Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Interviewing – The Dos and Don'ts

Cross-promotion is a big word for us at Triskele Books. Not only does it offer mutual benefit to both parties involved, it can result in real ‘hallelujah’ moments in our own writing.

Listen to advice from any of the self-help manuals out there, and they will agree about the importance of cross-promotion in the world of indie-publishing. See David Gaughran and Joanna Penn’s advice how offering an author any form of promotion in return for their time is for us indies much like the wheels of industry. It keeps everything moving and offers more benefits than any other form of self-marketing out there.

Words with Jam
But we’ve discovered another benefit to cross-promotion. Often established authors are more than willing to talk about their passion for writing or pass on advice and experiences. Every interview offers something to an upcoming writer that they can take away and use for their own benefit.

Over the past few years, two Triskele members, JJ Marsh and Gillian Hamer have, via their work for Words with Jam magazine, interviewed both some of the biggest names and the newest ground-breakers in the literary world.

Here, they impart a little of what they’ve learned about the art of interviewing, and discuss some of their most poignant moments.

If you had one top tip for interviewing techniques, what would it be?

(GH) Do your research. Even the most media-weary writer won’t be able to able to resist if you hit on one of their ‘hot spots’. I remember asking crime writer, Peter May, about an element of his book, The Blackhouse, where he infiltrated the shady world of hunting gannet chicks. It was obviously one of his proudest achievements as I had to edit down his response. Writers love to know that you’ve read their work, especially if you clearly appreciate it, and are always more than happy to discuss what really gets their juices flowing.

(JJ) Agreed. Knowing the work well is paramount, even the less obvious pieces. As is finding the points where you and the interviewee have a common sympathy, eg Jane Fallon’s cat, Malcolm Pryce’s beer, Joey Goebel’s music, Jessica Mann’s politics, Jane Goldman’s dogs and Tom Weldon’s holidays. This stuff rarely makes it into the interview, but if it’s genuine, it establishes a connection and sets a warm tone. Let’s hope I never have to interview Jeremy Clarkson.

In terms of cross-promotion for newer authors, how do you think interviews help?

(GH) I think it’s something of a snowball effect. The more writers you have on your blog, the more readers of their work are attracted to your blog and consequently hopefully your own writing. Their readers may become your readers, and so on and so on. Including links to other’s work, even in non-fiction articles, may attract just one person to like the sound of a book, click the link and buy it. And of course, it works both ways. You get the offer to appear on someone else’s blog, and their readers like what they read, click onto your website and hopefully buy a book!

(JJ) I suspect it takes a while to establish trust with readers, who, like shy deer, will gradually come and graze on your offerings if the work is consistently good. Where that leads ... I don’t know. I’m a ravenous reader but books I’ve bought on the strength of columns and blogs barely stretch into double figures.

What can help turn an okay interview into a successful result?

(GH) I find being natural as the interviewer is a big help, building a rapport with the other writer, maybe via email beforehand. Inject a little humour or humility. Be human and be yourself.

(JJ) Being respectful, remembering that they see you as a journalist (ie, cloven-hoofed with bloodied fangs), an awareness of the production-line interview regime writers on tour have to endure, listening and appreciating what the interviewee has to say rather than imposing an agenda.

Best interview?

War Horse
(GH) That’s so difficult to choose one! If you twist my arm, then I think I would have to say Michael Morpurgo (author of War Horse among many novels) because his passion for writing and his passion for his charitable work cut through his words like a sunbeam. Plus he was openly honest about rumours about War Horse, his memoirs of his work with disadvantaged children and how he believes writing helps children find themselves. His words really touched a nerve with me. A lovely, lovely talented man. Someone I would love to entertain as a dinner guest!

(JJ) Helen Fitzgerald was a terrific discovery, not only as a writer, but as a funny, open and potty-mouthed interviewee. David Mitchell and JK Rowling are fascinating people and I thoroughly enjoyed our discussions. But I was already a massive fan of both, so didn’t need much convincing. Whereas I had only just started reading Christos Tsiolkas. His work is far from easy, but forced me to think. When I met him, his intelligence and articulate expression of ideas, over breakfast on a Sunday morning, sent my synapses into overdrive. I was so scared of him, but to date, he’s the only author to demand a hug at the end of our interview.

And without naming names (unless you will!) – what about the worst?

(GH) For me, it’s not so much a bad interview because I think I can honestly say I’ve never had one. What is most disappointing is the non-starters, or the difficulty often faced in by-passing the barriers of PR and Marketing executives that surround some of the biggest names. Once you connect with the writers themselves they are generally lovely people. I’ve had a couple of writers who I’ve tried to connect with in every way I can try – and still get ignored or turned down. That’s disappointing both from a personal and professional perspective as I’m sure they have experiences we could all learn from.

(JJ) Two, but no names as one of them is definitely a witch. Author A. We gave her a platform to promote her excellent but unrecognised work and she rubbished the magazine with breathtaking arrogance. Needless to say, she never made it to print. Author B’s ‘handler’ sat like a hawk in the corner, tutting and sighing and glancing at the clock, finally cutting off his enthusiastic responses. After the author left, his handler accused me of ‘manipulating the writer by talking about his interests’. Dang! How could I have been so stupid?

You’ve mentioned getting to interview some big literary names, how do you get their agreement?

Novel by PD James
(GH) I’ve very recently had the privilege of interviewing PD James. She does so little media now that I never really held much hope of getting her. It was really just persistence, building up a relationship with her publicist at Faber & Faber. I wrote quarterly for a year, just a short, polite email to ask if Ms James was currently doing promotion. Eventually, Nicole got back to me and said if I sent through some questions she would pass them onto the author, and gave me an idea when they’d be completed. I’m really proud to have got the interview and it’s a real coup for Words with Jam.

(JJ) Ask nicely.

Who would you most like to have interviewed but know you never will?

(GH) Easy. Agatha Christie. For obvious reasons.

(JJ) JM Coetzee. I love everything that man stands for but where publicity’s concerned, he’s a cantankerous old goat.

And turning the tables, what are your thoughts about being a good interviewee?

(GH) Echoing what I’ve said previously, my best advice is be yourself. Answer the questions fully and honestly. Chances are if you’re passionate about a subject that will come across in your responses, and it won’t be a hardship to discuss your writing. If you find something you particularly like to discuss – maybe settings of your novel for example – try to angle the interview so that you spend time on your biggest selling points. Without being blatant, try to get in a mention of your novel or your previous novels. Remember selling books is the bottom line. And if it’s an email interview, always make sure to include links to your books, website, blog etc.

(JJ) Think about the audience and be honest. That latter refers to both mundane detail and big ideas. Tell the truth about the crap bits and how you procrastinate by cleaning the garden furniture in November. Or if you think conceptually, say so. People seem almost apologetic about thinking deeply these days.

And on a personal basis, what are the most memorable things you’ve taken away from an interview – and why?

(GH) Again, it’s hard to choose! I found a lot of the advice Joanne Harris gave about structure of story-telling and her thoughts about e-publishing and new technology really interesting. But I think it was PD James's response to my question about her biggest achievement that stays with me because it puts her on a level with every writer out there. Remembering she’s a Baroness, with multiple novels, films, television series and awards to her name, she listed her proudest career moment to be the telephone call she received from her agent to say that Faber & Faber had accepted her first novel. It kind of puts everything into perspective.
Paulo Coelho

(JJ) I collected a delightful selection of interviews for my blog - The Interviews. But I still think one of my favourites was a question rather than answer.
Paulo Coelho: Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. Are you taking off your clothes?

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