Monday, August 6, 2012

The Anatomy of the Interview Part 1

You hear it all the time, authors saying they don’t like promoting their own work, that it takes time away from writing, that they would rather rave about someone else’s writing because it’s easier, and more genuine.

It doesn’t have to be that way.
I’ve heard writers say that talking about themselves doesn’t come naturally.


Novelists never stop talking about themselves. They write books and books and books about themselves—it’s just them in story disguise.

The key to self-promotion is to understand the anatomy of what you’re doing—the who, what, when, where, and why of promoting your work so that you can be authentic, and approach each opportunity organically.

A common avenue of promotion is the interview. Radio, print, and blogs, video, and TV, all approach writers with an interview format. And most writers don’t know how to do an unforgettable interview.

We’re going to walk through the process of the interview and get you on the right track to giving great interviews that stick in people’s minds.

There’s a HUGE rule of fiction writing: Show, don’t tell. This means you bring depth of meaning, nuance, and purpose to the story through the art of character, setting, story, and symbol rather than by overt statement.

When it comes to self-promotion, most writers seem to forget this rule. What’s more, they seem to forget all of the lessons of crafting fiction when it comes to doing an interview. They operate under the false assumption that promoting their work is different from doing their work. This strikes me as unimaginative.

You need to understand that an interview is an extension of your work, continuation of your writing via a different media.

Let’s break it down into parts: purpose, structure, content, and exposure.

Why would a writer bother with an interview?

Here are some answers you might be familiar with:
Because I have a new book out/coming out.
Because my publisher told me I have to do interviews.
Because I want to connect with potential readers who will hopefully buy my novel.

These aren’t wrong answers—they’re merely bad ones. They miss the point by overlooking the one main purpose of all media interviews.

What’s that purpose? To answer that, lets look at some better answers to the question why bother with an interview:

I am privileged to share my excitement about a topic with others.
I am joining an ongoing discussion—I’m one voice of many that matters.
I want to motivate people to talk to friends and family about this thing I’m excited about.
I have questions that I think are common to the human experience.
I can share my questions and my quest with readers.
I have insight into the creative process and the creative mind.

The first set of answers is wrong because the focus is on you and your novel.
Don’t make that mistake.
The interview isn’t about you and your novel.  
The book jacket and book blurb are about you and your novel. 

The purpose of an interview is to connect people with ideas in order to demonstrate your concern for the overall wellbeing of the reader.

When you begin answering interview questions, either live or through print or online media, think “group hug” not “spotlight on me.”

Your job is not to feed into the culture of celebrity, but to swat it away like the pesky fly it is, and focus instead on the intriguing questions that arise from being alive on the planet.

When you keep this purpose in focus, not only are you able to deliver great interviews, but you end up organically sharing about the things that move you, get you excited, things you love, things you hate. It becomes a true interaction with the real you, and not a stiff, unnatural monologue about a book you wrote and hope people will buy.

Interviews are conversations—not self-centered monologues—between you and the reader/listener.

Repeat that with me: Interviews aren’t about me or my book.

What are they about?

The audience.


It’s the expression of your love and concern for the wellbeing of others.

Watch how Anne Tyler does it:

Goodreads: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behavior? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration? 

Anne Tyler: I figure we're almost all students of human behavior. That's how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.
 When I'm working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn't reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.
Tyler manages to tell us a great deal about herself, and about the writing process by talking about someone else, a sort of every-woman person we all know, or might even be. It seem like it’s about us. She’s talking about you. And me. And that’s lovely. It makes us like her.

Structure of an interview
Many media outlets (especially TV and radio) will ask for a set of questions from the writer that they can use in the interview. You must have these questions as part of the publicity package that goes out to media.

The problem with doing interviews using these questions is you’re tempted to create rote answers that you give over and over to different media with little variation. But doing so goes against the purpose of the interview. Stamping out the same answers again and again doesn't communicate your interest in the reader's wellbeing.

Also, if you want to create a buzz around your work, you must, must, must be interesting and engaging at every interview and that means not repeating yourself.

Readers aren’t going to bother reading more than a couple of interviews if you say the same thing at each one.

The interview should never be you repeating robot-like the information about your life, work, and book in one blue-faced blaze.

Every interview is start-from-the-beginning in terms of preparation. How do you start?
Go back to the purpose and the audience. Who will you be talking to? (not who is interviewing you, but who is the audience that will be listening/reading the interview?) How can you connect to that specific audience? Which themes will you touch on, which part of your emotional anatomy will you focus on for their benefit?

Many times, especially in print media, someone sends you a bunch of questions via email, you answer them, and send them back. Most often, whatever you send back is what gets published. (Unless you get interviewed by Novel Matters. We're different.)

Here’s the thing: most often writers take the questions at face value, answer one after another with tip-of-the-brain answers jotting down the first thing that comes to mind. They don't take time to build connections from one answer to the next, so the interview has the building excitement of a story. 

You need to structure and interview with as much care as you do a story because an interview is a storytelling event.

Each answer should build on the previous response, weaving together a narrative, pulling themes together, and building to a climax, then resolving just the way a story does.

How do you do that when someone sends you the questions? Or, in a live interview, when you don’t know what questions will be asked?
Take control of the interview.
No one knows better than you what needs to be talked about (because you've prepared, you know your audience, and you know how to touch their hearts). You can make changes, direct the content and tone of the interview by your responses.

You decide.
Don’t hand the steering wheel of your your own promotion vehicle over to someone else.
Here’s an example:

Interviewer: Bonnie, tell us about yourself.

Me: I don’t have a peanut allergy. Everywhere I go, people ask, so let me be up front straight away.
I call my dog names. Often. She doesn’t seem to mind, but sometimes I catch her staring at me and I wonder if she’s plotting my murder. She’s a Pomeranian, so unless she learns how to use a weapon, or lift heavy objects, I figure I’m okay.
I’m married to a pastor, but I don’t think that qualifies me as Pastor’s Wife. Not capitalized like that. We have two kids who never pick up their rooms, and like processed cheese which I’m still trying to come to terms with.
Is it weird that I mentioned the dog before my family?

These answers aren’t simply funny or whimsical. The answer provides starting points for the interviewer. Where has she been that people are always asking her what she’s allergic to? What’s up with the dog? Why isn’t she a capital P, capital W pastor’s wife? She’s got kids, messy kids, how does she handle parenting and writing life?

I’ve provided answers that get the wheels of the interview moving in the directions I want them to move, and I’ve set the tone I want to set. This is me, I like to have a bit of fun, I’m down to earth.

With responses like these, you can only play this card once. If you were to go around repeating these exact responses everywhere you go, people will catch on quick.

What you want to do is build a following with each interview. You want people to follow you from one to another by creating a sense of, “what will she say THIS time?”

By structuring your interviews so they tell a complete story, and taking control early to set the tone, then connecting with your audience through themes and emotions that they experience in every day life, you will build a following.

Give lots of innovative, generous, insightful interviews and KAPOW: you’re the Grateful Dead with reading groupies following you from media to media, because they can’t wait to hear what you will say next.

**Part 2 of The Anatomy of the Interview will be published Tuesday, Aug 7th. Meanwhile, we invite your thoughts, comments, ideas, questions, and calls for help here in the comment section. We love to hear from you.**


Katy McKenna said...

Bonnie, all I can say is that this post makes me freakishly happy. Nothing dismays me more than when an author goes on "blog tour" for 14 days and I, a wannabe supportive reader, am subjected to the exact same interview every terrible day. ;) We readers are intrigued with authors, and nothing intrigues us more than if the author can succeed in making her interview all about US. :) You've made so many excellent points in one post. THANK you.

Lori Benton said...

Thank you, Bonnie. You just made the whole interview process feel like a creative writing challenge--something that inspires me--instead of a necessary chore. Would you believe I'm preparing for my first video interview later this week at my publisher's and I have the luxury of knowing the questions ahead of time? AND I have today and tomorrow to write my answers. This most excellent and mind-freeing post couldn't have been better timed. I'm feeling like one of those group hugs now. :) Best I can do is go share this post.

Samantha Bennett said...

Love this post so very much. I agree with Lori in that you've brought that creative allure to the interview process. And as someone with lots of self-absorption tendencies, I needed that punctuated line about the purpose of interviews. Fantastico!

S. F. Foxfire said...

HAHA! That's great.

No, really. That's great! I'm not published yet, but one day I hope to be, and your guys's blog really sticks with me. I still roll around that Jay Jordan-Lake interview in my head, and there are posts about being brazen in our writing that really stick out, though I read them last year.

I'm terrified of talking with the spotlight on me. Not to the point where I faint, but to the point where my sides start trembling, and I can swear my ribs are going to collapse. I used to be a social butterfly, but something happened along the way, and it's hard for me to talk to people now. Except through . . . wait for it . . . WRITING. Ding ding ding! Winner!

I always dreaded interviews. Blah blah blah, this is my book, blah blah blah, this is how it came about, yadda yadda yadda. I never considered I could just say whatever. Now? I'm DEFINITELY going to. (baaaahahaha >:] )

Thanks so much, Bonnie. This will be a post that sticks with me.

Heather Marsten said...

Bonnie, thank you. I was talking with a friend today about how difficult it is to think of promoting my WIP once it's finished. This post makes it seem easier. You are right, it is about the reader and the audience - remembering that, along with wanting to honor God, and promotion changes to something with a good purpose. I love your demonstration of how to answer a question to turn the conversation to topics you like. My pastor's wife isn't a P W (capitals) she is more like a mother to the congregation - sweet and loving and fun. I bet you are an inspiration to others. Have a blessed day.

Bonnie Grove said...

Katy M: I can't imagine anything more fun than making someone freakishly happy. I'm ticking that one off my bucket list. Hopefully, this article (and part 2 tomorrow) will help ease the monotony for you.

Lori: Thanks for sharing this article. Absolutely a group hug is in order, and a big congrats for your first video interview!! Way to go, Lori! You'll do a great job!

Bonnie Grove said...

Samantha: So glad this helped in some way. We can't turn off our creative tap when it comes to self-promotion. And I think anyone who spends months locked away in a room clacking the keyboard would emerge with self-absorption tendencies. We all have to watch that as we move forward.

Foxfire: There's nothing to dread! That's the good news. It's lots of work! That's the bad news. All of us at Novel Matters are thrilled to hear that some of our articles stick with you. And the interview with Joy is one of my favourites, too. She's a personal friend, and I assure you she every bit as wonderful and inspiring in person.

Heather: I'm glad this has helped you get a handle on self-promotion! I look forward to seeing your creative take on it when the time comes.
I'm not so sure I inspire folks in my church. Just yesterday a woman in our congregation said to me, "Fat lot of good it does to give you cell phone." (mine was dead--again)
"I'm useless," I confessed.
She readily agreed.

Marcia said...

Bonnie, thanks for all the useful tips and for delivering them with your delightful sense of hilarity!

This article will be Evernoted and tagged so I'll have it when the need arises.

Heather Marsten said...

Hey Bonnie, I'm not a cell phone savvy person either, but there is more than just technical expertise to be effective and I do not think you are useless. LOL. Sometimes congregations want to "eat" their servants. My pastor and his wife are "expected" to be on call 24/7. They can't be, nor can they do effective work. I think being guided by the Holy Spirit and doing what is important is more effective than being able to be contacted all the time. Churches tend to demand much from their servants. Praying your day is blessed.

Patti Hill said...

I can't wait until tomorrow!

Steve G said...

Cool beans. Fun and worthwhile! One thing that shines through here in a very practical way is the reminder to be real. Katy's post was a great Intro, because you are tell us to be our own person, to be real, to be authentic. Sometimes that is hard because we have let ourselves live in a tiny box. You are reminding us there is no box, for us our interviews. Fun, great stuff! I look forward to tomorrow's post.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Bonnie, you just calmed some of my anxiety. Thank you.

I can't wait to see what else we learn this week!

Bonnie Grove said...

Marcia: Thanks so much! I don't know that I've ever been Evernoted before. ;)

Heather: I still need to recharge that phone.

Patti: Me too! Ahem. No, I have this planned out already. I know what I will say. Really.

Steve: Be yourself is good advice, and not as easy as it seems when you find yourself in very new, strange circumstances.

Susie: It's going to be a great week!

Cherry Odelberg said...

Oh wow! What a fun read.
Textbooks are always a great source of information, yet I have often opined that the writers really could have and should have written in a more interesting manner. Obviously, the same goes for interviews - and writing how tos about interviews. Thank you. I am free. I am free. I am free to be creative in interviews (although my creative responses at job interviews have not always been well received...)

Keli Gwyn said...

I've read gazillions of blog posts over the years, and this is by far one of the best, Bonnie. Talk about helpful. Your tips are that! And they work.

My debut novel released last month, and I worked hard to implement this very strategy. My motto was "No cookie cutter interviews." I was hosted about 40 times in July, and I did my utmost to add fresh, fun content in every interview. I didn't want to bore readers to bits by sounding about as interesting as belly button lint.

I like to think I met with success, my gauge being the fact that friends (and those tenacious contest cruisers I was privileged to meet) who followed me from post to post said they'd learned something new on each one, even though they'd seen me "everywhere."

I have to say that one of the very best things about being published is having readers, because readers rock! They are the most amazing, generous, fun people and add such richness to my life. I, in turn, want to add value to theirs by being interesting and entertaining and keeping them and their needs in mind at all times.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: Yes, we need to save the world from boring itself to death. Keep giving creative answers in those job interviews. Chances are the interviewer needs some spice in life.

Keli: Congratulations on your debut. Only happens once, so take time to enjoy! And kudos for giving fun interviews!