Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rick Kleffel talks about The Agony Column, technology, insomnia, and when author interviews don't go as planned

What do Mary Roach, Vindela Vida and Siobhan Fallon all have in common? They’re all been guests on Rick Kleffel’s  amazingly entertaining Agony Column. The interviews are so quirky and so fascinating that I decided I need to talk to Rick and he graciously obliged. Thank you, Rick! 

I love the title The Agony Column. Why that title, though? And tell us how the Agony Column came about?

It actually started with my dislike of the horror genre.  I'd always enjoyed the work of H. P. Lovecraft, but beyond that thought it was a wasteland.  Then, for reasons I don't remember, I decided to buy a mass-market paperback of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, which I enjoyed very much.  Barker used the tropes of the genre to tell a variety of stories.  As I read further into the horror genre, I found a lot to like.  I picked up a Scream/Press limited edition of Books of Blood, which I loved (and still love) and that led me down the path to a lot of outsider publishing.  This was back in the mid-1980's and I was working at a firm that was connected to the Internet, where I found Chuq Von Rospach's OtherRealms USENET magazine.  I proposed writing a review column for that publication, and chose The Agony Column as a nod to both the horror genre I was covering, my attitude in general, and of course, Sherlock Holmes' source for clues and clients.

You've interviewed everyone from Penn Gillette to Lev Grossman and what makes listening to the Agony Column so much fun is the fun that YOU clearly are having. How do you approach these interviews?

First, I find books that I want to read, that interest me. I read all sorts of books, and try to stay away from doing too much of any one thing.  I can tell pretty quickly if I'm going to like a book, or not.  here are enough books out there that I'd love to read, or re-read, so I see no reason for me to waste my valuable reading time on something I'm not going to enjoy.

Then, I read the books, and take notes.  I have a rigorous process so that the ideas, concepts, characters, the whatevers of the books I read eventually make it into my overcrowded mind, generally forcing something else out.  By the time the interview rolls around, I'm eager to talk with the author about how they brought the book into being, in a manner that does not spoil the reading experience but enhances it, I hope, whether you hear the interview before or after you read the book yourself.

Do you know what you are going to talk about or do you let the conversation just evolve and see what happens?

I know in general what I'm going to talk about, but don't write specific questions and don't map the general flow of the conversation.  I sometimes have some idea of where I'm going to start, but after that, I just let the questions fly from the shattered remains of my memory.

I used to script interview questions and carefully sequence them for a more "polished" feel, but I've given that up in favor of pretty much making everything up on the spot.

Have interviews ever not gone as planned?

All of them, and some disastrously so.  Interruptions, forget the cell phone is on, ask a questions and have the author look at me like I'm from the mailroom and reply to my question, "I don't know what to do with that."

Of course, since I don't plan them, none go as planned. They sometimes seem to go well.  But to be honest, afterwards, I'm generally hitting my forehead and feeling like an idjit. Then maybe in the edit, I listen and figure, well, that wasn't so terrible.

You also do commentary and reviews on books as well as the podcasts for NPR as well as for the Agony Column. And your references other movies and tell people about other sites--all in such a warm and funny and engaging way.

I suppose this is because I pick my subjects carefully, so I like them.  I've been lucky to have a home at NPR affiliate KUSP for nearly ten years now. They're very kind to tolerate my generally messy style and a flat-out refusal to be limited by genre.

My goal with The Agony Column website is quite simple -- and selfish.  I want publishers to keep making the sort of books I enjoy reading, so I write about them to bring them to the attention of others like myself, and I know they are out there, so that they can buy them and provide a profit margin for all involved. So I'm happy to direct others wherever they need to go to find what they want.

And, since I talk to writers about writing, I also tend to see the podcasts as a means of mentoring writers-in-the-making.  Anyone who wants to can listen, at no cost to them, to literally thousands of hours of writers talking about their craft.  The site is a sort of structureless writing class with advice from top-notch successful, money-making writers.

So you rarely sleep and you play electronic music. Does one have something to do with the other?

No, I'm a hereditary insomniac.  I require about four, five hours a night sleep.  I only wish I needed less so I could devote more time to playing music, which I find very relaxing and enjoyable.  I try to emulate the electronic chamber music of the late 1970's and early 1980's.

And what about technology interests you so much?

It's totally the new toy, techno-lust factor, but I move in unpredictable waves.  If I made any money, I *might* buy more new toys, but I have an abiding trust of trailing edge technology.  It's cheaper, the bugs have been worked out and you don't have to deal with disaster issues as much.  That said, there are lots of times that I go out and buy something hot off the shelf.  Last time, was the iPad, which has proved very useful for interview notes.

So what's obsessing you now in the world of books?

Tomes. Neal Stephenson, Haruki Murakami. Book bricks. And totally, one-hundred percent, Tartarus Press.  Everything Ray Russell touches is GOLD, I tell you, GOLD.  Subterranean Press as well. Night Shade. Pyr.  Macmillan UK. I'll stop now.  But I could go on and on.

And here's an old style Barbara Walters question for you: Which dead writer would you most like to have a conversation with and under what circumstances (Fitzgerald when he's not drunk? Hemingway before or after he got punchy?)

Three; Flannery O'Connor, on her porch with a jar of iced tea in the summer, Philip K. Dick in the Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana where I got lamb burritos, and Stanislaw Lem at Google HQ.

How do you choose the authors you converse with?

If I like the book, and they'll talk to me.  I prefer to speak in person.  It makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE to be in the room and look someone in the eyes; that said, sometimes you just get on the phone and do the best you can do.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Oh, I guess a a gearhead question, to wit, How do I record on the fly? And the answer is: with two Electrovoice RE50's and a very old (beyond trailing edge) Marantz digital recorder.  I edit using Peak on a MacBook Pro.  The whole shebang is shockingly primitive.

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