Voltaire suggested that we judge people by their questions rather than their answers. We might apply that yardstick from the Enlightenment to well-known interviewers of today. What do questions reveal about the questioner?
John McPhee, the American journalist much-loved for being accessible, eschews questions that are “glib and omniscient.” He explains: “If you don’t seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it. . . . Who is going to care if you seem dumber than a cardboard box? Reporters call that creative bumbling.” (From “Elicitation,” The New Yorker, April 7 2014)
Taking the opposite tack is television’s busiest interviewer, Charlie Rose, a former lawyer. “I pride myself on smart questions,” he tells a News & Observer reporter (March 7, 2014).
Marie Hefley, Managing Editor of this publication, also conducts and writes the Interview feature appearing in each issue. She has her own approach. “I want to ask smart questions in a simple way that will get the subject to talk.” She has done her preparation, she has her list of topics, but the secret is coming up with “the just-right question to get them started.”
For the Interview feature for spring 2015, Marie asked Megan Shepherd, award-winning author of The Madman’s Daughter, how she came to learn the ins and outs of YA fiction. “She talked about her childhood in her parents’ bookstore, what she observed about the business, about customers and reading preferences, for ten or fifteen minutes. And we were off.” Similarly, in the fall 2015 Interview, featuring Denise Kiernan, author of the best-selling The Girls of Atomic City, Marie asked why this author felt compelled to write the story of the young women who went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to work on what was eventually revealed to be the Manhattan Project. The answer: “While researching ‘nuclear medicine or some related field,’ [Kiernan] came across an old Department of Energy newsletter whose history corner had a photo that caught her eye.” It was an image of those girls, Kiernan said in the interview, “from rural Tennessee right out of high school, enriching uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb, but they wouldn’t know their role until after the war. I found that fascinating.”
In Marie’s Interview for this issue, with Robert Beatty (author of the New York Times best-seller Serafina and the Black Cloak), the conversation included not only his writing of a smash-hit YA novel set at Asheville’s Biltmore Estate, but also his life in technology. Beatty is one of the early pioneers of cloud computing, the founder and CEO of Plex Systems, the co-founder of Beatty Robotics, and for a crucial period in the development of its design and management systems, the Chief Technical Officer and Chairman of the Board for Narrative Magazine.
Although Marie emphasizes that the interview should not be about the interviewer, she wanted Beatty to know something about her own technical background so that he wouldn’t have to explain the nuts and bolts of this part of his career. “I understood his language,” Marie says. As she should. Although her college degree is in sociology, IBM hired her as one of the first women to sell its computers and software. After several years she became a trainer of the company’s new hires and then went to Houston to run a marketing unit whose customers were major oil services companies: “Drilling and oil rigs—anything to do with getting oil out of the ground.” From there she worked on marketing programs for all international accounts headquartered in the U.S. Performing these and other duties, Marie worked at IBM for the entirety of her twenty-year business career. She learned to give her complete attention to the needs of customers and their businesses, “from the biggest deals down to the smallest details.” In addition, she says, “I was also nosy. I had a natural curiosity, with a real interest in learning why people do what they do.”
The skills and interests she honed at IBM have continued to serve her well. In preparing for her interviews, Marie says that she figures out the particular angle to pursue with each one. “I don’t want to ask the same questions everyone else asks. I like hearing somebody say, ‘That’s a really good question. I never thought of that.’ I think they appreciate being asked something new. This means they get something out of the interview.”
In addition to the obvious goal of an interview—to inform and entertain the reader—Marie considers this medium as a marketing vehicle for the interviewee. “I’m not writing a love letter,” she says, “not telling the story in a fake way or a falsely positive way. My aim is to showcase the author and the work so that readers will want to go out and buy the product.” She admits that she can’t help herself. “This is a marketing document. It comes out of my business background.”
There is a difference, though, between the twenty-minute-max IBM cold call and securing an interview subject. In fact, the biggest surprise of Marie’s interview work so far was the moment she contacted Wiley Cash. “He said ‘Yes.’ Right away. But it took all of my thick hide and nerve to go for the ask. He was a name.” (Cash is the The New York Times best-selling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy.) That surprise has settled into a more general appreciation of her interview subjects’ responses. “They are all so forthcoming, they are so willing to answer just about anything. Thoughtful, deep, complete answers. It’s also surprising to see how different personalities come up with similar answers to certain questions. That shows me how much writing, at this level of talent and experience, is really common ground.”
Elsewhere in this issue…
Be sure to see the Editor’s Choice feature, wherein Guest Editor Jeanne Howe announces her picks for poetry and prose. She essentially picks them all, providing an outstanding overview of all student work appearing here for spring 2016. She does highlight two pieces, however, and offers her reasons why.