Recently, when I interviewed Australian media icon Ita Buttrose, for a story in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, I tacked on a few questions at the end just for you. (If you want to read that story, here you go.)
Thanks to Ita for generously giving her advice on overcoming writer’s block, some great interviewing tips and a reminder about what makes an interviewer stand out from the crowd.
Sue: What do you do when you get writer’s block? What’s your solution?
Ita: Yes. I’ve had it once or twice. I always think you need to stop and go walking. That’s a good way to clear my brain. If I’m trying to work out characters in a book I might go for a long walk near the ocean. You need to find something that allows your brain to wind down. Suddenly, the brain being the brain, it starts to put a thought in your head and you think, “Yes, that’s the way I should be doing it!” Stepping back and letting it go, and taking yourself out of your environment, really helps.
Sue: What’s the best tip someone ever gave you that’s helped your writing?
Ita: Make sure you get the facts right. That was drummed into me as a reporter, and also by my father – he was an editor as well. And get your grammar right. If you don’t understand grammar go and take some lessons. I don’t like seeing mangled apostrophes.
Sue: What advice would you give someone learning how to interview? New writers get a bit stuck here.
Ita: There are two things. You must do your research thoroughly. Do your research. You must know the person you are going to interview as well as you possibly can. You should never turn up to an interview not having read up on the person you’re going to interview. The person always knows…Believe me, I know when people come to interview me if they have done their homework [or not]. I know from the questions they ask.
You [the interviewer] must think about: “What do I want to find out that perhaps nobody knows? What else can I ask this person?” There are probably some questions you will always ask, but the skill is finding out something about the person nobody else has ever been able to find out before. That comes from doing really thorough research. Having real knowledge about that person means that person then relaxes in your company. That’s the key to it all.
When a person is relaxed in your company, they start to respond to you in a more relaxed manner. That’s when, often, something slips out. And you think “Oh, that’s a little gem,” and you ask a few more questions around that. You usually find something out perhaps nobody else has found out.
A lot of interviewers think you must be aggressive. I don’t think that’s the best way to get a really good story out of a person. I think you can do it in a more relaxed, friendly frame of mind and you’ll find things out.
Sue: Any last advice for people who want to break into the field of media?
Ita: Yes. They can read newspapers – either online or by traditional means. I’m often struck by how uninformed some young writers are. You need to know what’s going on in the world, and you don’t learn that on twitter.
There you go – especially for you guys, words of wisdom from one of Australia’s media success stories. Now, go forth and research! (And um, share it on Twitter? Ha ha. Don’t tell Ita.)