Category Archives: interview

What’s a Cop Doing on a Writer’s Blog?

It’s time for “creative person of the month.” Meet my Uncle Jed.

Is he a writer, editor, avid cook, or photographer? Maybe. I didn’t ask him those questions. I interviewed him because I have a theory that anyone who loves his or her job utilizes creativity, and I wasn’t sure how that might be involved with his particular professions.

So, Uncle Jed. Do you love your job?

I wonder if anyone completely loves their job?? I, for the most part, love what I do, both jobs, that is. But it hasn’t always been that way. My main job is being a policeman, copper, pig, the law, whatever your favorite euphemism is for a cop. I’m also a chiropractor.

What do you do in a typical day as a police officer?

Define typical? That’s the allure for me. I never know what I will see in any given day. It ranges from talking to grade-school kids about crosswalk safety, to herding loose cows, to kicking in a door on a drug house. On most days I am a patrol officer, so I answer calls for service and drive around doing traffic enforcement.

What do you love about your job?

I love the sound of a door being smashed in and the smell of a flash bang as we storm into a drug house and arrest some sh*heads.

I also love the humor in the job. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be finding humor in the depravity and suffering that I see on a daily basis, but it is a strange thing that emergency workers deal with. It’s not always black humor, but sometimes just strange things that happen. I once had a man get angry with me because I wouldn’t stop people from feeding ducks in the park. He felt that the ducks pooping on the pathways represented trespassing and that it was my job to stop people from feeding them. And this was important enough for him to call the police.

Being able to take care of tragedy is in its own way satisfying too. Just yesterday I was called on to take charge of the children from a house where the father shot the mother and then himself. Doing what is needed in a crisis is in a strange way fulfilling.

What parts of your job do you put up with so you can do the parts you like?

Contrary to what you may believe, most patrol cops don’t like writing tickets, so if you have received a lot of tickets in your life, it’s probably ’cause you are a really bad driver.

Putting up with the civil calls, the child custody calls or the “He has my stuff and I want you to get it back” calls are the worst. There is criminal law, for which the police have authority and were conceived, and there is civil law, which is a morass of bickering attorneys and judges’ opinions, for which the police have limited authority and no desire.

My personal favorites are when you have a mother scream at you to make her twelve-year-old boy clean up his room. Yes, society abdicates its responsibilities to anyone but themselves, so the police usually end up being called.

To be blunt, why do some police officers seem like jerks and how have you avoided that?

Hmmm, not sure I’ve avoided being a jerk. I’m sure many people think I am. I became a cop at age 40, so I had life experience going into the job. Becoming a cop is like having the curtain pulled back in the Wizard of Oz. We live our lives in a bubble of ignorance that is not all bad, but when you become a cop, that bubble is burst and you get to see behind the curtain the horrible things that people do. The amount of negative crap that the typical cop deals with will over time jade them into thinking that all people are hiding some dark secret. For me, the humorous nature of the job keeps me from taking my job or myself too seriously.

You’re also a chiropractor. Tell me about that. What do you do in a typical day?

That’s easy. I treat headaches and low back pain.

How did you go from being a full-time chiropractor to a full-time policeman?

Changing careers is a task not unlike sticking a fork in your eyeball. Here I spent money and time to become a chiropractor, and after 14 years of practice, I decided that I needed to do something else. I detest insurance companies (they are of the devil), so when I turned my practice into a cash practice, it cut my practice by 80 percent. So I reasoned it was time to get a job. What I found was that I was trapped by my education. So many interviews began by, “You’re a chiropractor? Well, you are too educated for this job.” I was instantly pigeon-holed by the fact that I had received my education in a certain field.

Friends suggested that I should become a cop. I thought to myself, “A cop? I am way too smart to be a cop.” Needless to say, I had misjudged a profession because of certain preconceptions. What I found was a job that I was well suited to doing. Being a cop requires an extensive set of a variety of skills, none of which I had any idea of before taking the leap. It was like starting from scratch. But don’t we all love learning and growing? Sure, it’s scary and painful, yet the end result is something that we can be proud of. Change is inevitable; our only choice is whether we will make the changes needed as a positive choice or be dragged kicking and screaming into them. One way or another, change will affect our lives.

How does creativity play into your job satisfaction?

My chiropractic practice was something that I didn’t enjoy when I was trying to do it the way everyone else does it. I found that I loathed insurance companies and attorneys that are involved in a high number of people seeking care. So the answer for me was smaller practice, no insurance, and an affordable fee. Now I love being a chiropractor.

So in any profession, maybe the secret to satisfaction is being creative enough to find how to do it your way. How do you bring creativity to being a cop?

For me, it is the humor. I love making people laugh on traffic stops and then giving them a warning so they can learn about their bad driving habits in a positive yet memorable way.

For my bookish readers, what are your top five favorite books?

Ah, books. I love books, and as a cop, I have lots of time to read. Weird, huh? For example, when someone wants to harm themselves or others, we lock them up in a mental institution for evaluation for 72 hours, but first we have to have them medically cleared for liability reasons, so we sit around for hours because hospitals operate on some other basis of time not known in the rest of the world. So I learned early on to have a book handy. Even on really boring SWAT calls.

Why didn’t you tell me more stuff about being a SWAT sniper?

‘Cause my editor complained about me being too wordy.

Sorry. Back to your top five reads.

Not in order, they are probably Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Stand by Steven King, The Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. By making the list, though, I am torn because I didn’t include books by George Martin, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, or Jordan, or Niven, or . . . yeah, it goes on and on. I read a lot. And, no, Twilight is not on my list. I did love The Hunger Games, though.  Aarrggh!! Don’t get me started. So many books, so little time.

You read Twilight?

I have a really good friend who is a big tough SWAT cop, and we share similar interests in books. He told me that Twilight was a good read . . . so on his recommendation, I read it. I have this problem that if I start a book, I have to finish it. It was painful.

What do you do when you’re not at work reading a book?

I have varied interests when not at work. I love flying planes, though I haven’t done so for a few years. I am an avid outdoors person. I like fishing, hunting birds, white-water kayaking, cycling, and hiking. I guess my most recent passion as far as a hobby goes is taking long rides on twisty roads on my motorcycle.

Any final thoughts for my dear creative readers?

If you do not like what you do for a living, then change, and change now. You don’t have to love what you do every minute, but you do have to find fulfillment and have overall enjoyment of your job. It’s got to be something that you look forward to doing, something that allows you to put yourself into the work. It was a surprise for me going from being a chiropractor to being a cop that I would find such enjoyment in police work. It suits me. I think that is the key for enjoyment of any job. Does it suit you?

Being a writer suits me because I can wear pajamas or yoga pants every day. But I guess you were talking about things I do for a living. Hmm. I’ll have to think about this advice some more.

Thanks, Uncle Jed!

Readers, any questions for the copper?

Have any of you been through a dramatic career change?

Is there anyone you want me to interview next—maybe you?

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The Way She Lives

EmilyToday I’m honored to have Emily Wing Smith on my blog. Welcome to the show, Em.

I’ve mentioned her book, The Way He Lived, a million times on this blog, but it’s time Emily got a full spotlight from me because a.) her book recently made the “challenged” list in some county in Florida, and b.) last week she competed with Sara Zarr‘s Sweethearts for the Utah Book Award in the young adult category. Both true signs of greatness!

For those who don’t know, “The Utah Book Award was established to honor outstanding achievements by Utah writers and to recognize books written with a Utah theme or setting.” The awards ceremony took place last Thursday, but I sent these questions to Emily beforehand, so they sound a little old news. Sorry about that, readers.

Emily, what’s so “Utah” about your book that you’re up for this prestigious award?

Well, contrary to popular belief, although this is called the Utah Book Award, it doesn’t mean the book has to be about Utah—only that the author needs to live here. Many times the books are set in Utah—as with my book—but this isn’t always the case.

What will you do with the money if you win?

Sara and I were planning to pool the money and split it 50/50, but when I won she generously rescinded her offer. Which is her loss, really, because with my winnings I plan to go see Barry Manilow in concert. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that magic?

Let’s talk about your book first and then your writing life.

What other recognitions has your book received thus far?

I was very pleased to receive a starred review in Publishers Weekly—a big deal for me, especially because I think so highly of PW. It also received a starred review from the Teens Know Best Galley Review at School Library Journal. The upcoming edition of ALAN, a journal for secondary school English teachers, will feature an interview with me as well as a spotlight on my book. And I’ve been honored to receive a lot of glowing reviews here locally.

Your book is composed of six stories from six perspectives. Which of the six was your favorite to write and why?

No one story was my favorite. While in the process of writing this book, I told my critique group (including the lovely and talented Kim Webb Reid), “Each one of these narrators is completely different, yet they each sound exactly like me. How is that possible?” I think the reason I’m not most attached to any certain character is because a part of me is in each one of them. Some were easier to write than others, though. Likewise, I’m equally pleased with how each one turned out. Some flowed very naturally, some didn’t, but eventually they all got to the right place.

Why was your book challenged? Is it racy?

Recently, my book was challenged in Lake County, FL. I don’t know the details, as no one ever notified me about it (except my agent, who, after reading an article about the challenge, told me: “Way to go!”). Is the book “racy?” I guess that depends on your definition. There are definitely some serious topics touched on in the narrative—mental illness, gay marriage, and suicide, just to name a few. But for me, that doesn’t make a book racy—it makes it an honest look at the complicated world we live it.

Now let’s talk about your writing and publishing.

You’ve talked before about hearing voices; it’s not hard for you to write from multiple perspectives because the characters for this book popped fully formed into your head. Is that similar to the writing process for your other manuscripts? Do the characters always come first?

For me, the characters always come first. This isn’t to say they don’t change in the process of writing. Sometimes I’ll get to a scene, thinking I know the direction it will take, and then realize, “That isn’t what she would do!”

What are some of your current and future projects?

Currently, I’m working on revisions for my next book, another young adult novel called Back When You Were Easier to Love. It will be released from Dutton/Penguin in early 2011. I’ve also started another YA novel I’m quite excited about.

Every author seems to have a different path to publication, and sometimes the amount of luck that is seemingly involved can be frustrating to writers who are working hard. Of all the factors that led to your publication, what are three strokes of luck or genius that you think played the most key parts in your becoming a published author?

For me, writing is a business inherent with frustration. My personal belief is that you have to be a writer simply because you can’t be happy doing anything else. If you find another profession equally or more fulfilling, do that instead!

People often ask me how I got published, and the story is short. What they never ask me is how I didn’t get published, and that story is long. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was a child, and I’ve constantly worked toward that goal. I completed my first novel in 2001. My first novel was accepted for publication in 2007. The fourth book I wrote was the first one to be published. For six years I dealt with everything involved in being an aspiring writer: the near misses at publication, the weird looks I got when people found out about my “career plans,” the helplessness I felt about finding the right match for my work.

While you need strokes of luck in this business, you also need strokes of genius, and they’re not the same thing! So I’m including two strokes of each!

MY “GENIUS” :

  • I continued writing and submitting. This is key. It’s not what anyone wants to hear. You want to hear that your talent, or your killer story idea, or whatever it is, shines through. But this happens rarely. Most often it takes continuing in the face of rejection galore, and it takes a mad genius to keep at it. And I mean mad as in crazy, not mad as in cool.
  • I went to writing conferences and got my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. While getting an MFA is certainly not necessary, it does help you learn the discipline you need as a writer—and helps you hone your craft. For me, it helped to spend time with other writers, talking about issues and bouncing ideas off them in ways you really can’t with non-writers. Conferences are important for the same reasons. You need to spend time with like-minded individuals so you know what you’re getting into! But mainly you need to go to prove you’re serious about writing and are treating it like a professional. Plus, you learn a lot and often can make contacts in the publishing world.

MY LUCK:

  • One of my best friends at Vermont College, Carrie Jones, had recently sold her first book to Flux, a then brand-new house publishing exclusively young adult titles. She read my manuscript and thought her editor would like it. I sent it to him, he did indeed like it, and it was published just over a year later.
  • After my book was accepted, I joined an online community and met Sara Zarr, Anne Bowen, and James Dashner. Not only have they all been great friends, Sara recommended me to her agent, Michael Bourret, who I then signed with. He’s great, and he negotiated my sale to Dutton within weeks.

Now let’s talk about, “Who is this Emily Wing Smith?”

You just had your 29 birthday. What are 5 things you’ll do before 30?

  • Meet M.E Kerr
  • See Barry Manilow
  • Finish writing another book
  • Sell another book
  • Gain a working knowledge of very basic technology

Who are your favorite YA authors?

M.E Kerr as well as our local YA authors.

How do you go about stalking a favorite YA author without getting arrested?

I am not the person to ask about this! Number of YA authors I’ve successfully stalked: Zero. Would I like to change this? Yes. Am I working to change it? Yes. Is it likely? No. I’ve unsuccessfully stalked quite a few YA authors, but I’ve never been arrested for it.

I know that writing is life, but what about when you’re not writing? What are two other prominent interests and hobbies in your life? (Or three? Or five?)

It’s boring, but I like to hang out with my family. My husband and I have Game Night with my sister, bro-in-law, and their one-year-old every weekend. I also love to organize! My label maker is my best friend.

One of my favorite sayings is, “Everyone loves Emily.” I like it because a.) I made it up, and b.) it’s true. But in order to be loved by everyone, you have to be known by everyone. How did you meet every writer in the world by the ripe age of 29? Do you ever feel shy around famous people or do you feel like most writers are your peeps because you’re all involved in the same thing?

Kim, does anyone except you actually use this phrase? I’m not sure that everything you say qualifies as a “saying,” but whatever. Meeting every writer in the world by age 29 is easy if you simply find out how many writers there are in the world, divide it by the number of days in your life, and then meet that many writers per day. You can do it, too. And, as a start, you already know me.

Pretend you’ve just been presented with the Utah Book Award. What is your speech as you accept the trophy/medal/money/candy bar/gift basket?

Last year nobody at the Utah Book Awards gave acceptance speeches, so I wasn’t planning one for this year. I did end up thanking the Utah Center for the Book, who presented the award, and Sara Zarr, my friend and fellow finalist who was rooting for me the whole time. Had I actually written a speech, I would have also thanked my writing group, my husband, and my family, especially my dad.

Congrats, again Emily.

Readers, if you would like to win an autographed copy of The Way He Lived, leave a comment, congratulations, or question for Emily and you’ll be entered in a drawing. Deadline is Halloween at midnight.

*Update* – I’m pushing the deadline to Nov. 1 at midnight. I forgot you are all probably making elaborate Halloween costumes this weekend instead of blog-reading. 🙂 While you’re at it, make me one too. I’ve always wanted to be Snow White.

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Interview with a Goddess: Author Carol Lynch Williams

carol-lynch-williamsYou asked. She answered. Here are the many secrets of author Carol Lynch Williams. Thank you for being willing to participate, Carol!

First, there is a lot of curiosity about your new book, The Chosen One. What gave you the idea for writing it?

Long ago I heard about a girl who had run from her polygamist home because she didn’t want to marry a much-older family member. The moment I heard that story I was like, I’ll write a book about that some day. But the story stayed just a little seed of an idea for many, many years.

Was it difficult doing research? And how did you research?

I did tons of research. I used to write historical fiction and learned then you need to know the facts. So while I was writing this book, I researched the whole time. When I started looking at this topic, everything seemed to be about polygamy—stuff for me to really study. Lots of interviews with polygamists on TV, websites helping people get away from the more strict communities, lots of newspaper reports. I found out about friends who had become polygamists, or were no longer polygamists, and I learned of polygamist groups who frown on the more strict communities. I found out there are polygamists all over the United States. And as you can imagine, they are all not like the compound in The Chosen One.

Is there a lot of creative license in the characters’ lives, beliefs, and terminology used in their religion, or is most of your book rooted in true details you gleaned from your research?

The compound, the characters, the incidents, the book mobile—all of that is fictional. But it is all based in fact. Including the stories of abuse. And the strong family relationships? Those are based on fact, too.

How did you feel during the process of writing The Chosen One? Do you get wound up in your characters’ emotions or did you take a more analytical approach?

Oh, I had a hard time with this book. The research was so hard. So sad. So infuriating. I try to stay a bit removed—meaning that when I get up from writing, I leave the story at the computer. But if I wrote not caring about the people in the book, I’m not so sure the reader would care about the people in the book.

What was the most difficult part about writing The Chosen One? Were there parts that kept you from sleeping?

The only thing that kept me awake was that I couldn’t figure out how I was going to put the book together. I wasn’t sure about chapters, how to jump back and forth in time—stuff like that.

What is your favorite part of the story?

I like the tender family scenes. I like family things. I like family.

The buzz on the street is that this will be your big break-out novel. What do you think made the difference between The Chosen One and all of your other incredible books?

Perhaps my amazing publishing house, St. Martin’s Press. They took the book under their wing.

Who did the cover? That alone makes me want to read the book!

Michael Storrings at St. Martin’s Press. He brought the cover in for me to see when I was there in New York, and I nearly jumped up and hugged his neck. I was just so happy. Isn’t it beautiful?

Now some questions from writers about your process in general.

How do you achieve the perfect balance of beautiful, descriptive writing and fast-paced plot? Do you write scenes quickly and fix the prose later? Or do you enjoy thoughtfully placing each word from the first draft?

I think, as writers, we need to get that first draft down as quickly as we can. I do not agonize over every word in a piece. I write what comes into my head. I get the emotion and the ideas down. I try to keep my writing as clean as possible in this draft, but I don’t sit pondering a word at this time. Rewrite is the writers’ gift, even when it’s hard. This gives the novel a chance to soar—become something even better than the author’s original idea. I have friends who suffer over the writing process from the very first moment, stewing over each word. That’s too painful for me. If I’m having that kind of a terrible time early on, I set the book aside. Like the one I’ve set aside about clones. But I’ll get it finished. Hopefully this year!

Are you an outliner or a discover-as-you-go writer?

Oh, a discover-as-I-go-kinda-girl. In fact, when that book mobile showed up I was as surprised as anyone!

I read in another interview that you write in the early mornings and can usually crank out a short chapter every day. Do you have any advice for writers who work at a considerably slower pace—are there ways beginning writers can learn to be more efficient with the little time they have?

My best advice is to write. Don’t wait for long periods of free time, because, mostly they don’t happen. We make time for what we love to do. So give yourself the time to write—even if you are slow. My good friend Laura Torres (she’s sold millions of copies of her how-to books) taught herself to write in ten-minute free periods when her children were little. It can be done.

How do you make time to write when you have a family? Or as Scott put it, “How do you work the effort of being a prolific writer into the busy schedule requirements of a goddess? Do your goddess special powers include the ability to warp time?”

Thank you, Scott, for the goddess comment. (Where is that ding dang tiara??? I need it for this interview.) Okay—as a goddess I never have to do anything that I don’t want to do. Someone eats for me, cleans for me, sleeps for me. You all know how it is. 🙂

Have you changed the way you write from your first novel to the way you write now?

I am way faster than I used to be. And I have tried so hard to learn from each of my editors. Most all of them have been amazing. My first editor, Mary Cash, told me to add more sense of place in my first book, and so I try to remember that when I write. If I keep the things I have learned from my critique groups or from my editors in the back of my head, my writing is cleaner.

For you, what is the hardest part about writing? Revision? Outlining? Or, as Erin asks, “Simply trying to keep the hordes of Goddess-loving men away at book signings?”

The first draft is always the hardest. And, yes, those pesky men. They are typically dancing, or singing. Bringing flowers and candy. How can I keep busy at writing when John Cusack-type men are serenading me? Well, I’ll tell ya how. I love writing more than all that other stuff. So there. Quit cher singing. Just leave the money, food and flowers on the front steps and get outta here. I got work to do.

Can you give advice to writers on how to overcome worries of inaccuracy or causing offense when writing about sensitive issues?

Whatever you do, don’t be inaccurate. As far as worrying about offending people? You’re always going to offend people. Accept that right now and then keep on going! Remember that you can’t make everyone happy. Also remember that whatever you write needs to be the “real thing.” What I mean by that is, there’s no need to throw in something just for a jolt or to raise an eyebrow. Be true to yourself. Be true to your characters.

How do you usually get ideas for stories and how can you tell when an idea is strong enough to become a novel?

My ideas usually come in the form of some emotional experience. Hearing about that young girl? Well, I felt pretty darn angry after that. So, if I laugh or shudder or weep at an idea, there may be a book in it for me.

How many times do you revise before you know the book is “done”?

Every book is different. And once the book is out I always find things I wish I could change.

And a few final random questions.

How many novels have you written? When was your first novel published?

I have more than 20 books published. The first came out in 1993. It’s called Kelly and Me.

Can you tell us about the award you received for a work in progress and where that work will take your readers? Will it be as “intense” as The Chosen One?

I received the Phyllis Reynolds Naylor PEN Fellowship for the beginning of a novel that Simon and Schuster just bought. The book is called A Glimpse is All I Can Stand. And yes, it’s a pretty intense story. It was a hard book to write. But it’s the story that got me Steve Fraser, my agent.

Tell us more about the classes and workshops you teach. Who are they for and what do you like most about teaching?

Cheri Pray Earl and I teach writing classes for the community. Our sessions are three hours long, usually on a weeknight. We talk about the craft of writing, focusing on one point, like: Story Ideas, Plot and Conflict, Character Development , Point of View, Building Tension, Description, Dialogue—just to name a few. But you can get the scoop by emailing me at carolthewriter@yahoo.com (please put classes in the subject line). Or go to our website www.thefirststory.org. Cheri has done all the work on that site. You’ll find lots of information there.

What did you learn from your MFA program that you didn’t know before?

That if I needed to I could write ten hours a day. I hope I never need to again.

You have a lot of experience not only writing and publishing but teaching and mentoring other aspiring writers. What encouragement can you give them when it comes to patience? Some of us can’t stop writing because we love it, even though sometimes it seems we’ll never break into publishing—especially in this economy.

A truly good book WILL be bought. I believe that. My most recent novel? I’ve written on it since 2001. When the editor bought it, I showed her yet another version of the book. Go to conferences and workshops, listen to critique, work hard, read all the time . . . If you have a good story, it’s gonna happen.

What is your advice for writers who don’t always feel confident about their writing skills yet or who feel intimidated when reading other authors’ excellent writing? (No, Kim did not think of this question.) (Okay, so she did.)

Ha! Everything I write? I think it’s a piece of crap. (Can I say crap on this blog?) That’s a bit of who we writers are. We’re never sure. In order to get past that, you must write your heart. If you’re writing something that means something to you, hopefully you’ll keep going. Also, writing your heart means you will probably connect with your readers. And that’s a good thing!

Who are some of the mentors or writers who have inspired you?

Louise Plummer, AE Cannon, Alane Ferguson, Richard Peck, Jerry Spinelli, Betsy Byars, MT Anderson, Cheri Pray Earl, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner—the list goes on and on.

Tell us a little more about yourself. What do you love? What do you love to hate?

Hmmmm, what do I love? Nice people, yummy food, excellent books, my family, being at home, hanging around with other writers, teaching, early mornings, laughing. That list is long, too.

And what do I love to hate. There are a few books out there that I love to say, in a crowd, that I hate them (the books, not the crowd). Why? It bothers half the people who hear me say it and the other half are like, “What?! You agree with me?”

Will you be wearing sequins to the BYU Writing for Young Readers workshop next month?

Rick Walton is the only fellow wearing sequins at the conference this year—and maybe little bells. It is, after all, our ten year reunion!

And seriously—where did you learn to sing and dance like that?

It’s all natural—I’m gifted . . . really!

Thank you, Carol, for answering all of our deep, dark questions. Best luck with The Chosen One winning the Printz and becoming a best-seller.

Readers, if you haven’t read this one yet, you’re NOT in good company. Have you seen the blurbs? An Na! Sara Zarr! Cynthia Kadohata! Meg Cabot! Gregory Maguire! You can pick up a copy this Friday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at The King’s English Bookshop. Carol will sign it for you there live and in person.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a moment to comment and thank Carol for her time. She’ll know you’re sincere . . . even though you also want to be entered into a second drawing for one of her other books. The contest deadline is Friday, the 22, at midnight. If you comment on this post, you can win a copy of either My Angelica or Pretty Like Us. If you’re super nice, it may even come autographed.

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Filed under contest, interview, Novel, Writing Tip

Interviewing 101

In case you’re a reclusive writer prone to making an idiot of yourself like the hypothetical person in my last post, here are some tips we journalism-shy types may have missed when we were busy studying Jane Austen. Laurence Pringle shared these ideas during a brown-bag session in 2003 at Chautauqua.

  • WHY? Interviews with experts can add depth, color, and authority to your writing. And I would add that if you have writers block, a likely suspect is that you don’t know enough about your topic yet. Interviewing experts can alert you to possibilities you never would have thought of yourself.
  • WHAT? Information experts know—and also what they DON’T know—are both interesting! This especially applies, I think, if you’re writing a nonfiction article for a children’s magazine, but I can also see it working in fiction. It helps to understand that even my genius characters probably don’t know everything.
  • WHO? Find the right expert to interview based on the detailed information you need to know. I welcome your comments on how to go about doing this! We didn’t get a chance to talk about this much. For me, I usually prefer finding someone through a personal contact (like a hypothetical former neighbor) more than randomly finding someone on the Internet. But all the social networking sites out there these days are a great resource if you can’t think of anyone you know to help.
  • HOW? Approach the expert politely, perhaps through a letter or an e-mail. This is the most polite way because it doesn’t require immediate response, but it will almost always require follow-up. And it’s possible you’ll have to schedule an interview through a PR department. Keep in mind that some experts are wary of journalists because they may have been misrepresented or distorted in the past. Be prepared to convince the expert that you are honest and have a worthy project. If the piece is for children, this can be a big help in putting the expert at ease.
  • PREPARE! Know about the person and his or her subject matter. Know what you’re looking for and have very specific questions outlined—questions that you can’t easily find the answers to elsewhere or questions on which you’d like a unique or personal comment. Read everything you can find about the person beforehand (in case this person happens to be in a cast, recovering from surgery, and deserving of a little more sensitivity than you’d hypothetically give if you didn’t know this). If there is going to be an in-person or telephone interview, consider sending questions in advance.

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Interviews: What Not to Do

1. Let’s say you happen to run into an old neighbor on Facebook, and she just happens to be the media/PR contact for US Speedskating.

2. You happen to ask her if she knows any athletes familiar with coming back from a tough injury so you can ask what that’s like and what sort of training they have to do to get in shape again since the main character in your book will have to do this.

3. Later that day, let’s say a famous Olympic speedskater e-mails you and offers to be interviewed.

4. You’re so excited, you write her back immediately with your questions.

5. Oddly, she then declines the interview until after the Olympics—which are a YEAR away. (Not that you’re in any hurry since sometimes it takes you about that long to write a first chapter you like.)

6. You brilliantly decide to go to her website AFTER this e-mail exchange and discover she’s freaking still in a cast because she just BARELY broke her leg in competition and she is DEVASTATED! She can’t answer your questions about coming back from an injury because she is STILL injured! (Old neighbor/media contact alluded to this, but you weren’t paying very close attention when you read her e-mail the first time because you were at work.)

7. You apologize profusely for being dumb, and she graciously writes back, and you exchange a few chatty e-mails, and you somewhat redeem yourself. Then you go find your notes from an old Highlights Writers Workshop on what TO do in an interview, and promise to share the list next post—after memorizing it.

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Filed under interview, Speedskating, Writing Tip