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Nonfiction: Q&As

“There’s no Q&A protocol. You can write the manual,” The New York Times Magazine journalist Deborah Solomon told Columbia Journalism Review in the summer of 2005. Yet a recent controversy over Solomon’s Q&A interviewing techniques in her own weekly column proved her wrong about the lack of protocol for this popular but peculiar genre.

“There’s no Q&A protocol. You can write the manual,” The New York Times Magazine journalist Deborah Solomon told Columbia Journalism Review in the summer of 2005. Yet a recent controversy over Solomon’s Q&A interviewing techniques in her own weekly column proved her wrong about the lack of protocol for this popular but peculiar genre.

This past November, New York Press, a free, media-savvy, Manhattan newspaper, published a controversial cover story by Matt Elzweig. It asserted that Solomon, “The Q&A Queen,” violated journalistic ethics by making up questions after she completed interviews, along with taking quotes out of context. This claim was substantiated by two of Solomon’s subjects—Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” and Amy Dickinson, the advice columnist who replaced Ann Landers. When Solomon asked Dickinson, “What’s it like to be called the next Ann Landers?” Dickinson answered, “It’s the same format, but it’s funnier and snappier and might be more fun to read. Without a doubt, it will be more entertaining.” Then—in print—Solomon responded, “How immodest of you! Isn’t it bad manners to brag? Some of us found Ann Landers hilarious,” a response Dickinson claimed Solomon hadn’t vocalized in person, and thus shouldn’t have been added.

Although a New York Times spokesperson blamed the problem on Solomon’s condensing 4,000-word transcripts into 700-word final drafts, her byline was subsequently amended to read: “Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Deborah Solomon.”

“Good interviews have an art to them. Good interviews also have an arc, a drama. They take the reader on a ride, make her think and, with any luck, they display the subject you’re writing about in a new and different light.” —Lawrence Grobel, ”When the Talking Stops,” Writer’s Digest, August 2004

The real problem occurred because of Solomon’s snarky attitude. I usually recommend my journalism students pitch interviews with people they admire. And I urge them to use a respectful tone, which rarely garners angry press. However, if you absolutely must be sarcastic or chide your subject in public, tape your interviews to prove your authenticity word-for-word. Here are other techniques for unquestionable Q&As:

1. GET CLEAR ON THE ASSIGNMENT. Questions & Answers are different from profiles, which use a narrative to tell the third-person version of your interview without repeating the responses. Either piece is rarely done on spec. Even if you pitch the idea yourself, check with your editor in advance on word length, tone and focus. Unless I’m pitching a specific “Three Questions For” type column, instead of saying, “I’d like to do a 500-word Q&A with Louise Sloan on her new book, Knock Yourself Up,” I propose an interview and let the editor decide the length and if it’s a Q&A or profile.

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK. In the movie Interview a reporter (played by Steve Buscemi) interviews an actress (Sienna Miller) without knowing who she is. She’s perturbed but talks to him anyway. In real life, she wouldn’t. If you’re writing about an actor, see her last few movies or TV shows. If you’re interviewing an author, know his new book and past work. Anyone with a publicist has a press kit you should request. There’s no excuse not to Google politicians, artists and public figures before making contact. You’ll be well-prepared and perhaps find juicy factoids that’ll make your piece pop.

3. START NICE. A colleague began his interview with James Brown by asking the soul singer about his recent jail stint. Brown threw him out and never spoke to him again. So don’t start combatively. Ask easy, polite questions first. Then—after you have your story—chance being intrusive or provocative.

4. PRETEND THERE’S NO TAPE RECORDER. Even if you have permission to tape your interview (which you need), and your recorder is on, act like it isn’t and take careful notes. I can’t tell you how many times my tape broke, my battery died, noise made it impossible to hear a great quote or instead of rewinding I accidentally erased.

5. EMULATE THE FORMAT. Study previous pieces in your target publication or column, and emulate them. This is essential because Q&A formats vary. Elle magazine’s Q&A with Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show” started with a two-paragraph introduction, then a back-and-forth conversation labeled ELLE and STEWART, in bold, capital letters. People’s piece on the singer Queen Latifah commenced with four newsy paragraphs, then launched into questions in bold type, with answers in regular type, no names listed in the body of the text. The New Yorker profile that Hermione Lee conducted with novelist Philip Roth was subtitled, “Hermione Lee talks with Philip Roth about his new novel, Exit Ghost,” with no other introduction, using both men’s full names for the first Q&A set. By the second question, the names were condensed to “H.L.” and “P.R.” These differences seem minuscule, but following the right style will save your editor time and show you care.

6. MAKE SURE YOU CAN RECONNECT. During a one-time tête-à-tête, it’s easy to forget to ask a few details. Or your editor might want you to expand a certain theme. Be sure to ask your subject if, when and how you can follow up, whether it’s by e-mail, phone or merely contacting the subject’s publicist.

7. FACT-CHECK. Even if it’s with Paris Hilton, a Q&A interview is considered a news story and therefore must read like one. Include the five W’s (Who? What? When? Why? Where?) in your initial paragraph, preferably in your lead.

8. USE THE INVERTED PYRAMID. To focus your piece, use the inverted pyramid structure, putting the most timely, important material early in the story, and the least significant information later on. For example, if you’re doing a Q&A with Hillary Clinton, her Iraq War stance should be upfront. Her favorite hobby, on the other hand, should appear much later. This style was invented because newspaper editors, in a hurry to make a deadline or print run, just lop off the last paragraph or two of a piece. Never leave anything essential for the last paragraph. [WD]


[Exercises]

1. READ Q&As SIMILAR TO THE ONE YOU’RE WRITING AND CIRCLE THE MOST INTERESTING ANSWERS. Study which questions motivated the best responses. Were they factual? (“How did you get your start?”) Fawning? (“Tell me about your new album.”) Or kooky? ( Barbara Walters infamously asking Kathryn Hepburn, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?”)

2. WRITE OUT IN ADVANCE 25 QUESTIONS, A MIX OF EARNEST AND LIGHT INQUIRIES.  Leave room for unexpected follow-up questions.

3. BECAUSE 300-WORD INTERVIEWS ARE COMMON THESE DAYS, TRY TO SQUEEZE THE FIVE W’S INTO YOUR FIRST SENTENCE, ALONG WITH A PROVOCATIVE LEAD.  For example: “The best place to find sex is in the office, Helaine Olen, co-author of the hot new book Office Mate, recently told an inquisitive journalism class at The New School in Greenwich Village.”

4. EDITORS OFTEN HAVE YOU CUT, OR EXPAND, YOUR PIECE AT THE LAST MINUTE. Write the first question you plan to ask. Then shorten it. Then shorten it again. “You’ve published three memoirs. Do you plan to continue with nonfiction?” (11 words) can be condensed to “Are you working on a new memoir?” (seven words), which could be, “What’s next?” (two words). —SS


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