It was one of the first things I ever learned in journalism school: When preparing for an interview, you should never come with more than three or four core questions to ask as your baseline. All other questions you raise over the course of the interview should arise naturally from the discussion, responding to whatever it is that your subject has said. This advice made instant sense to me. Maybe it was because I had already been practicing some journalism on my hometown newspaper before I arrived on campus as a wet-eared undergrad, but I already had a sense that the best interviews were ones conducted like a conversation of discovery, with the journalist letting the discussion steer the interview, diving in with reactive follow-ups whenever possible and lots of thinking on his or her feet.
So I guess something in me bristles a bit whenever I see the increasingly prevalent “this interview was conducted by email” that prefaces so many author interviews. I have never conducted an interview by email, and have only ever participated in one, and with much reluctance. (I held my nose and did it anyway; my novel and I needed the publicity.) But my instinctive reaction to email-based interviews is to see them as lazy journalism. After all, how much thought or skill does it take to cobble together four or five (or 10, or 12, or 20) questions and fire them off to an author via email, have the author write his or her answers out for you and email them back? E-mail interviews are an easy way for literary journalists to get copy fast, but that doesn’t make them good interviews.
I do understand the arguments in favour of (or, at least, tolerance of) email interviews, especially for online articles. The journalist and the author, for example, may not live in the same city and email is just the most efficient way for the two to communicate. But even this doesn’t really hold water for me. There are plenty of electronic devices out there that allow you to record telephone interviews; and even if you can’t afford those devices or long-distance charges to another city, there’s still Skype (free to download off the web) and various add-ons that allow you to record the conversation.
Then there’s all that pesky transcription. It’s true: depending on how fast you type, transcribing an interview might take as much as one hour for every minute of tape. It’s incredibly boring and repetitive and no journalist enjoys doing it. But careful transcription is the price you pay for conducting a thoughtful, nuanced interview in person; it’s part of how you earn your byline.
There are other drawbacks to the email interview. It provides the author time to “spin” his or her responses to your questions, to mull them over, polish them up and make them reflect the image he or she wants to present to your audience. This may make for cleaner copy to read, but it certainly isn’t an honest act of journalism. Interviewing a writer shouldn’t be any different than interviewing a police chief, a lawyer or a PR flak. You don’t necessarily want them to have time to practice their responses, and by sending them the questions in advance you essentially allow them to do just that. Impromptu questions – and a real discussion – will do a much better job of capturing insights about the author and his or her work, which is what you owe to your audience.
An interview via email should only be a last resort for the journalist – i.e. when there are positively no other means to conduct the interview. And even then there is a way to do it properly. The journalist should act as if it were an actual in-person interview – sending only one or two questions at a time and responding to the answers that come back with deeper, more thoughtful questions. Jacob MacArthur Mooney did this to great effect when he recently interviewed fellow poet Susan Holbrook for The Torontoist’s books section . This is an example of an email interview done very well.
Of course, the biggest beef I have with email author interviews is this prevailing trend of what I’d call the “series interview” – i.e. online interviews that ask the exact same group of questions to a variety of authors. These types of smash-and-grab interviews are not only grossly offensive in the way they fail to engage with each individual writer’s work, but they also tend to focus on a writer’s creative process and personal history, and not much else. I’m a huge fan of Eleanor Wachtel’s radio show Writers and Company for the simple reason that every question she asks proves conclusively that she has read the author’s actual work closely, spent a serious amount of time thinking about that work, and has tailored her questions accordingly. The canned-question interview is the antithesis of this: homogenous, thoughtless, and infinitely repeatable - rather like a sausage factory. Wachtel really does set the benchmark for all author interviews. Any literary interviewer – no matter which medium he or she chooses to use – could learn a lot from her.