I’m Glad You Asked Me That

[June 2006] I’ve been on the receiving end of the metaphorical microphone several times in the past few years. The first time I was interviewed was by a reporter from a local newspaper who I knew in passing. My first book had yet to be come out, but I had a contract and a publication date, so there was interest in the community.

We met at a patio table on the sidewalk outside Starbucks. The reporter had both a tape recorder and a notebook. I was fairly candid in my responses during a wide-ranging chat that lasted at least half an hour. Ultimately this was condensed to a 700-word piece that left me feeling unsettled. Certain important details—like the name of the publisher—were omitted. Seeing in print some of the unguarded things I said was a bit of a shock.

Since then, many of my interviews have been conducted via e-mail. I prefer that format, because I am more in control of the direction of the interview. It gives me time to consider my responses and write them with the same care and attention I would give to a short story or an essay—like this one. The downside is that there’s no give-and-take. No spontaneous questions or follow-ups triggered by something I said in an earlier response.

Still, e-mail interviews aren’t always possible, so you need to be prepared. My most recent interview was a pleasant experience, and how it came about might be mildly instructive, too. As I’ve written elsewhere, I almost always have music playing when I write. At work during the day, I listen to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) via the Internet. The station fulfills a nostalgic need—it’s broadcast from where I grew up—but the network also has a deep interest in the performing and written arts. It’s not unusual to hear a thirty-minute round-table discussion of novels.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a discussion about book cover/dust jacket design. That reminded me of a related story, so I e-mailed the program host. (That’s another thing about CBC radio—anyone who has something on his mind can find an open ear. They’re very receptive to feedback, and often read e-mails or play phone messages from listeners.) Even though my anecdote had nothing to do with me, I ended with a line that said something about how pleased I’d been with MY experience with book cover design, and a link to my web site. In my signature I mentioned where I was writing from and the name of the community where I grew up.

A couple of days later I received a reply from the host. The fact that I listened from Texas impressed him as much as anything else. He’d followed my weblink and researched some of my accomplishments. His program often features people from the area “who are far afield doing interesting things” and would I be available for an interview? It was like I’d baited a hook and the fish bit.

“Of course!” I replied. The host called the next morning to set things up. He gave me a rough idea of what to expect, and I provided fodder for question material. The interview was scheduled to take place that afternoon at 3:10 pm (my time, 5:10 pm in Atlantic Canada) and would be live.

After lunch, I discovered that the work crew burying cable across the road from the office had severed all lines of communication going into our building. No Internet, no phone. Countdown to interview: two hours. Estimated time for repairs: eight hours.

Mild panic set in. I didn’t have the phone number of the radio station; all I had was e-mail. The Internet was out, so I raced home to send a message in hope that someone would read it in time to convey the new phone number to his producer. I scoured their web site and found a phone number for the station, got through to the producer and all was well with the world. I received an e-mail from the host shortly thereafter, thanking me for taking the initiative. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who leave us high and dry even when they know it’s a live show,” he wrote.

In the half hour before the interview, on a single sheet of paper (no rattling pages turning), I made a list of points I wanted to hit. I noted names and titles that I might forget under pressure. I wanted to avoid the dreaded brain freeze, where you stammer forever trying to come up with something that’s normally on the tip of your tongue.

I noted the host’s name (Paul) so I wouldn’t accidentally call him Peter or Phil. In the moments before the incoming call, I checked my environment. Turned off anything likely to make a noise (cell phones, squeaky ceiling fan) and closed my office door to prevent interruptions. It’s amazing how often I’ve heard cell phones ring during radio interviews. Once, it was the host’s cell phone, to her mortification.

I listen to the program often, so I know the host’s style. Researching your interviewer can prevent you from being blindsided. Imagine expecting to talk seriously about your book only to end up with the goons on the morning show who think they’re the funniest things since Jerry Lewis. Unless you’re prepared to play along, you might end up looking like the fool. Although this host can be brutally direct with politicians, I knew he wasn’t confrontational with the average Joe. The interview turned out to be a free pass. A chance at self-promotion. He lobbed in open-ended questions and gave me as much free space as I needed to answer.

When we were done, I turned up the radio and was amused to hear that I was still talking. They had me on tape delay, presumably to avoid any f-bombs. I immediately wrote a quick note of thanks to the host for the opportunity. The next time I have something to promote, he may well remember such gestures and be open to a follow-up.

Both in Q&A and live radio interviews, I am ultimately in control of what I get across and the manner in which I do so. I’ve seen live interviews where the host tried to take the piece in a different direction from what the guest wanted. Nimble interviewees can wrest control back by posing their own questions of themselves in their answers . . . and then answering that question.

A condensed print interview with a reporter is still my least favorite format, but I think I’m a little wiser about what to say, what to stress, and what to avoid than I was three years ago, the first time I sat across the table from a person with a notepad and the all-hearing tape recorder.

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