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Grab an Author by the Coattails
by Susan Sundwall

Imagine snagging an interview with J.K. Rowling. Okay, if you’re like me, imagining is about all you’re going to do with the likes of Ms. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potters. But scaling down from there, imagine yourself interviewing any author, famous or not. Who would you choose and how would you go about it? The first time I interviewed a children’s book author was for an article in the Children’s Writer Guide for 2006, published by the Institute of Children’s Literature. I wanted to appear efficient and professional even though my nerves took a hit every time I thought about the upcoming ordeal. But I made up my mind to just do it and I found that the key to a good author interview is, not surprisingly, preparation. I set about writing up some guidelines and they served me quite well.

Research

I read interviews with authors in writing magazines like Writer’s Digest, The Children’s Writer’s Guide, Writer’s Market and The Writer. I tried to get a feel for the rhythm of the questions that the interviewer asked and made notes to do something similar. Next I did in-depth research about the writer I had chosen to interview, Jill Esbaum, author of Stink Soup and many other stories for children. I thoroughly checked out her website and used the email address there to contact her. I put “interview request” in the subject of my email. I told her my subject and the name of the publication where it would appear and asked if she’d consent to an interview. When she did I bought a copy of Stink Soup (a title that intrigued me) and began to wrestle with a list of questions.

Ugh – the Questions

My article subject was word choice and syntax, a vital subject, but not one to light up the night. So how did I make the questions sizzle on the page? Since I am an author myself, I decided to flip the situation around and figure out what I’d like to be asked if someone were interviewing me. I love how words in just the right places can give substance and meaning to a piece of writing. Sometimes switching one word for another can breathe life into an otherwise ho-hum sentence or paragraph. With these thoughts in mind I began by asking myself why I had chosen certain words for parts of my story, "Camp Creepy," and then I wondered why those words worked so well. I read through some of Stink Soup and found this question would be a perfect one to ask Jill too. This got me started on a flip flop course of action that eventually led to the series of questions she was delighted to answer.

Method

I’ve conducted interviews by phone, in person and by email. I’ve found email to be the best. Why? Because I didn’t have to rely on my poor penmanship or faulty memory for anything. I could constantly refer to a set of notes written by the authors themselves. For quotes I could even copy and paste exact words. This made it so easy to plug in pieces of information wherever I needed it in my manuscript. Email is also convenient for the author. He or she can answer whenever it fits into their schedule and avoid off the cuff responses that sometimes don’t do justice to the question. The phone comes in handy if there’s a need for clarification and hearing a voice is wonderful validation of your efforts. This adds a warm personal touch for the author too. Some combination of the three can also work well.

Follow up

Once you’ve gotten everything you need from your author always, always follow up with a thank you. Do it at the time of the interview and later when the piece appears in the publication. This can be either an email or a nice note through the regular mail. I like regular mail. Somehow it seems so much more personal simply because of the extra effort involved. This common courtesy leaves a favorable impression with your author, one that will serve you well in establishing your reputation as a friendly and pleasant interviewer.

These four guidelines helped keep me focused on my task and kept the jangling nerves at arms length. I did find one other thing very helpful—friendliness. Realizing the person you’re talking to has more in common with you than not is a big help. The author you’re interviewing will appreciate a relaxed style that gets the job done with the least amount of stress. Let your sense of humor and curiosity push you forward.

© Copyright 2007, Susan Sundwall

Susan is a freelance writer, sometime poet and soon to be blogger. Read her children’s story, "Mary’s Sparrow."

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