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The Rise of Written Author Interviews


PUBLISHED: May 27, 2010

William Maxwell, the New Yorker’s long-time fiction editor and a great novelist in his own right, famously gave his interviews through a typewriter. The interviewer would ask him a question and, after considering for a moment, Maxwell then typed out an answer on his Smith Corona 1200. “All the thoughts are in the typewriter,” he said, by way of explanation. In the early 1990s this seemed an antiquated way of going about things. When novelist Donna Tartt told her publicist that she wanted to conduct interviews for The Secret History in written form, like William Maxwell, the publicist said: “What is this, the nineteenth century? I mean, you’ve got to do TV, you’ve got to do radio, you’ve got to reach a mass audience, that’s just the way it is, kid.” Ah, how things have changed. These days, the genre of the author interview has veered away from its verbal roots toward the written ideal championed by Maxwell. Radio and TV interviews are, of course, still verbal. And most professional journalists still conduct interviews in person or over the phone. But the rise of the blogosphere—and its generally more slack conventions—has precipitated an upsurge in e-mail interviews. While Maxwell may have welcomed this shift, it is not without its downsides.

The rise of the written author interview gives writers more control over their words and allows them to express themselves in a form they are ostensibly most comfortable with. Recalling an interview he conducted with Maxwell, the poet Edward Hirsch wrote “I found it strangely effective—a way of mixing the intimacy of conversation with the precision of writing.” And indeed, written answers are more elegant than those spoken extemporaneously. “Don’t you and the poet live side by side,” Maxwell wrote in his interview with Hirsch, “and lie awake in the same bed at night?” One can hardly imagine this answer being spoken. Surely some writers are good talkers, but as this interview with Vladimir Nabokov shows, the skills are not necessarily transferable. A written answer also gives the author more control over its final form. Newspaper and magazine journalists are notorious for cutting and pasting verbal interviews, in part to make them sound more natural, a practice laid bare and examined exhaustively in the controversy surrounding Deborah Solomon’s interviews with Ira Glass and Tim Russert.

Of course, there are also downsides to the written interview, especially as it is currently practiced. One might argue that writing answers gives the author (or whomever is being interviewed) too much control, and that the interviewee is not likely to reveal anything interesting or quirky. Most important, however, is the possibility that the interviewee is merely cutting and pasting answers from previous interviews. Although there is no need for name calling, a quick search of recent author interviews will confirm that this practice is rather common. Cutting and pasting answers may not be plagiarism, but it certainly does not improve or expand the discourse. The rise of the written author interview is just one of many small changes we must reckon with as publishing and literature sail into uncharted territory. As we sail, we will do well to keep William Maxwell’s words close at hand: “The writer has everything in common with the vaudeville magician except this: The writer must be taken in by his own tricks. Otherwise, the audience will begin to yawn and snicker.”

3 Comments

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Edward Champion's picture
In fairness to the author, you’ve got to understand that the author is answering the same ten or fifteen questions over and over again. Thus, boilerplate becomes quickly locked into place – perhaps more so for the writer, who, if she is any good, is a keen cataloger of words. Jonathan Lethem once suggested to Lorin Stein that talking to a writer about his craft is like asking a fish about water. But to these viable criticisms I would counter that it is the interviewer’s job to find angles that are altogether different from the boilerplate. Not terribly difficult to do if you have the capacity to ratiocinate or to read the book (which most interviewers don’t) and the ability to Google other interviews (thereby confirming what the writers have already talked about). Indeed, a basic journalistic practice, as far as I’m concerned. Yet time and time again, most interviewers fail to do this. To pass along one tidbit I learned recently over drinks, I can tell you that a journalist who shall remain unnamed recently interviewed an author. This journalist writes for one of the top three national newspapers, but had failed to perform the most rudimentary research, seriously asking what category of fiction the author in question had written before the latest book. That all this was answerable in seconds was moot. And if that doesn’t indicate how abysmal the present state of literary journalism is, I don’t know what does.
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Young Person's picture
Young Person · 7 years ago
I’m not sure it’s such a hot idea to repost links from blogs. Thoroughly enjoyed the posting. I find youtube interviews (a few of which exist for all the authors of the 50’s, and since then many more) coupled with print (or online) a worthwhile juxtaposition. As a rule I take nothing written to have been uttered.
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Robert Birnbaum's picture
Personally, I think there are too many author interviews and interviewers—but then again there is too much of everything in this 36/7 world. Except maybe grace and patience. Anyway, as a practitioner of the sacred art of literary dialogue I do in fact read the works of my intended partners in verbiage but I stopped reading much more including rereading my previous chats with said subject. The lively and vivid conversation (which is my goal, at any rate) requires spontaneity and dare I say, a be-here-now- presence. If it didn’t , an e mail exchange of Qs and As would suffice. I guess I agree with most of Uncle Ed Champion observations except for his sadly declinist view of the state of literary journalism—which is no worse then it ever was —through the wonders of the brave new digital world we are able to access it with great ease. I do agree about the value of reading the interview(transcript) as opposed to listening(podcast) though. But that’s just my preference.
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