September 29, 2016

Student, Meet Author! (On Assigning Q&As)

I learned a lot, as a student, from reaching out to authors. While at UVA I worked on the staff of 3.7, a literary magazine that regularly interviewed artists and musicians; our big "get" had been Ray Bradbury. As a sci-fi / fantasy lit fan, I waited for two hours in line in order to interview Orson Scott Card upon the publication of EnchantmentI soon realized Card was a touch eccentric, after he referred to James Joyce as the "Pied Piper of 20th Century Literature." (Later in life, I realized he was worse than eccentric, he was bigoted.) He was also super excited, in a hush-hush way, about the potential casting of Ender in the movie version: the "unknown" talent of Jake Lloyd, who was about to debut in the role of a young Anakin Skywalker. Though the Q&A did not go where I expected it to, I learned from the experience. 

When I sat down with the poet Henry Taylor at Michael's on the corner in Charlottesville, our meandering interview--which touched on everything from clerihews and sonnets, to cancer, to his own mentorship by George Garrett--turned out to be a path that led me to American University for graduate school. I still have the tapes of that session. We ordered sandwiches and french fries and stayed in that booth for three hours; he insisted picking up the check.

Once at AU, I used an editorship at Folio to interview one of my teachers from UVA days, Gregory Orr. We had hoped to meet in person, but couldn't get the schedule to work. He had been ill--he was running a literal fever when he replied, he explained--after what had to have been a night of writing. As I opened my email and parsed through the dense, freeform blocks of texts, I saw the stirrings of what would become Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. Of all the people I've studied with, I probably refer to Greg's body of theory toward craft the most. In part, my loyalty was born of that experience of reading through his raw, unedited replies to my questions. 

By which I mean to say: The season of students emailing for Q&As is upon us. I love hearing from students who have been asked to read my poetry or nonfiction for a course. I'm happy to answer questions via email (or, depending on the context, a Skype session with the whole class). This is a big honor and has, on occasion, created long-lasting correspondences. 

  • Awesome thing, pt. 1: In this age of social media, and given the number of authors who also teach and therefore have public / academic email addresses, it is more possible than ever for students to directly interact with contemporary writers. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 2: Students get a lot out of it. Books go from being static, sometimes resistant texts to organic expressions of a personality at work. Hearing the "back stories" behind poems, in particular, can illuminate what previously intimidated. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 3: Writers love hearing that our work is being studied, and that reading our work has sparked curiosity about the creative process. 

That said...I've seen what I can only describe as Q&A fatigue among the writers I know. Email is a big part of that. You're swimming in email. We are, too. What I LOVE about using email as the medium for author Q&As is that it counteracts the privilege embedded in needing physical access to an author. What I struggle with is that it can make a precious opportunity seem casual or worse yet, perfunctory. No one dreams of being someone else's homework. So please make sure your students go into this process fully prepared, and that they respect the author's time and voluntary role in this exchange. That means....
  • Students should include an introduction that gives their full name, grade, the academic institution they're affiliated with, and the assigning teacher or professor's name. Specify what work by the author has been read.
  • Consider requiring students to quote from 1-2 interviews that the author has already done, as part of the narrative of their assignment. This emphasis on research is an important part of journalism (and would be key if the student should take up a career in freelance profiles or interviews). This step also encourages the student to come up with fresh questions versus ones that are general and familiar.
  • Remind your students that it takes a lot more time to answer a question than to ask one. I'd rather get a half-dozen questions that I can answer in full, thoughtfully, versus a dozen that have me scrambling for time. If the student's best expression of enthusiasm is asking a plethora of questions (that's a real thing, I get it), invite the author to only reply to those questions that inspire an equally passionate answer.
  • Be sure your students give the author at least a week to respond, and that they state both their "in-house" deadline and the official / external deadline for the assignment. Students are often primed toward last-minute emails and 48-hour turnarounds; those of us they are reaching out to may not be, even if we want to help. This information should be in the original query, not in a follow-up.
Also: be sure the student writes a thank-you note (er, email). It's weird that has to be stipulated, but it does.  

Thank you, anyone who sees this and puts it in action with their students. If you want to come a knockin' on my door, I will welcome the conversation.

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