How to Handle the ‘Artist Interview’

…when you’re not used to or comfortable talking about yourself in excessive detail and don’t really enjoy it when others do, either.

Let me begin by saying that I really don’t like overly positive advice that’s difficult, costly or time consuming to act on. Too often I read articles on the “Best Ways to Increase Blog Comments” or “How to Build Your Social Network” that include subjective advice like “create great, meaningful content”. Well of course. Despite generating few comments (myself included), we all continue to use these tools because we believe our content to be relevant, if to no one else but ourselves.

So last week, when it came time for me to do an interview with a journalist, I sought out advice from the internet on how to best prepare. Lots of articles provided me with three tips and then suggested I hire it’s author. Many were targeted for men and the whole process felt so uncomfortable that I actually felt like I had nothing to say about myself or my work. I realized at that point that I was so beaten down by gender norms that it was now affecting my small semblance of a career. (It’s always easier to recognize this pattern in others and never in yourself.) I hate talking about my achievements or anything I’ve accomplished because I’ve been taught not to boast or be overly confident…but that slowly trickled into no confidence.

Frustrated, I turned to my most sarcastic and knowledgeable journalist friend, Alyson Sheppard, who tells it like it is. She has that mix of cynicism and skepticism (because why choose?) that’s so refreshing and much needed in the world. Alyson gave me great advice, didn’t ask me to hire her (yet…) and in a role-reversal, I decided to interview her about getting interviewed. Below is how best to prepare for self-promotion a magazine interview.

First of all, who are you? Hi! I’m the lovely Alyson Sheppard and I’m a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. My work with artists has appeared in publications including National Geographic Adventure, The Boston Globe, Popular Mechanics magazine and McSweeney’s and I write about artists for CITY magazine.

How do you prepare to interview an artist or anyone else who isn’t in Public Relations? I read everything I can find about her or him and investigate the artist’s website. I am looking to get a background on that person and figure out what the artist has already been asked, so I don’t repeat it in my interview. Then I come up with questions about what the artist does and why. How does this artist contribute to our culture at large?

[Note to self: fix website]

What kind of information will help make your article better? Besides the basic information about what you do and why you do it, writers look for surprising details and colorful quotes. If you are the kind of person who is confident, comfortable and improvisational, supplying these should be easy for you. But if you aren’t (like me!), stay alert. Most journalists aren’t out to make you look bad, but be aware that if you are meeting the writer in person, expect the article to include what you were wearing, what you ate or drank, your body language, your mood, etc. Activist M.I.A. looked comically out-of-touch in her famous New York Times article because she was talking to her interviewer about being a radical activist while eating truffle fries & drinking white wine. (M.I.A. later claimed the writer encouraged her to eat them.)

[M.I.A later tweeted the author’s cell phone number in retaliation for her portrayal in the article. Lynn Hirschberg said she wasn’t surprised about her interviewee’s response and that she wasn’t changing her number. “The messages have mostly been from people trying to hook up with M.I.A….if she wants to get together with John at Bard next week, I have his number.”]

Isn’t it easier if we just email you some well thought out and eloquent quotes we spent three nights generating?
This depends on the interviewer, but usually no. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t generate those quotes ahead of time, memorize them and say them during the interview. Come up with a list of points you want to get across, jot down some quotes you want to say and have those in front of you. Unless you are face-to-face, the writer will not know the difference. If you are meeting in person, there aren’t any rules that say you can’t have your notes.

Is it appropriate to ask to see the questions before hand? That way I can make my list. Reviewing questions beforehand is usually only granted to officials, who oftentimes will refuse an interview altogether if they do not get to do this. (That doesn’t mean a journalist won’t sneak in questions the official didn’t prepare for.) But if you do your research, you can usually guess what the journalist will ask.

How can artists best prepare to be interviewed by journalists or anyone who asks questions? Stay on top of what has been written about you in the past and where you fit into today’s political and art landscapes. Read or watch videos of straight Q&As with other artists that have already been published and expect the format of your interview to be something along those lines. This interview of Swoon is a good example – she’s a street graffiti artist who gives lots of character-revealing anecdotes, which, in the end, are what people actually want to read about.


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