*In this special Tuesday edition of Novel Matters, we present part 2 of The Anatomy of the Interview. You can read part one here.*
Content of an interview
Here’s the secret of great writers, the ones who can write a novel so fulfilling the readers wish to eat it with a spoon: Writer, know thyself.
Know yourself, and be able to lay across the pages of your work, like a scroll with a broken seal, and transfer the very impression of your skin, breath, and heartbeat using only 26 letters.
Writers are observers, listeners, catchers of the emotion that floats in the spaces between two people. Nothing is lost on the novelist when crafting his story.
These qualities, these deep intuitions of human nature and the ability to zero in on its aspects must be brought to your interview.
Watch how our own Sharon Souza does it:
NM: Tapping into that depth of honesty has to be difficult. Is this something you do in all your work?
SKS: The novel I most recently completed is a story of extreme loss, and I drew upon my unfathomable sense of loss at the death of my son. I’ve never before drawn on such deep, deep emotions in my writing—though I thought I had.
NM: This puts me in mind of that Arthur Miller quote “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He as to be endangered by it.”
SKS: There’s no question that empathy trumps sympathy, and unless or until we experience the really hard things of life, we can’t empathize with those who have. I write characters I can relate to on a deep level, because I want to reach readers who relate to them as well. And I want them to know, “truly I feel your pain.” There are people who have suffered great loss and I hope to connect with them through it, because there is a connection between people with a shared experience, even if they’re strangers. *The full interview with Sharon will be posted on the blog Wednesday, August 8, 2012.*
It’s easy to picture Sharon saying this, even if you’ve never seen her before. It’s so natural. She’s obviously being herself, telling you a truth in the same clear-eyed voice you’ll find peppered throughout her novels. And it was all so easy for her to do, right?
Sorry, no. It takes work.
You’ve heard the obvious advice before: Be yourself.
This is only good advice if “yourself” is naturally terribly interesting and a good communicator.
Maybe you are, but I’m going to assume it’s a reasonably safe bet that you don’t have the ability to razzle-dazzle at the drop of a hat. That you might need to work up the nerve first, that you likely need to practice being sharply on point and distractingly interesting at the same time.
Be yourself is too general to be helpful. The real me is mostly a collection of dull moments, un-brilliant thoughts, and the occasional fit of stupidity. Often I am funny, but not usually on purpose. In other words, the real me—or, more to the point, the real you—isn’t supposed to be for public consumption.
It’s too big and, frankly, boring for the interview. People who believe they are “naturally chatty” and charming, usually end up yammering on and on about themselves without any direction or purpose. People who are shy end up giving short answers that are mistakenly interpreted at unfriendly.
In an interview, you bring parts of your true self to light that are relevant to the purpose of the interview (see part 1). You must choose the truths about yourself that are the most compelling, interesting, relevant, and endearing (or iconoclastic if that’s what fits).
Call it personae. Call it a brand (but let’s give that term a rest, shall we?). Call it personality.
For example, Cec Murphy self identifies as “curmudgeon”. Doing so helps his public personae in many ways. First, by repeating the title hundreds of times, he has branded himself in the minds of others: he calls himself a curmudgeon, we believe him (eventually).
Second, it gives him the freedom to say things other people might hedge away from. He can be straightforward because we cheerfully accept that he is saying and doing those things because he’s a curmudgeon, shucks, ain’t it sort of charming?
Thirdly, and most cleverly, he has managed to parlay this aspect of his personality into the image of the wise man, the hermit in the cave others seek out for wisdom. He’s gruff, but he’s honest and that makes an encounter with him and his work worthwhile.
Not a bad gig. And its true. It’s not his total truth, it’s not necessarily the most important truth about him, but it is the coat his public persona wears and it works well.
While you’re mulling over which of your personal aspects are the best fit for your upcoming interview, keep in mind that there is one that must be included in every media exposure: the components that make you an artist. Every interview is, in part, an exploration into the creative mind.
Creative types fascinate everyone, these people who have carelessly and passionately thrown themselves into the arms of Art and live to tell the tale. A fundamental human question is to try to understand the creative process and creative mind.
This brings us back to that basic rule of writing: show, not tell.
You don’t explain the creative process and mind by talking about them. The best interviewers know that the only way to explain is to show it in action. To tell stories about it. They make simple statements about an action they have taken. They don’t apologize for it, or try to explain it, nor do they beg to be understood. They don’t make a fuss over it either.
Here’s Judy Blume tossing out great insights into the creative mind:
“Fudge was actually based on my son Larry when he was a toddler [. . . ] He [. . . ] want[ed] to eat his supper under the table and so I let him.
I can remember a friend walking in once and saying, "Judy, you better stop him from doing that. He is going to grow up to be so weird." I am here to tell you that he's all grown up and he's a lovely man and he eats his dinner at the table with everyone else. We used to say, "Larry is an interesting toddler." You know what? He's an interesting man.”
Blume has done so much more than explain of the genesis of a character, she’s expressed an artistic truth and is unapologetic in her approach to creative living. It’s a glimpse into what it takes to be a writer: a fearless certainty in the process. Joy in the journey.
Notice too, the subject of Blume’s statement about creativity isn’t herself, but her son, Larry. Do you see what this does? Can you feel the casual, inviting way she says, “Isn’t life wonderful and strange? Don’t you think we’ll be great friends?”
Friendship. In the end, that is the blessed crux of the interview. An interesting, offbeat, creative storyteller shows up wearing loose fitting, comfortable clothing, takes a seat, smiles and says, “Isn’t life wonderful and strange? I think we’re going to be friends.”