Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘interviews

Gear 2.0

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Mixer and Inline Patch Setup

I’ve written about gear and gear related frustrations before here, here, here, and here.  I’ve been through three mixers, two phone patches, a half dozen visits by the phone company and a number of wiring configurations on the way to where I finally am today.  That place is interviewing happy land.  Through two years of trial and error, I’ve reached a point where the telephone interviews I conduct (1) have no line noise, (2) can be heard by the person I’m talking to, (3) have audio levels between us that are balanced and (4) uses a setup configuration that makes sense.  If you’re doing telephone interviews, each of these is important but radically different from the other.  I’ve found lots of stuff online that was, to some extent, helpful.  So I want to give some advice and some help back.

(1) No line noise means just that.  I think when most people use the phone, they only notice line noise like scratching or hum when its obvious.  But when you’re doing interviews and there are moments when the guest is responding to a question, there can be long seconds of silence.  That is where you’ll hear even the quietest hum and that is the sign of a substandard setup.  Hum can be caused by transformers too close to gear inside the house.  But make sure you have the phone company check the wiring and the line to make sure it isn’t them.  A shorted wire can cause it.  Maybe your old 4-strand wiring needs to be replaced with Cat-5 or higher wiring.  Also some lines are just noisy and you can ask the phone company to install on your line an industrial version of the little transformer that is at the end of many older USB cables.

(2) Being heard by the other person has a lot to do with how well the telephone patch separates your voice from who you’re talking to.  I’m no expert at this, but I’ve learned that before a mixer can do you any good, meaning before you can put your voice on one channel and the caller’s voice on another, the phone patch has to split them.  It does this with something called a digital hybrid circuit.  And once the call gets to your mixer, the mixer has to employ something called mix minus, meaning your own voice doesn’t get fed back to the line.  If it does, it gets cancelled and that can contribute to the third problem, equal audio levels.

(3) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an interviewee tell me they can’t hear me very well.  I sound like I’m far away.  I sound like I’m in a box.  This is because digital hybrids also differ in how loud each side of the call (caller v called) is.  Most have a 20db difference between the two, meaning the caller is going to be louder than you going into the mixer.  And even if the hybrid has split the call and the mixer has each side on a different channel, the mixer can’t compensate for the difference.  You have to have a hybrid that lets you control levels on both sides of the call so you can adjust them manually.  For reference, an increase of 3db means the audio just doubled in intensity.  So imagine how quiet a reduction of 20db can be.

(4) The mixer I started with was tiny.  It didn’t have a lot of the extra jacks I needed to give me the flexibility to control aspects of the call.  The next mixer had more jacks, but honestly, I didn’t know how to use them.  And let me tell you, looking for help either online or in gear stores was futile experience.  Audio stores like, for instance, Guitar Center, know mixers for recording bands.  They know nothing about configurations for broadcast, podcast or telephone interviews.  So when I showed them a block diagram I drew as a way to try to understand why my interviews were so poor, they couldn’t help.  After months and months of switchiing out gear and switching around cables, I finally stumbled upon a setup that works perfectly.  And that also means I don’t have three or four sliders up or a handful of pots turned in crazy ways.  I took a picture of the setup so I can never screw it up.

Now, for the help. If you’re doing telephone interviews for broadcast or podcast, I’ve discovered there are lots of ways to record phone calls.  The easiest seems to be with Google Voice.  Then, there are a number of digital plug ins you can use with mobile devices.  Me, I think the Plain Old Telephone System is going to be around for a little while longer, and since I’m not that enamoured with VOIP, I’m sticking with analog.  So, if you are too, here’s what I’m using:

– JK Audio Telephone Inline Patch (Less expensive than the Broadcast Host and does almost everything BH does for $200 less. Has 40db rather than 20db separation.  Apparently, more is better).
– PROFX8 Mixer with USB
– Shure SM7B Microphone

But the most valuable thing you need is someone to tell you if you setup works before you’re on the line with an important interviewee who can’t hear you.  That means you need a caller to call.  But I can tell you people get annoyed quick if you call them over and over and over, which is what you need to do the test your gear and check your setup.  So, I suggest you use something called “Tell Me” (408-752-8052).  Tell Me is a voice activated service that can deliver sports, weather, news and much more over the phone.  It works by voice command.  And because it works by voice command, that means it knows what a voice at proper volume should sound like.  So you can call it to check your system.  Talk through your microphone, through your mixer, through your phone patch, to Tell Me.  If something is wrong, you’ll figure it out quickly.  It’s not a free service, but its per-minute rate is not overly expensive.

And even though, as I said earlier, there isn’t much online that can help (even many of the YouTube videos weren’t specific enough), this instruction sheet from BSW was helpful –

I’m glad to say I think this is my last post about gear problems for awhile.  Yaaaaay!

Pulling Teeth

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This is a link to a great autopsy of a rough interview –  The interviewer is Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star Ledger.  He is trying to talk with A-list actor Mila Kunis.  She was doing press interviews for her upcoming film, “The Third Person”.  Witty’s review of his talk w/Ms. Kunis is an in-the-trenches up close look at how interviews can go wrong and how you don’t always know why.

The main thing to remember when doing an interview is you don’t know the frame of mind of your interviewee.  You might assume that because you are in a good mood and have done good interviews in the past that your interviewee will be in a good mood and trust that you know what you are doing.  It is the most reasonable kind of magical thinking but it is based on nothing.

The truth is that any interviewee can have a lot on their mind. Besides personal issues though, famous interviewees can add annoyance with studios and agents who make them to do interviews to interviewers who may (as far as the interviewee is concerned) inadvertently ask them the same pedantic questions as the interviewer before.

Whitty is triaging the interview while he is conducting it and Ms. Kunis seems to be shooting down every approach he tries to get her to open up.  He wonders if his opening question triggered her ire over a fresh Marie Claire interview that may have gotten a little too personal.  It only gets bumpier from there.

He wonders if he is being punked (Kunis is engaged to Ashton Kutcher) and he tries to triangulate where she is most comfortable to do the most talking.  He asks her about the movie roles she’s taken and is she trying to branch out from previous ones.  Not especially.  Is she willing to talk about her family’s emigration from Russia?  She considers that question pat.  His question about whether she has any family in the Ukraine, in light of all of the current political turmoil there, gets Whitty a flat “no”.  And Ms. Kunis anticipates his next question, which is whether or not she identifies with what is happening there.  She does not.

Whitty is trying all of the tricks that, in tough interviews, are intended to get an interviewee talking about themselves on an emotional level.  But it’s not working.  He asks Kunis has she always wanted to act and she plays down her own attraction to acting at an early age.  So connecting her childhood ambitions to her adult career is out.  He knows she has been interested in creating her own projects, but she says that although her company is looking at scripts featuring strong, smart women, she herself isn’t interested in doing any directing.

By this point, Whitty has fought his way through some rough interpersonal dynamics to get to where Kunis is starting to warm up.  But unfortunately, his time with her is about done.  When he apologizes for upsetting her with not so great questions, she says that it was in fact, “a good interview”.  And to be fair, it may have been.  Sometimes, we just want to vent.  And if Ms. Kunis beat up on Mr. Whitty for her own reasons and he didn’t give up or roll over, she may have considered him worthy of her time, thus grading him high for his willingness to take punishment.

Or maybe, as Whitty says, she’s just a “truly wonderful actress”.

You can tell the sign of a real pro when they question themselves first rather than blame the interviewee for a rough conversation.  He says, “And to be fair, it could all be me”.  He knows sometimes, interviews are just hard and the interviewer isn’t always as good as they want to be.  But that’s probably why he’ll keep doing great ones like this one no matter how terrible they seem on the surface.

Because in the end, we do learn something important about Ms. Kunis.  We learn that she can be fussy and impatient and short tempered.  In other words, human just like the rest of us.

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June 28, 2014 at 14:07

Yes or No

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When citizens want to ask their legislator a question, the best way is to visit. If you can, just show up with your question in hand.  The face to face dynamics between legislator and citizen (or even legislative aide and citizen) leaves a lasting impression that carries all the way to the ballot box.  Because that old saw, “What people do and what they say matters a lot less than how they made you feel” is absolutely true and doesn’t lie. Of course you want a substantive and true answer, but you want sincerity too.

The next best way is to call.  It’s fast and it’s direct.  It can be intimidating because the bureaucracy of a government official and their staff can feel off putting.  But voice to voice really is the next best way to hear how you’re regarded.  We all know what being dismissed over the phone sounds like, and if you can call your representative and you don’t hang up with that feeling, that’s a great thing.

The next best way is email.  While there is no direct, person to person contact, you do have a record which is the advantage of a letter combined with the immediacy of a phone call.  Again, the tenor of the reply quickly shows how dedicated the office of your congressman or congresswoman is to constituent services.

The last best way is by letter.  There is no direct, person to person contact and there is no immediacy.  But a letter has a cachet’ that none of the other forms have.  Offices know that when someone sits down and takes the time to write a letter, this is probably someone who is not going to be easily placated by a quick answer.  This type of person has patience.  They do their homework and they can be a legislator’s worst nightmare if they don’t get a personal and comprehensive answer.

So what does this have to do with a simple yes or no?

The more direct the interaction, the fewer opportunities for others to erect barriers between you and the answer you’re seeking.

Bill Cosby has a great routine where, one of his kids breaks a lamp and he asks, “Who did it?” The kid responds “I don’t know”.  But since that kid was the only kid in the room, as Cosby says, “You know who did it”.  Many times, when people call their legislator looking for answers to questions, the best kind of question to ask is one where a simple yes or no is really the only reasonable response.  Parents and the partnered know the logic of this.  When confronting a loved one, all you want to know is what is the answer, yes or no.  And you know, if you get a fifteen minute answer to a two second question, there is probably a lie in there somewhere.

Many times, the responder will argue that the answer needs context.  That they need to make sure you understand the circumstances around what made them make the decision they made.  They sometimes say an issue is too complicated to give a yes or no answer.  But if your kid breaks a lamp, or you find a condom missing from the box of condoms in your partner’s nighttable, you don’t need an explanation of the financial fortunes of Pottery Barn or how the process of vulcanization works.  A simple yes or no will do.

So when a question pops into your mind, dear citizen, do not let yourself be swayed by delays or obfsucation.  As with interviews, make clear what you want to know before you make contact.  Listen to the answer you get and ask yourself, does that answer the question?  If not, come around again and this time, be prepared to strafe.


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This is a quickie.

I have been interviewing candidates since December.  I’ve talked to at least 40 passionate people running for judgeships, the legislature, govenor and the US Congress.

My strategy was ask them similar questions, according to their category, so that people comparing candidates in that category could compare answers – apples to apples.  Many times in past political races, candidate answers have sounded to me like trying to compare cell phone plans.  So by asking all judges-to-be, all legislators-to-be, all governors-to-be and all US Congress-to-be candidates the same types of questions, it would be much easier for listeners to decide who has the best answers.  And as issues have changed or been resolved, I adjusted the questions.  For example, questions about the Columbia River Crossing disappeared when the Oregon legislature FINALLY killed the proposal.

I did my last interview of those candidates that showed interest and initiative to follow up with me about two weeks ago.  But because of a last minute rush to speak to candidates live over three nights, and concurrently, a deadline to get reporters to and from Kansas City in time for a long form piece due during the early days of KBOO’s fund drive, I haven’t been able to edit the remaining interviews fast enough. So, I am trying to get the rest of the interviews up before the primary on May 20th so those candidates too get heard on my Between Us podcast.

This has been a whirlwind, and I will be happy if I don’t see any more waveforms for a little while so I can recover from drowning in them over the last few months.  I’m not burned out, but I am a little singed.

I love this stuff, and I can only hope it has made a teeny bit of difference.

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May 17, 2014 at 00:03


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This is a quickie.

First, go here –

I’ve interviewed Jo Rae Perkins.  And I have been working to set up interviews with Mr. Conger.  Although I contacted all of the candidates for the race mentioned in this news story, I only followed up with those that showed any interest.

Though I’m not sure I would poke a candidate about the Easter Bunny because I was incredulous about their views over climate change, I understand when a reporter faces an interviewee that can be, to some degree, unpalatable.  You can find some of those posts here and here.

I always wonder how personal, familiar, jocular or whatever to get with interviewees.  I don’t know these people.  And knowing what I know about human ego in general and my own ego in particular, I’ve decided that when left w/the choice to say something snarky or keep my mouth shut, I’ll keep my mouth shut.  It doesn’t mean that some people, sometimes, don’t give me plenty of runway to say something absolutely and deliciously shitty.  But, what does it get me?  I mean, I may conclude that a candidate is a jerk.  But if I deny the audience the chance to decide that for themselves through my work, I don’t think I’ve served them.

Only the people in that room know how Mr. Callahan responded.  There is one way to say he felt Ms. Perkins wasn’t getting her respect and to demand his own.  And there is another way.  Just like there is one way to say you don’t agree with a candidate’s position, and there is another. And as I find me moving through another very large journalism related project, I am reminded of how important it is to treat people cordially.  I need stuff.  I have questions.  And if I act like an ass, my requests find their way to the bottom of the stack.

What I’m saying is, journalists are people too.

And BTW, Ms. Perkins stayed for the interview.  It seems she wasn’t nearly as bothered by the “blah, blah, blah” as Mr. Callahan was.

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May 3, 2014 at 05:04

Annoying Interviewer Traits

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I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile because I listen to a lot of interviews and the thing about becoming familiar with a particular interviewer is that you become familiar with how they structure their conversations with their guests. You learn how they talk, their tics and mannerisms, the way they pose their questions.  And after awhile, you realize it gives credence to that old saw, “Familiarity breeds Contempt”.

And because I do a lot of interviews, I listen to a lot of interviewers.  It’s sort of a requirement of the guild of interviewers to keep up on the styles and techniques of others.  In particular, I listen to a lot of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Jian Ghomeshi, Bob Garfield, Ira Glass, Michelle Martin, Dick Gordon, Melissa Block, Gwen Iffil, Bob Edwards, Jonathan Goldstein, Tavis Smiley, John Stewart, Brooke Gladstone, David Letterman.  And I listen to a lot of regional and local interviewers too.  But one interviewer in particular has some really annoying traits that I am having trouble dealing with.

This person says “um” or “you know” almost constantly.  He (and it is a he) asks the first part of his questions and then has this annoying way of slipping in an “I mean …” as a way of trying to rephrase the same question without making it sound unbearably long and drawn out.  But when he does ask questions, sometimes they’re long and drawn out anyway.  I sometimes hear him suck in his breath in preparation of his next question and I wonder if he is truly listening to the guest or just biding his time until he can line through the next question on his list.  And finally, he has this tendency to uptalk which is a kind of grating in a universe all its own.

I listen to this guy on a regular basis and I am full of respect and criticism.  I of course admire all he had done to find his guests, research them, schedule them, visit them, interview them, edit them and present them.  His guests seem happy.  His audience seems appreciative.  But I hear these traits of his and I just want to pull my hair out.

I know he is getting better, slowly.  I can hear him trying to pace himself so he doesn’t slur words.  He doesn’t seem to use “um” so much.  He holds his breath for a beat after the guest stops talks so he doesn’t sound like he’s rushing through his questions.

Little by little, he’s improving.  I’m guessing knows he’s got a lot of work to do to be anywhere near as good as any of the people I mentioned above.  But my standards as a listener are high.  The pros have set the bar and this guy, although I like him, doesn’t get a pass for his mistakes.  At best, he gets my patience while I look over his shoulder, watching and waiting for him to improve; to be as good as he wants to be.

I have faith in him, though.  He’ll get there.

Political Interviews

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I am engaged in another project to bring government to the people. I am inviting all candidates for office in Oregon for 2014 to talk to me about their candidacy and their goals if they are elected or reelected.  As of this writing, I’ve talked with three and 10 or so more have shown interest.  The interviews will be either about :30 or :60 minutes long depending mostly on how long we talk.  All interviews will be posted at the KBOO FM ( website under my podcast, “Between Us”, which is a collection of interviews I’ve done with celebrities and regular people.  They will also be posted at my interview website, Conversus (  In both places, visitors will also be able to read and print a transcript I created of the interview. 

Getting Interviewed

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I used to wonder why I rarely heard interviewers getting interviewed.  But since focusing on the interviewing aspect of my skillset, journalism and reportage, I realize the answers are pretty simple.  One, you have the control.  The people you talk to are accountable to you.  And, after they’re finished talking, you have their reputation in your hands when it’s time to edit them for public consumption.  That kind of trust depends on the interviewer’s reputation.  People won’t come to you if they think you don’t know what you’re doing, or if you’re doing it for vindictive or nefarious purposes.  So an interviewer who is used to being the only one doing the listening isn’t always sure if others will be as professional and meticulous.  It might not be fair, but it comes down to “nobody will do it as good as me” thinking.  So interviewers are naturally hesitant to become interviewees.

The other thing has to do with how personal will the interviewer let themselves be.  Interviewers know how to get to the personal parts of the people they’re talking to.  There really is technique to it.  In “The Republic”, Socrates famously said that nobody knows better how to commit a specific type of crime than someone who has a specific type of skill.  Hence, nobody knows how to kill better than a doctor, to rob better than a policeman, etc.  And, although conversationalism isn’t a crime, drawing people out requires an innate understanding of people, and actively applying that understanding in a Dale Carnagie kind of way.

So turning that tool on the toolmaker can cause all kinds of walls to go up and filters to snap in place.  But then, the interviewer, of all people, should simultaneously understand how important disclosure, humanity and sincerity should be when talking to someone who is talking to you for the sake of an unseen audience.  They should, anyway.

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June 23, 2013 at 03:17

Interview School in a Box

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That’s what a friend recently called this blog. She wants to start doing interviews and knew I was blogging about interviewing. So she visited and read a few posts, and hit me with that description the next time I saw her. I thought it was pretty clever.

When I listen to an interviewer interviewing, I think about all of the people they talk to, want to talk to, have talked to. I think about all of the subjects they have broached. And I wonder, are they expanded by those conversations? I used to think the same thing when I worked in news. A reporter, like an interviewer, talks to many people much more deeply about a much wider variety of subjects than other people. That, in part, is what gives them currency to the people who want to listen to them. They have something to say or tell that the average person doesn’t know but might want to know. And I have said before that an interviewer is merely a conduit from the person being interviewed to the person listening to the interview.

But talking about the person in the middle now, the interviewer, are they in any way changed by their conversation with Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Hillary Clinton or George Winston, or Dr. Jonas Salk? I mean, the interview is a kind of anomaly to the story arc we’ve all grown up with. You know that arc; a situation contains a protagonist, an antagonist, a series of crises, revelations, surmounts, rewards … in other words, The Hero’s Journey. We expect all of the people in the story to be changed, which is supposed to make us ask ourselves if we’ve changed somehow. An interviewer is only supposed to help the person telling the story tell how they’ve changed though. And the listener is supposed to consider how their story changed them. We only tend to think about how two of the three people in that dynamic have changed.  The interviewer is crucial and at the same time, invisible and disposable.

But when the microphones are off and the studio is dark, and the interviewer is thinking about being an interviewer, are they thinking about what it means to be a human in conversation with a Gandhi or a Dalai Lama or a Hillary Clinton or a George Winston or a Dr. Jonas Salk, and “My God, their stories have filled my head and made me a better person!” Are they telling themselves “I will think more about philosophy or the environment or politics or the judicial system or childhood development or famine or elder abuse because I just talked to a philosopher or an activist or a senator or a judge or a pediatrician or a nutritionist or geriatrician.” Or are they thinking more pedestrian stuff like, will interviewee will show up on time? Or how they can’t really think deeply about what the guest is saying because they’re thinking instead about how the facility has just changed how staff people can now book studio time, or an upcoming doctor’s appointment or relationship problems? Or maybe they’re simply thinking, “This isn’t where my head is right now.”

It is such a gift to be able to talk to such accomplished people who, under normal circumstances, one would never, ever have the chance to meet, let alone talk to. But I wonder if interviewers, like professional photographers, are kind of doomed to never get the chance to experience the people they are with because they are professionally driven instead to make sure they present them well to their audience. Seeing or hearing people through viewfinders or headphones is not experiencing those people.  But I wonder if that’s the trade off.

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June 13, 2013 at 01:23

Author Interviews

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Terry Gross and Stephen King

Several months ago, I decided I didn’t want to interview solely musicians. I wanted to also focus on other creative types like authors and comedians as well as scientists, policy makers and entrepreneurs. And it’s funny … sometimes, when you ask for something (and work toward it), you get it. In the last several months, I’ve talked with all of those, but I’ve especially noticed my shift recently.  In the last few days, I’ve done two interviews – one was with an author, and the other was with a comedian and humorist turned author. And I’ve realized something about interviewing authors. They want to read from their book. I talked w/Jonathan Schuppe, author of “A Chance to Win.” It’s a story of a man who was made wheelchair bound by a drive by shooting ten years earlier, and realized that he needed to be more than he was, so he started a baseball team for inner city New Jersey youth. It was Mr. Schuppe’s first book, and I knew how proud and excited he was to be talking about it. But only after we said goodbye did I realize it would’ve been great to have him read from it.

I didn’t make that same mistake during the next interview. Jonathan Goldstein is the host of a CBC program called, “Wiretap.” Wikipedia describes it as “a program which does not fit easily into the comedy category. The show has been described as “a weekly half-hour of conversation, storytelling and introspection, culled from equal parts real-world experience and the warp of Goldstein’s imagination.” And when talking to comedians and humorists, I always expect them to be “on.” But Mr. Goldstein was quite pleasant, cogent and enthused about his book, and in no way felt any need to play any role while we talked. Fortunately, I remembered to ask him to read from his book, and the selection dovetailed perfectly into a path we were following about aging and family.

Authors are, at the same time, proud and full of eqo, and wanting to feel like people care about what they have to say.  In those respects, they aren’t much different from the rest of us. But how they are different is they have done something incredibly difficult. Sitting alone, and sticking to the job of creating something, with only yourself as company can be both empowering and torturous. You lay all of your opinions of yourself bare while you see if you are actually worthy of them, since writing a book is only you. If you don’t follow through, all of the big talk you have for yourself is shown to be pretty worthless pretty quick.

The other thing about book interviews is the author has to kind of go through a song and dance to get people to pay attention to his or her Herculean effort. It’s how the industry is geared, and it’s kind of unavoidable, but it must get kind of grueling too. Most agents are just as concerned about how you will promote your book and what resources you will bring to the table to promote it as they are about how good the writing is or how compelling is the story you’re telling. The author, having just finished this massive task, now has to put on their seersucker suit and pork pie hat and start shaking hands.

I’ve talked about it before that media and authors are in this promotional dance. And I don’t envy them for it. Hell, at some point, I hope to be one of them. But every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded that no matter who you are, you have to do it.

And that brings me to an interview I recently heard between NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross and novelist Stephen King.  Those two are definitely at the top of their respective games – Terry Gross is the reigning Queen of the interview.  And Stephen King is everywhere, has been everywhere, and judging from his newest releases and TV adaptations, will be everywhere for the near future.  So when these two A-listers talk about what I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about, it shows that authors and interviewers are feeling it.  Here is an excerpt beginning from about 34:30 in their conversation.

“You know, the whole thing is a little bit like carny, isn’t it?”  King asked. “The whole book promotion deal, the whole movie promotion deal.  You do this thing, and it’s inside the tent.  So then you have to kind of come out and do a little cooche dance to get people to come inside.”

“I know you must feel that way,” Terry replied.  “From my point of view on the other side of the mic, it’s like, this is my chance to talk to you about things I love to talk with you about.  And I know the reason why you’re here is that you’ve got a book to promote.  But to me it’s like, what a wonderful opportunity to have this conversation.”

“I don’t mind,” King answered.  People generally go in a barber shop or in a diner and get a cup of coffee and start talking about these things.  And it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, see you later.  I’ve got a job to do.’  But this is your job and my job and I get to talk about these things.  It’s kind of cool.”

To hear this whole, great interview, follow this link –

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May 31, 2013 at 05:29