I wrote recently about how interviewers can do a better job, so it’s only fair I talk a little about guests. The best are those who come to the interview with more than just expertise. They must have the ability to tell a story or explain things in simple, common terms.
Authors can be good interviewees, because they’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about their subjects. With someone like Dave Barry or John Feinstein or Lenore Skenazy or AJ Jacobs, I know I’m not just getting someone who’s knowledgable but, better than that, they have a sense of humor and know how to tell an engaging story, too. They make my job easy.
The ones who make it tough are the ones who either give monosyllabic answers, or who are too busy promoting the book to have a real conversation. They’ve clearly been told by their publicist to mention the name of the book as often as possible. So, no matter what I ask them, they begin every response with, “Well, in my book The Phlegm Incident, which is available now on Amazon….” I understand that you’re here to try to sell some books, but let me — your host — handle the blatant promotion. I’ll never forget to plug the title and your name. You’ll serve your purpose better by engaging the audience with a few well-told anecdotes, or some information they’ve never been exposed to before.
I’ve also had instances in which I have asked an author a question specifically designed to lead them into a story I know they tell in the book, only to have them answer, “It’s obvious you didn’t read my book, or you’d know that….” How presumptuous. You’re probably right that I didn’t read your entire book before your appearance on my show. That’s because it would take me several days to get through every word you wrote, and I don’t have that kind of free time considering all the other things I need to consume to fill my head in preparation for a daily talk radio show — particularly since we’re only going to talk about your masterpiece for 10-15 minutes on the air. However, I did glance through the book and the publicist’s notes to glean the general idea and to find a few stories worth guiding you towards so that you can entice listeners to buy it and read more. I’m so good at my job that the listeners will believe I read the whole thing when, in fact, I came up with these questions by leafing through your book for less than a half-hour. Now tell the damn story I so professionally asked you to tell!
Sometimes authors come to an interview with a chip on their shoulder. I have a friend who used to be an independent publicist, the kind hired either by small publishers or the authors themselves in an attempt to get some media attention for their work. Even when helping out a writer who’d be lucky to sell a few thousand copies of their book, she’d find them resistant to doing interviews with any media outlet they deemed too unimportant for them. They all wanted to be plugged by Oprah for her book club, or invited to do “Good Morning America” and “Ellen.” In their eyes, a conversation with a radio host on a local station in St. Louis was a waste of time. They also had a lot of disdain for the world of bloggers who can serve as a second promotional front. She’d line up some cookbook author to talk with a bunch of food bloggers, one right after the other, and the author would yell at her for not getting her onto Rachael Ray’s show. This publicist was very smart about these perpetually unhappy authors and, to her credit, would actually steer me away from those she knew would be bad guests for my show.
My favorite guests were authors who shared stories about a world most of us know nothing about. Caitlyn Doughty has written about working in a crematory and her fascination with death rituals around the world. Molly Bloom was quite open with me about her life running high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles (several years before her book was turned into a major motion picture). Kevin Hazzard told tales about being a paramedic in a dangerous neighborhood. Mike Massimino explained why he was so scared the first time he was launched into space as a NASA astronaut. Shep Gordon talked about hanging out with Groucho Marx and Alice Cooper.
Those aren’t subjects you hear about every day. All of them, and thousands more, were a pleasure to talk to. And although I’m no Oprah, I bet I helped them sell a few copies of their books, too.