Sunday, 31 July 2011

Open House Day 61 - Sandy Auden

Talking Heads

It's fun being a freelance writer, but it isn't always easy. Like all jobs, a freelancer is faced with a range of challenges to overcome in their day-to-day business and for Steve's blog, I wanted to share a few tips on my favourite aspect of the job: interviewing.

I've lost count how many interviews I've done over the last decade or so but I've certainly chatted to hundreds of authors; several actors; and handful of directors and props crew; and one lovely Canadian Visual Effects Supervisor. And all of them have been different.

Each interview has delighted or surprised me in some way with an interesting point of creativity or personal background or opinion. We're all multi-layered characters, diverse in so many ways and yet also very, very similar. No two writers develop their stories in the same way, yet they all share the same passion to write their adventures down and take others along on the ride with them. The ideas writers have could be about any topic on earth but all of them report that they have ideas coming up almost all the time. And many writers agree that often their ideas arrive when water is involved (like in a shower), or when they're driving (which probably has something to do with the conscious mind being occupied while the sub-conscious is chugging away generating stuff I expect).

Sharing an interviewee's experiences with others in an article can be very satisfying and here's a few pointers to help you get the quotes you need…

Preparation is key

A good interview starts a long time before you get to face to face (or email to email).

Who Are They?

Always do your research about your candidate and their work. Yes, you can walk in and blag it but the best interviews come from knowing your interviewee's background.

What To Ask?

Get your questions ready in advance, always have more questions than you think you'll need and keep them open questions as much as possible (ones that can't be answered with a yes or no).

When building your question list, curiosity is an important trait. Ask about what you're interested in because that's probably what other people want to know too. Having a theme for your interview will help provoke questions out of your head, but I always find this part of the preparation works like any other creative task in that the sub-conscious will work on them in the background until its ready to share. Keep pen and paper with you at all times because you don't know when those questions will arrive – you could be on the toilet, driving, waiting to tee off on the first hole, on a particularly boring training course or in the middle of a movie. If you don't get them on paper straight away you'll probably not be able to remember them all at a later time and lose out on some really good questions.

Face To Face At Last

These days there are all kinds of ways to do an interview – email, phone, skype, in person, or instant messaging – but some tips apply regardless of the medium used.

Listen, React and Go With the Flow

One of the most well known tips is to listen to your interviewee and react to their answers. If you're asking what they remember about their last night with their partner and they suddenly drop in the surprise confession, "just before bed, I sunk an axe into her head" then don't doggedly follow your original line of questions, ok?

In The Blink Of An Eye

There will be times when you aren't going to get very long to do an interview. The shortest one I've ever done is eight minutes and forty two seconds (according to the dictaphone). In these situations good preparation will pay off and make the difference between getting juicy answers or vague quotes.

Not Answering the Question

There's two scenarios here. First up, the interviewee does not want to answer your question and how you deal with that is up to your own requirements. If you need the outrageous or sensational quote or want to dish the dirt that's being withheld, then you'll need to find a way to wheedle it out of the interviewee. Personally, I respect their boundaries and find that way I get a lot of repeat interviews when future projects arrive.

The second situation is that the interviewee answers the question they think you have asked. This happens most often with frequently interviewed candidates who are expecting a standard question when you ask something similar but with an extra twist. Observation is essential here and it ties in with listening to the interviewee and your preparation. It's far easier to listen to your interviewee (and spot the misleading answer) if you know your questions and article theme well.

Location, location, location

Environment is also essential for both you and your interviewee. If you can find a quiet place to talk, then all the better. However, there can still be some distractions. I once took an interviewee out on the hotel stairs (between floors) to sit down for a quiet chat. What we didn't expect was that the hotel's head waiter would be up and down those same stairs like a demented hamster. Maintaining focus on what you're talking about can be tough for both of you with someone else running past shouting "Sorry!" every two minutes.

Keep Calm and Carry On

This single skill has got me through several difficult interviews. One interviewee opened our session with, "I doubt you can ask me anything that I haven't been asked before". There's nothing quite like being judged as unoriginal before you start but instead of taking offense I just acknowledged the comment and cracked on politely. At the end of that interview, they did concede that I'd come up with a new angle on their work. For another interviewee, I explained the theme of the article up front, to be told that it "was a crap theme". At yet another, the interviewee repeatedly told me I was barking up the wrong tree and took considerable delight in trying to sabotage my questions.

But I respected their opinions and did the interview anyway.

There is, of course, a limit. When you ask someone if they want coverage on their latest project and they get angry, start shouting and being generally abusive - walk away politely. They're probably just having a bad day and there's always the next time (they were and there was).

Getting It Down On Paper After A Face To Face

The last aspect I want to cover is transcription, a big part of the process when you're interviewing in person. I've always found transcribing very time consuming and a bit of a grind to be honest but there are a couple of ways to make the task a little easier on yourself.

Background Noises

Quite a few years ago, I did an interview over lunch in a Pizza Hut. Yes, I expected background people noise but what I hadn't realised was that Pizza Hut actually ran a constant muzak track in their restaurants. It was so innocuous that you didn't consciously register it when you were there, but the dictaphone picked it up in glorious clarity and its irritating presence made the transcription all that much harder.

That day, the dictaphone also managed to pick up something else unexpected – the low key bitchy argument taking place between the couple at the next table. With three levels of background noise to cope with (general talking, argument and muzak), it took a long time to transcribe that interview.

So as you can see, sitting around having a nice little chat with someone for an article may not be as easy as it looks but it is damn good fun and I've been lucky to talk to some very talented and creative people in the last ten years or so. Using the tips above, you should get some usable quotes for your article then all you've got to do is write it and that is a topic for another day…

Sandy Auden is a freelance writer with SFX magazine, Interzone magazine and She loves sunsets, walking on the beach and talking to people.

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