Mary Rosenblum, your web editor, has published three Science Fiction novels, four mysteries, and more than 50 short stories in multiple genres, as well as nonfiction! She also teaches writing, and has for many years. She interviews professional writers, edtiors, and agents for the Long Ridge Writer’s Group website every other week.
The Art of The Interview
by Mary Rosenblum
You’ve sold several articles to Gardens Wonderful and you’ve got a great idea: interview the author of that hot new gardening book, the one everyone is buying. You might get a feature out of that one, and it will really establish you with the editor, never mind providing a great clip for future submissions.
Armed with paper, pens, and tape recorder, you set out for your appointment with Ms. Garden Author. But on the way, it hits you. Just how exactly do you conduct a good interview?
Pick a Focus
Don’t panic. Good interviewing is a skill, and it’s not hard to learn. Think focus. It’s not enough to send your editor a list of random questions and answers. That’s nice. We’ll know a lot more about this person by the time we’re finished reading this, but it’s not likely to catch an editor’s attention or beat out the other six interviews on his desk. But if your interview focuses on a particular topic that is appropriate for this magazine, you’ll be much more likely to earn yourself that feature slot.
Take our garden book author for example. You might focus your questions on ‘how did you get published’ if you’re proposing the article for a writers’ magazine. For that gardening magazine, you might concentrate on how that gardener got interested in container gardening, what her life as a gardener is like. Or you might focus on the ‘how to’ aspects. How do you choose a container, combat slugs? You concentrate on all those tips for the hands-on people. Once you’ve decided on the focus of your interview, you’re ready to begin.
One, Two, Three….Ask!
You’ve made an appointment with your author. The best place for an interview is in your author’s home, where she can show you her garden, you can take a few photos if you wish, and she is more relaxed. Barring that, try for some place where you can have peace and quiet, so that she is not distracted or uncomfortable. A back booth in a quiet restaurant at an off peak time is a good choice. A noisy watering hole with a blaring TV overhead is not! If you are interviewing a zoo keeper, for example, a quiet walk through the zoo at a convenient time for your interviewee might be perfect. Again, remember that editors like good quality photographs and they often pay for them.
Come armed with a list of written questions. Never underestimate your ability to forget those brilliant questions that seemed so unforgettable when you were planning the interview. What do you need to know? What facts are critical? Write them down so that you don’t realize on the way home that you forget something important! Additional requests for information can very quickly annoy your interviewee.
If possible, tape-record your interview. Some people are shy of speaking on tape, and some people speaking to you in their official capacity…perhaps a police officer or an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency…may not want their words recorded. But often, as you write up your article, you will find yourself struggling to recall a comment that you remember from the interview…but it just didn’t seem important enough to record at the time. Now it is, and if you want to use it, you’ll have to bother your interviewee again!
Do Your Homework!
There is nothing more annoying to a busy professional than having someone waste their valuable time asking questions that they could have answered with a little research. If you are going to interview a trial lawyer, for example, do not begin by asking him, ‘How do you try a case?’ There are many books out there that include information for writers on the legal process in all its forms. You should know the basics of the voir dire, jury selection, opening and closing statements, the process of cross-examination. Visit a courtroom. They are open to the public. Spend a few hours watching a trial. Then meet with your trial attorney and ask him specifics. You might need to know how he chooses which jury members to challenge and which to accept. You might need to know how his personal life is affected by an ongoing trial, or how he decides to present evidence or call witnesses. These are specific questions that only he can answer and he will appreciate your professionalism.
Think on Your Feet!
Interviews are not static lists of questions and answers – at least they shouldn’t be. As you chat with your interviewee, as you ask your questions, don’t be afraid to let the discussion take off on a promising tangent. You may have decided that this interview will focus on the role of the DEA agent in local law enforcement. But as you talk with your Drug Enforcement Agent, and he starts to talk about how he became an agent and what the career path is like, you may realize that this is a very fertile and interesting topic on its own. So go with it! Follow that promising lead, asking all the questions you can think of. Don’t neglect your original questions, but don’t ignore a line of questioning that might result in an even more saleable interview. You can always drop your editor a quick email or phone her and suggest a different slant for your interview. Remember that an interview is a two way street, and if your questions open up new and interesting information…go with it!
Interview Applications in Fiction
The interview has many uses in both fiction and nonfiction, and it’s worth doing well. Asking good questions and being a good listener can net you an interview that will go far for you in either nonfiction or fiction. Warm up that tape recorder and get started!
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