How to Make Friends and Get Great Interview

Eric Leif Davin

In 1999 my book, Pioneers of Wonder: Conversations With the Founders of Science Fiction was published to favorable reviews in science fiction magazines and many fanzines.† It is a combination history of early magazine science fiction and interviews with writers, editors, and publishers who established SF as a distinct literary genre in the late 1920s and early 1930s.† These "pioneers" were in their eighties and nineties when I interviewed them and most have since passed away.† Luckily, the irreplaceable history their lives represented was captured on tape before they left us.† Their oral history lives on.

But, one does not need to focus just on the old-timers when doing oral history.† The lives and ideas of more recent SF authors are just as valid, just as interesting and, in the fullness of time, will be just as historic as the people I interviewed.† With a little bit of sensitivity, whether you are interested in the oldest SF pioneers or the most recent attendee of the cons, it is possible to build up a catalog of taped interviews with many SF authors or editors at relatively little expense.† Therefore, I'd like to share a bit of my approach in order to encourage others to do as I have done. †

One way to get your interviews is to meet authors when they are in your area for speaking engagements.† For example, I interviewed Isaac Asimov (one of those no longer with us) when he lectured at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.† Perhaps the easiest way to get a lot of people on tape very quickly is to go to cons and tape authors and editors on the spot.† Whether youíre meeting a single author passing through your area or a lot of authors at a con, the same general principles for a good interview hold true.†

First, try to turn the interview into a friendly, low-key, informal conversation as quickly as possible, ideally right from the beginning.† A friendly conversation (which just happened to be recorded) is much more interesting than a formal Q & A in which the subject never really opens up and starts revealing him or herself.† To do this, talk about something irrelevant and off-hand at first--even the weather.† Your subjects may not show it, but they are also feeling a little awkward and you help put them at ease by breaking the ice with generic conversation.† Try to make a human connection before you formally begin your interview.

Second, and most importantly, rein in your own ego--something it seems many of us in the F&SF community find hard to do--because you are not important in the interview!† The purpose of the interview is to get the thoughts, ideas, opinions and experiences of your subject on tape--not yours.† Someday, when you are famous, you can hold forth with your opinions for some future interviewer with a recorder, but right now be as humble as a Zen monk and try to develop the capacity to be quiet and just listen. Keep your opinions to yourself We don't care about your opinions; we what to know what your subject thinks.† Let your subject expound and elaborate to his or her heart's content without your interruptions.† Make noises to indicate you really find what they say interesting.† Act and react as you would in a true conversation.† Be sensitive.† Listen to what your subject is saying at that very moment instead of racing your mind ahead to think about what you will ask next.

Donít be eager to fill up dead space with the sound of your own voice, as we do in normal conversation.† For one thing, the time gaps will disappear in a printed interview, but, more importantly, you want the person you are interviewing to feel the obligation to fill the gaps by expounding on his or her statements. Sure, you're afraid, perhaps, that dead space might mean the interview isn't going so well--but remember, the subject also wants the interview to be a success.† Thus, he or she is just as eager to rush in to fill the vacuum as you are. Let that happen.† These are often the times when your subject will go beyond a standard and superficial response and give you more personal information they would not have revealed had you burbled on pell-mell.† So, listen far more than you talk.† Let the person know you are absolutely fascinated to hear them talk.† And talk.† And talk!

Of course, before the interview even begins you will have already done your homework and you will be totally familiar with your subject's work.† You will have already compiled a must list of questions you definitely want answered.† However, do not stick rigidly to this list.† Remember, you want to engage in a friendly conversation, so go with the flow.† Don't try to rigidly steer the conversation back to your list of questions.† Instead, see where it leads you.† Perhaps it will lead you into areas you didn't know enough to ask about, but you're glad you visited--and then try to work questions from your must list subtly into the flow of the conversation wherever they might fit.

Ask open-ended questions that can't be answered in a simple, "Yes," "No," or "Maybe."† ASK "Why?" even when you think you already know the answer.† The answer may surprise you.†

Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions!† Remember, you are not the subject of the interview.† You aren't there to impress your interviewee or future listeners to your tape with your dazzling brilliance.† The interview isn't for you.† It's to elicit information from your subject, and sometimes a "dumb" question is the best question for getting that information.† So, rein in that ego and reveal your ignorance, if need be.†

Don't be afraid to push on vague or fuzzy answers.† Ask for clarification or ask for examples of the abstract response the subject just gave.† Ask for "little stories" to illustrate the points the subject just made, as this is where you can get some of the human angle on your subject.†† Once you've developed rapport with your subject, don't be afraid to return to earlier questions if you are unsatisfied with the earlier response.† You may get a much different response once trust has been developed.

Finally, be gracious.† The subject has taken time out of his or her busy life to submit to your intrusion.† Be sensitive to that and thank him or her for giving you this time.† Let them know what the next steps are (which is also a good way to wind down the interview):

No doubt, much more could be said on the subject of interviewing than I have done here, but this is enough to get you started.† Go to it -- and don't forget to have fun along the way!