Interview by Hamish Rickett, CutBank Fiction Editor
I know you’re an accomplished writer in your own right. What brought you to writing? What influences most helped you to advance your craft?
As a reader, before I was a writer, I was mainly reading Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner. I knew very little about contemporary literature, even less about creative nonfiction and poetry. So, years ago, when I took a seminar called “Writing Inside the Box: Constraint-based Writing in Poetry and Fiction,” co-taught by the poet John Beer and the fiction writer Leni Zumas, it really changed my trajectory. Reading Juliana Spahr, Lyn Hejinian, and the OuLiPians Perec, Queneau and Mathews, and then having to write using formal constraints, created all sorts of writing I wouldn’t have recognized as my own prior to the class. It’s a type of writing I’ve really come to love, writing that often doesn’t easily settle into one genre or another, writing that often makes the presence of the author’s mind visible, writing that might not be weaving a fictive spell but instead might be inviting you into a peculiar and strange wilderness with no obvious way out. It’s a rabbit hole I’m still in myself, one that includes a lot of poetry, nonfiction, and hybrid texts, both contemporary and otherwise.
How do you prepare for your interviews? It seems like you have often read all of the work as well as nearly all of the criticism/reviews of your subjects' work. How long do you typically take to prepare? Do you have any strategies for keeping the flow going? Icebreakers? Do you have different strategies for different types of authors?
If I have enough time I try to read more than the book the author is touring for, particularly if they have a really varied writing history. For instance, with Eliot Weinberger, who I’m preparing for now, his book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is a classic book about translation, An Elemental Thing is a collection of essays like no essay collection you’ve ever encountered before, and What Happened Here is a book of political analysis and commentary on the Bush era. Given that his latest book, The Ghosts of Birds, shares qualities with both An Elemental Thing and What Happened Here I felt like the discussion would be richer if I had read these books too.
I do also try to read other interviews with the author. I’m doing this mainly to avoid repeating the questions that are always asked. You don’t want to avoid these questions altogether because the listener isn’t spending their time reading past interviews and some common questions are, in fact, important questions. But I also want to find a line of inquiry that can get an author out of auto-pilot and make the conversation seem fresh and alive.
No matter how much you prepare though, you never know how comfortable an author will be talking about their own work, how much you will have to draw them out, how much or little rapport you will have when sitting face to face in the studio. I don’t have any conscious strategies to keep the flow going or to use as icebreakers but sometimes you can figure out author-specific strategies from your research prior to the interview. For instance, I knew that sometimes Lorrie Moore was a tough interview. She had given an interview for the Chicago Tribune, just before I was to interview her, that went off the rails, where the interviewer was called to task for his poor questions. But I also noticed in other interviews, that she would really open up and be forthcoming if she were talking about writers she loved versus her own work. So I went into that interview with the strategy to talk about Donald Barthelme if things got cagey. We did talk about Barthelme in the end, but not because the interview was difficult. But it was something I definitely thought about going in.
How do you structure your interviews? Are there questions you always ask? Never ask? How tailored are they to the individual? Do you have a rough framework that you start with? As you interview more and more well-respected authors, has your process changed?
Structuring the interview is the part of the process that hurts my brain the most, that takes the most time for me. Much more than the reading. The interviews are definitely tailored to the author and the concerns they raise in their work. I don’t come to the interview-structuring phase with a framework of any sort. What takes time for me is figuring out what line of inquiry, or lines of inquiry, I want to pursue, so that the listener feels connective tissue from one question to the next, can feel a picture being put together piece by piece because the thought-process of the interviewer is apparent in the construction of the interview.
I’m not sure the stature of the authors I’ve interviewed has changed over time. Colson Whitehead, Anthony Doerr, Nicole Krauss and China Mieville were all early interviews. If my process has changed at all over time it is more because my interests have changed regarding the types of books I prefer to engage with in a radio interview. I’m more and more interested in books that blur genre, are hybrid texts, or that somehow make the process of their making part of the book experience itself. Also, questions of translation. I’d like to get more books in translation on the show. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to interview someone who has written a conventionally told novel, it is just becoming a smaller percentage of the shows that I do.
I know that you do almost all of your interviews in person. How does that change the process? What are the benefits and the drawbacks to that?
The news coordinator at the radio station requires the book interviews to be done in-studio. The upside of this is that you are sitting across the table from the author. You are able to read facial expressions and body language, to more easily establish rapport, to feel like you are having a conversation just between the two of you. And sometimes you are sitting with an author like George Saunders or Claudia Rankine or Ursula K. Le Guin, which is quite an honor. The downside of this requirement is that there are authors who either don’t come through Portland, Oregon, or who don’t tour at all. So if Zadie Smith or Toni Morrison have a new book out but aren’t coming here I’m out of luck.
What mistakes did you make early on that you could help fledgling interviewers avoid?
I wouldn’t consider this a mistake per se but in the first year of my show my interest in experimental literature far outpaced by knowledge of it and its history. I’m sure I would do a much better interview today with Sheila Heti or Chris Kraus (whose books How Should a Person Be? and I Love Dick are fabulous) than five years ago. Also in that first year, I didn’t pay enough attention to the diversity of guests I interviewed, whether in regards to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin. It’s something I’m very engaged with now.
I know for me, a big part of my enjoyment of your interviews is your willingness to ask difficult questions and your focus on craft. As a writer, interviewing other writers, I find this particularly helpful and interesting as I work on my own writing. How has doing these interviews changed your own writing?
I definitely read differently now because of the podcast. When I’m preparing for an interview I’m not disappearing under the fictive spell in the same way as I used to. Instead there is a part of me looking for questions to ask, examining choices made by the author, noting the things that make them unique. This has carried over to all my reading and I’m sure it has affected my writing. Perhaps it affects it in a similar way to developing the ability to articulate what is wrong with someone else’s story draft, pushing oneself to move beyond “this is bad” or “this doesn’t work for me,” and finding the evidence of why that is in the text. I suspect that developing this ability to articulate is helpful in recognizing the problems (and the solutions to them) in one’s own work.
Having interviewed all these great writers, are there any gems of writing advice that stick with you? Are there any commonalities you’ve noticed between successful authors (and here I don’t mean monetarily successful but accomplished in their art forms)?
That’s a good question. Jami Attenberg did say something that stuck with me. She had a chapter in The Middlesteins that her editor wanted her to cut out but that she felt attached to. She said instead of following her editor’s advice if she felt resistance to it, she’d instead use the editor’s comments as an indicator that that section needed her attention. She’d endeavor to improve it so much that it justified its own existence in the end. And in this case it ended up being one of the more memorable chapters of the book. Ursula K. Le Guin says that one of the benefits of having lived a long life is having a much broader view of the arc of literature. That the popularity of certain writing choices, for instance, short sentences, present tense, and first-person point of view today, doesn’t make these choices better than others. That too many writers limit themselves to a diminished number of craft options without knowing it, based upon what is en vogue, on trends that come and go. I also love how Mary Ruefle talks about how a poem isn’t necessarily addressing the person reading or writing it. That when you are writing a poem, the lines are talking to each other, not to you, until the conversation between them comes to an ending place. Kyle Minor, who wrote a fantastic genre-bending collection, Praying Drunk, that includes both fiction and nonfiction, talked about how important studying poetry was for his prose. That certainly has been the case for me, perhaps more than anything else.
After an interview and you’ve completed your editing, do you share with the subject the podcast or the transcript before releasing it? I would assume you own the rights to interviews and subsequent releases (for example I notice that you are often published in Glimmer Train’s “Writers Ask” and elsewhere) but if they are going to be presented in an alternative form do you give the interviewee a heads-up? I’m a bit of an ignoramus about these things.
For the broadcast and the podcast, the guest doesn’t hear the interview again until it airs. But sometimes, as you mention, I do transcribe interviews and place them in magazines like Glimmer Train. I do get the author’s approval before I do this. The transcription process is pretty laborious so I don’t want to transcribe anything before knowing that the author is happy to see the conversation appear in a new form. They almost always are. And they are also given a chance to do a light edit on the transcription prior to publication. This is mostly, I think, because what sounds fine spoken out loud doesn’t always read well when transcribed.
I know your podcasts are becoming increasingly popular. How many interviews do you average a year?
Right now I’m doing fifteen to eighteen a year. Being a radio and podcast interviewer isn’t my job, so I can’t imagine it ever going above twenty a year unless it somehow became something I could do for a living. That would be my dream. There certainly are many more authors I’d love to engage with each year.
Can you share what current projects you are working on? Goals for the future?
For most of my writing life it’s been small projects, essays, stories, and poems. But I did just start working on a book-length project this fall. I don’t want to say too much about it at this early stage but I will say that it centers around a gap in my memory, an absence of experience regarding an event that has turned out to be a pivotal one in my life. Inspired by writers like Sarah Manguso, Eliot Weinberger, and Nathalie Sarraute, it will use white space, have a poetics, and move obliquely, through association and allusion, as much as forward through narration.
With my podcast, my main goal is to continue to develop a strong base of listener support for the long-term sustainability of the program. I’m amazed and thrilled by the continued growth of the show’s audience but with that growth has come growing costs. So I hope people will both check out the show and check out the ways you can support it too.
Any parting words of advice for would-be interviewers?
Not to follow a formula, or even the way someone else does it. When you think of memorable radio interviewers, whether Michael Silverblatt or Brad Listi, or magazines with great interviews, from The Believer to The Paris Review, they all stand out for how unique their approach is. You’d never mistake one for the other. I think that uniqueness is part of what draws the author out and makes the conversation dynamic and alive.
David Naimon has interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin, Junot Diaz, Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, George Saunders, and many more for his radio/podcast Between the Covers. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Fourth Genre, American Short Fiction, Fiction International, Story Quarterly, Zyzzyva, and others. He has received a Tin House Writers Fellowship, an Oregon Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, and a Pushcart Prize 2016 Special Mention. His archived interviews can be found at http://davidnaimon.tumblr.com/interviews.
Hamish Rickett is a fiction editor at CutBank and an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana.