I had the great fortune recently to be interviewed by Bob Edwards of NPR fame. To say that he is one of the very best is an understatement. I have had many radio interviews and have listened to a few in my day, but I’m no expert, you might say. No, but I know when I’ve had a fabulous interview and I know why – and it isn’t because of me!
So I asked myself: What makes a great interview? The interviewer. No question. And what makes a great interviewer? Here are a few ideas.
And more preparation.
If you’ve written a novel and the host hasn’t read it (or has obviously just skimmed the back jacket and, worse, regurgitates the book club discussion questions), you’re in deep, well…trouble.
Those are the interviews that you know if you were on the other side of the radio, you’d flip the channel and wouldn’t think twice about buying the book. Anyone who has listened to Bob Edwards knows that he is always prepared. When you’re on the other side of the mike, that makes you immediately relax. You don’t have to worry about educating the interviewer or, worse, correcting him on air.
2. Genuine Curiosity.
Sometimes when I’m getting interviewed, I have the distinct impression that the host is reviewing copy for the next victim, is making the slash sign across his or her throat to get rid of me early, or has a rousing case of Montezuma’s revenge.
A good radio host really wants to know what is behind, below and under your book. Who you are, why you write what you do, what this book means to you and the reader. Bob Edwards asked probing and intelligent questions about my Dutch parents’ life and role in the underground during the Second World War. He was curious about my life experience as an admiralty lawyer and how I came to write, about my autistic children and the effect they had on my first novel. Cyrus Webb, who also interviewed me recently, is also on the way to becoming one of the greats. He wasn’t afraid to pursue unanticipated avenues of interest, always honestly curious about the writing process and the genesis of the work. He’s also extraordinarily intelligent and funny, which doesn’t hurt.
3. It’s a real conversation.
Here’s what Edwards said about his show:
“Now I can interview someone for up to an hour. So it’s a freer, more open, more relaxed and enjoyable conversation. The program’s really about conversation.”
He’s absolutely right. I felt, even sitting at KUT’s public radio station in Austin, Texas, that I was across from him with a cup of coffee having a really remarkable conversation before the show began. I had a similar experience with Susan Wingate, who provides a terrific radio forum for authors to talk about their work. I felt as if she and I were in her living room eating food that was extremely bad for us, chatting and commiserating, writer-to-writer.
I grew up in that horrible era where the phrase “active listening” was in vogue. What does that mean, anyway? I think what a truly great radio host does is really listen. Unlike me, who chattered away like Alvin the chipmunk during the entire interview, Bob Edwards knew when to ask and when to listen. And while listening, to formulate what would turn out to be the next unexpected question.
This sounds strange, but if you’ve listened to a lot of interviews, you will find some hosts, whether on radio or television, who seem to have the need to “shock jock” their guests for their own aggrandizement or ratings. In my book, a respectful host doesn’t lie in wait for the zing or snarky retort. And Bob Edwards, above all, is a true gentleman.