer. Couldn’t post earlier either…)

Anyway, his post got me thinking about interviews.

Despite being trained to do interviews, it isn’t like riding a bike. Not for me, anyway. One thing that I never really had as a journalist was the gumption to pressure people. I could never be one of those reporters sticking my recorder into the face of the woman whose child had just died in a horrific accident, or whatever. I’d rather let them cry on my shoulder.

But I now find myself needing to do interviews, both for research purposes in my writing, and also author interviews.

The author interviews I’ve reclaimed my love for. More about that later.

Research interviews can be tricky. In part, if you think you know what it is you need to have answered, you can miss essential things that may have a bearing on the fact you’re researching.

About 18 months ago, I wrote a letter to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Calgary. The purpose was to enquire about going for a tour and talking to someone who might be able to answer questions about procedure.

I’d expected a “no” reply to come in the mail or via email.

What I got was a phone call.

And the phone call wasn’t, “sorry we can’t work this out.” The phone call was, “What do you want to know.”

The first rule of interviewing: Be prepared.
You may know you’re planning an interview. For example, I’ll be sitting down with Simon Kernick at Harrogate Crime Festival in July. What I don’t know offhand is when during the weekend we’ll wrap up our interview. My job is to be prepared for that to be Thursday afternoon, 30 minutes after I check in at the earliest, and Sunday morning half an hour before people are running for trains at the latest.

Therefore, I’ll be coming with a list ready and everything set to go. It is only courteous to come prepared when you have a scheduled interview. Even when I send questions via email for response, I try to stick to my schedule. It’s professionalism. I’ve been late once this past year - unfortunately for Simon, which makes it twice as critical to me that I’m ready long before Harrogate – but fortunately he’s pretty forgiving.

Being prepared is also about showing respect for the people that you’re interviewing.

Nobody wants to have their time wasted. I’m keenly aware of this when I interview authors. Some people think authors sit around and play on computers all day and don’t do much for their pay, but authors are usually the busiest people I know, and I respect their time by showing up ready.

My interview with Stuart last year for the Fall Issue of Spinetingler started in person, but we decided to finish it via online chat. I hadn’t had a chance to read his book yet, having just purchased it, and I really prefer to have read some if not all of an author’s works before interviewing them. Why? Well, for one thing, it helps me avoid stupid questions. It also gives me some insight about what I should be asking about. And again, respect. (And I should add, I got up at 6 am and read the first 6 chapters of his book before we started the in person interview. Sacrifice sleep to avoid looking stupid. That's my motto.)

My husband taped a television interview with Deric Ruttan for me to watch. The interviewer was a popular Canadian interviewer, long history in journalism, well-established show that she’d been the host of for years. Within three questions I knew that she knew almost nothing about him. How?

1. Her questions were superficial.
2. He made a reference to a song on his cd BY NAME and she asked what that meant because she didn’t realize it was a song. (She had a copy of the cd in her hand, btw. Clearly hadn’t read the songs listed on the back.)
3. The questions covered the same old territory our high school yearbooks printed about Deric XX years ago.

This brings me to the next suggestion: Move into new terrain!

I always read a few interviews with a person if possible before interviewing them. Not possible with Cornelia Read as I was the first to get to her, but if you can, take a few minutes and do some online searches and read other interviews. (And in the case where you’re one of the first, get to know your subject a bit beforehand, if you can. By the time I interviewed Cornelia, it was easy to ask questions regarding nudity and go from there.)

This helps you come up with questions. Every time an answer screamed out, “ask about that” but the interviewer went right on with the game plan and didn’t deviate, I wrote down that question. I’ll quote the comment back to them and ask whatever I felt the interviewer should have asked, but didn't.

Look, pure and simple, if you’re so frickin’ famous that everybody wants to interview you, you get tired of being asked the same 10 questions over and over and over again. (I should note that Mark said no such thing about being sick of being asked certain questions. Really, I'm just being insolent and inserting links to whomever I damn well please.)

And there are some questions you have to be asked. I bet Ian Rankin sits around thinking of flippant answers to the “what’s going to happen to Rebus in retirement” question these days. “He’s going to fall down a waterfall and go missing.” “He and Siobhan are going to have a love child and move to California.” “He’s going to kill Cafferty and take over the business.” Man, if I’d been asked that question as many times as I’ve seen him asked it – and have to give the same basic answer – I’d be wanting to say, “Rebus who? What the hell are you talking about? My next book’s set in Aberdeen about this guy named McRae…”

And remember something: Silence is an invitation. By not jumping up to ask the next question right away, an interviewee will often say more. People like to fill silences.

But this won’t always be true of people who’ve been interviewed a lot.

Don’t be afraid to toss the plan.

I’ll come into an interview with usually 30-50 questions, depending on the situation. Some of those questions might be extremely loaded, the kind that open up a discussion on a big topic. In any interview, I’ve always tossed questions I came in with, and asked tried to follow through on what came up in the answers that should be addressed.

Really, an interview is pretty easy, if it’s going into print. You can bumble your way through and still redeem yourself when you write it up.

For one thing, I always give authors a chance to look over their answers before they go to the public domain. Sometimes, people speak too freely. I’m mindful that my job here isn’t to expose a crooked politician, but to introduce readers to the author. Most times, the authors stand by exactly what they said first time ‘round, even if something makes them cringe when they see it in black and white later.

I’ll also readjust the order of content in an interview. This is strictly for the reader, so they can follow topic to topic more smoothly. Often, a comment will raise two questions in my mind, and I’ll follow up one and then have to go back to the other question later. Those are the kinds of things I’ll try to adjust later so that both questions make sense and are read ‘in context’ – I hope.

I’ve referred to interviewing authors a lot here, because that’s almost all I do these days. But every writer should be prepared for the moment when they get to interview a professional in their field – an historian or a secret service agent or some expert in dragons or something.

You might just have to fly by the seat of your pants.

A friend of mine told me about that lately. Getting seated next to an RCMP officer on a flight – an RCMP officer with a pretty interesting job…

She had to think on her feet. Ended up interviewing him the whole 4 hour flight.

An interview like that, you might bumble a bit more through, forgivably. But when you have a planned interview, come prepared, come with intelligent questions that show you know more than their name, and treat them with courtesy and respect.

And if you really really screw it up, that’s what alcohol’s for. Why the heck do you think I spend so much time in the bar at crime festivals?

Another basic tip: Don’t ask yes or no questions. Ask questions that invite an articulated response. Not, “Is blue your favourite colour?” but “What is your favourite colour? Why?” Okay, dumb example, but I think you can see the difference in what you’d expect a person being interviewed to say. One or two yes or no questions might be necessary, but they should always be used to lead into something much more interesting.

Always try to get a way to contact the person after the interview, before the interview comes out. You might get home and find you don’t have the correct spelling for something, or there’s one last question BEGGING to be asked – most people who’ve taken the time for an interview to begin with will indulge a few follow-up questions.

And most people will appreciate your desire to get it right. You should have seen me trying to spell all those names Cornelia Read threw at me...

** An example was being told that only twice in something like 10 years could she recall the ME actually going to the crime scene. I asked what those two times were. You might not get an answer to a question like that, but you should still ask (I did, and the answer was pretty interesting – it gave me a better picture of the ME’s actual tasks than anything else, but I’m not sharing it here. That leaves me with one last point: Don’t print what you don’t have consent to print. Not if you want people to talk to you again.)

And really, authors are pretty easy. Because they know that interviews are important, so they generally aren't that difficult to talk to.

But I can think of one long-suffering author who probably wishes I'd respect him more by sending fewer emails. He's too nice to say it, though.

(And he isn't the only one who could say that, either. But again, Mark's too nice. I owe them drinks at Harrogate...)

Of words

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational once again asked its "intelligent" readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter; and then supply a new definition. Here are this year's winners:

1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

3. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

4. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

5. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.

6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got "extra credit".)

11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

And the pick of the literature:

18. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.


Trace said...

Excellent post, Sandra. Really good stuff.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, I wish it demonstrated evidence of more cohesive thought.

This is what happens when you start typing your post, lose it, have to restart, the friggin' thing still won't work and you end up typing it in an email.

But hey, comments are now back on line! Wahoo!

Kate said...

Good advice about interviews. It's a pity I'm not good at remembering good advice but I'll try.

Some of those words are really needed and should be added to the dictionary.

I haven't had so many problems with Beelzebug lately. I'm afraid this isn't due to my spiritual improvement - it's just the colder weather.