April 25, 2013

How to do an NPR interview


Authors, please step up to the mic.

The Rumpus is on top of the confessional nonfiction beat, from Sari Botton’s “Writers Who Are Braver Than Me” interview series to the book club’s conversation with Emily Rapp.

Martha Bayne shares a different kind of confession this week: she wishes she’d been able to nail an interview with Fresh Air about her short essay on an accidental pregnancy and miscarriage at 44.

While she never regretted publishing the piece, she does wish she’d been able to handle the publicity more eloquently. She says speaking with Terry Gross caught her off guard: “There was a vast chasm between writing about something so very personal and talking about it with someone who I did not know and was, no matter how gentle, totally intimidating.” In the end, Fresh Air did not use the interview; Bayne says she was relieved.

It must be hard to remember how you were feeling at a difficult emotional moment, especially months or years after you have completed a piece. But memoir writers have to be prepared to bring their readers or interviewers into some of their darkest moments around the time of book promotion (or in this case, shortly after the essay was published online).

From Bayne’s interview with Zoe Zelbrod, author of Currency:

Bayne: The [Fresh Air] interview happened a month after the essay was posted, which was itself only six weeks or so after the events that prompted it. One of the things that people responded to so strongly about the essay was its emotional immediacy. But I wasn’t there anymore; my “emotional journey” had continued to carry me on down the road, to a place where I was still trying to get the lay of the land. I was feeling a different kind of sadness, and tasting a whole new flavor of anger.

Zolbrod: Once you put a story in writing, especially when it’s actually read as widely as your essay was, it fixes something that is still unfolding. You end up having to impersonate yourself.

Bayne: Right. So here I am, trying to channel the voice of this person from late August, in October, and feeling like a fraud. Of course, that trapped-in-amber quality is true of any piece of writing—it exists out of time, but is at the same time a product of a particular moment, and authors have to figure out how to live with the disconnect. Just ask anyone (like you!) who’s gone out to promote a book written years ago. But it’s really jarring when the subject matter is all this very intimate, mucky, still-evolving stuff.

In case you are ever asked to interview with Fresh Air, perhaps you can learn from Bayne’s story. She says she wished she’d considered media coaching, or remembered that Fresh Air usually covers the story itself for the listeners who are unfamiliar with it before delving deeper into the piece.

She had experience speaking in the public sphere on behalf of Soup & Bread, a series of hunger relief fundraisers, but had not told such a personal story in this kind of public forum before. She also did a considerable amount of research before interviews, hoping to talk about legislation for women’s health and other related topics, while interviewers like Gross were more interested in her “emotional journey.”

Zolbrod suggests Bayne’s eagerness to talk about the public issues could be, in part, an effort to turn the conversation away from her own story. “Honesty and urgency might be hallmarks of powerful writing,” she says, but it may be best to stick to being “polished and predictable” when dealing with the media.

Zolbrod: If Terry Gross called you again, what would you say? What would you do differently? Do you listen to the conversations she has with other guests—especially authors—with a different ear now?

Bayne: Definitely. I think that media coaching, or at least some better effort to structure and polish my own responses, would have been a great help. I mean, powerfully honest and urgent writing is rarely a first draft; it is revised and edited and honed and thus made paradoxically more raw and honest. The idea that a conversation audible to 4.5 million listeners is somehow off-the-cuff is a fiction; it’s a performance, and I should have treated it as such. (In my defense, I was perhaps overconfident, as I was used to being interviewed at that point. But only on the subject of soup, not my sex life.)

To pull up [an] AWP anecdote, a woman at a different panel, on memoir that engages with political issues, mentioned her discomfort with being urged by her publisher to become more of an activist/spokesperson on the issues that informed her book, which was about her son’s suicide after coming home from Iraq. And my heart sort of broke for her. Because, here you are and you’ve created this work of very personal art that (hopefully) speaks eloquently to the topic at hand—in her case, gun control and the lack of mental health care for Iraq War contractors. But these days you can’t leave it at that. You have to go out and do interviews and publicity. So the trick, which I assume media coaching could help with, is to learn how to say, “I think the work speaks for itself,” in a way that’s not defensive or rude or shuts down the conversation.  There’s no shame in that, and in that sense I think holding back can be more powerful than going out and inarticulately defending it in the public sphere.

While Bayne was eager to switch the focus of her interview away from her personal story, she’s smart to recognize other writers are uncomfortable being spokespeople for the political issues that have touched their personal lives. At this moment in publishing, authors must play a considerable role in the publicity of their books; it may take some work before they can play that part.

Bayne bravely shares a conversation about whether she ought to discuss the Fresh Air interview at all. It’s a perfect microcosm of the to-share-or-not-to-share debate we see with any conversation about memoir:

I think on the mundane-but-critical level of actually making a living, if your professional identity is not built on revelatory personal writing it is entirely possible that personal information can, if not damage your career, run it a bit off-track…. Or recently, an acquaintance and writer who I respect a lot advised me not to write about how I fucked up my probably one chance ever to get on Fresh Air. That holding one’s own failure up to the light is a bad idea, because for women it’s so easy for some acknowledged weakness to be turned against us professionally. She did not think this would help me down the road.

The Rumpus recently published Emily Gould’s superb essay about Melville House’s edition of I Await the Devil’s Coming, in which Gould says she recognized the public response to Mary MacLane’s work from the reactions she’d seen to recent memoirs: How much do you put on the table? What do you hold back? What is at risk for women who choose to reveal something about themselves in order to tell a story?

We’ve written about memoir and confessional writing before; no doubt we’ll write about it again before long.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.