Interviewing a Famous Author
Martta’s experiences interviewing Maxim Osipov on 9 November 2022
How did I get here?
One of the things Flanor is best known for is our monthly lectures. Usually we invite a novelist or poet, but occasionally we have different figures from the literary world, such as translators and people who work in publishing. Often they’ll give a talk, but sometimes they will choose to be interviewed instead.
Such was the case with Maxim Osipov. Now, we have some very talented interviewers within Flanor, so my first thought was to ask some of our experienced people, until I was told: “Martta, why don’t you interview him? You were the one who wanted to invite him, right?” Well. It is true, Maxim Osipov was my suggestion, I’d read some of his work before and thought it was beautiful. Indeed, why not?
My preparations started with making a stop at Godert Walter to buy De wereld is niet stuk te krijgen. I’d borrowed it from the library before, but I wanted to reread it and annotate it. (And get it signed on the day of the interview, of course, but that’s neither here nor there.) At the same time, I started doing research. The author’s personal website is entirely in Russian but contains quite a bit of useful information, which is one of the reasons why it seemed like a good idea for me to be the one doing the interview. My Russian is not great, but I can manage shortish texts. This included reading up on Osipov’s life and (writing) career, and reading previous interviews he has given elsewhere for questions to adapt for our audience. This was when it dawned on me that the person I’d promised to interview is seriously world famous…
At this point I would like to give special thanks to two people in particular. First Yvonne, one of our veteran interviewers, who gave me general interview tips, suggested many themes I could ask about, and gave feedback on my list of questions. Her advice to keep in mind that the audience knows less than I do turned out to be extremely important; it’s easy to forget to ask questions that I already know the answer to. And Rosina taught me techniques from scientific interviews (of the kind used in sociological and anthropological research) and told me to watch some previous interviews as well. This was very valuable in giving me a sense of Osipov’s speaking style when answering questions on the spot, and whether he gives concise or expansive answers.
The final moment for preparations was dinner at the wonderful Four Rose’s with Maxim Osipov and my fellow Board members right before the interview. This occasion to personally chat with writers you admire is, in general, one of the most fun parts of being a Board member at Flanor, but it also serves the purpose of getting a sense of the writer’s personality – things like how formal you should be – and ask a few small things that will be relevant to the interview. Usually, it seems that writers are very humble people who are quite excited about this sort of thing. Maxim Osipov was no exception, he walked into the restaurant, saying: “Don’t be afraid of me, I’m not a celebrity!”
On the stage
Our lectures and interviews take place at the Groninger Forum, where we get a room in one of the library sections. We invite our own Flanorians, who can attend lectures for free, and outsiders can buy tickets from the Forum. This was an interview with a relatively large audience of about 40 people, which is a lot more than there were on average last year. Luckily I didn’t have much time to stew in my nerves and think about all those laser eyes pointed right at me, because we had to start the interview not long after we arrived. Strangely enough, the thing that really made me feel special was seeing the two bottles of water set out next to the microphone in the front of the room; one of those was for me, as if I were some kind of important person. We had some technical difficulties with the microphone, and since my voice is very quiet, some people couldn’t hear me. I tell myself that what I say isn’t too important, as long as I keep the author talking; because that’s what is interesting.
I had prepared 31 questions in total divided over ten themes (things like career, writing process, Russian literature, current and future projects…). This organisation made it easy to find and choose questions, because I had to adapt my questions to what Maxim Osipov said in his answers for smooth segues and follow-ups to particularly interesting things he mentioned. All the while, I tried to maintain a balance in the subjects that came up. Osipov is an anti-war activist with lots of interesting things to say about life in Russia that would be a shame not to hear anything about, but on the other hand we invited him primarily for his writing. But of course, literature cannot be separated from politics because nothing is unpolitical. There was a lot of overlap, particularly since reality is very present in Osipov’s stories.
You’ll have to forgive me for not telling you more about what Maxim Osipov actually said in the interview. All my mental capacity was dedicated to keeping the interview going smoothly, and the long-term storage of those one and a half hours suffered for it. At least that effort paid off: I was told afterward that the interview went well, and even better, Maxim Osipov thanked me for the interesting questions!
At the end of each lecture or interview, we provide an opportunity for the audience to buy the speaker’s books from local independent book shop Godert Walter and ask to have them signed. I intended to ask Maxim Osipov to sign my copy of De wereld is niet stuk te krijgen in Russian, but it turned out that there was no need: he signed everyone’s books in Russian. Deciphering his handwriting was a whole other challenge, however.
So that was it, interviewing a world famous writer before a live audience. This is an experience to write home about. I’m not impatient to do more interviews in the near future, but I’m very glad Flanor gave me the opportunity to try it at least once. For those who were at the interview, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and I hope to see everyone at our next lecture!