Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Tyranny of the Interview (and pants)

When you're a new writer, interviews are a joy. Oh, you want to ask little old moi where I get my story ideas? *pulls up a chair, ties you in it*
But the more interviews you give and take, the less interesting they become. I try to make interviews interesting for the subject and the audience, as well as my self. I have a boundless curiosity, a rather childlike inquisitive mind, and little capacity for embarrassment, which I use to my advantage. For a year I interviewed crime fiction writers from Patti Abbott to Lawrence Block on my website, in a series called "Belly Up to the Bar." Some questions were repeated, but I tried to get a few out of left field. Some authors have been asked it all, after sixty plus years in the biz, and it's tough to excite them.
I commiserate with Saeed Jones's statement. I would much prefer to meet an author for coffee and record our conversation on my phone and transcribe the juicy bits than come up with interview questions that they must write short essays to respond to. Perhaps Twitter would be a good medium, limiting questions to 280 characters and responses to a couple tweets per? It takes the proper writer, someone fast on their tweet as it were, to keep up. But with the popularity of AMA threads (ask me anything) this may be my new go-to for Twitter-savvy authors.

I recently interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for CrimeReads—it's not published yet, so don't bother looking—and the questions were lost in email hell for a month or so. She was kind to take the time to respond to my rather detailed interrogations, but was despondent at the idea of having to write responses again, and I do not blame her. Even someone as prolific as Oates—seriously, she had two more books published since I pitched the interview, and an anthology she edited is about to be published as well—answering these questions has become a burden, as you can tell from the short responses the more seasoned authors give. Read Lawrence Block's "Belly Up to the Bar" interview for a couple of quick witty rejoinders that parry my attempts at getting him to write an essay for free!

He was gracious, and so was JCO. Many writers have asked for a moratorium on the most repeated questions, that have become a running joke for decades: "where do you get your ideas?" Because for a writer, we can't imagine not getting ideas. It's what we do, we observe the hot mess that is humanity and get inspired to write a story. The best interviews I've read of late have been lightly edited chats; here's a good one with Stephanie McCarter and Jia Tolentino on sexual brutality in Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example. Another excellent one by Matt Zoller Seitz with Sady Doyle on her book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers that does a deep dive into Frankenstein, is a great read.

You can't do this easily via email; there needs to be back-and-forth, quick thinking, not an author sitting at their chair with all the time in the world to craft the perfect answer. But there are time constraints, especially when it's an author promoting a new book. Meeting somewhere? In a digital world, without teleporters? Madness. Even an hour of FaceTime becomes difficult to schedule. You can get away with not wearing pants, but you need a shirt and to get your hair did. Maybe a text chat in Google Hangouts or similar, Twitter DMs, is a good place to start? I'll attempt that for my next interview, and we'll see how it goes.


Alex Segura said...

Email interviews can definitely be a slog, but I find that it helps to send a question at a time, or in batches of three, so you have room for follow-ups, or to pivot. It makes it more conversational and less stilted. As an interview subject, I admit to groaning when I get an email with 15 long questions, but that's all kind of part of the hustle? If you want people to know about your work, you have to play the part to some degree. If I don't have time, I usually ask the reporter to send fewer questions. It's tough. It'd be more fun to just meet up and shoot the shit for a while, but no one has time anymore! I know I don't.

Thomas Pluck said...

Yes, sending in batches so you can follow up is good. Maybe it's up to the writer.