Saturday, October 16, 2010

[The Interview Feature] Mechanics of the Interview: The How

As I have revealed earlier in September I switched to a new accomplice to help me complete my Interview Feature. Please welcome Theresa Bazelli, a writer in training [quite the treasure] with her own spot on the web, Ink Stained. She’s not from the book reviewer circles, but she’s curious to hear more about interviews and has decided to help [I did not threaten her life… or I may have just a little bit]. *clears throat*

That inappropriate joke aside, in today’s long overdue third installment of the feature I discuss the how of interviewing [specifically how I do it]. How to keep our guests talking or from the opposite, when needed. How to steer the conversation. How to sprinkle controversy and all that is in-between.


Theresa Bazelli: You have interviewed a variety of individuals on your blog: authors, publishing professionals, book bloggers, and even the fictional character or two. How do you decide what kinds of questions that you will ask? Do the questions stem from personal interest, what you think that your readers will appreciate hearing, or do you tailor your questions to what the interviewee is interested in?

Harry Markov: Now that you ask it, I came to realize that interviewing is about pleasing everyone. I interview so that I can satisfy my innate curiosity, but I also think what would intrigue the readers. Plus, I believe that the interview should benefit the author and be relevant to his interests. This is a very summed-up answer to such a myriad of questions. It isn’t an exact science, but objective is to make it interesting and pleasurable for everybody. The trick is to be selfless, when doing one [it seems a bit philosophical] and keep in mind that you are not doing it just for you. The best interviews are the ones that make the interviewee speak loads and keep the reader’s focus and attention. I don’t think I have mastered this [as I came to the conclusion just now]. I have a more simplistic approach and it has to do on why I am interviewing a person. Factors like whether I am asking to learn, asking in order to discuss or asking just because help me guide the interview.

TB: You mentioned that the best interviews are when the interviewee's do most of the speaking. Do you have any tips for how to make your interviewees comfortable, and how to get them talking? Do you start with a few warm-up questions or offline introductions before getting to the meat of the interview?

HM: I seem to be saying a lot of things, now aren’t I? Yes, I do have a model I’m most comfortable with, but I can’t honestly offer it as a tip as I think I am stagnating sticking to the same old as far as interviewing technique goes. But here goes. There are always offline introductions to be had before an interview can be considered. As I said in an earlier part, I need a damn good reason to bother someone for an interview. In 80% of the cases I have read a novel so sharing my review with the author is my ice breaker. Once the actual interview starts I thank my guest for accepting my invitation, because to me it is always humbling for someone to hand over his or her time to me without knowing whether my interview would return the investment. But to be able to make people talk the interviewer has to be able to direct the conversation, ask with details and never let the interview wonder what the questions demand as answers. That is one of the things I learned early, but still working on.

TB: Have you ever had an interview go off track and how do you direct the conversation back onto course? Are there any topics that you consider off-limits, or that you try to steer away from?

HM: In the competitive and highly controversial world of literature and publishing, you have to ask with caution lest you step on a mine… Eh, no. Not so much really. Literature is pretty tame compared politics [lame example, but gets the point across]. There are not many taboos. I do think, however, that talking about Science Fiction’s supposed death to a SF author is probably not so tactful. I also avoid talking about the war between literary and speculative fiction. It’s very old and therefore much has been said on the matter. Those are the two major topics I like to keep away from, though I personally have issues not to trash Twilight. I just happen to slip it in from time to time. As far as ever losing control over an interview… No, this has never happened to me, so I can’t say anything on the matter.

TB: So speaking of controversy, does that mean you're with team Edward or team Jacob? I jest. What if your interviewee is not very talkative, or the questions you have asked are not getting much of a response? How do you change your approach?

HM: I am team Buffy. She kicks ass and is the natural predator of both Edward and Jacob. One can hope that she also deals with the raving and brainwashed fans. One can dream about chainsaw nun-chucks…

Ahem, but I seem to be digressing…

In the first instance, I don’t force someone to spill out paragraph after paragraph just because I want a longer interview. Perhaps the person in question is a man/woman of few words. It’d be a shame to demand more than what that person is comfortable sharing. Then again, I might be saying all this because I keep missing the magic formula that makes anyone and everyone talk and talk. Go figure. It’s all subjective, but coming from my experience such people do exist as do interviewers who have the gift to squeeze out information out of every interviewee.

As far as the second scenario goes… I keep my question and answer in the interview I post, if that is what you’re asking me. I don’t ask people for do-overs because that would be insulting. I try to avoid these downs in conversations by doing my homework beforehand.

TB: Have you ever conducted an interview on a subject that you weren't really interested in, and had hard time coming up with questions? How do you keep finding interesting questions? How do you keep from repeating yourself and keeping things as fresh?

HM: Yes, I admit that among my interviews I agreed to interview an author on request, rather than me contacting him. The result was a lack-luster and short interview that served as additional promo material for him, but to me was very unsatisfying. It was an impulse decision, because I’m rarely contacted by US publicists. I would have done a better one had I read his novel first [it is a good novel], but I was swamped and time was of the essence.

I did a standard 10-question introductory review without juicy, interesting questions that you are referring to. Those need a lot of background information to come up with. I usually end up with a lot of scratched off questions that never get send, because they are obvious. As Leo has said: ‘We need to go deeper’. And that is what I try to do everything. There is more often than not something special in each person to dig for questions.

That is my strategy for keeping things fresh as well. Part of why I closed my feature Reviewer Time [where I interview book reviewers] is because after awhile interviews boil down to the same topics and rephrasing keeps the charm only for so long. I need a new scandal, shit storm or epic news to add diversity in my questions. Repetition is an enemy, but sometimes it’s even good to have it pop up, because asking the same questions to wildly different people will get a different set of answers and give the interviewer a wider understanding of whatever topic he’s asking about.

TB: Are there any scandals, headlines, or storms that you see on the horizon? Are there any subjects that really pique your interest right now? Do you have a dream list of interviewees (alive or dead) that you would chomp at the bit to interview if it were possible?

HM: At the moment, I’m out of shape and far from tuned to the massive monster that is the blog-o-sphere. I’m interested in the upcoming zombie TV series ‘The Walking Dead’, which isn’t as book related [although I currently learned that it was optioned for a trilogy as well] as it could be. Storms happen all year long to be honest. We’re an ever-growing lot and we’re opinioned, so we step on our toes every so often and that results in what reviewers call ‘shit storms’. So far there is a sign that one may crop up soon enough… I’m not sure why I’m never involved in those [they look like fun]. I guess I’m an on-looker.

To answer the second part, I’m currently interested in how anthologies are assembled. It’s not entirely new as a topic for me, but it has held my interest so far the longest. As far as my own special list goes, I’d definitely go with the obvious: Poe, Lovecraft, Tolkien [Jane Austin as embarrassing as it is] and Angela Carter. From the living I’d pick Stephen King and the weird Haruki Murakami. I’m not good at listing to be honest. I’m sure I have way more.

TB: So you've asked a bunch of questions. How do you create on a logical conclusion to an interview? Do you factor in time constraints or interview length? Do you just cut it off, or do you ask the interviewee for a final word?

HM: In the beginning I did not use anything to mark the end of an interview. It ended and that was that. No clue or anything. After reading enough interviews I spotted how interviewers prepped their guests for the end, giving them the opportunity to say whatever they had on their mind as a final word. I rarely bother with time constraints or length. I like to talk and listen to others. I wouldn’t interview them otherwise and the e-mail allows me to go at length without bothering with time or length.


T.S. Bazelli said...

The interview was my pleasure Harry :) Thank you for the insightful answers.

Harry Markov said...

I just hope they are insightful :) and not idiotic.

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