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The Art and Craft of Author Interviews

interview-hi [1]Scenario 1: You’re a writer whose first book is about to be published, and you’ve been inundated with requests for interviews. In the dim and distant days before blogs and online magazines, that meant someone calling you, or goodness, even coming to visit you in person and recording the interview on a little machine. These days, though, the approach is usually made through email, and unless it’s a piece for your local paper (and even then perhaps!) the interview will most likely be conducted in the same medium, and published online.  It’s likely you will never meet the interviewer and so you have to impress and interest them purely through the written word. Well, that’s easy, isn’t it? You are a writer after all! And then you get that first interview-and you freeze. Talking too much—or not enough—revealing too much—or revealing too little—striking the right tone—treading a fine line between spontaneity and reflection—showing confidence but not being too pushy: so many things to think about, so much to get right (or wrong).

Scenario 2: You’re a writer, published or unpublished, and you have a blog. You’d love to find out more about the work of fellow writers, and what makes them tick. You come up with a great idea: interviews for your blog. You’ve got quite a few writing contacts already, so you can start with them. Compiling author interviews will be easy. You’re a writer, and a reader. You know just how it should go.  Then you start compiling your first set of interview questions, and you panic. What if the author thinks the questions are too bland? Too pushy? Too gushing? Or too impersonal? Should you ask about their life outside of their work or leave that strictly alone? So many things to get right (or wrong)

Author interviews are a fact of the writing life. Whether as interviewee or as interviewer, every author will inevitably have to gain some experience of the art and craft of author interviews. So how do you go about getting that experience?

My top tip is this: even before you are professionally published, it is very good practice, as well as very useful for building up networks and profiles, to conduct interviews with other authors. In the very early days of my own professional writing career, before my first book was published but after I’d had a few stories published in anthologies and magazines, I conducted a lot of interviews with both new and established authors, which were published back then in print magazines and newspapers. It helped enormously in building up my CV as a writer and my recognition factor amongst both literary publications and other authors. It made me think carefully about books, and not just respond emotionally (though I still did that of course)! And it was great fun talking to other writers! Several of the people I interviewed back then became my friends. And I found I enjoyed interviewing so much that I continued doing it, if a little less, once I was published and even after I eventually became ‘established’ myself. On the writing blog I run now, Feathers of the Firebird [2], I conduct a lot of interviews, not only with writers, but also illustrators, photographers, publishers—all kinds of book industry people, in fact. And the interviews seem very popular!

Then it’s important also to read interviews yourself. See the kinds of things other people ask; think about whether a particular style of interview works for you. And ask yourself questions: are there questions you’d have added—or even subtracted? Is the interview more focussed on the author’s  work or their personality, and what do you think of that? Does it feel as though the interview worked as much for the writer as the reader?  If it’s an interview with an author whose work you know, does it give you extra insights into that work? If it’s with an author whose work you don’t know, does it make you feel like you want to read one of their books? When you’re compiling your own interview questions, the answers to those things will help you to determine how you want to frame the interview.

How many questions to ask? Somewhere between 6 and 10 questions works to make a good meaty interview, without becoming indigestible for both the interviewee and the reader. Photos—book covers and author pics—are as much a must-have for an online interview as they are in print, and with author pics especially, it’s best to ask the interviewee to send their preferred shot.

Themed series of interviews can work well: for instance I conducted a series recently called Double Act [3], which is about authors who are also publishers. Themed interviews work because you can make the questions very specific to that theme, and at the same time make them basically the same for each interviewee (though not necessarily identical—it depends on the relevance to each person’s experience).

It goes without saying, of course, that you should always respect your interviewee’s right to privacy and discretion—if they don’t want to answer a particular question, don’t push it. And always thank them for participating, let them know when an interview is scheduled, and send them a direct link to the published piece online.

Now for the other side of things: you as author interviewee, rather than author interviewer. If you’ve already built up a bit of track record as an interviewer, you will be well on the way to giving a good interview yourself. You’ll know what readers want, and what writers want. From studying other authors’ responses in interviews you conducted, you’ll get the feel for how you can work within a question to give a rich and intriguing answer. From the comments and reactions of readers, you’ll also understand the kinds of things that they respond to. You’ll gain the confidence also to decide how much you want to reveal about your work processes, your personal life, or your thoughts on writing generally. You’ll know that you can decline to answer a question, if it doesn’t feel comfortable, but also that sometimes answering a more challenging question can be very rewarding. You’ll know that you can add things, even if the interviewer hasn’t asked; and you’ll know that a good interview is as much an art as a craft, and one that once you’ve mastered it, can go a long way towards raising your profile as a writer.

Over to you: what’s your take on author interviews?

About Sophie Masson [4]

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson [5] is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.