You’ve just stepped out of the shower. Your robe is in the bedroom; the phone rings in the livingroom. You wrap a towel around yourself and run to grab it — and a voice on the other end of the line asks if this would be a good time for an interview! What do you do?
As a writer, you’re probably accustomed to interviewing others. However, if you’ve published a book or made a reputation for yourself in a particular field, chances are that someone is going to want to interview you. It may be a newspaper reporter, or a freelance writer much like yourself, or even a radio talk show host.
Such interviews can be a wonderful way to promote yourself. The interview will almost certainly cite your book (and, if you’re lucky, provide ordering information). By quoting you as an “expert,” the interview establishes your credentials. Better yet, interviews help readers relate to you as a flesh-and-blood person, rather than just a name on the cover of a book.
The best way to handle such requests, therefore, is to expect them — and be prepared for them in advance. Here are some ways to keep from panicking when that phone rings:
1) Ask yourself what you would ask yourself. Remember that an interviewer is going to ask about the subject you know best: The subject of your book. If you write nonfiction, you may get calls from writers who are researching that subject area and want to talk to an expert (yes, you). If you write fiction, the interviewer may want to know more about you as a writer.
In short, someone is going to ask the same types of questions you’d ask if you were interviewing an author. One way to prepare yourself in advance, therefore, is to take some time to jot down some of those questions (and, if it makes you feel more comfortable, the answers). What would you ask an author if you were researching the subject for an information article? What if you were writing a personal profile of the author? How about a human-interest piece? What would you ask if the topic or author were controversial?
Here are some of the types of questions I’ve been asked over the years:
- How long have you been involved in [your subject area]?
- What is your primary goal [in writing about the subject]?
- What do you hope to accomplish by — ?
- Where do you see this field in —– years?
- What do you consider the most important issue/question/problem in this field?
- What tips would you give someone facing [the situation/problem addressed in your book]?
- Your book discusses X. Could you give me a little background on this topic/explain why it is important/describe your position on the issue?
Personal interest questions:
- How long have you been writing?
- How long have you been writing about this particular topic?
- What is your background in the subject area?
- What inspired you to write this particular book?
- How do you come up with your ideas?
- Is this book/characters based on real events/people?
- Why did you choose to become a writer?
- How many hours a day do you write?
- Could you describe your typical writing day?
You can undoubtedly add many questions of your own to this list!
2) Reschedule. If you don’t feel comfortable handling an interview on the spot (you haven’t had time to prepare, or you’re dripping on a Persian carpet), simply say that this isn’t a good time, and schedule another. Most interviewers don’t expect you to be available at the drop of a hat. (Once you’ve handled two or three telephone interviews, however, you’re likely to feel perfectly comfortable plopping down on the couch and fielding the call — no matter what your state of dress.)
3) Ask for more information. Find out what the interviewer is looking for, so that you can prepare for the next call. A simple question like “What would you like to talk about?” or “What type of information are you looking for?” is usually enough to give you an idea of what will be asked/expected of you. (Also, be sure that you know who the caller is and what publication the interview is intended for.)
4) Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes. If you’re feeling awed or intimidated by a request for an interview, stop and think for a moment about how you feel, as a writer, whenever you approach someone for an interview. Chances are, you may feel a bit awed yourself — or at least grateful for the person’s time. Remember what it’s like to be on the other end of the line, juggling a phone and a notepad. Interviewers are writers like you — and now you know that interviewees are much like you, too!
During the interview
1) Relax. Remember that the interviewer can’t see you. S/he can only hear your voice. If your voice sounds calm and professional, the interviewer will receive the impression that you are calm and professional — even if you’re dripping all over the carpet.
2) Take your time. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. If you need to stop and think about a question, stop and think. Remember that you are doing the interviewee a favor by participating.
3) Keep on track. It’s easy for an interview to wander into uncharted territory. In some cases, that’s fine; you never know where an unexpected question might lead. In others, however, it may mean that important issues are missed. If you feel that the interviewer is missing an important point, try to gently steer the interview back to that issue. Try a statement like “Getting back to your question about —- for a moment, I just wanted to mention…” Don’t beat it to death, however; make your point, and be willing to move on.
4) Don’t feel obligated to answer. If the interviewer asks a question you don’t know the answer to, admit that you don’t know — or tell the interviewer that you’ll have to get back to them. The last thing you want is to have your name associated with inaccurate information! If you don’t have an opinion on a topic, don’t try to invent one. If you don’t want to answer a question for any reason, decline politely. Don’t let the interviewer put words into your mouth.
5) Think in “sound-bites.” It’s easy to get bogged down in long, complicated explanations or stories, and interviewers often love these. However, interviewers also love short, pithy quotes that sum up a position or bit of information succinctly.
For example, suppose someone asks you what piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers. You could say:
I think it’s very important for new writers to understand that they shouldn’t take rejection personally, because we all experience rejection at some time in our lives. Every writer needs to realize that rejection applies only to one’s work, not to one’s “self.”
Or, you could say:
Believe in yourself. If you don’t, you’ll never convince anyone else to believe in you, or your work.
As a reader, which quote would you remember? (As an interviewer, which quote would you rather write down?)
As part of your preparation process, consider developing three or four key “sound-bites” to use in interviews. Memorize them. Write them down on 3×5 cards, if you are afraid you’ll forget them. You may be surprised to find that, out of an hour-long interview, those “bites” are the only quotes that actually make it into the finished article.
6) Ask for a copy of the finished article. After the interview has ended, ask if you can receive a copy of the article once it has been published. (Don’t ask to review a copy of the piece before it is published.) This will make a very nice clip for your collection, as well as a tearsheet that you can send out with your promotional materials.
Radio interviews are often very similar to the type of interview described above. Nowadays, you rarely have to travel to a studio; the entire interview can be conducted by phone. You may have to answer questions from a host, or, if it’s a call-in show, from listeners.
Radio guests are contacted well in advance, so you’ll have time to prepare. You may not have a choice of dates or times, however, as you may be asked to “guest” on a show about a specific topic.
Find out how long the show lasts (usually between half an hour and two hours). Be sure you’ve been to the restroom before it starts, and that you haven’t drunk five cups of coffee first! (Keep a glass of water on hand, however, in case your throat gets dry.) Try to find out, not just when the show starts, but when you can expect the station to call; if other guests are scheduled before you, you may not be called at the beginning of the show.
On some radio shows, the guests are considered the “stars,” and are given lots of air time. On others, the hosts are the “stars,” and will do most of the talking; you may be given only a few brief moments to answer questions. That’s when your pithy sound-bites come in handy! If it’s a call-in show, forget the “here’s how I’d interview myself” approach — you never know what you’ll be asked!
Remember that every sound you make will be picked up and broadcast, live, to thousands of listeners. Make sure you can conduct the interview in a quiet location, where you won’t be interrupted by a screaming child or barking dog. Try not to cough, clear your throat, blow your nose, or slurp water while you’re on air; you’ll have the chance to do all of the above whenever the station goes on a commercial break.
Will a radio show boost your sales? Some writers say yes; some say no. The good news is that you’re likely to be reintroduced after every commercial segment, along with the title of your book (e.g., “I’m here talking with Moira Allen, author of Writing.com, which is available from…”) Whether you sell more books or not, you will get a boost to your professional image, just by being able to add such interviews to your list of credits. You can also usually obtain a copy of the tape of the show.
Live interviews don’t have to be terrifying. Instead, think of them as mutually beneficial: You’re doing the interviewer a favor by giving them a story, and they’re doing you a favor by giving you free publicity. So the next time the phone rings and someone wants to “ask you a few questions,” relax and enjoy it!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.