CRAFT: 14 Tips for Interviewing Authors by Sarah Boon
Many literary outlets like to promote new books by featuring an interview with the author. It gives readers an introduction to the author’s new book, and also provides insights into the mind of great writers, and allows them to find out what makes these authors tick. For authors, it’s an opportunity to share why readers should pick up their latest book, their personal writing habits, and their thoughts on the literary world in general. For the interviewer, it’s a great way to connect with the writing community and learn some writing tips and tricks.
I’ve published author Q&As in Longreads, the LA Review of Books, Electric Literature, Earth Island Journal, and other outlets. The key is to pitch the Q&A well in advance of the author’s book release, as publications work on a longer timescale when it comes to timely events like book releases. It’s also important to ensure the author is on board before pitching a Q&A. Authors understand that Q&As in key outlets can be critical for getting the word out about their new book, so they are usually amenable to having a chat. Having author Q&A’s in your portfolio shows that you have a knack for connecting with other writers and asking the right questions.
But interviewing an author isn’t as simple as picking up the phone and talking—there’s a lot of preparatory work that goes into the interview itself, plus things to remember both during and after the interview itself. Below are 14 tips for executing a thoughtful author Q&A, one that readers are interested in reading and that you enjoy doing.
- Read the author’s latest book—preferably several times. Read closely and take notes if you have to. Most Q&As are about the author’s latest book, so you want to be prepared by knowing it inside and out. This will also help you come up with questions about the book. If you have time (and if the budget for the piece makes it worthwhile), read several of the author’s books. When I interviewed Barbara Kingsolver I re-read all of her novels and found that there were themes I hadn’t noticed before that I could ask about in my interview. This is helpful if you’re writing a craft piece about the writer’s process and writing themes. If the writer has written any non-fiction, try and fit it into your reading as it can provide insights into the author that are very different than those you get from novels. For example, when I interviewed Ann Patchett I read her collection of non-fiction pieces called “This is the Secret of a Happy Marriage,” and picked up some tips on what her writing practice looks like.
- Read other interviews the author has done. This will help you avoid asking the same questions they’ve already been asked 100 times, and can help you generate ideas for new questions. Again, like reading their non-fiction work, reading interviews will give you insider tips on the author herself.
- As you start to pull your questions together, consider the audience for your interview. Are they writers looking for writing secrets and tips? Are they feminists looking for a woman-centered approach to writing? Are they general readers who just want to know what the book is about and whether or not they should read it? Each of these audiences will require that you ask different questions of the writer, from what her daily routine is to when her next book is coming out.
- Consider the outlet in which you plan to publish the Q&A. They may have a certain style guide or approach to interviews that they want you to follow—or at least be aware of. This includes the type of question you ask and the kind of answers they’re looking for. For example, I once had a completed Q&A rejected because the outlet didn’t like a couple of my questions. One of the caveats for many places that take author interviews is that it must be conversational and relatable —no email interviews allowed, as they miss some of that conversational aspect.
- Type out all of your questions beforehand. I usually split them into questions about their new book and then broader craft-related questions. In some cases, it’s possible to use an interview for two different outlets—one that wants the new book angle, and one that wants just the craft angle. Organize your questions in an order that flows for you.
- Make sure before the interview that you have the correct date and time, and the number at which to reach the author. Usually, you’ll get this from their publicist (for more well-known writers), but sometimes you’ll be dealing with the author directly. If you don’t want to pay long-distance charges, you can always ask if the author is open to chatting on Skype, though it can be somewhat unprofessional if you run into Skype problems. Make sure they have your phone number in case something goes wrong (the call gets disconnected, or you get the time zone wrong).
- Test your recording equipment or recording app before you start the interview. Some apps people use are Otter, JustPressRecord, Tape-A-Call, and QuickTime audio recording. I use a digital TASCAM recorder that makes recording and transcribing super easy. Make sure you’re recording at the right volume and that you have enough battery power and storage space. You’ll never be able to keep up with the author by writing everything longhand, so a recorder or recording app is crucial. You can, however, use your handwritten notes to mark key points in the interview.
- When you first connect with the author, let them know how you’ve structured the interview. I usually ask about the new book first, and then ask questions about the writing craft. I let them know how long to expect the interview to take, and I also thank them in advance for their time—they don’t have to talk to you but it’s beneficial to both of you if they do.
- During the interview itself, don’t get caught in the trap of only asking only the questions you’ve written down. Sometimes the author will respond to a question with something that you’d like to explore further even though it’s not in your question list. Follow your instincts and ask new questions to tease out this new idea. This is the part I find the most difficult about author Q&As because you have your questions there in front of you but you also have to process author responses quickly in order to pivot and ask completely new questions. If the author starts telling you personal stories, that suggests you’ve connected with them on a deeper level and you should definitely take advantage of the opportunity to ask more exploratory questions.
- When the interview is finished, thank the author for their time and ask them if they have anything else to add or anything they don’t want you to include (sometimes they don’t want the ending of the book to be given away, or they don’t want a particular plot twist to be included).
- Try to transcribe your interview soon after you’ve done it so that it’s still fresh in your mind. You can use a transcription service, or hire someone to transcribe it (usually $1/min of recording). I usually transcribe it myself so that I hear the responses a second time and get a sense of how to make the interview flow.
- Edit for length and clarity. This is the standard disclaimer on interviews, but what does it actually mean? It means that you take out all the ums and ahhs. You cut out repetitive answers. You may decide that some questions were duds and remove them from the interview. You might rewrite your questions to better match what you actually asked the author. You might have questions to add that weren’t in your original list. And, in most cases, you’ll have too much information for the interview and will have to cut your word count in half. That’s what editing for length and clarity is all about.
- Once the interview is published, send a link to the author or to their publicist—whomever is your main contact. Authors need to know where, when, and how their books were written about to keep track of how they’re doing and what audience they’re reaching.
- On to the next interview! I find that I learn something new each time I interview an author, but one thing that’s constant is that if you’re sharing a laugh, the interview is going well.
Not only will a Q&A help the author get the word out about their new book, but it’s a chance for you to practice your interviewing skills, which can come in handy for reported pieces. You can also build a reputation with authors’ publicists as a solid, dependable interviewer who brings out the best in the authors you talk to, which will lead to more work down the line. Plus you just might get some good writing tips from your interviewees.