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Giving Good Interview – Role of the Ideal Questioner

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While yesterday’s post [2] focused on strategies an author can employ to turn themselves into an interviewer’s dream candidate, today it’s all about the questioner.

Please note my ideals were forged in doctor-patient interviews where magical things could happen with aligned goals and mutual respect. If you think these expectations are insane, you may be right.

But they’re effective…

As with critique, take what works for you in your particular circumstances and discard the rest.

In my mind, an excellent interviewer will:

Make it safe for both parties, for with trust comes the opportunity for playfulness, inventiveness, and chemistry. (This in turn alleviates boredom. An unchallenged writer tires of repetitive or superficial questions, and readers pick up on that lack of engagement.)

Help the writer display the most unique aspects of their work. In some cases, that will be the writing alone. In others, it might be their outsized personality, career path,  areas of expertise, hobbies, etc. Readers are hungry for relationship and emotion, for the story of the person behind the story.

Serve the author by being a mirror. Hopefully they’ll feel validated and empowered.

Provide a forum to clarify or counter a prevailing message about the author’s career or work.

Above all else, serve the reader: I trust the process. I believe the interviewee will find their readers, build platform, and increase sales by providing education or entertainment.

Before You Commit

Unless the interview opportunity arises spontaneously, do some preparation before you pitch an author, especially if you’re going for an in-depth, holistic interview. Do you have fresh questions? Can you provide a fresh audience? If not, what is your goal? This is going to be a major time commitment for both of you. Will it be worth it?

By the time you are preparing questions, you’ll probably want to have read the author’s latest work and its reviews, have a sense of their backlist, crawled through their website, and read other interviews. (Use these to reference and build on, rather than starting from the basics.)

This takes time. Lots of it. I don’t think I’ve ever spent less than 6 hours from first pitch, through formatting, to final correspondence, and that estimate doesn’t include reading the book.

Establishing Safety

In a brief survey on my blog [3] about the author-interview experience, many responders wanted to deepen a relationship with their interviewer. If left without clear expectations, though, many authors felt uneasy, as if they’d fallen short of invisible goalposts.

Hosts can help by articulating their standards. Some sites post formalized guidelines, some have a standard letter, some change them on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t really matter, but the more transparent you can be, the less room for misunderstanding.

What you’ll need to establish at some point – the sooner the better:

If You Really Want Good Things to Happen, Adopt These Policies:

Barring a time crisis, make a commitment that both parties must sign off on work before it gets published. Consensus-building is slower, but I believe it leads to better results.

Keep the work of the interview between you and the author. That way, you can both make mistakes without fear of public embarrassment. (The exception would be if you need to consult someone on big issues, such as legal liability, etc.)

Tell the author to skip or modify questions that don’t work for them. (Sometimes questions are too personal, inaccurate, violate the publisher’s requirements, etc.) When I’m about to ask a question that may come off as boneheaded or genius, depending on the author’s sensibilities, this policy gives me courage.

Invite the author to contribute questions. Sometimes they have a burning issue they want to address. Where there’s energy, there’s probably good material.

Allow time for questions to ripen. You’ll find some questions have no oomph and must be discarded while others lead to interview gold.

Remain a Host When the Interview Airs

Ultimately, you are the site’s caretaker. Keep an eye on the post. If commenters become disrespectful – whether it’s the audience, the interviewee, or both – take control and minimize damage. Save the post-mortem and finger-pointing for later. Or for others.

What will you both do for promotion? Yesterday I covered the author’s best practices, but the interviewer should promote the interview at least as well as they would their own post, if not better.

A well-done interview can serve host, subject, and readers for years to come – if accessible.

In the End

There are no quick answers in these policies. They count on organic growth and a slow build-up as all parties find their natural audience. But they make for a rewarding experience. There is little more satisfying for a writer than to feel deeply heard; little more honourable for an interviewer than to have facilitated that process. Hopefully, with these two posts, you’ll have some ideas how to get there.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love it if you turn the comment section into a resource. Is there anything you’d add or subtract in the qualities of your ideal interviewer or interview process?

About Jan O'Hara [6]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [7] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [8]; Cold and Hottie [9]; the forthcoming romantic-suspense, Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [10]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.