Interviewing the interviewer
“The more famous, or successful the person," says Joseph Planta, "the easier they are to talk with. I’ve had a number of Pulitzer, Giller and Booker winners on my show, and they’re delightful and less of a hassle than many mid-level or self-published guests I’ve talked to over the years.”
June 01st, 2014
Joseph Planta’s interview style is affable to an extreme and his work is, as yet, little known by the general public—although he once made headlines in the Straight.com when editor Charlie Smith wrote Planta had tweeted that author and editor Zsuzsi Gartner was his “least charming interview ever,” adding “Her contempt for me is palpable.”
Joseph Planta’s interviews can be heard on TheCommentary.ca, of which he is the founding editor. Links to his one hundred interviews with BC writers can be accessed via the audio section of the BC BookLook home page.
1. What was the inspiration for doing your own audio interviews?
The format I use, which generally is a 15-25 minute interview done live-to-tape is modeled after the radio and television interviews of Don Imus. Even affectations like how I start each program, and how I greet the guest when the interview commences, are ones I’ve stolen from Imus. One of Imus’s inspirations when it came to author interviews was Brian Lamb at C-Span. His Book Notes program is a prime example of spare questioning, and shifting the focus from the interviewer to the guest, drawing out the guest.
Even at an early age, I enjoyed watching news and current affairs programs. I liked interviews, because it has that fascinating combination of interrogation, examination, and conversation. Favourites to watch growing up were Mike Wallace, James Lipton, Larry King, Brian Linehan, and Ken Rockburn. Rafe Mair and David Berner both had different styles on the radio. Rafe treated interviews with politicians as examinations, while David talked to guests with a conversational tone that was engaging. He likened it to chats around a kitchen table. Both were very effective interviewers, and both were programs I listened to and were formative for me.
I find the longer I interview, I can’t learn enough. Eleanor Wachtel is a marvelous interviewer. She can make guests or genres I’m not interested in riveting to listen to. I really admire the enthusiasm that Shelagh Rogers brings to her interviews. I think Steve Paikin is the best interviewer on Canadian television today. Stephen Quinn on CBC Radio One is a very good interviewer. He can be quite effective with politicians, as well as empathetic and sensitive with guests that deserve it, both methods yielding great radio.
2. Who was your first B.C. interviewee and how did that go?
When I started the program, I wanted a mix of current affairs, entertainment and authors. I think the first book interview I did was with Rafe Mair. He had a rule on his old radio program that he would try to do more in promoting British Columbia authors, and I think that’s something that I’ve tried to consciously do. I think it’s important if you have some corner of the internet to spend some time promoting this province and the vast array of authors and books that get published each season. And truth be told, why not, because there are great stories all the time from this place.
3. Are you aware of developing your own style and if so, how would you describe it?
I’m led by curiosity, and I suppose that’s the best way to approach an interview. I find a bit of curiosity, when thinking about booking a guest, goes a long way. Half the guests I talk to, I’ll have been unfamiliar with their work, so I have to be somewhat interested in them to want to spend the time to research a guest, let alone spend 20 minutes or so talking to them. Because of other obligations in my life, and the fact that my website has remained a hobby, I don’t have as much time to devote to researching my guests. I often do not have time to read the books of guests I talk to. I know it bugs a lot of people that I haven’t read the book, but I think the goal is to have a conversation about the book so that it’ll compel people listening to buy it, not necessarily have an in-depth review of the book.
4. Do you think writers are particularly good interview subjects, because they are so word-conscious? Do does that make them more careful, less spontaneous?
Writers are great guests because they’re usually articulate. And all the writers I’ve talked to have been fairly interesting, so that makes them good guests. Not all writers however can be articulate in the course of a telephone or in-person interview, so the goal is to engage them so that it’s a conversation. They’re also good subjects in the sense that they’re available to talk, as they’d like to promote their book.
5. Have you ever asked a question you regretted asking?
Not in terms of the substance of the question, but perhaps in the crafting or wording of a question, though I’m loath to recall an instance of that just right now.
6. Which B.C. writers did you find the easiest to converse with? And why?
People who have been interviewed a lot, prolific authors or artists, are often fun to talk to. I can’t write novels or commit poetry, or paint, so to talk to writers, poets, and artists is always fascinating, especially when they’re willing to look back at their work, and how they come to their work. Interviewing interviewers, is also a lot of fun, as I learn lots.
7. Which B.C. writers were the most difficult to interview? And why?
Current and/or aspiring politicians are often dull to talk to, as they’re not really interested in a conversation. They’re on ‘talking points’ mode, wanting to get their message out rather than answer my questions. Or they simply want to run out the clock.
I once interviewed a former professional athlete who had a reputation for being an inarticulate interview. As much as I prepared, it was hard drawing that person out—though they were perfectly genial and generous with their time. It turned out to be a rather short interview anyway.
A challenge is when the guest is not familiar with me or the program. One writer had expected that I had read and finished their book, even perhaps that I had liked the book. I suppose they were expecting an in-depth chat about the genre, which I wasn’t familiar with or even remotely interested in. I found it exasperating having the guest contest the premise of nearly every question I asked, when I had long felt that the program was to showcase the author and their book, especially since I was willing to give the time and space to talk about the book.
I don’t think I’ve had revealing interviews like say Mike Wallace or Barbara Walters would have had, where the guest reveals for the first time they committed a murder, or they did have sex with that person. As I interview authors, most of the revealing has been done about their books. I would never be prurient and ask something lascivious of a guest. Nor would I ask someone how much they weighed, like Jack Webster once asked Mila Mulroney.
What’s revealed in my interviews, I hope, is the writer and their process. It’s a much disciplined craft, and I do like asking writers about how they work. I also like asking people about how they’re perceived by others. Most people don’t give a damn about what other people think about them, but it’s surprising that a lot of people will take the bait, if you will, and wonder aloud about their critics, their reviews, why they’re liked even. I also want to reveal something different about the guest. As I’ve said, most of the people I talk to, who are in the midst of a book tour promoting their book, will have done interviews before talking to me, so it’s always good to ask something that they haven’t been asked before. I once asked a guest which television studio green room had the best snacks.
9. Who are some of the funniest B.C. writers you’ve talked to?
I always have a lot of laughs talking to Adrian Raeside. Charles Demers is also witty.
10. What is the most embarrassing thing a B.C. writer told you?
I can’t think of anything embarrassing that a guest has told me.
11. Ever had a writer say, ‘this is off the record’? And did you feel you had to honour that even though they agreed to the interview?
I’ve never had something happen like that during an interview. A good rule that most people have is they never agree to an interview with conditions. For example, a guest (or usually some handler) will ask that certain questions ought not to be asked. If presented with those conditions, I would not book the interview. I think all questions ought to be permitted, and the guest, if they choose, ought to decline to answer the question themselves. Usually, that’ll suffice, and the interviewer will move on. I have had instances when I’d get an ‘I’d rather not say,’ or ‘that wasn’t in the book,’ and ‘I’m not authorized to say anything on that.’ Again, I’m not a Rafe Mair or Tim Russert holding public officials’ feet to the fire, and these are generally conversations, at best congenial and pleasant ones. It’s funny though, when I have had certain preclusions sought, when the interview commences, it’s the guest who’ll break their own rule and talk about what they previously agreed that they wouldn’t touch upon.
12. What are some of the most important life lessons you learned from listening to B.C. writers?
That everyone has a story. And that one can ask whatever questions they want to, whether they get an answer is another thing. The skill therefore is to ask it as best you can so as to elicit an answer.
13. Who was your most significant ‘catch’ for an interview?
There have been too many to mention.
14. Who was the most surprising B.C. writer to agree to an interview?
I’m not surprised per se when someone agrees to an interview. I’m surprised at how many great guests I’ve had over the years. That’s been fun.
15. If you could raise the dead, which deceased B.C. writer would you most like to interview?
I can’t really think of anyone dead that I’d want to talk to, though the initial question would be something like, what the hell are you doing here?
16. Who are on your list as must-have B.C. interviews for future podcasts?
There isn’t anyone in particular, though I have the same list that any interviewer has written in one’s mind: a President of the United States, a sitting Premier and/Prime Minster, and the Pope.
17. Who is the B.C. writer you would most like to interview?
I’d love to have Stephen Quinn on the program. He’s an exceptional interviewer, and a pretty good writer too. I’ve never interviewed Jack Hodgins, who I hear is a really fun guy. I had the idea of interviewing Silas White once, because I found I kept asking his writers what he was like as an editor. I’d really like to talk to Stan Douglas. I’ve also never talked to Stan Persky, who I think would be fun to talk to. Then there are a number of guests who I really liked talking to, that’d be fun talking to again: Roy Henry Vickers, Susan Musgrave, Patrick Lane, and so many others come to think of it.
18. Who has turned you down?
I used to keep a list of people who I’d make requests to and who wouldn’t even reply. But I stopped keeping that list about half way through the life of the program, because I found there were enough people to talk to anyway. Two egregious examples though are Fanny Kiefer and Rob Feenie. Kiefer once replied to my emailed request, and said she would talk to me after returning from a vacation. I wrote back after, and never heard back. Repeated requests were ignored. Rob Feenie has been invited to appear many times, but his representatives have always declined citing a busy schedule or some jive like that.
I have found in the ten years I’ve spent doing this, the more famous, or successful, the person, the easier they are to talk with. I’ve had a number of Pulitzer, Giller, and Booker winners on, as well as celebrities, and they’re delightful and less of a hassle than some of the mid-level, self-published sort of guests I’ve talked to over the years.
And funnily enough, some international personalities have been easier to book than some local people. It was much easier booking Senator Orrin Hatch, CNN’s Jake Tapper, and the New York Times’s Brian Stelter for the program than some writers and broadcasters from British Columbia.
19. When BC BookLook edited your long interview with Susan Musgrave and ran the text, what were your responses when you read the edited version? Did you wonder how different it was from the verbal, verbatim transcript?
I was surprised the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ weren’t included. And I was surprised at how well it read. I really enjoyed that interview, and thought that her wonderful personality came through. That was such a fun interview. She’s an example of a good guest, who is willing to be asked anything and shares so much.
20. If someone offered you a full-time job doing interviews for the radio, would you quit your day-job and take it?
If it afforded the luxury, as I have now, of talking to guests that I want to, and not being forced to talk to certain guests, I would seriously consider it.