These next two posts on interviews feature Elizabeth Austen and Wendy Call, both of whom have vast, invaluable experience as both interviewer and interviewee.
Today’s Q&A is with Elizabeth Austen, who has interviewed dozens of writers over the past ten years years for KUOW, 94.9, one of Seattle’s NPR affiliates. She is also a poet, performer, and teacher who has been interviewed countless times herself — and she has a lot to share about how to give your very best in a live interview. (Click here to find some of Elizabeth’s interviews.)
What are some of the best ways an author can prepare for a live interview?
The most important thing is to spend some time beforehand thinking about what you want to say about your work. Imagine the interview is already over: What do you want to have said? What would you regret NOT saying?
Often, the person interviewing you will not have had time to read your book. So you need to be prepared with a short description of it. What’s your book about? Why did you write it, and why did you write it this way? How is it different from your previous work? Is there an interesting story about how it got published? Also think about what you want to say about how you got started writing and why you continue to do it. You’re essentially interviewer-proofing yourself. Hopefully you’ll get an interviewer who is genuinely interested in you and your book, and will talk with you briefly before the interview starts about what he/she wants to discuss, but you can’t depend on that.
Also, choose a couple of short excerpts or a few short poems that you might read aloud. What would provide a good introduction to the book? Practice reading aloud, and practice giving a concise introduction to what you’re going to read.
If you have time, I recommend listening online to an example or two of your interviewer’s program, so that you’ll have a sense of what to expect in terms of tone and approach. Does this interviewer tend to ask more about craft and process, or about the backstory of the book or individual poems? Is the interviewer looking for anecdotes and stories? Does it seem like the interviewer has actually read the book?
I’m a great believer in preparing for anything, and then letting go of the preparation during the interview so you can respond to what’s actually happening in the conversation. The most important thing is to be present. In the moment, approach it like you would any conversation with someone you care about — by listening and responding as honestly and generously as you can.
What if you’re asked a question you can’t (or don’t wish to) answer?
If there are topics that you consider off-limits for the interview, try to come to an understanding about that with your interviewer beforehand. Remember that it’s perfectly fine to admit that you don’t know the answer to
a question. Maybe the interviewer is suggesting something you’ve never considered before — just say so, and answer as fully as you can in the moment.
And if the question seems intrusive or inappropriate to you, then take a deep breath and pose a different question to yourself, and the answer. Perhaps something like this: “For me, the real question is….” or “Well, I’m more interested in why…”
Do you have any broadcasting secrets for how to sound your best on the radio?
Well, they’re not really secrets, but here are a couple of things to keep in mind. Try to get a good night’s sleep, but don’t freak out if you don’t. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, I got less than four hours of sleep the night before I was interviewed on KUOW along with former poet laureate Billy Collins. I think I was actually too sleep-deprived to be
nervous. However, I don’t recommend this as a tactic, in general! [Editor’s note: One would never guess that Elizabeth didn’t sleep 8 hours that night. It was an amazing interview and discussion.]
Of course, avoid dairy products for a few hours before and don’t drink so much caffeine that you’re twitchy. Keep your feet on the ground, remember to breathe, and most of all, treat the interview like you would a conversation — that means listening as well as speaking.
And on a technical note — before the interview starts, try to get a chance to talk into the microphone to make sure you’re not too close or too far away.
Do you have advice for writers who get nervous before interviews?
Does anybody not get nervous before interviews? I know I do — whether I’m the interviewer or the interviewee. I have a mantra that I tell myself before I perform, and it’s equally true when I’m interviewing or being interviewed: “The performance requires me, but it’s not about me.” In other words, I need to show up and be present, but the focus is on the work, not on me or my ego (even if I’m talking about my process or any autobiographical connection to the material). The point — whether in a performance or an interview–is to help the reader connect to the work. When I keep my focus on that, my anxiety is much less likely to take over. Another thing to remember is that the nervousness is a kind of necessary fuel.
What if you make a mistake on the air — is there any way to overcome that?
The fact is that the best radio is made when people are actually talking to each other — so that means they’re going to make mistakes sometimes. If you mis-state something and realize it on the air, just correct yourself. If the interview is being recorded, and you stumble while reading an excerpt from your book, just back up to the beginning of a sentence — they can correct it in the editing room. If you’re reading live, just go with it, like you would at a live reading. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be you (hmmm — and maybe that’s the scarier prospect!)
Tomorrow, come back for a Q&A with Wendy Call, with more interviewing advice for writers…
And for more on author interviews, check out Everyday Book Marketing, in which you’ll find more advice from Elizabeth and many others.