That’s an interesting question. Really?

Dame Fiona Kidman interviewing Rachel McAlpine at the launch of How To Be Old in August 2020
Dame Fiona Kidman asks Rachel McAlpine a genuinely interesting question

“That’s an interesting question.” How many times does a journalist hear that? At least two (distinguished and experienced) author-friends of mine scorn this response as a lazy cliche. I’m pretty sure I don’t say the actual words, although they may run through my head. For example, when Fiona Kidman interviewed me at the launch of How To Be Old, she asked many interesting questions — of course. But those words — “That’s an interesting question” — contain multiple possible meanings, multiple moods. Here’s how I deduce what people actually mean when they say the words.

“Oh no, not that boring question! Please, not again.”

Famous writers dutifully or enthusiastically do book tours. That means endless interviews with endless journalists and hosts and fans. Each time the author has to be (or to seem) fully engaged and delighted to be asked. They feel obliged to answer politely even if they’ve been asked the same question fifty times that week, even if they have no interest in the question. Rarely do they let their true feelings show.

I remember one writer breaking that rule big time, many years ago. Margaret Atwood came to Aotearoa New Zealand (maybe in 2001?) and graciously granted 15 or 30 minutes to three of us: two young rookie journalists and 60-year-old me, an occasional book reviewer for the then Kapiti Times. I winced as those nice, sincere, inexperienced journalists asked this most distinguished of authors the most basic of questions. I seem to remember even this one: “Where do you get your ideas?” And then I groaned inwardly as Ms Atwood gave short, abrupt replies. Clearly she was irritated to be asked such rudimentary questions. I asked her about her author website, which, believe it or not, was a comparatively new thing in those days. Her eyes lit up and she waxed lyrical about the way it saved her staff hours and put her directly in touch with readers. I asked her about Kakadu National Park, which she and her husband had just visited, and she couldn’t stop talking about its wonders. After months of talking about her new book, she seemed delighted to stray from the topic.

Without a word, Margaret Atwood conveyed with utter clarity two things: “That is an unbelievably pointless and boring and puerile question” and “That is a question that I’m happy to answer.”

12 possible meanings of “That’s an interesting question”

  1. That’s a boring question. Let me outta here!
  2. Give me a minute to think of something to say.
  3. I’m flattering you to make you feel good.
  4. Thank heaven, finally something I haven’t been asked before.
  5. I’ve never thought about that before.
  6. I think about that a lot.
  7. How can I wriggle out of this one?
  8. So you read what my publicist sent you.
  9. So you didn’t read what my publicist sent you.
  10. I’ve been dying to talk about that.
  11. I think this is an important / urgent / unpopular issue.
  12. This interview is going to be fun.

My future interviews will be fun

Closer to November I will no doubt be interviewed about my new play, The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People. It’s on at Wellington’s Circa Theatre in November-December this year. I know I’ll enjoy these author-interviews because I nearly always do. (I’m not nearly famous enough to find them boring!)

But it’s not all about me. I’m tremendously enthusiastic about this play, the people, the actors, the message, and the impact on audiences. And also, I empathise with those asking the questions, especially after the Margaret Atwood interview.

Conversation between two writers: Petone, 27 July 2023

I also enjoy a public conversation with another writer. This format keeps me on my toes. Next one is at 6 pm on July 27, at Schrödinger’s Books on Jackson Street, Petone (near Wellington, New Zealand). Pop along after work if you’re near. I’ll be having a conversation with Kristen Phillips whose book, Dad, You’ve Got Dementia has just been published by Cuba Press. Her book is a simple, stark, and very moving record of conversations with her father as his dementia advanced. There will be interesting questions! I won’t say “That’s an interesting question” but if Kristen does, I will know she means it.

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11 thoughts on “That’s an interesting question. Really?

  1. Oh, Margaret Atwood. I went to her interview with Kate de Goldi in Christchurch in 2001 and they were like twin sisters with their bouncy curly black hair and they simply gelled and it was a wonderful interview. I’d been expecting a spiky less easy sort of woman (Margaret Atwood) and Kate nailed it. It was a dynamic and wonderful conversation between two intelligent women. Roll forward (this is hearsay and I can’t be held to account for this account)… but it seems that the Wellington event between the two of them did not go well… It seems Kate thought the event had been such a great success, she would ask the same questions… and alas, Margaret Atwood was very frosty about this…. but should she have been…? After all, it is a ‘performance’ for an audience who has paid to be there…. but anyway, I guess a lesson was learned.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This really does give context and legs to my story. I also heard later that journalists were terrified of her.

  2. Cathy Cade says:

    I don’t tend to get interviewed, but I can see me answering that… for reasons 2 and 5

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      No. 5 marks an exciting mom ent for t he interviewee 🙂

  3. Sadje says:

    I’d be looking forward to reading your interview Rachel

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you, Sadje! You are always so supportive.

      1. Sadje says:

        You’re most welcome my friend

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I do use that phrase as a chance to gather my thoughts, so I mean #2 and #6.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Perfectly legitimate!

  5. Abby Schweber says:

    I’ve always heard it as a mix of 1,2, and 7: “I’m going to say this innocuous thing to give me time to phrase my answer in a way that doesn’t offend the interviewer or the audience, because my instinct is to either tell you what an idiot you are for asking such an inane question or to say something seriously snarky that’s going to make me look like a hostile a##hole.”

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Abby! This is a glorious translation that rolls the whole story into one. Except for the times when, for example, our brilliant and eccentric Kim Hill interviews someone very clever whose work she has both studied and understood. Which is every Saturday. Then her astounded listener can’t help themselves and out they pop, those very words.

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