My briefest brush with media celebrity happened in the mid-90s. I was sitting in a theatre in Albany, NY, waiting for the curtain to go up. The house lights were still on, and I was chatting with the person next to me. Suddenly, a woman in the next row down and a four seats over, swirled around and caught my eye. “You’re the host of The Book Show, aren’t you? I recognize the voice.”
This was surprising and nice in some indefinable way. I didn’t know what to do with it. There was no conversation to be had. It meant that I had a voice that was, well, recognizable, yet somehow separate from the person I thought I was. Unthinkable, even now.
The Book Show was a weekly half-hour literary radio interview program, produced at WAMC, Albany’s public radio station, financed by the New York State Writers Institute, an organization invented by William Kennedy and funded by the state government under Mario Cuomo. It had offices at SUNY-Albany and offered readings, films, writing classes, conferences, and an annual summer program at Skidmore College. Though Kennedy was the titular head of the Writers Institute and its guiding spirit, an able and intelligent academic named Tom Smith ran the day to day affairs. A larger than life, deep-voiced, barrel of a man, with a big moustache and exploding white hair, Tom was enormously well-read and eloquent. He was also kind to me, supporting my application for grants and finding me jobs. It was Tom who started The Book Show and performed as its host for a decade (1984-1994). By the time I took over, it was syndicated on stations all over the U.S. and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. It is Tom’s cheerful, stentorian voice that dominates my memories of the show and the institute.
But in September, 1994, Tom died, suddenly and surprisingly. If I recall correctly, he was exercising at the university pool. Bill Kennedy, who was a close friend of Tom’s as well as the head of the institute, had to jump in immediately to take over programming, invitations, hosting, etc. Tom hadn’t left any Book Shows in the bank. Someone had to fill in. Tom had given me a gig (I think I was called a Writer-in-Residence) holding weekly evening workshops, and I knew Bill. So he asked me if I could do the show for at least a couple of weeks, until they could find a replacement. Never in my life had such a thing occurred to me. Radio? As a writer, I had been interviewed now and then (very infrequently). I had even been Tom’s guest once on The Book Show. I thought: Something new! I can do this. Then, can I do this? Then, what do I do? Then, wait a sec. I am a very shy person in front of a microphone.
Tom’s next guest had already been lined up, the Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher. Bill gave me a copy of the book and metaphorically patted me on the head and left me to it. I dutifully showed up at the station headquarters on Central Avenue and was ushered into a sound booth and shown how to use the microphone. We phoned Mosher and recorded the show live. I hummed and stuttered and spoke in what seemed like inane partial sentences. Mosher was very decent and did most of the talking (big first lesson: I could just be quiet a lot of the time). I still have the tape, though I have never listened to it. But a couple of days later, Bill Kennedy called and asked if I would do a couple of more shows. And the rest is history.
I pretty quickly realized the only way I could get through these interviews was to be myself (and not Tom Smith, bless him) and to engage the writers as writers. I tried to pinpoint the structural and technical aspects of the works that excited me, and, lo, more often than not, when I mentioned such things, the writers would light up and start talking. I felt, listening, that like most writers, they liked being noticed for the thing they do well and enjoy doing. I also learned to warm myself up listening to Don Imus (yes, Doug Glover, the shock jock of literary radio) as I drove to the studio every week (about an hour; I was living just outside Saratoga Springs at the time). I didn’t imitate Imus, of course, but something in his on-air easiness, his capacity to have actual conversations with guests, his serendipity and wit, bled into the way I felt walking into the station. At the least, it helped relieve my shyness and gave me attitude, élan, perhaps.
The Book Show in that incarnation lasted two years (October 1994 to October 1996) after which, the Institute dissolved its relationship with WAMC. The radio station went on offering the show as an in-house production with unpaid hosts. The Writers Institute swerved into filmmaking, producing interviews and documentaries about visiting authors. And I went back to being just a writer.
Meantime, I did a lot of interviews. Read a lot of books. About half the writers featured on the show came filtered through the Institute, either as guest readers or conference participants. The rest I got to pick myself, which was a joy. But I wanted to do the job properly and respect the guests, which involved a lot of work. Reading and rereading the books, researching the authors (my regular weekly visits to the Skidmore reference library), making notes, writing a loose script. I found the best interviews happened as real conversations, when I appeared at the studio with a script that was mostly introduction and a list of five topics I was interested in. In a good interview, we never got to all five.
Most of the interviews were conducted over the phone, although a few took place in person when a particular writer was in Albany as a guest of the Institute. I prefered working over the phone. With my earphones on, I seemed to be able to find a special focus, a mysterious sense of a dark, enveloping silence, and the words of our conversation just appearing in that intimate space. That’s where the best conversations happened. Interviewer and interviewee picking up every nuance of voice and phrase and feeling and responding to it. It could be a very nice experience (I remember two occasions when the person I was talking did not want to stop talking after the show was over).
Some interviews, on the other hand, went south with startling and incandescent speed. David Mamet appeared to have hated me from the sound of my voice. He refused to engage with anything I said or asked. He disagreed with me even when I praised his book. Alison Lurie was in her kitchen cooking dinner, banging pots the whole time (it was a decent interview otherwise). The funniest disaster was with the Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon who happened to be in town. He had given a reading at the Institute the night before, and had been dined and feted by Bill Kennedy. Derek showed up late at the studio with a styrofoam cup of coffee in his quivering hand, looking ill, much the worse for wear. I sat him in the sound booth and asked if he was ready. He nodded. The tapes were switched on, I delivered my introductory remarks, and asked the first question. Derek looked distraught. He looked ashen. He said, “I can’t answer that.” Pause. “Could we start again?” Okay, I said. We started again. Half-way through my intro, Derek interrupted, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this today.”
I hated to lose a good interview (I liked the poems a lot). So I got Derek to agree to do the interview by phone the next week (he was living in New York). We set up a time, and I offered to drive him to the bus station. In the car, he asked me what sorts of things I was going to ask him about. I remember being particularly interested in his position as a Northern Ireland Protestant writer, an outsider. In his poems, he plays up the “illness” of being that kind of outsider; it is his great subject. I said something about that and then mentioned how that resonated with me and with particular writers or works I admired. I remember citing Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and the French-Canadian Hubert Aquin. Derek got very excited about this and we chatted away to the bus station. At one point, we were trading back and forth the names of all the great “sickie” writers we could think of. If only I had gotten this on tape.
I week later we phoned Derek from the studio. No answer. We waited ten minutes and tried again. No answer. At 20 minutes late, he answered. He was sorry. He had just stepped out to get the paper. Okay, I said. Can we start? Microphone on. I started my intro. Derek interrupted: “Douglas, I don’t want to talk about that.” “You mean your book?” “Yes, I don’t want to talk about it. I want to talk about a poem that I published this week in the New Yorker.” “But I haven’t seen this poem, Derek.” (I was losing my patience a bit.) “That’s all right, Douglas, I’ll read it to you.” Brilliant, I thought. I usually spend days prepping an interview; now, I’ll hear a complex poem once and be expected to respond. But at this stage I had decided to let Derek have his way. The interview would be a mess. I might not even use it. Microphones on. I ad libbed an intro. Derek read his poem. I asked limping questions. I have never listened to the tape. But I’ll never forget that conversation we had in the car. I tapped into the real Derek Mahon that day.
Tim O’Brien also caused a little drama. I had read his novel In the Lake of the Woods, which I admired tremendously. I had arranged a time to do the interview by phone, not with O’Brien directly, but through his agent. I dutifully showed up at the station at the appointed hour and we phoned the number the agent had given me. No answer. We waited, tried again. After keeping the sound crew idle for half an hour, I finally called the agent. “Oh, shit,” she said. “I’ll find him. Don’t cancel.” She sounded annoyed and exasperated, as if this happened a lot. Ten minutes later, she called back. O’Brien was not at home; he was checked into a hotel in New York under another name. He would answer the phone if I called this number now. I called the number. Many rings later, a male voice answered. I said who I was. He muffled the phone with his hand, but there were voices, a man and a women, a hasty and muted departure. Then O’Brien came on, amiable and focused, and we did a stirling interview. No explanation for what had happened. Which was fine with me. (But it did leave me with the impression of a disorganized and evasive life style.)
Here is a list of some of the writers I interviewed: Joyce Carol Oates, Harold Bloom, John Banville, William Gass, John Hawkes, William Kennedy, John Montague, Charles Wright, Andrea Barrett, Robert Coover, Molly Peacock, Alice Fulton, Hortense Calisher, Gordon Lish, Barry Lopez, Alison Lurie, Joseph Heller, Joanna Scott, Doris Grumbach, Peter Carey, Tim O'Brien, Russell Banks, Gloria Naylor, Robin Blaser, Nicholas Delbanco, Ron Shelton, Richard Ford, Luci Tapahonso, Steve Stern, Nicholas Mosley, Sydney Lea, Janice Galloway, David Mamet, Frederick Busch, Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, Peter Ackroyd, Lee Smith, Lisa Alther, Scott Spencer, Alice Notley, Galway Kinnell, Wayne Koestenbaum, Rosario Ferre, Nancy Willard, Jane Cooper, Jamaica Kincaid, Robert Pinsky, Robert Kelly, Diane Schoemperlen, Ralph Lombreglia, and Oscar Hijuelos. There were many others. I have all the tapes (in my rental storage unit in Ontario).
The Lish and Banville interviews have achieved a certain apotheosis, both having been published in collections by the University Press of Mississippi.
You can listen to several that I published as audio files on Numéro Cinq.
And the Writers Institute has published a transcript of my interview with Joyce Carol Oates (with a little introduction by Edward Schwarzschild).
The interviews I remember best? John Hawkes, without a doubt. I interviewed him about this novel The Frog, about a little French boy who bends over a pond in the country only to have a frog jump into his mouth and take up residence in his throat. He read a passage at the end, which seemed easy. Only later did I learn that because of his stutter he was always very reluctant to read his work. Janice Galloway, the Scottish writer, because we just got along so well. Wayne Koestenbaum, the same (later, I induced him to contribute to Numéro Cinq). Syd Lea and I went on to become good friends (to this day). I also really liked meeting William Gass (I offered him the use of a baseball bat if he didn’t like that I said about his novel The Tunnel). I loved reading and talking to Hortense Calisher about her aphorisms. And I really admired Coover’s novel John’s Wife, a long Rabelaisian book about a woman who never actually appears on the page.
There would be more, if I had time to dwell.