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Tip #6 – Try not to laugh…

19 May

Interviewing someone is a tricky business. By tricky I mean downright difficult. Particularly if that person is 17,000kms away, and on the other end of a dodgy mobile connection, with a Boston accent. And a musician’s temperament.

The ancient art of the interview should be old hat for this girl. Back when I was meant to be into strawberry-scented ‘My little ponies’ and rainbow-embossed Care Bears, I was, instead, wielding one end of a skipping rope handle and interrogating anyone who’d yield; moonlighting as Jennifer Keyte and publishing the articles in our family newsletter ‘Boundy Union Monthly’ (created by me, read mostly by me). 12 years later, my first real job was interviewing patients with severe psychosis in a hospital ward in Liverpool, and I spent a large chunk of my twenties interviewing everyone from doctors to small children and their MGB (Main Grocery Buying) mothers, often in a group setting, attempting to penetrate the minds of consumers. I’ve interviewed scientists on live radio and drug addicts connected to EEG machines. But that’s all child’s play compared to the telephone interview with someone vaguely famous or talented. It turns out that in these conditions I turn into a flirty, breathless mess with absolutely no regard for the formal protocol of the time-honoured interview modus operandi.

Groupie magazine was the first publication I pitched to as part of this experiment, the first to publish an article of mine, and has been a regular source of writing jobs since – unpaid alas, but the contra in free gigs and festivals has more than sort of made up for it. An unexpected-but-not-altogether-unpleasant-by-product of having a semi-regular gig is the chance to write about stuff you’d never think to pitch, and the opportunity to talk to people you’d never otherwise meet.

For instance, until a few months ago, I thought Aussie Hip Hop was merely a blight on our musical horizon, an offensive assault on the senses that had me reaching for the mute button every time on JJJ. But after interviewing the lovely young, philanthropic, and incredibly charming Pez, I was converted, to the tune of iTunes and a credit card payment. I’d never heard of young soulster Eli “Paperboy” Reed until the chance to interview him from his couch in New York (sans pants) nor spunky 60s all-girl outfit ‘The Like’ and both are now on high rotation. But upon listening to the recordings of each interview to write up the story, a few things became embarrassingly clear. Aside from a couple of mortifying gaffs* I realised most of the interview was me giggling and wanting to converse and share my own anecdotes as though it was a chat with a old mate, rather than an interview with a clear goal of a good story at the end.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learnt over the past few months when conducting a phone interview, which I’m slowly learning to put into practice:

  • Listen. Listen until they stop talking and then listen a bit more. Don’t be afraid of pauses and feel the need to fill them with reassurances (“yes, I know the feeling!) and more questions… this is often when they’ll keep talking and fill the space with the juicy stuff. Because this medium lacks the body-language cues of the face-to-face interview, this is really the only way you know the interviewee is finished.
  • Probe. If the interview goes off track or you hear something interesting, explore it. This can often provide the colour for a story.
  • Challenge, especially if something contradicts a point you’ve read or heard about them. New angles and controversy are what differentiates your story from the press release everyone got
  • Recap and clarify, particularly on an interesting point. A few times I felt silly asking what they meant (assuming I’d look like a bit of a twat) but missed out on a really interesting point that I couldn’t use in the article for lack of context
  • Have a list of some interesting questions (beyond the usual stuff) at your disposal – a) because sometimes they can be fairly monosyllabic and run out of material and b) it usually makes a more interesting story
  • Don’t try to befriend them, revere them or laugh at all their jokes. You’ve both got a job to do, and if nothing else, there’s nothing more torturous than having to hear your own sycophantic cackle played back when transcribing notes.

Which is a timely segue to the most important point – record it! Put the phone on speaker and record it on your iPhone Voice Memo, or computer if you’re using your mobile (you can use Garage Band on a Mac or Sound recorder on a PC, or download free software such as audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) for this very purpose). Attempting to reread your hieroglyphics of notes or get a quote right from a few scribbles is both impossible and potentially dangerous (did someone say litigation?) and not having to take notes frees you up to be present in the conversation.

Looking forward to putting these into practice next interview (unless of course the Editor reads this and sacks me on the basis I’m not quite the music aficionado I once claimed).

* such as asking the lead singer of ‘The Like’ if she was going to put her hand in the ‘last shadow puppets’ herself in a dream collaboration, without realising they were actually a prominent HUMAN band, led by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, and not, in fact, puppets at all.

Day #3: You never quite know who you know

22 Jul

Funny things can happen when you put something out into the universe.  This time last week the closest I had come to being a published writer was brushing up against the suede-patched jacket of Clive Hamilton at the Sydney Writers Festival. Since then, after moronically declaring to the world my innermost dreams and desires, something strange has taken place. People are milling around to help. And I have my first story! Rhonda Whatserface would be proud.

The week of my community working its magic began with two shout outs on other blogs, one from the very fetching and cunning linguist, the mild cat herself. And the other from Pam Wilson, on her very useful resource for aspiring writers ‘WriteSmart’, and who gave me the confidence to get this off the ground (although starting to regret not heeding her advice about creating a slightly more realistic pitching goal. Say, ten, instead of one hundred). Thanks ladies!

Then, lots of pitch fever subscriptions, support, ideas and feedback from friends, some very helpful and some not so helpful (e.g living as a bag lady for a week, thanks Laura). A link to a writing job for an ad agency, although the logo itself put me off lunch. A link to calls for submissions for articles for the Body Image magazine, Consume (a little cruelly named I thought, but each to their own). An offer of introduction to some big wigs at in the Travel Writing world (Woot woot!). And then, a small miracle. An email from a multi-talented songbird called Maeve who I met at a mate’s wedding in March. Between me being the Groom’s Best Woman and her official serenading duties, I didn’t have time to find out she was an editor. But she read Pitch Fever this week and dropped me a line yesterday looking for writers to contribute to ‘Made you Look’, the annual publication for the government campaign ‘Don’t DIS my ABILITY’.

Its a refreshing approach to a subject matter which is often steeped in condescending clichés such as ’inspirational’ or ‘brave’. This little rag is right up my alley – fresh, funny, fabulously designed and making a real difference for people with a disability. Maeve mentioned she had 3 stories ready to go, with case studies lined up, they just needed to be interviewed, researched and written. Copy deadlines are a mere 3 weeks away, so I best get cracking. I promise no puns this time.

Its small, and I’m not sure if this technically counts as a pitch, as the story ideas have been given to me, but I’m running with it, as my first commissioned (and paid!) collection of words on paper. Protests can be directed to stopbeing@bloodypedant.org

So! It seems all this time I’ve spent socialising and building up an amazing network of mates over the years has been useful afterall (I told you, Dad). I wonder if all that wine guzzled in the name of networking is retrospectively tax-deductible?

Being afraid. Being very afraid. And doing it anyway…

10 Jul

You know those annoyingly chipper people who bandy about fear-conquering philosophy like it’s going out of fashion? Like being afraid, and doing it anyway? The only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Embrace failure, and all that jazz? Yup, that’s me. Guilty. Pop it on a fridge magnet and I’ll buy it. And I’ve always prided myself on walking the talk, so to speak. Skydiving, starting a radio show, laser hair removal. Solo travel, scuba diving, online dating, eating grilled scorpions on a stick. Trapeze classes last year to overcome a fear of heights (after a minor tantrum and bar throw at 30 feet I got there in the end). Nuding up with 5000 others on the Opera House steps in March to cure my gymnophobia (adequately named, as I was so birthday suit-shy I avoided the gym altogether).

But my greatest fear has nothing to do with hair or heights or a shrivelled phallus on a cold Sydney morning. It’s waking up at 65 and realising I’ve spent a lifetime in a job that doesn’t press my hot buttons – that is: fun, meaningful, makes a difference, or uses my strengths. Spending the majority of my waking hours doing something my heart’s just not in. Sunday night dread and Monday morning apathy. Not being true to myself and following the one path I’ve dreamed about since I was old enough to hold a Ten Pen: that is, becoming a writer. A dream forged under blankets and by torchlight as a kid, transported off to magical worlds through the power of words. I made a little pact with myself a while ago that this would be achieved before the tender age of 30, which as of Monday 19th July is exactly 100 short days away.

And thus, Fever Pitch. The idea? To pitch like a madwoman, 100 story ideas to a whole host of publications over the course of 100 days, and see what comes of it. And why, I hear you ask? Are you some kind of modern masochist? At times. Stark raving mad? Quite possibly. Especially when you consider this will be on top of a full time marketing job. And that the sum of my illustrious published writing career thus far has been:

  • One 25 word anecdote about my 3 year old cousin in the 1992 edition of Readers Digest
  • Some co-written academic papers on affect and ecstasy in the Schizophrenia journal and an honours thesis that I can no longer understand the title of
  • A family rag I produced in 1987 (The Boundy Union Monthly. Oh what joy there was to be found in acronyms before we discovered booze).

But I figure with this sheer volume of feverish pitching, my usual internal dialogue (you know the one – too old, no experience, too competitive out there…) barely has time to clear its proverbial throat before the next pitch is due. Rejection anxiety, performance angst, confidence wavers, attachment apprehension, ability unease –  all will be doing a bloody good job if they can be heard over the sheer frenzy and furious tapping of keyboard letters.

In this blog, I’ll capture the ideas and where they come from, the pitches and how they go, and the rollercoaster of emotion that comes with the process. And hopefully, just maybe… a commissioned article.

Let the fever begin…..!

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