7 Interview Techniques to Keep Your Author Talking

I was excited about the assignment. I had flown in to my destination late at night, and tossed and turned all night in anticipation of meeting the subject of the business book I was hired to ghost.

Not as well-rested as I would have liked to have been but running on adrenaline, I got ready and went down to the hotel lobby to meet my author for the first time.

We got through all the “How was your flight?” small talk and ordered breakfast, so it was time for me to get out the digital recorder and ask the first of many questions during my two-day visit.

“Fire away!” he said.

I can’t remember the specific question I asked first, but I do remember the answer: “Yes.”

Then silence.

I wasn’t expecting this at all. During my other ghostwriting experiences, I couldn’t get my authors to stop talking. One question would inspire an answer that lead to ten other questions, adding nuance, flavor, stories, and material to work with.

This guy was not a talker.

For me, as a ghostwriter, more is more. I want my authors to go on and on about their lives and accomplishments. I want every detail. After all, editing too much information is a much better problem to have than having to create facts and stories out of thin air to fill a book.

The more specific, quality information I can get from my authors, the more I learn about them, the easier it is for me to get inside their heads, and the more likely I’ll be able to pull together a compelling narrative.

Random comments often lead to great titles, and the sheer force of an author repeating stories and ideas makes it easy to organize a book around central themes.

Now, you’d think that everyone who wants to tell his or her story would be very forthcoming, but this isn’t always the case. If it happens to you, use the following seven techniques to make your author interviews more productive.

1. Learn to ask gently probing questions.

This would appear obvious, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds. If an author is nervous in general or uncomfortable with a particular topic, you have to be gentle if you want to get them to open up. “That must have been a difficult situation. How did it make you feel?” is a much better question than, “You’re kidding me! Did you really think you could get away with that?”

2. Avoid leading questions.

This type of question assumes too much and lets your author off the hook by just agreeing or disagreeing with you.

3. Ask narrow, specific questions.

Questions like “Did you sell your business for more than $50 million or less than $50 million?” show that you need specific information. You can start here and work your way up to more general topics.

4. Avoid the temptation of answering your own questions.

Stay silent and let your author fill in the silence.

5. Avoid interrupting the author when they do start talking.

If they’re on a roll, they might be getting more comfortable with the process. The last thing you want to do is make them nervous again.

6. Try not to let your author ask questions, and don’t answer them if they do.

Keep control over the interview by politely asking the author not to ask questions. If you’re forced to answer a question, follow it immediately with a question of your own to get back on track.

7. Talk to friends and colleagues of the author.

I like to do this anyway, but it’s a great way of getting information that you can bring back to your author for verification and clarification.

[Photo by Smiling Da Vinci]