The Last Word
Book Reviews...the good, the bad, and the downright painful
Most of my writing life is centered on fiction - writing it, reading it, thinking about it; however, there are plentiful opportunities for me to express myself in forms other than the wholly made-up. In the past few weeks I've been involved in interviews. In several of them I've done the interviewing, and one where I've been interviewed.
I so prefer to be the asker of questions. Most human beings have a couple of things in common. One, they all have a story, the central building block on which their self-concept is arranged. Two, people like to tell you about themselves. However, when faced with a permanent record of that conversation, i.e. print or recording, they might need to be encouraged. It's like the self-consciousness of having a picture taken. Who among us, looking at herself in a photo, hasn't bemoaned a bad hair day?
I record my conversations with subjects in order to transcribe them later and the first few times I listened to my interviews, I was appalled at how often I heard my own voice. "Yeah, me too! I know what you mean. La la la." You want to make your subject be at ease, to have them feel like they're having a back and forth conversation. But you don't want to interview yourself. I've learned to keep the flow going with little throaty noises of encouragement, waiting to turn the recorder off to have a "real" conversation.
A friend of mine who interviews people for a living gave me one bit of advice when I was about to conduct my first set of interviews for an article I was writing: keep your questions open-ended. Naturally, there are some questions that need to be asked on specifics, but her advice was sage. Get your subject rolling with a well thought out question and sit back. Well, don't sit back, scrawl in vaguely readable shorthand all the words that pour forth. Hence the mini-recorder to ensure accuracy of quote. For an author interview, I like to get the ball rolling by getting him to talk about the trigger event for the idea or concept that ended up between covers as a novel. For a brief "get-to-know-you" piece for a newsletter, I might fire up the conversation with: so what brought you here?
Writing an article based on interviews is challenging, not the least because people don't speak in full sentences. Neither does the conversation necessarily stay in order of the questions asked. Conversation flows, and a print interview must channel that flow into a cohesive, logical framework. The last question asked might contain elements of the answer to the first question. Two thoughts separated by an hour's conversation might need to be spliced together to present as a single answer...which is why I love the ellipsis.
On the other hand, being interviewed is being asked to think quickly, talk slowly, and self-edit in a nanosecond. This is especially true when the interview takes place on camera. A good interviewer, and my interlocutor was all of that, lulls her subject into thinking it's a tea party, not a television program. Immediately afterward there comes the incredible self-doubt: What did I say? Did I really say that? Did I come across full of self-puffery? Is pride in one's work the same thing as bragging? Was my hair all right? On the other hand, there is a selfish pleasure in soliloquy, not dissimilar to writing a column. Who, after all, doesn't like to talk about one's work?
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.