A good author interview, like a good cross-examination, is a thing of beauty. In both, the lawyer or interviewer seeks to flesh out a story. For the lawyer, the story is the one told by the witness, which is a smaller part of the story presented by the lawyer’s client’s opponent. For the interviewer, the story is the author’s work. Like the witness’s story in a trial, a book is a component of a larger story that includes the real-life background and events that inspired the author to write it, which may include political issues, current events, history, and the author’s personal life.
An effective cross-examination or author interview will seem relaxed and effortless. But the lawyer or interviewer has to work really HARD to make it look so easy. The lawyer will know the facts of the case inside and out, including what each witness said happened, what, if any, motives the witnesses have to shade their stories, and how the witnesses’ perceptions might have been altered (as by a vision angle or tendency toward selective memory); what documents exist, what they say, when they were created, and who created them; and how to elicit the story so as best to help the judge and/or jury to understand it. The effective interviewer will have acquired a familiarity with the author’s works by reading or at least skimming not only the one designated for discussion but as many of the author’s other writings as possible, knows enough about the current or historical background of the book to speak and ask intelligent questions about it, and will have found something out about the author’s personality and personal history. A great cross is never about the lawyer, and a wonderful interview is never about the interviewer: both are all about the subject.
Apart from substantial reading and research, both trial lawyer and author interviewer face another challenge: getting the witness or the author to answer the questions. Both may be reluctant or even hostile. Court rulings may place limits on a lawyer’s ability to ask questions of a witness (even over the general rule that cross-examination is limited to the scope of the direct testimony), and superstar authors may succeed in conditioning interviews on avoiding certain uncomfortable topics. Even absent such special circumstances, witnesses often do not want to testify at all, let alone be cross-examined by the lawyer for an unfriendly party. While authors typically want to sell their books, they may not want to talk about them, or may not want to talk about the aspects that the interviewer wants to discuss. In fact, it’s not unusual for an author to hate book tours and interviews. An effective interviewer, like an effective trial lawyer, has to be prepared to deal with the hostile or oyster-like subject without losing equanimity.
The Paris Review’s long-running series of author interviews is renowned for its depth. I’ve also long been a fan of Australian Ramona Koval’s author interviews on “The Book Show,” a sadly now-defunct broadcast of the Australian Broadcasting Company, which I listened to for years via the modern miracle of podcast. I’m pleased to learn via The New Yorker that Koval has now published a collection of her interviews, “Speaking Volumes.”
Other interviewers whom I particularly admire include Dick Cavett, NPR’s Terry Gross, Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill, and the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Ghomeshi. All, like Koval, are impeccably prepared and show a genuine interest in their subjects, are unfailingly gracious, and elicit wonderful stories from their guests. For two examples of an interviewer’s grace in dealing with the difficult subject, see Ghomeshi’s interviews with Billy Bob Thornton and Cissy Houston.
Interviews occur every day in all kinds of work and life contexts. How do you deal with the difficult subject, whether at work or a cocktail party? Don’t tell me you just walk away; cutoffs are copouts. I’m looking for comments describing situations where you, like the litigator or the talk show host, MUST continue to engage and interact with the person.