How To Listen So Writers Will Talk

Susan at the Music issue launch, for which she interview Marie Howe. (Photo: E. Q. Tennant)

Susan at the Music issue launch, for which she interview Marie Howe. (Photo: E. Q. Tennant)

As a child, I rode everywhere on trains – Chicago, New York, even San Francisco, and that’s a darn long time on a train. My father worked for Amtrak; we rode for free. Train tracks run through back yards full of creaky swing sets, shaggy dogs and flapping rainbows of laundry – the back doors of houses, which seem much more intimate than the face the houses prepare for the faces they meet through the front door.

Watching out those windows for hours on end, I noticed there were so many lives, just as full as mine, which seemed like a revelation to me as a child. I was so curious about all of them. I also read obsessively – my mother used to beg: “Please, at least take the book outside” – for trips through other people’s heads.

So it seemed inescapable that I would make my living asking questions and learning about people’s lives.

For fifteen years, I was a newspaper reporter for a chain of local papers, which meant I interviewed everyone from murderers to liquor board applicants, farm queens to real estate developers.

After newspapers began to go downhill, I got my master’s in English and turned to freelance writing and editing. I’ve written articles on and interviews with National Poet Laureate Donald Hall, novelist Alice McDermott, poet Martín Espada, National Book Award winner Lucille Clifton, among others.

They’re my idols – and every time, I’m nervous when I talk to a famous writer. I’ve developed a few things that have helped when I’m trying to ask the questions that all writers want to know.

Breaking the ice, and watching like a hawk

Interviews are conversations, not interrogations.

Sometimes, interviewers get caught up in their questions and showing how smart they are or how prepared they’ve become, and don’t really hear their subjects. From the first few words, an interviewee is telling the interviewer the kind of person they are, and what’s going on in their life. We need to listen.

Sometimes a throwaway line is something you need to seize on, and follow down a path you didn’t know was there. In a question about a completely different poem about cows, Donald Hall mentioned a dream he had about zoo animals, and that turned into a beautiful anecdote about his grandparents and their farm, and another poem, which he recited for me in his amazing, scratchy voice.

I spoke to Hall by phone. He doesn’t travel a whole lot now from the New Hampshire farm that he inherited from his grandparents, but I prefer to do interviews in person. Everything from what’s on their office walls to a gesture that clinches a sentence tells you more than a few more words. Sometimes it’s not possible to be with the person in the room, so having a few technological tools – Skype, a voice recording software and headphones – are essential. But always have pen and paper, to take notes, because technology fails. You can see the ink flowing from your pen, and count on it.

Doing things with your interview subject is a great way to break the ice. I have baled hay with farmers, patted oysters with church supper ladies, helped blow dry the hair of an Alzheimer’s patient. I biked to the site of a child’s grave with his father, on the year anniversary of his six-year-old son’s death from leukemia. The father’s feet looked so large on that tiny grave. That was the hardest interview I had, not because the subject was reluctant, but because of the emotion involved.

If I’m writing a story, I’m structuring the story in my head while I’m interviewing. Sometimes a sentence will leap out, and I know I can use that as an ending, or a beginning, or to lead into another question, and tailor my questions around it. If I’m doing a Q&A that will run just as I’ve asked it, I try to have the questions laid out in a flow, with one topic leading to another. With some writers, I start at the beginning: “When did you begin writing?”

Lucille Clifton told me about her first poem – “it was terrible,” she said, laughing – she wrote to impress the boy that sat next to her in third grade. He was not, she said, impressed. But that question led to a whole conversation about her mother writing poems when Lucille was young, and how Lucille’s mother hid her work, and burned it in the coal stove when Lucille’s father found out her mother was writing.

Preparing for an interview with a writer you adore is difficult. When I was lucky enough to interview Alice McDermott, I was so nervous – she’s such an amazing observer of human nature, I felt like she would be dissecting both me and my questions. But the way I handle that is to over-prepare. I read as much as I can of an author’s work, often writing questions as I’m reading. I read past interviews with the authors, watch readings they’ve done, listen to radio interviews.

Some people who interview authors sound like scholars or critics giving a lecture and asking for feedback from the author. That’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to give readers a portrait of a person, a look into their back windows, not a critique of the author’s work – that’s what critics are for.

And my audience is writers; I always think writers want to know other writers’ magic bullets. How do you write how you write? How do you come up with your ideas? And I tailor the questions, obviously, to the writer’s work — about a particular character, about a story, about their methods of construction.

With writers, I usually ask what they’re reading now, and if there’s anything they wish I’d asked. And because I like to keep the conversations going, I usually end with, “Is there anyone you know that you think would be a good interview?”

That way, I can keep looking into those backyards and asking questions, even if I’m not resting my head on a rattling train window.

You can find Susan’s interview with Michael Chabon from our Doubt issue here, and read more of her interviews by ordering other issues.

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2 thoughts on “How To Listen So Writers Will Talk

  1. Loved this piece, Susan, the emphasis on listening, rather than competing with the subject. The day after reading your essay, I came to the point in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s recent “My Struggle: Book Two” where he describes being interviewed, the stage fright before, the self-loathing afterward (pages 496-504). Interesting to hear from an interviewer first, then an interviewee. Your two accounts are like companion pieces. Thanks.

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  2. Having taken Amtrak trains, metro systems and regional trains I loved how you viewed the communities you were traveling through. I always take a book to read on a train trip but I end up staring out of the window. A highlight was a suburban train going into Chicago early on a summer evening, the garages that backed onto the tracks were coming alive! Bands setting up, colored lights coming on, barbecue smoke swirling up as they got ready to party. Thanks for reminding me of this “view from the train” and a great evening sampling the blues in Chicago

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