I have done two live interviews. I have done two non-live interviews and a further one where I wrote the questions myself. Obviously this qualifies me to give you, Joe and Joanna Public, advice.
It’s worth saying that I didn’t organise any of these myself. My publisher hired a PR agency for its whole range and my particular publicist managed to wrangle these for me. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to examine how you might get these yourself, but that’s for another day.
Buckle up, folks. Here we go:
These are questions received in advance of a deadline, usually via email. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over them; you’re not under pressure to provide an instant response.
The downside is that you can’t really ask for different questions. You (or at least I) also feel more pressure to get it ‘right’; to be interesting and informative.
Some quick pointers:
- Read all the questions before you dive in; you might be able to give similar answers to several questions and it’ll help to have an idea of the overall shape of the article
- Avoid one-word answers. Hopefully you won’t be asked anything that could be answered so simply; you do see them in print but they tend to come from face-to-face interviews (or where the journalist has been very creative)
- Think about what the interviewer wants – and that usually boils down to something that’ll fill space without alienating their readers. They want as little work as possible. Thus they want good writing and full answers; don’t worry about going on too long (they can cut it back if necessary) but don’t expect them to correct your grammar for you. Errors reflect on you more than they do them
- If there is a question to which the answer is simply ‘no’ then reinterpret it so you can say something sensible. Example: ‘What impact did playing professional basketball have on your writing?’ could be answered thus: ‘I didn’t actually play professionally but I do like to go for regular walks. I find exercise really helps focus on the knottiest of plot-points…’ That’s an extreme example and you’d like to think that in such cases the journalist would rewrite the question to fit your answer
- If you’re entirely stymied get back to the interviewer as soon as possible. Don’t sweat on it up to the last minute. Most times things can be changed
- Similarly, if you have a crisis and can’t make the deadline let them know as soon as possible. Most times articles can be pushed back. Even if the opportunity passes you’ve kept from being blacklisted. There’s always the next novel to promote
- Get someone you trust to check your answers. My wife is superb at pointing out where my particular brand of dry humour or self-deprecation could be misinterpreted. Some things are perfectly clear in your head but don’t come across on the page. Leave time for a check-and-redraft
- Link to your work. Even if the article is to be about you and not your magnum opus, it’s nice to add in the odd reference here and there; how does the question you’re answering affect the way you’re writing, or the material you produce?
- Standard rules of good writing apply. Don’t answer every question the same – vary your sentence & answer length as you would in your prose. Watch out for typos and homonyms
- Don’t lie. You can tailor your answers to the source material – for example the answers I gave for Living North magazine were not the same as I’d for the Oxford Times – and it’s reasonable to exaggerate certain aspects of your life (such as my affection for my time spent in the Bodleian Library). Just don’t go into outright falsehoods. Stay true to yourself. Lies have a way of taking on lives of their own and creep your ankles, ready to trip you up and scratch your eyes out. Or they may just be a perpetual embarrassment. Either way, not worth the hassle
- You are interesting. You may not think so, but you are. If you truly can’t think of something distinct about your life you can always play up the Everyman aspect of your life. What could be more relatable than that?
Radio (or similarly ‘live’) interviews
If written interviews are like coursework, a live radio interview is like your final end-of-year exam. But here’s something to take the edge off: your interviewer wants you so succeed. There is an art to interviewing and that’s to make the subject feel at home and to get them talking as if it’s just a friendly chat between the two of you.
That’s why, if you get the chance, you should go and do the interview face-to-face and not over the phone or via Skype. Not always possible, of course. I wasn’t able to get to Guernsey for my interview with their local radio station. Needs must.
Onto the advice:
- Pretty much all the above applies
- If possible, work out what questions you’re liable to be asked. Ways to do this…
- Ask. You should have a contact either via email, letter or telephone. In my case the publicist arranged it so I asked her. The answers weren’t massively illuminating but better than nothing
- Listen to the show; see what other guests are asked
- Find out what materials they might have: did you send them a publicity pack or press release? Have another shuftie at it; consider if there are any threads they might pull upon
- Try and find a way to describe your work succinctly. This doesn’t have to be the ‘elevator pitch’ – indeed, that’ll probably be too short. You can simply read the blurb, but know this: people can tell when you’re reading from a set text. All you have to is precis it with something like ‘Well, if I might read you the blurb…’
- Find out where you’re going as soon as possible. Check parking or public transport. Leave plenty of leeway. Take contact details in case of emergency (and emergencies do happen; radio stations know what to do if, by some catastrophic catastrophe, you can’t make it. As long as you let them know ASAP then your bridges won’t be burnt)
- Assuming you’ve got there in plenty of time, get a glass of water or cup of tea and try to relax. You’ll have to wait for a bit. Everyone will be nice. Smile. Try and enjoy – or at least learn from – the situation
- It’s okay to be nervous. It shows you care. And a kick of adrenaline will help keep you going
- What happens next will vary depend on what type of show/organisation you’re on. You might be pointed towards a room all alone with a mic and headphones. You might be in a studio with other guests. You might be in someone’s living room, though in this case it’s unlikely you’ll be recording live
- You should be given an introduction and cued to talk. Again it hugely helps to have eye-contact with the interviewer (or possibly producer) but it’s not always possible. But deep breath, relax. You’ll be fine
- Listen to the introduction. The presenter will likely read something about either you, your work, or both. Find the clues: are they reading from your press release? Have they scoped out your blog/Twitter feed? You can get a lot of info from this short eulogy
- Smile. Thanks to Rod Duncan for this advice. Smiling lifts your voice and helps you project and articulate. It also makes you feel better
- Listen carefully to the question. Answer it. Again, full answers, not single words. If you really can’t think of a way to answer it properly…
- …Go in with an idea of what you want to say and turn the question into one you want to answer
- Try not to leave too much silence. If you need a moment to work out how to answer, say something like ‘Gosh, that’s a tricky question’; it’ll give help camouflage your thinking time. In my first interview I drew out a simple ‘yes’ for long enough to give me a moment to regroup
- Remember you’re not a politician and the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. You’re working together to tell a story. And you’re good at that
- Thank the staff as you leave. If you’re worried about live mics, take your cues from the presenter. Or simply mouth the words
- Woo! You’ve done it! Congrats!
And that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now, at least. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions of your own, please do share them. I’d love to hear from you.