Interviews are endlessly different. I am always asked, by publicists, family, editors, ‘How did it go?’ And I almost always answer, ‘We’ll know when we see it.’
The thing is, an interview is always in the editing. You can talk to someone for an hour, and their space allowed is 500 words. Or five minutes on air. (Or 90 seconds if it is television, sometimes.) That means you will sound either witty, thoughtful, or cretinous, depending on whether they kept the moment when you sneezed and mispronounced their name at the same time, or not.
So I’ve learned to wait before deciding how a given interview will appear. This is even true of e-interviews, since answers can be trimmed or cut there, too. The truth is, you really don’t know. What you can know, is if someone has done their preparation (starting point: reading the book), if they are genuinely interested in the conversation, and if there’s any kind of vibe between you. (Laughter is often a key, unless it is during that sneeze I mentioned.)
There is also a real range of skills in interviewing, and these are different for print, radio, television, email, or on stage (that last is entirely different). There are also different ways of being excellent. (Just as there are for writing, or acting, or pitching.) I have vivid memories from early in my career of being on air with Peter Gzowski, the late, great titan of Canadian radio. Gzowski was legendary; stories were told of people stopping their cars outside bookstores, running in and saying, ‘I want the book by the guy Gzowski’s talking to right now.’
He had many strengths – warm voice, laughter – but for me the key just about leaped out as we talked the first time. He listened to what his guest was saying. Simple as that, and as hard. Peter was superbly briefed by his producer and staff, but he also reacted to what he was hearing in the studio. He didn’t just move on the next question on his cheat sheet, he responded to what you told him. It became a conversation, not a pre-fabricated q&a. It was a pleasure, actually, and because he was live to air, for those interviews I was able to say, and know: that went well.
Nancy Pearl, the ‘Rockstar Librarian’, with whom I’m talking in Seattle late in April, is also fabulous. We’ve done three sessions together, and her secret is something else. Nancy’s passion for books, for the world of books, for talking about books, sometimes for your book, is irresistible. She pumps you up because her delight is infectious. It is easy to see, five minutes into a conversation with her, on stage or on camera, why she is such an ambassador, worldwide (she just came back from talking books in Bosnia), why people go charging off to buy the books she’s praising.
What’s fun, especially on a book tour when repetition becomes the usual name of the game, is when you get a question that stops you, makes you raise a figurative or even literal eyebrow and, like an ungrammatical Apple fanboy: think different.
Today, in New York, I had an interview with César Torres of Ars Technica, and it was a lot of fun. But what I’ll remember, and discuss with friends, is a question he asked about a scene late in River of Stars when one person ‘betrays’ someone dear to them by releasing something they wanted kept private. César got us going on privacy and the internet and oversharing, and I mentioned Kafka’s executor and dear friend who ‘betrayed’ him by releasing works Kafka asked him (ordered him) to burn. That had actually crossed my mind when I wrote the scene, but I never expected to be asked about that small moment, or have it connected to issues of the current cyberworld. It was, in other words, a terrific question from someone who had read the book, thought about it, and connected it to his own world and interests (César is the Social Editor for Ars Technica).
In other words, a novelist’s dream question.
That one went well. I’ll go out on a limb and say it.