Writing a wrong: How social media changed the rules on interviews

To find Marian Keyes eating the face off Marian Finucane on Twitter is like finding your budgie savaging your alsatian.

You don’t want to intervene, because it’s a grown-up budgie and a grown-up alsation, but it’s so astonishing, you can’t quite believe it’s happening.

Just in case you missed this one, here is how it went. The writer (Ms Keyes, a woman of more charm and sweetness than average) went on the radio programme to promote her latest book through an interview with the doyenne (Ms Finucane, a woman with 40 years as the premier female voice on RTÉ 1).

The listeners may have been happy with the interview — this can be judged by listening to a podcast. Ms Finucane may have been happy with the interview. Ms Keyes was major-league UNhappy with the interview. She was infuriated at being forced, as she saw it, into talking about her ‘tragicness’ — the depression and suicidal feelings that crippled her for the last few years. Having failed to sleep for two nights because of the interview, she let rip on Twitter about the encounter.

This is new. Up to now, even if a writer wasn’t that happy with an interview around the launch of their book, they were primed to be grateful that it got mentioned on the airwaves and to move on.

Not all writers were silent. Ed McBain, the crime writer, got shirty on air with an interviewer who opened the item by saying something like “so you’ve written a crime book?” by telling the interviewer that he — Mc Bain — was “the pre-eminent police procedural writer in the world”. The interview went downhill from there.

Writers and their books, once upon a time, were separate entities. The writer produced the work, the publisher delivered it to booksellers, and what the reviewers said about it was heavily influential in the numbers of copies sold.

If, like JD Salinger, you wanted to keep your private life private, you could retreat to the hills and give no interviews to anybody at any time, knowing that the dearth of interviews would in no way inhibit the continuing sales of the book. Of course, even back then, some writers like Hemingway were relentless self-publicists. Hemingway doesn’t seem to have felt fully alive if he didn’t have a journalist to perform to.

Then everything changed and instead of writers graciously and very occasionally allowing a journalist to visit them in their book-lined studies to ask respectable, nay, worshipful questions about them and their art, writers increasingly came up against the marketing imperative. They might hope that the publishers would invest heavily in advertising to reach and enthuse potential readers, but the publishers tended to have a quite different view, increasingly expressing that view in the one, two or three-book contracts signed by the writers.

These new contracts demanded that the writer actively promote their own book. Never mind journalists coming to them and asking worshipful questions. From that point on, it would be the duty of the writer to get on the road and undertake the Media Tour, popping up in every major city in the US, visiting every TV and radio studio, sitting for endless photographs and being interviewed by newspaper and magazine journalists.

Broadcasters tended to like authors and still tend to like authors because they usually have brains, often can talk and usually (despite notable exceptions) glow at the very possibility of chatting about their latest volume.

“The first few times you do the media tour,” one Irish writer says, “it’s the best outing for your ego ever. You get swept from one place to another within a city in a limo, accompanied by the publisher’s publicist and you get to talk about yourself. The second time, the tour has got longer, so that it takes in Canada and perhaps Australia and New Zealand, so it’s more onerous, with more down-time away from the desk and family. The third tour is hell.”

For broadcasters, visiting writers used to be an unalloyed joy. Then they became more sophisticated in their demands, as they developed a more refined sense of what their viewers and listeners preferred, and a set of unofficial groundrules.

Key to those ground rules is a binary choice: Fiction is bad and non-fiction is good. That’s the first reality. Non-fiction books, for example, keep Seán Moncrieff alive on air every day of the week. Tune into Newstalk any afternoon and he’s quizzing someone about container ships or tornados or the illnesses mummies died of before they were mummified. Lovely non-fiction topics explored in a book give an interviewer the opportunity to examine war and peace, health and illness, triumph and disaster, all at the end of a telephone line or with the author in studio.

The interviewer doesn’t even have to read the book. Just look up the index and pick a few pages where explosions or betrayals or infections happen. Essentially, all the interviewer has to do is gesture the interviewee into their seat and let them talk. Even if the next guest gets stuck on the M50, a good author can be stretched forever.

Listeners who never had the smallest interest in the First World War or the mating habits of hedgehogs, find themselves hooked when the author of a book on either topic appears on radio and talks enthusiastically on the subject.

Non-fiction writers have so many stories to tell and details to offer that the interviewer hardly ever has to bother examining the author’s own life.

Fiction is one hell of a different ballgame, when it comes to the media tour. Earnest interviewers may try to get into issues of symbolism and problems of plotting, but except for late night programmes for readerly nerds, who cares?

“I wanted to explore the increasingly fragmented relationships inevitably emerging between family members following the collapse of a business venture,” may seem interesting to the author as it leaves their lips, but to the interviewer, it carries the promise of half-dead air. Or worse; it carries the possibility of the author making like a commentator on their own work.

When writers become commentators, the resultant broadcast is conceptual, unillustrated and without anecdote, whereas if a fiction writer talks about themselves, the broadcaster can get into stories of redemption (how the writer eventually kicked alcohol/crack cocaine/sexual promiscuity) of relatives (how the writer’s father was once taoiseach or how the writer’s sister is a singer with a fairly chaotic CV) or of illness (recovery from a shocking accident or from cancer/depression).

The axiom of TV news coverage is “if it bleeds, it leads”. It’s not quite as crude when it comes to the coverage of fiction writers on radio or television, but, as Marian Keyes found out, writerly eagerness to talk about joy and happiness does not tend to generate much enthusiasm on the part of the broadcaster.

In the past, when a writer felt dissed by an interviewer, the only option was private wound-licking. Twitter has changed that. It remains to be seen how much.

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