Spencer Gordon, author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Cosmo, has been lauded for possessing “Mariah Carey-esque range” and for being able to do to information what Bobby Flay can do to a can of tuna.*
With the kind of inspired reactions Cosmo has elicited, it is no surprise that Gordon has some opinions on how media and bloggers might best cover books. For example, in interviews, not all questions are created equal—actually, some should never be asked if it were up to Gordon. Here are his dos and don’ts—if you’re an author, chime into the question we’ll be asking today on Twitter with @coachhousebooks and @spencergordon, hashtag #authorinterview: “What’s the best, or worst, question you’ve ever been asked in an interview?”
*Note to self: Google "Flay" + "Tuna."
The following is a list of 5.3 rules for interviewers of writers (a list of don’ts, in other words) for 2013 and beyond.
As you read this, there are countless author interviews bobbing upon the chestnut-brown waves of the Internet, and most of them are bad. And the worst interviews, like the worst writing, inhabit a realm of bland generalization and lazy anti-specificity. Lots of What is your book about? or What themes do you grapple with? or Is space important to you? They feature openly cut-and-paste questions (perfect for the web!) or are obviously cooked up after only a brief skim of the authors’ works (if they’re lucky) or may be a few feeble minutes of prep. Publicity for the sake of publicity, or the interviewer’s ego, or simply to fill pages or pixels …
Now, it’s easy to say that most bad interviews are crappy because they are so nebulous and soft, but having a concrete “don’t” barring the use of all generality is impractical. Instead, let’s focus on some more specific and repeat offenders, both to make our Q&As better and to actually help our subjects. This is all in the hope, of course, that a sharpening of our interrogative senses will make readers run from their hovels to actually buy some books—an exciting prospect for the twenty-first century!
1. Do not ask the author if he/she enjoys writing. Authors would not write poems or stories or essays or horrible, quirky novels if, at least on some miniscule level, they did not enjoy the process. We all know that writing is often a torturous enterprise, marked by will-destroying and ego-annihilating tribulations. And increasingly, the rewards of literary writing—at least the material or “public” rewards—are nonexistent. Why would anyone put him/herself through such agonies—ridicule, financial instability, isolation—if not for some need for artistic fulfillment, some buried impulse begging to be scratched despite the crushing realities of an indifferent market and readership? Asking if the process is enjoyable or not is irrelevant.
2. Do not ask the author if he/she works best at a certain time of day, in a certain complicated lotus-like position, or in a particular headachy environment. Everyone has a time, place, and setting that is most conducive to his or her process. Whether this is at 5 a.m. in the dark cave of your home office, at midnight after three glasses of wine at your kitchen table, or at mid-day amid the buzz and tumult of a coffee shop or pub, something is going to work best for you.
Now, some people will tell you that this is an important question because it will help educate other writers on “getting the job done.” I don’t understand this; mathematicians aren’t asked where they do math equations best, and that is certainly difficult work. Knowing how you work will not help me; it will only distract me from actually writing and probably make me feel kind of shitty about my own process. Moreover, whatever answer given will most likely not further the readers’ appreciation for the text (if they’ve even read it, which is—c’mon—a rare day in magazine land). So why, author, are you asked this silly question? It is akin to gossip—an attractive pastime that is nevertheless deadly and for dull minds.
3. Number three is a three-parter, cleverly:
a) Do not ask the author if she likes to see her name in print.
b) Do not ask if he is comfortable with calling himself a writer/poet/artist.
c) Do not ask if she yearns for more recognition for her work.
I have the answers to each question already, eliminating the need for any future inquiry.
a) Yes, one salivates over one’s printed (and thus consecrated, however lamely) name. It is one of the better feelings a writer can feel (between horrible bouts of loathing and self-doubt [see #1]).
b) No, never (unless the writer is an unbridled ego-maniac who wants to be ridiculed, slugged, or gossiped about endlessly by other sufferers [see #2]).
c) Yes, one desperately desires to be read (actually read) and remembered and passed on (unless the writer is insane and writing to a coven of like-minded trolls who require the soothing output of sameness, of a clique).
4. Do not ask the author if he/she thinks editing is a positive exchange, or essential for his/her own work, or that working with an editor is important, period. Forget the tired polishing cliché—editors rescue manuscripts. While they may not be writers themselves, they are most likely smarter about the writing (and reading) process than you are. They see where you err and where you glimmer most amusingly. Writers who think having a solid editorial relationship with someone whom they trust and respect is unnecessary or irrelevant are bad writers and goofy human beings. There is only one possible answer to this question, and everyone knows it, so stop asking.
5. Do not ask authors about what they hope a reader will “take away” from their work. We’re now veering back into major generalization territory, but I feel as though this particular query deserves special mention. People who have any sense of dignity are unequipped to answer this question without sounding like narcissistic tools (not to say that many writers are not narcissistic [or even solipsistic] clam-hammers, but even the worst offenders like to conceal their peculiar polyps and personality disorders).
The truest answer to this question? Writers want readers to “take away” only the best, most life-altering lessons. They want readers to be hobbled by their genius. They want readers to say, “this book changed my life.” Whether secret or disgustingly open about it, most writers have towering ambitions; they want to replicate the very texts that once devastated them and opened the door to this enchanted, impoverished world of literature. And if they didn’t, they’d probably be balling for another team. Or making money.
Ask this question, and you also risk the second most honest response (also a surefire sign that your interview has gone awry): “I want readers to have a good time. All the time.”
*Ed.: By the way, Cosmo won the 2013 CBC Overlookie Bookie Award for "Most Underrated Canadian Book"! That's gotta make you want to check it out—not to mention the story about Matthew McConaughey wandering in the desert. Shirtless, yes.
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