Saturday, June 30, 2007

On Journalism, and Interviewing Authors

This week, I get asked by a journalist how it feels to be interviewed about my books, given that I occasionally put on my journalist's hat to interview other writers about their books. I give my usual answer, which is that it's a little awkward. I tend to assume three roles in that situation: the subject (the writer being interviewed), the journalist (the journalist doing the interview), and some strange intermediate role somewhere between the two, where I look objectively at both people in their respective roles and find fault with each.

Unfortunately, the journalist who poses the question is on somewhat dodgy ground, as he confesses that he hasn't read my book. As always, a little part of me inevitably switches off when I hear that. The nature of the interview changes. To be fair, I don't expect every journalist or interviewer who speaks to me to have read the book I'm publicising, or even any of my books. When it comes to short radio or TV spots, it's the exception rather than the rule to encounter someone who has actually read the book. It doesn't really matter, as my role in that case is just to fill a few minutes of what might otherwise be dead air, and I try to be as general and as light-hearted as possible. It's usually early in the morning, and I tend to view entertaining weary commuters or those at home as welcome challenge.

A newspaper or magazine interview is a different matter, though. It takes longer to conduct, and reading such an interview is a less passive pursuit than listening to three minutes on the radio, I would argue. On a personal level, though, I tend to feel a sense of disappointment when a journalist makes such a confession. It's not that I find myself particularly interesting; at this stage, there can be few people who find me more boring than I find myself when it comes to discussing my books. I'm not even a very interesting person. I live a pretty normal life, all things considered, when I'm not touring, and touring bears little or no relation to my real, everyday existence. (For a start, I don't get a clean gown every morning when I'm at home, and there are no chocolates on my pillow. On the other hand, if I wake up in the night at home I know immediately where the bathroom is, and run no risk of walking into a wall or attempting to relieve myself in a sink . . .)

No, it's more that I wonder about the relationship between the journalist in question and his/ her craft. The subtext, when one is told that the journalist hasn't read the book, is that he/ she was just too busy to read it, and that the writer should simply be grateful that he is being interviewed at all. That may even be true, but what, then, is the point of the interview? I would no more interview an author whose work I hadn't read than I would attempt to describe a piece of music that I hadn't heard, or discuss a film that I hadn't seen. Professional pride, in part, wouldn't let me, but also I know that I would have nothing worth saying. That was as true when I was a struggling freelance, grateful for any work, as it is now. I would spend a week preparing for the interview, often reading not just the latest book but any other books I thought might help to fill the gaps in my knowledge. If I thought it would help, I would browse the cuttings files (in those pre-Internet days). I might even make a start on the piece (itself a flawed exercise, as it's a virtual admission that one has already begun to form an opinion of the author before interviewing him or her). Inevitably, I would throw most, if not all, of that pre-written material out. If I did not, I would doubt the value of the final piece.

Recently, an interview with me appeared in a major newspaper. I was quoted extensively, but none of the quotes were mine. The words used bore little or no resemblance to what I had actually said. Instead, "my" words were what the journalist presumably wished that I had said. I wondered if the tape recorder had broken down. I wondered if my words had just been unspeakably dull, too mundane to even waste ink and paper upon. And I wondered if, perhaps, the journalist just didn't care enough to transcribe them properly.

Transcription is tedious. Listening back to an interview one has conducted is time-consuming. Again and again, journalists cut corners. At least, they do with me. My bad, I guess. I really must be dull. When I've conducted my own interviews with writers, though, I've always been very careful to quote them accurately. I consider it polite, I suppose. It's also a courtesy to those who read the final interview. If they're interested enough to read it, they should be allowed to read the writer's own words, not mine.

So I don't think the interview with the journalist who didn't read my book will be particularly enlightening. I did my best, but there was a limit to how much ground I could make up on the initial lack of interest. Then again, I may come out sounding much more interesting than usual as a consequence. It's hard to tell.

Yesterday, there was a rather different interview. The journalist had read the book, and we ended up discussing whether or not I was a liberal, as The Unquiet is a political novel with a small 'p', I think. (I am liberal, although that word tends to have different connotations in Europe than in the US. Many of those accused of the sin of liberalism in the US would barely qualify as mildly conservative in Europe.); the nature of the US criminal justice system; the chaining of children in US juvenile courts in 27 US states; the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction; British supernatural writers of the early 20th century; and a host of other topics that were linked, either tangentially or thematically, to my work. You didn't have to read my book to be interested in them, but you did have to read my book to be able to raise them to begin with.

I can't stress this enough: I'm not very interesting. My books may not be very interesting to everyone. But I hope that some of the issues they raise are interesting to people. It's why I write: to communicate things that seem important to me, or to explore them and, in so doing, come to some kind of understanding of them. I don't beat people over the head with the issues they raise (and it's curious to me that even raising them has left me open to attack in the past, as though the mere suggestion of discourse is unpalatable to some), and I recognize that a great many of my readers may not view them in the same way that I do, but I have faith in the fact that they are intelligent people, that they can make their own decisions about such matters, and that they understand that books are a forum for ideas as much as they are a conduit for storytelling. I read people with whose ideas I may disagree, for if I did not read them I would be less enlightened about the ways in which others view the world, and I would be guilty of a level of intolerance that I find abhorrent in others.

I still wish that journalist had read my book, though. Heck, he might even have liked it . . .

Since yesterday, John has read

Blaze by Richard Bachman


The Home Office said...

I have conducted one interview in my life: of John, via email, shortly after The Black Angel came out. I had just read it, as well as two others, and can't imagine what I would have asked had I not been at least that familiar with his work.

Some public figures (writers, actors, athletes) get known as "bad interviews." Some of this is likely tedium and irritation at being asked the same questions after twenty or thirty years in the public consciousness. The only way to ensure a good interview is to know enough about the subject to ask something that is rarely asked, or to ask the inevitable questions in a refreshing way. It's a lot of work, which is why I have yet to ask for an opportunity to interview anyone else. I lack the time to do the job justice.

I'd love to know where to find the second interview noted in John's post, the good one.

thomashyland said...

“I can't stress this enough: I'm not very interesting.”

You’re wrong.

You are extremely interesting and a good person. Paris Hilton is not very interesting and maybe not such a good person. And the likes of that contributes much to banality. But you reach out in many ways, while still displaying a sense of likeability and humanity. God gave you talent and you did the rest.

Sorry for the ‘Paris Hilton’ comparison. The mind does seem to draw on what’s available.

John Quirk said...

In 15 years of journalism, I can recall two instances where I interviewed an author without having read the book in question (or any of their previous works), and both times came about when a colleague had to pull out of the interview and I had to step in at the last minute.

I came clean from the outset on both occasions, and the writers were very understanding (at least to my face...), but I felt so embarrassed and unprofessional.

John is right - professional pride should dictate that you ought to be prepared, but sadly there's far too much shoddy journalism out there today, and that's coming from a humble former 'local' news journalist.

Jingles Carlisle said...

I can't imagine interviewing someone without having a good working knowledge of that person's work. For one thing, I'd like to enjoy the interview myself whilst doing it, and I don't think I could swing that if I was underprepared. For another, I'd want the interview to achieve something significant, to affect the readers who decided it was worth their time.

I'm one of those people who believe that a written work can be interpreted a gazillion different ways, and I'd like to know if my interp was a decent one or if the author had an entirely different vision in mind or. . . .

Ah, well.

I agree with thomashyland, John--you are so wrong about the whole "I'm not very interesting" thing. I'm not saying you're the most interesting person who ever lived, but I know I'd love to talk to you about how you craft your novels, about your opinions re: some of the issues you raise in those novels, etc. I think it would be a lovely and stimulating several hours.

So--yes, you're interesting. Deal with it.

thomashyland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ACTON said...

Hi John,
I was fortunate to spend a couple of hours with you in Galway after the 'Unquiet' signing, and I had a great time. It is only natural after all this travelling and meeting people for you to be getting tired. I don't know how you do it. As for whether or not you consider yourself interesting, I had a great time talking to you about your books, recent films, tv shows, etc (I kind of got lost when it came to sports). I had a great evening, and wish every day could be as good. I know people who only read the newspaper and only ever watch the RTE news, who are amazed when I spend money on cds or dvds, and who can't understand why I would ever read a book. These are the people who are boring and bland. You are a diamond in the rough. Even the amount of enjoyment you bring to your readers is enough to elevate you to a higher plain. Anyway, enough sycophancy. Thanks, Eamon Acton.

ACTON said...

Oops. I forgot to mention: I was in Galway city yesterday and bought 'The Book Of Lost Things' for a colleague at work. It is his birthday and he hasn't read any of your books yet. He started it last night and only put it down when his wife tore it from his hands and demanded he turn out the light. So, I think you have a new fan on your hands there!! Thanks. Eamon.