I’m just finishing the first draft of a book I’ve been working on since January. To get to this stage, the author and I have had to improvise slightly. Pre-lockdown we followed normal procedure, meeting in Starbucks in Westfield Stratford City (the glamour), a standard London-hour commute for both of us; post-lockdown we switched to a meeting place called ‘Zoom’ which turned out to be a doddle to get to.
Now, as I add the final notes and comments to the draft, I’m taking the first tentative steps with a new author. We’re setting up dates and times for interviews but we aren’t discussing location. That’s a given. We’ll be using Zoom.
While not having to find a mutually convenient location is something of a relief (I always find the process of deciding on a place slightly awkward), there are, for me, most definitely problems with this new way of working.
In-person interviews – particularly at the beginning of the process – are invaluable for uncovering areas of potential difficulty. When you start working with an author body language can tell you so much about how the person is feeling about an angle you want to explore or about an aspect of the narrative you want to focus on. If you pick up a defensive shift in position or a downward glance then you know to tread carefully; on the other hand, an enthusiastic lean-forward with full eye contact encourages you to press on.
These are important clues and, reacting sensitively to them, by mirroring or acknowledging them in some other way, can help show the new author that you are on their side. It is a highly effective, non-verbal means of accelerating the trust you want to nurture at the start of the collaboration.
This is so much more difficult on-screen. Reading reactions – defensive or enthusiastic – when all you can see is the author’s head and shoulders is challenging. If you add to this a camera angle that often has both of you looking down at one another, you find yourself talking in a much more confrontational space than sitting opposite each other at a table in a coffee shop.
The intensity of the on-screen meeting can also throw up other issues. In particular I find that the power of one interview technique is diminished. That technique is silence. When you ask a difficult or probing question face to face, the author can move, look around, whistle, do anything that allows thinking time, while you sit, quiet, trying to create an atmosphere that establishes a space for reflection and a platform for further discussion. Silence is a useful lever in those situations, applying a little extra pressure to get closer to the heart of a story.
There is little or no room to do this during an on-screen interview. Gazing at each other in close-up means that silence is awkward, much as it is on the phone. The natural reaction is to rush to cover up the gap in the conversation, to build a bridge over the gaping chasm that your question has created. Answers can be forced or ill-thought-out as a result.
Interviewing on screen is a boon in many ways but the pressure to talk, or, to put it another way, the absence of a space in which silence is a creative element, can make for a less productive way of working.
Zoom, it could be said, abhors a vacuum.