Welcome to a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world, from writing craft papers to revising craft papers, to writing other materials that might be valuable on the job market.
I started conducting author interviews about ten years ago, when I set up my author website. I felt a bit sheepish about setting up the site – how much self-promotion can one writer do before it becomes incredibly tiresome? So, when I was thinking about how to come up with things to write about there, I decided to look outward and try to find ways to serve the writing community.
I had always loved a good writerly discussion and am sometimes dismayed by the superficial quality of many literary interviews I find in the press, so I decided to try my hand. I would interview writers of CNF whose work interested me for whatever reason, especially those whose work was deemed to be too marginal, too odd, too eccentric, or whatever other judgment comes our way as essayists.
Why Do An Interview?
Good writers read and successful writers find ways of plugging into a community. The best way to make connections in the literary community and to find like-minded thinkers is to extend yourself. I’ve learned that if you show generosity, curiosity, and respect for your peers in the writing world, it is certain to flow back to you.
By conducting and publishing an interview, you are not only helping a writer promote a book but you are also raising your own profile. You serve the larger reading community by drawing attention to a text that you think is valuable. Conducting smart author interviews is a great service to the literary community and an excellent way to grow a CV.
An interview is, by definition, a collaborative project, so it can’t be rushed. I do this work in stages, like this:
Stage 1: Choose a book and make contact with its author.
Recent books are the obvious choice here, but don’t reject the idea of talking to authors of books whose work has been unjustly overlooked. You may also consider talking to a trio or pair of authors around a unified theme.
Stage 2: Following up.
Once your author has agreed to the interview and you have received the book (usually sent by the press’ publicist), it’s time to follow up. If you are preparing an interview for us at Assay, then be sure to ask for the following:
- An author photo
- Book cover image
- Book description (this can come from promo materials)
- Author bio
- Any links the author might want to include, like instructor resources or a book trailer
You don’t need to do anything with these materials yet, but it’s good to have them on hand right away so details like an author photo don’t delay publication.
Stage 3. Read the book.
- As you read be sure to make notes, underline significant passages, track themes and think about what you want to ask this writer.
- Remember: you are writer, so think like a writer. Your questions should come from a place of deep engagement. Avoid platitudes.
- Pay attention to form, style, research, word count, structure, and the use of images in the book.
- As you read, ask yourself: What has this author achieved that you admire? How has this book made you see aspects of your own work in a different light? What do you think this book is really about (that is, what is the “big” in this text)?
Stage 4. Draft 5-7 questions. It’s a good idea to approach the book from a variety of directions. For example, you might:
- Address a question of theme, using specific examples from the book;
- Address a question of craft, using a specific example from the book;
- Ask about something you see that the author has done that is surprising, mysterious, or impressive;
- Come up with a light question to finish the interview. You may want to ask your writer to recommend 3 little-known texts, or to reveal a curious writing habit, or a cure for writer’s block.
Before sending your questions off to the author, ask yourself:
- Is this an answerable question?
- Is there any way this question may be misinterpreted? Could it be rephrased more clearly or kindly?
- Is this question more about the interviewer than about the author?
- Does this series of questions engage sufficiently with the text? Do your questions delve into personal territory that may make an author uncomfortable?
- Can you detect any potential instances of unintended sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like?
- Do we get a sense of your (the interviewer’s) personality but without overshadowing the author and work?
Stage 5. Send Your Questions to Your Author.
- Remind your author of the ideal word count for the interview (for Assay, this is 4000-5000 words), but encourage them to use the space they need to answer questions thoroughly.
- Be sure to set a clear time-frame to turn around the questions. 2 weeks is OK, though 4 weeks is even better.
- Respond to any queries or requests promptly.
Stage 6. Send any follow-up questions you may have.
It’s rare that I take this step, but occasionally I’m curious to know more about a subject or theme. Sometimes authors send requests for clarification.
Stage 6a: In-Class Workshop/Assay Interview Editing Checklist
The interview should contain:
- Book description (be sure it gives enough info for a reader unfamiliar with the book to be able to understand what follows);
- Bio for both authors (book author’s bio goes at the top, under the book description; interviewer’s bio should be shorter and goes at the end).
- High-res author photos (in reserve, i.e., kept separately, as a separate file, for both author & interviewer);
- High-res cover image (in reserve).
Read the book description and bios for:
- Passive constructions
- General flow
- Turn on TRACK CHANGES & make any adjustments
Read the interview for flow and sequence.
- You may edit the questions more liberally than the answers. The answers should only be edited for grammatical errors (use your judgement here and don’t edit out regionalisms or dialectical differences; only edit real mistakes that are problematic) and typos.
- You may decide that the order of the questions is wrong and, for example, swap 2 questions for flow.
- If the interview feels overly long and boring, you can discuss the idea of editing for length. You may consider cutting repetitions.
- Don’t worry if your changes are only very minor. That is to be expected, if the process has worked well. Don’t go looking for problems where there are none!
Stage 7. Send your author the final interview for approval or changes.
I always allow a chance for an interview subject to see the final product before we publish it. Interviews aren’t hit pieces, so I see no reason not to give an author the chance to adjust phrasing or catch final typos.
Stage 8. Submit your Completed Interview
- Be sure to include a photo and short bio for yourself as well as the author photo, book cover image, book description, author bio and any relevant links.
About the Assay Interview Project: The goal of the Assay Interview Project is to give voice to underrepresented writers and texts, with a wide definition. The texts do not have to be newly published; in fact, revisiting older texts that did not receive attention on their publication will be encouraged. We also recognize that “underrepresented” also casts a wide net, not just including writers of color, writers with disabilities, etc., but also adjunct writers and non tenure-track faculty. We would also like to represent the scope of global nonfiction.
The interviews should be deep, based in the writer’s text, far-reaching, and substantial. The interviewer should have extensive knowledge of the writer’s text, the larger context of how the work fits into nonfiction conversations, and we expect to see references to it within the interview itself. We expect as much out of the interviewer as we do from the writer being interviewed. Our goal is for these interviews to have a lasting impact on the genre.
- Interviews should be in the 4000-5000 word range.
- Interviews should have a central focus, rather than a freewheeling conversation.
- We expect that interviews will be revised and edited for clarity and specificity.
- We expect that such revisions will take place before submitted to us.
- We expect that the published interview will be the result of several exchanges between the interviewer and interviewee.
The best way to find out what we’re looking for in interviews is to spend some time with the Interview Project. We do not accept unsolicited interviews, but if you are interested in doing an interview, please query us!
Senior Editor Julija Sukys Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature. She also directs the Missouri Audio Project.