Friday, 15 January 2010

Why I Interview the Way I Do

I stumbled across Justine Larbalestier's site explaining how to conduct an interview and complaining about blogs that do 'generic interviews'. Sites rather like mine. Here's John Scalzi explaining why he won't do such an interview (good to know). On both pages they complain that interviews don't bring in traffic.

I beg to differ. My best traffic days are ones where I have interviewed an author. Now, whether people enjoy my interviews is another question. But having the interview up attracts attention, showing (to me at least) that readers are interested in author interviews, to some extent at least.

Why do I send a form interview, with the same questions going to each author? Isn't that lazy?

In a word, yes. It is lazy. I'm doing this blog purely for fun. Unfortunately I don't have time to read everything the author's written. And since most of my interviewees are debut novelists, in most cases their book isn't even out when I interview them.

And make no mistake, even without coming up with new questions each interview they still take a fair amount of time. I have to discover who has a book coming out (I like my interviews to coincide with recent publications to showcase authors throughout the year), I have to find contact information for the author (not always easy). When they respond positively I have to remind them when the due date is coming (though this isn't always necessary). I have to read over the interviews and make sure there are no editing errors. I have to cut some answers so I only have two pages for the store (any more than that and there would be no room and a typical interview comes in at 5 pages long). I have to put up the display at the store and post the interview to my blog. I then often send a photo of the display to the author (but not always) and send a follow up email asking the author to check the blog for errors (whether in book titles or typos that were missed in the interview, etc.). This is all done in my personal time. Time I could be spending working on my own novel.

So why do I do interviews? A few years back I couldn't work a day at the bookstore without getting at least one (and generally more) person complain about the price of books. "Why do we have to pay $10 when in the US it's only $7? Don't you know the dollar's at par? Can't I pay the US price?"

I decided to post interviews with authors in the store showing the work that goes into writing a novel. So instead of asking questions about their specific work (which is, alas, only interesting to someone familiar with their work and interested in that genre) I asked general questions that could be of interest to anyone walking by who wants to know what it's like to be an author. That includes people Christmas shopping who would never read SF/Fantasy themselves but want something interesting as a gift for someone who does read the genre. That means people simply walking by the SF section who spot the double sign and wonder what it's about. I have sold many books this way. To people who wouldn't otherwise pick up fantasy or science fiction books.

It is also a good way of introducing a new author to readers. These are authors whose books are often overlooked by browsers and relatively unknown unless they have a lot of pre-publication internet buzz. I have introduced a lot of debut novelists to readers using these generic interviews.

Why keep them generic? I personally find it fascinating learning how different authors do the same things.

Did you know that Bernardine Evaristo considers writer's block a dirty word? Gail Carriger suggests reading something non-fiction that relates to your writing to get over it. Peter Brett on the other hand considers it a state of mind that writers use to defeat themselves.

Speaking of Peter Brett, did you know that he wrote The Warded Man on his smartphone while commuting to work in New York? Or that Kevin J. Anderson goes hiking and talks into a tape recorder, getting two chapters done each walk. Or that Mark Teppo doesn't get much writing done at home so he goes to coffee shops to write. Robert Bennett (whose book Mr. Shivers just came out) write a lot of his book while waiting for paint machines to reboot as part of his tech support job at Home Depot.

I have never published a boring interview, because each author brings their own slant to the questions.

But maybe I'm not a good judge of that. What do you think? Are my interviews boring? Would you stop at a store display and read one? Do you come to my blog to read any? Have you discovered a new author through one of my interviews? Are there questions you would like to see asked?


Patrick said...


Disclaimer: I enjoy your interviews and my comments are addressing interviews in general.

I agree with your assessment. Each author answers the same question differently. However, from their point of view, they answer the same questions the same way everytime.

The problem isn't that you ask the same questions, it's when everyone asks the same questions, particularly when the questions are overly generic. The example I always see is the dreaded "Where do you get your ideas" They don't make for bad interviews, they just frustrate the author being interviewed for the 17th time.

I've been recently analyzing my own interview style (as a result of the same Scalzi/Justine articles you reference) and trying to improve it. It does take longer and it is harder to not reuse questions. This is especially apparent when you focus on newer authors like we both do. Increasingly so when their books aren't even out.

The alternative is to try and find out what the author has liked to talk about in the past and tailor questions to these sorts of topics. However, the feedback I've recieved is that the authors talk about these subjects on their own time so they would prefer to talk about something different.

1 year to write a book
1 week to read it
4-5 hours to write a targeted personalized interview
1-3 hours?? to respond to it
1-2 hours to get it ready to be posted.

Authors can claim that the burden of content falls on them in an interview but there is a lot of work that goes into writing a non-generic interview.

Jessica Strider said...

Good points. I can see how it would be annoying from an author's POV to answer the same questions over and over. Perhaps a good compromise then would be to see what interviews they've done in the past so as to ask different questions.

I've never considered asking the 'where do ideas come from question', though I understand the appeal of it. I also understand why authors dread the question.

Hagelrat said...

I haven't read the articles you refer to but i've seen authors and readers complaining about these sorts of things before. I'm inclined to agree with Patrick, I see no problem with asking the same questions of each visiting author, however I can see though that for an author answering the same questions at every interview could be frustrating. On the other hand the interviewer does their research when approaching authors, I would hope that the authors check out the blogs before agreeing to do the interview. If they don't then they really can't complain that they don't like the interview style.

Simcha said...

It does appear that authors get tired of answering the same interview questions, which was brought home to me when I asked Jasper Ffrode for an interview and he said yes, as long as I can come up with some new questions for him. He even suggested that I used some of his answers from his website, which made me wonder if other authors just "recycle" their answers to commonly asked questions.

Your interview questions are pretty typical of an author interview, but if you are interviewing a new author then this isn't much of a problem.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I joke that new restaurants go through a sort of decay cycle: 1) the 'Grand Opening' sign, which comes with a quality to lovingly prepared meals with the freshest ingredients; 2) Supplemental signs ('$4.99 special!'), which they put up next to, but not instead of, the 'Grand Opening' sign; and, finally, the 'Buffet' sign (well, there's often one final sign: 'Closed 4Ever').

I'm managing publicity for my wife's debut novel, and have sent personalized queries to over 200 blogs. In so doing, I'm noticing a similar structure in reverse. The first salvo is, more often than not, "Great! Can you guest-post?" (Sure! Now that I've spent my entire (tiny) advance on con travel, publicity and promotion so my career can get a toehold, I've got all kinds of time to create customized content for 100 small blogs for free!). Then the form Q&A arrives, sometimes sent within minutes of the query.

Now, maybe there's some marginal spark in how different authors answer the same question, but lemme tell ya, before my wife's debut book has even hit the streets, she's already well sick of "Tell us a little about yourself", "Tell us about your road to publication" and "Where do you think of your characters?"

This is especially disappointing because this book happens to be both very heady and very personal -- there's plenty she could talk about, if someone would take the time to, oh, read her press packet or her website or *gasp* her BOOK ...

The reason I bring up the reverse-restaurant analogy is that it seems like the bigger a blog gets, the less likely it is to cut corners. Her more personalized interviews are almost always with bigger blogs, and the form interviews are with the smaller ones. It's like blogs wink into existence cutting corners, and mature their quality as they grow -- just the opposite of restaurants.

I really don't mean for this to seem sour and I do appreciate your blog; but I'm just trying to give a small peek at what it looks like from the writers' side of the fence.