How to interview an author

by Pari Noskin Taichert

A few months ago, radio interviewer Pam Atherton was heading to Book Expo to give a presentation on how to work with authors. She asked some of her past interviewees for what we’d recommend. The tongue-in-cheek piece below — written directly to interviewers in radio and television — is the result, though I’ve updated some of the anecdotes.

While the original audience was very specific, it still shows some of the more amusing gaffs that happen when authors meet media folks.


1. Read the book.
I’m serious here. Sure, you’ve got a lot to do. Who has time to read every book by every author you interview? Well, at least give the text enough of a glance that the author thinks you’ve read the work.

Anecdote:  In Boise recently, I had a 5:30 a.m. interview on television. The chisel-chinned male interviewer had no idea why I was there, or why I had a can of whipped cream (Sasha Solomon, my heroine in series #1, eats whipped cream straight from the can).

When I picked up the container to make a point, the man’s eyes widened and jaw tensed as if he thought I might spray the goop all over him.

Later, when I commented about being called a "witty" writer and how that always make me want to break into the song from West Side Story about being "Pretty, witty, and gaaaaaaaaay," I thought the guy was going to have a heart attack.

There I was — looking fun, relaxed and witty.  There he was — looking as if I were Beezlebub himself. I’d love to use the tape for future television pitches, but don’t dare because it’s funny for all the wrong reasons.

2. Ask questions.
Yep. I’m serious again.

It’s often an odd enough experience to be in a radio studio. You sit there talking to a big microphone, and, sometimes, barely able to see the interviewer. This can stifle — or intimidate — even the most creative soul.

Anecdote: Once I was in a studio with a "radio personality" who hadn’t even bothered to greet me before the show — no handshake, no how-do-you-do. (That, in itself, made me fee a bit unworthy.)

The way the room was set up, it was impossible to see the man whilst the interview took place. This was an hour-long show, btw. The guy started by introducing me. Next, he read a few sentences from my book. Then there was silence.

I peered around my giant microphone — and the other obstacles — and saw him, eyes expectant, waiting for me to respond. But, he hadn’t asked a question. The entire interview was like that . . . well, until I hijacked it and spoke about whatever I wanted. It would have been better for me — and for the listeners — if the man had expended a bit of energy to provide direction.

Now, that particular interviewing technique might have resulted in his fame — and it worked with me once I understood it — but think of all the dead air if the interviewee wasn’t a ham.

3. Be interested. (a.k.a. Be flexible.)
If you have to, fake it.

Some of the best interviews I’ve had have turned into conversations. I know the interviewer has all kinds of questions prepared, but if a certain subject is worth exploring, these fine pros go with it. That, to me, is one of the biggest highs of being interviewed; it makes for exciting listening too.

Anecdote: There’s a popular interviewer on a public radio station in Santa Fe, NM. She’s got a morning show with a devoted audience (she does the show live from a bakery/coffee house). I had my time with her during the station’s annual fund drive. (If you’re like me, you hate these pushy drives where people blather on and on about how you should give them money.)

Because of Mary-Charlotte Domandi’s stellar preparation, her avid interest, and her great ability to foster conversation, the hour flew by . . . and listeners responded. It was a thing of beauty.

4. Give the interviewee a clue about what to expect.
An author who prepares for a 30-minute spot will look mighty bad if she only gets 2 minutes. An author who has prepared three soundbites can crash and burn in a 5-minute interview. I know this sounds obvious — but you’d be surprised how many media folk forget this basic. courtesy.

5. If you bring whipped cream for the interviewee to consume during the spot — please, check the expiration date.


What about you? As a listener, have you heard or seen an interview that worked — or didn’t? As an author, do you have an anecdote to share? As an interviewer, do you have advice for your peers?

I am curious . . . yellow. (No, I never saw the movie.)


7 thoughts on “How to interview an author

  1. Louise Ure

    Great post, Pari. I agree with all your points, except the past-its-use-date whipcream one. I’ve never had to worry about that.

    But I’d add one more for your “media interviewers”: Don’t give away the ending!

    I did a TV interview once, and the host was well prepared. She’d read Forcing Amaryllis and had lots of questions.

    But halfway into the interview, I lost it when she said, “I was really surprised to discover that XXXX was the killer.”


  2. Pari

    Oh, Louise, you’re so right. I’ve had that happen on TV and radio — and it’s incredibly frustrating.

    The only saving grace is the Teflon minds of most viewers/listeners — with so much media coming their way, they often forget everything except the gist of the interview OR, in my case, they’ll go to a bookstore and ask for the book by that New Mexican author with the really weird name.

  3. Elaine

    Hilarous post, Pari!So far I’ve been lucky, but I’m taking notes anyway. Wish I had something to take with me-can I borrow a can of whipped cream? I can always pretend to be you.

  4. Pari

    Elaine,Don’t you dare pretend to be me. You’re simply spectacular the way you are.

    You can always take a real and a fake antique (that’d be fun for TV). If you have something that makes noise, you could use the same concept for radio.

  5. Beatrice Brooks

    I’ll add one thing to your list, Pari. If a TV interviewer asks a [loaded] political question, when your book is non-political, dodge the question. I didn’t.

    But you’re right about Teflon minds. For two+ years after that interview, strangers would say, “Do I know you?” or “Haven’t I seen you before?”


  6. Sandra Ruttan

    One of the things that drives me mad is when I read an interview and you just know something was begging to be asked, but because it’s a “ten questions with…” thing, there was no room to deviate off the planned course.

    Or the interviewer lacked the experience to do it.

    I much prefer indepth interviews, and they’re the only kind I like to do. I read all or some of the books by the author first. And I usually read other interviews they’ve done, so I know the answers to some questions, and what they commonly get asked. That way, I’ll take an answer to a que and turn it into a new que – my interview with Laura Lippman had a few of those in it, where I directly referenced previous interviews.

    I find people more willing to talk because you’ve done your homework. Now, that said, I just transcribed my latest interview, over 30 pages with Simon Kernick. That’s a bit long for some people. Personally, I think he’s fascinating to talk to, but I’m not sure how the length would go over with readers, so some bits might get cut out.

    Of course, when he remembers what he says, some bits might get cut anyway. That can happen.

  7. Pari

    I agree with you, Sandra.

    In depth is better and a lot easier when it’s print rather than electronic. I’m not yet popular or well-enough known to be on programs like Fresh Air on NPR or Charlie Rose . . .

    Ah, well. One can dream.


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