Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Some Advice for Interviewing a Famous Author

As good fortune would have it, we were invited to see Ian McEwan at the Japan America Theater as part of the LA Library's ALOUD series.  I have to be honest, I'm a bit of a giddy fan when it comes to McEwan.  I read his short stories in First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets in college, and became completely obsessed with Enduring Love, a brilliantly written and thoroughly disturbing novel, set partly in the chalky downland of the Chiltern Hills, close to where I grew up.  Something about the title drew me in (I have a similiar love for Ed Ruscha's Brave Men Run In My Family). Of course everyone is familiar with Atonement because of the movie version (and Keira Knightley's green silk dress).  McEwan's new book is Solar and the evening started with a reading from that book.

Ian McEwan

The man who interviewed McEwan is a scholar, a most esteemed book critic and editor, was educated at Yale, and, as it turns out, went to high school with the Maharishi.  More familiar with filmmaker Q&As than author Q&As, I've picked up a few clues over the years as to what makes for a good interview**.  I'll outline them here for posterity:

(** I don't want to be unkind. The interviewer is clearly a very bright man who was trying to do a good job. What I'm suggesting is that perhaps, just maybe, he tried too hard because he was nervous.  The result was deeply unsettling.)

  • 1) Try to make your guest comfortable at the outset. That is, don't squawk at the man the minute he finishes reading a piece from his new novel with a gotcha.  If the famous and beloved novelist wants to add a word when he reads, he's earned the right to do so.  Pointing it out, and especially pointing it out so eagerly, will alienate him.
  • 2) When you ask a question, sit quietly and listen to the answer. Do not shuffle your papers, your index cards, your dog-eared copies of your guest's books. Look him in the eye. Be a gentleman.
  • 3) This isn't an intellectual competition. The audience doesn't care if you think you're smarter than your guest.  They don't want to hear your views. They would like to listen to the man they've paid money to see.
  • 4) If you're nervous, drink some water. Don't show the audience you're nervous by using long words and specialized language (heliocentricity) to confuse them.  That's your guest's prerogative.
  • 5) Look at the audience once or twice during the interview.  That way you can guage the temperature of the room. Is the audience with you or are they shuffling uncomfortably?
  • 6) If you ask for audience questions, pay attention to raised hands. Don't just barrel through your own questions.  A majority of the crowd at a Library event is not interested in screenplays, but BOOKS.
  • 7) Please don't ask about the Nobel Prize, even if it's the day the Pulitzers are announced. It will just embarrass your guest and make your audience twitchy.
  • 8) Allow questions to spring organically from your guest's answers. If he's talking about the genesis of one of his books, where the inspiration came from, and telling a story about a ballooning accident with a zeppelin in Bavaria, and the audience is rapt, then encourage him to talk more about that subject instead of jumping erratically to something entirely different.
  • 9) Relax. Your guest will relax if you do.  A shot of tequila in a coffee cup may do the trick.


Wzzy said...

Perfectly expressed as always, Miss W. I was particularly aggrieved during the Q&A, when Kipen seemed to regard the audience's questions for McEwan as unwelcome interruptions. "And now, back to me..."

Clare said...

YIkes - it all sounds absolutely 'cringe-y'! How did IM handle it?
x clare

Miss Whistle said...

Clare, IM seemed irritated but maybe I was projecting my own irritation. However, when he went into a long story comparing American teenagers to flies, I thought I might be correct.

Wzzy, thank you. I feel a bit mean pointing out the man's faults, but we weren't alone in our discomfort.

Love, Miss W

Susan Champlin said...

Oh, this is such brilliant advice—this should be required reading in J-school. You are so right on target. Sorry the evening was so frustrating, especially with one of your favorite authors!

Helena Halme said...

Oh dear, that must have been so frustrating. I love this man (McEwan, obviously) and am glad I wasn't there as I too might have broken into some uncontrollable babbling - or fainted...great post, you're very witty to the point of being cruel. xx

cbaillie said...

Totally agree. Interviewing someone is an art and last nights interviewer clearly didn't have the touch.

mothership said...

Briliant post. I had a similar experience with an absolute NITWIT when I went to see Margaret Atwood read and be interviewed in London several years ago. I was bracing myself for the esteemed author to belt the silly interviewer one but she managed to restrain herself - more than I might have done.

CampusLady said...

Spot on Miss W! You were kinder than I would have been. Mr interviewer (as we aren't using names) was boorish, overbearing and thoroughly irritating... however the dreamy Ian McEwan could not fail to be inspiring and thoughtful in spite of the lame moderator.