Header image courtesy Tycho

Let’s start with the basics: Journalism is the industry of telling people true things that they don’t know. If the first journalists grunted, mimed, and drew cave pictures or secreted an array of pheromones to convey new data, their work was purer than the information vomit we face today. A primary source—a first-hand account or subject that can comment directly to the topic—is a rare commodity. Instead, most information is a copy of a copy of a copy

Primary sources are the lifeblood of our industry at is finest. Interviews are how you get information from a primary source. But just because you engage a source doesn’t guarantee a wealth of quality information. Interviewing is an art, and oft-times it’s executed poorly. For this post, I solicited feedback from six professionals: two editors and six comic book writers who have been interviewed many, many times. Here’s my own feedback followed by direct transcripts from the folks kind enough to comment. And for the record, heaven knows I’ve violated many of these guidelines in my career. 

Broad Strokes

Your Questions Are As Good As Your Research

To host a good interview, do your homework. If a quarter of your questions could apply to any other interview—if they’re that broad—you’ve failed. Don’t waste a creator’s time. Don’t waste your own time. Your subject will know you don’t give a damn about them and their work and will give awful, mechanical answers. What questions shouldn’t you ask? Vice summarized this nicely for music journalism, but let’s review a few: 

  • What are your influences? 
  • Where do you get your ideas?
  • What’s your craziest convention story?
  • How did you go about designing XYZ?
  • Who would you collaborate with that you haven’t had the chance to?

How do creators respond to rote questions? Let The Wicked + The Divine and former journalist Kieron Gillen reflect: “As part of my standard advice when I was a culture journalist, I used to say, ‘You have two questions to prove you’re not a fucking waste of space to the interviewee.’ Really, you probably have one, especially if you’re interviewing someone who’s done a bunch of interviews in the same day and is tired. The sad thing, especially in culture journalism, is how easy it is to achieve that. Reading someone’s Wikipedia page and asking about something unusual to show you’ve done at least a minimum of homework will get you there.” Start with subjects, not questions, and go from there. Take notes when you’re reading/researching. If this stage doesn’t work, nothing will. 

You’re Better Than Wikipedia and Press Releases

If you’re writing for a publication that reaches over 8 million people a month, you’re a professional. You uncover more than what a press release would ever be able to communicate, let alone the beat-by-beat book reports that constitute an overwhelming majority of all comic reviews. Your most important insights will come in the connective tissue of a creator’s work. Read multiple works of what that creator has to offer to understand their truth—what themes repeat? Why does Ron Wimberly base each of his comic projects on a Brooklyn neighborhood? What are the parallels Warren Ellis draws between the supernatural and the technical? Why does 90% of Jeff Lemire’s work revolve around strained families? Don’t just read the work—go past the work into its thematic framework. Other things to look at: Forewords, Afterwords, (really—these are insiders and friends telling you about the soul of the piece), Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, previous interviews, Spotify custom playlists, and, if we’re getting ambitious and within the realm of good taste, friends and parents. If I’ve discovered one thing, Google isn’t the end-all, be-all. And Wikipedia definitely gives Brian K. Vaughan an extra daughter. 

People Are Not The Information on Their Driver’s Licenses

Who listens to Protomartyr? You don’t listen to Protomartyr? Go listen to Protomartyr. They made the best album of 2015 and the lyrics are ingenious and haunting. Lead singer Joe Casey (different Joe Casey) sings about the sad, desperate means Generation X takes to remain young and the myth of rock and roll immortality. Joe’s 38. Buzzfeed decided to spin a number of questions based on the sole fact that Joe is 38. Joe promptly responds by saying fuck you to the journalist without saying fuck you. This is only marginally different then asking, “what’s it like to be a girl in a band/comics/whatever?” or “how does it feel to be [this ethnicity] in a thing that doesn’t have many people of [this ethnicity] in it?” 

The devastating reality is that Joe actually comments on aging in the album. Diving into topics of politics and sociology is great; just relate it to the actual work, not some arbitrary demographic. 

Check out further insight from the experts below, who are far smarter and eloquent than me. 

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Find below the entire feedback of the comic and editorial professionals (listed in alphabetical order) who were kind enough to riff on this topic. Bonnie and Shane were asked to give their own personalized feedback while Kieron, Kelly Sue, Ivan, and Van were asked a uniform set of questions.

Ivan Brandon, Writer of Viking, Drifter, Wolverine, Men of War

Kelly Sue DeConnick, Co-Founder of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Writer of Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly, Parisian White

Kieron Gillen, Writer of Phonogram, The Wicked + The Divine, Star Wars: Darth Vader, Mercury Heat

Van Jensen, Writer of Green Lantern Corps, Cryptocracy, Two Dead, Pinocchio Vampire Slayer

Shane Ryan, Staff Writer & Politics Editor at Paste Magazine, Author of Slaying the Tiger

Bonnie Stiernberg, Music Editor at Paste Magazine

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Ivan-Brandon

Ivan Brandon, Writer of Viking, Drifter, Wolverine, Men of War

What’s the worst question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

The worst question is any question that can be answered by a yes or no. The most frequent questions I’m asked, and the ones I’ve seen creators decry the most? That’s a tie between: “how did you get started in comics?” “what character haven’t you worked on that you’d like to work on?” or anything that just asks someone bluntly the answer to a story’s mystery, no matter how cutely it’s phrased.

What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

Anything unrelated to comics. You get funny and interesting conversations out of leaving the safety net of comics questions. You can bring them back, but I think you get a better mood out of them when your conversation isn’t so structured.

Is there a shared quality among the best interviews you’ve had, whether in the conversation or with the interviewers?

I think when the interview is in general more conversational, you end up with a better overall piece—when it’s less about the math of solving for the question asked. I think if you can make a writer/artist think, on the spot, that’s where I am most excited to read an interview.

 What do you wish more interviewers would ask you about?

The industry itself, the future, how things have changed, that kinda thing. What’s exciting, or what SHOULD be exciting in comics.

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Kelly Sue DeConnick, Co-Founder of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, Writer of Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly, Parisian White

What’s the worst question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

“You write several female leads. Aren’t you afraid of being pigeonholed?”

“What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?” (I’ve never not been a woman and nearly all professional fields are male-dominated, so this question is unanswerable as well as boring.)

“How do you balance work and family?” I wouldn’t hate this question as much as I do if my husband, who has the same job as me, had EVER been asked it or anything like it. 

“Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.” No. You do your homework and you write an introduction. I’m not going to cut and paste my bio or my credits for you. 

What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

Wasn’t by a journalist — but another comics pro once asked me, “what are you working on?” I started to give him the rundown of books on my plate when he clarified, “No — I mean, what skills are you developing?” That was the best question I’ve ever been asked about my craft or my practice. 

Is there a shared quality among the best interviews you’ve had, whether in the conversation or in the interviewers?

Good interviewers have done their homework. Like any good professional. Lazy is the thing I most loathe.  

What do you wish more interviewers would ask you about?

Craft.  

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Kieron-Gillen

Kieron GillenWriter of Phonogram, The Wicked + The Divine, Star Wars: Darth Vader, Mercury Heat

What’s the worst question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

Honestly, nothing leaps to mind, which surprises me. Perhaps I’m tired. I more wince at ones which people ask my friends. You know—the “What’s it like being a woman in comics?” sort of question. The depressing thing is that a journalist (at least, a journalist who writes about the form regularly) hasn’t read enough to know how much these get a rise from people.

The annoying ones are the workaday ones, the ones which show the journalist hasn’t actually done any research about the book, or wants you to paraphrase what the book is about so they don’t have to write an introduction paragraph for their articles. 

As part of my standard advice when I was a culture journalist, I used to say, “You have two questions to prove you’re not a fucking waste of space to the interviewee.” Really, you probably have one, especially if you’re interviewing someone who’s done a bunch of interviews in the same day and is tired. The sad thing, especially in culture journalism, is how easy it is to achieve that. Reading someone’s Wikipedia page and asking about something unusual to show you’ve done at least a minimum of homework will get you there.

What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

Oddly, this slips my mind too. I tend to remember less individual questions and more the flow of a good interview, which feeds into the next question…

Is there a shared quality among the best interviews you’ve had, whether in the conversation or with the interviewers?

That ability to create flow. To listen to what you say. To understand what you said, and pick up the problems and contradictions in that, and pick them apart. An understanding of the actual work which they make entirely apparent without turning it into a gnomic conversation between the two of you.

I always remember when I was a journalist and I dropped a theory or a thought, and basically went a bit beyond what I should have as an interviewer. You could see people LEAN IN as they realize this is important. I was never that good as an interviewer, but I’ve always admired that interesting mix of being completely without ego and having incredible confidence in the best. You’re not there to be friends.

You’re there to get the best stuff from the person you’re speaking to.

What do you wish more interviewers would ask you about? 

Well, I wish people would ask me less what I’m listening to. I was always terrible at Best Of lists. I do okay, actually. I’m awful enough to bend answers towards what I think is interesting. I mean, I suspect the answer is “Stuff I wasn’t expecting,” which by definition I can’t think about. I mean, I suspect it’s stuff which is less just about the random stuff I’m selling. Ask me theory. Ask me odd angles on life. Surprise me.

This, I suspect, only works on certain creators, who don’t really care too much on staying on target.

What do comic creators understand—that journalists generally do not—that hinders the greater comics conversation? 

The awful thing is “a greater understanding of how the industry actually operates.” The problem being, you only get that understanding from being inside the machine, as there’s so much people will not talk openly about, especially on the record to a journalist. The more you learn about this—and it’s tricky—the better your work will be. Managing to socialize with creators in an off-the-record fashion and use it to get background knowledge on the world will help you.

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Van Jensen, Writer of Green Lantern Corps, Cryptocracy, Two Dead, Pinocchio Vampire Slayer

What’s the worst question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

The worst question is always “Where do you get your ideas?” Just lazy and pointless. But someone once asked a variation on it, which was, “How do you know when an idea is worth pursuing?” In general, that’s a great concept—the next level question. Take the simple, standard question, then add some variation to it. Also: more specificity. 

What’s the best question you’ve ever been asked by a journalist?

The best question was that someone was asking me about SFX in comics, and we talked about that for a while, and then they asked me what sound effect I’d use to describe a bag of garbage falling from a roof and landing on wet pavement. It was great, because it was fun and specific and totally in the moment.

Is there a shared quality among the best interviews you’ve had, whether in the conversation or with the interviewers?

The best interviews are ones in which the interviewer comes in with a decent amount of knowledge. Most interviewers obviously put in zero or near-zero effort. If you’ve done a little research, you can easily stand out. Sad but true.

What do you wish more interviewers would ask you about?  

I always like being asked about what’s important to me, why I choose to do the work that I do, what themes I gravitate toward in my work. Bigger-picture life things. That and really specific craft questions.

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Shane-Ryan
Shane Ryan, Staff Writer & Politics Editor at Paste Magazine, Author Slaying the TigerPublicist SuperVillain

 

Some interview tips off the top of my head, many of which I still fail at with sad regularity…

1. Silence is your friend. This is so hard to internalize and execute, because most of the time we’re interviewing people more famous than we are, and it’s very natural to be concerned with how we come across. I’ve always been self-conscious in that way…I’ll interrupt somebody if they hesitate for a moment because there’s a feeling of discomfort, and like I want to help them and also myself by glossing over this awkwardness, the way you might with a stranger at a party. What I’ve learned is this impulse to fill silence can work for you, rather than against you—just be comfortable in the silence and let the other person speak.

This is also true if they finish their answer and you don’t find it satisfactory…before you follow up, just let the silence stew and see if they say anything else. Sometimes the best stuff comes from these moments. A corollary to this: Don’t cut people off. You may think you get the gist of what they’re saying as they’re finishing up an answer, but let them actually finish. I’ve had numerous experiences where I failed to do this, and didn’t realize the person had said something really interesting, while I was blabbing on, until I listened to the recording and tuned myself out.

2. Don’t apologize for your questions or issue disclaimers. Again, it’s very natural because it’s a way to protect yourself, but it immediately diminishes you in the eyes of the subject, even subconsciously. You have the right to ask a question, and if it’s not a good question, let them tell you on their own. The truth is that the vast majority of the time, the question is fine, and the over-analysis going on in our heads never even occurs to the subject.

3. Try to be conversational with the subject. Having been on the other side of an interview, there’s nothing worse than an interviewer who never deviates from a list of questions. It might just mean he/she is nervous, but it always feels like they’re not engaged with what you’re doing and are simply trying to accomplish a rote task. There’s a reason that this always seems to happen with college kids doing an assignment for class; they don’t actually give a shit about what they’re doing, and it comes across. If you can relate to what the person is saying without violating principle no. 1, they are WAY more likely to go beyond “‘interview mode'” and open up/say something interesting.

4. Probably a corollary to no. 3—always ask follow-up questions. If you want a subject to deviate from the script insider his/her head, you have to be willing to do the same. Which requires active listening and the ability to improvise. This is the easiest way to make an interview conversational, because you’re literally employing a conversational tactic.

5. Keep the questions themselves as short as possible. Another defensive mechanism is to not just ask a question, but to explain and justify yourself along the way. This goes along with no. 2.

6. Leave the questions open-ended. We all know to avoid yes/no constructions, but a huge problem for me has been asking either/or questions, as in, “do you subscribe to opinion A or opinion B?” It’s unnecessarily limiting. Also, don’t propose an answer as you’re asking the question: “Some people believe that it’s wrong for female workers to earn $.78 on the dollar compared to men…what do you think?” At best, it influences the answer, at worst it cuts off the dialogue.

7. Always use a tape recorder. It lets you stay active in the conversation, look the subject in the eye, react, and listen. Writing answers down as they speak just adds an unnecessary handicap and puts distance between you and the subject.

8. Judge the subject in your writing, not the interview. I’ve had people tell me things I profoundly disagree with during interviews, but it’s important to remember that the goal is to hear their unadulterated viewpoint, not to engage in a debate. Bringing up alternate viewpoints is a great way to challenge them, because they’ll probably be eager to stand their ground and it lets you be conversational, but maintain a neutral disposition as much as possible. Don’t go so far as to falsely agree with them, because that’s dishonest, but remember that you’re not obliged to divulge your own opinion.

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Bonnie Stiernberg, Music Editor at Paste Magazine

Totally agree with all of Shane’s, obviously…although I’ll say I do use a notebook (in addition to a tape recorder) when I’m doing a phoner, just because I’m paranoid and like to scribble notes as a backup, but I completely agree that there’s no place for a notebook in a face-to-face interview. It makes the conversation feel unnatural and is distracting to the subject.

Here are a few more from me…

1. Always do your homework. This seems like it should go without saying, but you should go into the interview knowing as much about your subject as possible. Never, under any circumstances, ask dumb, vague questions like “How would you describe your band’s sound?” or “Who are your influences?” You should already know the answers to these questions like the back of your hand, and it’s your job to come up with unique, interesting questions that your subject hasn’t already been asked a thousand times.

2. Don’t put words in your subject’s mouth. It’s easy sometimes with certain subjects to go into the interview with an angle for your story already in mind, and you may have certain theories/ideas you want them to touch on, but avoid framing questions like “It seems like blah blah blah, would you agree?” etc. It pisses people off (particularly if they disagree with what you’re trying to get them to say) and is not good journalism.

3. Always wrap up by asking if there’s anything else. I close every interview I do with some variation of “Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. Is there anything else you wanted to throw out there before I let you go?” You’d be surprised—sometimes you’ll get some of your best stuff this way, by allowing them to address something they wanted to mention that you simply didn’t think to ask about.

4. Be observant. Again, should go without saying, but you should be paying attention to far more than just what your subject is saying. What is their body language saying? What are they wearing? What’s the tone of their voice like? Did they show up early to meet you? Are they being chatty with the waiter? What does their office/home/recording studio/etc. look like? Do they keep anything weird on their desk? These things might seem insignificant, but they all add up to paint a picture of the person you’re trying to…well, paint a picture of. Rich detail is so important to a great profile, and if you can observe the whole package while you’re talking to someone you should be able to follow that old Journalism 101 mantra of “Show, don’t tell”

5. Break the ice. You don’t want to open with your biggest, deepest, toughest question. That doesn’t necessarily mean start out with a softball, but you want to ease into the conversation, not jump down someone’s throat.

6. If you’re doing a phone interview on your cell phone, don’t do it in a hot car in the middle of summer. Your phone will overheat and you’ll get disconnected. Trust me. Get yourself situated in an ideal location 10 minutes or so before your interview time so you have a chance to get settled, glance over your questions one last time, etc.

7. If you’re doing a face-to-face interview, memorize your questions instead of reading them out of a notebook. It’s the same idea as the tape recorder thing. Reading questions off a list makes it feel forced and less like a natural conversation. It’s off-putting to the subject.

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Other Detoxes:

The Perils of Passive Voice

Adverbs Are Awful