The Art of the Interview

Paris Review interview with Mary Karr

 

Interviews are often the focal point of any publication. Maybe this is less about the concept of celebrity, and more about the fact that intimate one-on-one contact and examination with another human being is perpetually and inherently fascinating.

But even with the most interesting subject, it takes a skill to obtain a strong interview. While subtle, the interviewer plays a vital role. Here are some tips for getting great interviews yourself.

  • Do background research before the interview. This is essential. Never go blindly into an interview if you can help it. It’s both a sign of respect, as well as a route to having the best possible experience. Google the subject, examine past works, talk to others who know the subject, and search for past interviews to avoid repeating questions, or to follow up on others.
  • The best way to interview someone is in person. In my introductory journalism classes, it was unacceptable to interview over email or by phone, and they discouraged the habit as much as possible. Personally, I believe that email interviews are fine, as people often feel most comfortable and composed – however, when possible, they should be supplemented with at least some in-person contact. How can you truly interview someone without knowing them at all?
  • Go old-school and record interviews by hand. Tape recorders are a blessing, but they should be used as a supplement because technology can fail us (even if you have a backup, which is recommended). It’s difficult to record conversations by hand, but there’s nothing worse than recording an interview and than losing it.
  • Be explicit about what you plan to do with the interview. Tell the person if it’s going to be published, and where, how much traffic or attention they can expect, etc. Respect “off-the-record” wishes at all costs – if private information comes up in the conversation, do not publish it. Ask if they would like to see the interview before you publish it, if time allows. And send them a link or a copy if they would like.
  • Be personable – but inquisitive. Make the person being interviewed feel comfortable and safe. However, as pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman points out, you have a very specific type of business relationship with them. You don’t have to be friends, and you can get away with asking them things that would be considered abrupt or even rude in other circumstances. (but again, make sure these things are okay to publish!) Every interview is essentially free publicity, and as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
  • Type up the interview as soon as you get home, while it’s fresh in your mind. You may think you will remember everything as it happened, but I promise you, you won’t. I like to first type out the notes word for word, just to have something to work with, and then start composing the rest of the article.
  • There are two basic ways to structure an interview – basic Q&A format, or article/narrative format. Decide which is best for you. Q&A usually works best for email interviews, and narrative style usually works best for in-person.

For some inspiration, visit the Paris Review’s interview section or try The Talks.


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