Monday, June 18, 2012

Welcome to the wild and wooly world of the Bat Segundo Show and Edward Champion!

First there is the name. Who wouldn't want to be on an author/artist interview program called The Bat Segundo show? But more importantly is the show itself. Casually conducted in cafes, diners, etc. around New York City, these interviews ask the questions you really want to know. Podcasts introduced by Bat and given by "Our Young, Roving Correspondent",  the show has been known to include music by Three Cheap Tenors. You absolutely need to read the website (link is above) so you can find the answers to such startling questions like, "Why is Bat so rude?" and "Who is Bat Segundo?" and what is the unspecified indignity he suffered which is vaguely alluded to in the introduction of each show? I'm thrilled to have Edward Champion here to answer all my pesky questions.

What I love most about the interviews is that they aren't interviews as usual. They're funny, surprising, silly, shocking, revealing--all the good adjectives. Are guests ever taken aback? Usually writers are solitary people with no social skills whatsoever, and yet you manage to have these wild and wooly interviews on the show. Is it because you disarm the writers? And if so, how?

Thanks so much for all the many kind modifiers, Caroline.  I'm pleasantly taken aback, because I'm so used to the outlaw qualifier! Writers are often taken aback by my style: sometimes because they cannot figure me out, but mostly because of my interpretive and interlocutory ebullience.  If you're an author, then  you're going to deal with that inevitable disconnect between what you intended to write and what a reader finds within.  Now most authors who still maintain a genuine passion for books and who aren't needlessly catholic about what they etch into text are cool with this.  Personally, I think all of this is fair game.  Because you never know if some wending road that might lead you to another journey.  

Mary McCarthy, for instance, once wrote an essay for The New Republic, where she offered an exceptionally close reading of Nabokov's Pale Fire.  Her piece begins with this astonishing sentence: "Pale Fire is a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel." Now what self-respecting soul wouldn't want to carry on reading such marvelous excitement?  Yet even today, there remain some people who actively loathe this approach, who really have it in for McCarthy for spending so much of her time with Nabokov and finding dead ends.  Well, so what?  Those feelings and observations were true to McCarthy.  And is this not what life is all about?  Keeping the floodgates of inquiry wide enough?  Staying curious and engaged?  Even when, and I won't dredge up the oft-quoted but wise  passage from American Pastoral, you're utterly wrong?  

I've never been especially shy about throwing a rather silly or eccentric reading into these conversations (or even some of my journalism).  Because if your mind gravitates towards something, then chances are there's a good reason.  Even if it springs from some subconscious motivation.  Even now, while preparing for a conversation with another writer in a few days, I'm struck by how this author is suspicious of California sunshine.  It's too good to be true!  She describes it as fantastical in one book and childish in another.  As a California native, I can see where she's coming from.  And there's a good chance I'm going to bring this up with her.  On the surface, this may seem like I'm ferreting out for some mildly gossipy viewpoint -- what are this author's thoughts about West Coast weather? -- but, having read her work and seen how well she deals with characters who are in denial about their unhappiness, I'm very curious about whether such a decision helped to define her characters.  I could very well be wrong.  But I enjoy finding those fun little nuggets.  Perhaps it disarms the writers because they so often have to deal with other interviewers who don't read the books like I do (if they read at all!).  And above all, I want the conversation to be fun.  There's a genuine excitement I feel thinking about this silly little aside about California sunshine that I know will make its way into my talk with this author.  And I'm sure there are at least thirty more elements that will get me excited, many of which I don't know about right now.

So, how much money would it take to unmask the young roving reporter who does the interviews? ;)

I didn't realize that I was in a witness protection program, Caroline!  Believe it or not, I make it a habit to leave the house at least once every day and I am known to go for very long walks and attend modest soirées of varying scale and notoriety.  But you're right to point to some modest unmasking.  There's certainly some modest theater applied to the man with the two mikes.  Michael Silverblatt, the great interviewer of KCRW's Bookworm, told me that he also has a modest persona.  There's no cash required to suss me out.  But I have refused to put the name "Edward Champion" in any of these shows.  Because this is about making the authors look good.

I love it that the interviews are conducted in casual settings, so I have to ask, did anything ever go wrong? Do people around you ever listen in? Or want to ask a question?

Part of the fun of informal locations such as hotels, bars, cafes, restaurants, and so forth is that you never know if there will be some unexpected intervention.  When I interviewed David Denby, there was a crazy guy who shrieked into one of the mikes.  When I talked with Toby Ball, two children actually came up to us and started asking us about the mikes, not knowing that we were actually recording.  It was adorable.  I have had managers attempt to put a stop to the proceedings.  Andre Dubus III, just to give you a sense of what a gent he is, got up and wanted to personally negotiate with a manager who wanted to kick us out of a room that we just walked into and started talking in.  (And don't get me started on how certain hotels are needlessly proprietary about rooms that nobody will use in the next three months.  Or draconian "no mike" policies.)  I've left all this in.  Because even though there's heavy preparation with these conversations, I do want them to reflect the spontaneity of life.  (And honestly when I type up a list of notes and questions, this is really more my method of telling myself that I have read the book and that I can get a high quality 40 to 60 minute conversation with an author.  Because I do my best to make sure I'm not wasting many seconds.  Very often, I stray from the list entirely.)  

I have had people come up to me after the conversation.  There was one guy in a bar, who didn't like the type of guy who read Andrea Barrett, who became so transfixed by our talk that he came up to us when it was over and introduced himself.  Very friendly.  A few weeks ago, I ended up having a conversation with a tourist who overheard the talk, and he said he was going to buy everything the author wrote.  Really, the casual settings emerged only because I didn't have a studio.  It is rather funny how the lack of something causes so many unexpected adventures!

So do Bat Segundo and Edward Champion fight for space in your body or do they get along?

Oh, they get along quite well.  The Bat Segundo persona who was originally in the introductions has appeared less and less -- in large part because my other work doesn't afford me the time to do the elaborate intros I envision.  It could also be that my increasing interest in nonfiction is to blame.  The "Correspondent" is the partial persona I adopt now.   Although I remain a genuinely impassioned and curious journalist of some sort.

It strikes me that almost all of your questions are questions that only a writer would ask another writer. You seem to get at the most interesting things going on--and I love it that some of your interviews notice that! So how do you prepare for an interview--do you know all the questions, or do you want it to be more conversational?

Thank you for the kind words.  I prepare for these interviews by reading, at minimum, the author's latest book.  Sometimes I take notes.  Sometimes I don't.  Sometimes I get so interested in a writer that I read many other books. Tom Bissell was a little alarmed that I had reread all of his books before talking with him.  But, hey, I do think the man is one of the most underappreciated writers working in America today and I wanted to do right.  And we ended up talking for two shows.  On the day I'm talking with a writer, I type up a list of questions. I read as many reviews and articles and essays as I can, and I tend to avoid questions that other people have asked. This phase is astonishingly easy to do in this age of Google, but it's remarkable how so many alleged professionals remain committed to cookie cutter conversations.  (It is also alarming that some staff members are actually paid to come up with such stale chestnuts as "Where do you get your ideas from?")  

I don't preinterview.  I know nearly every other radio show does, but, if you ask me, that's a recipe for sterility.  The list I make is really my own private act of faith that I know the books reasonably well to have an informed conversation.  Very often, I wander from this, like a saunterer espying an unexpected sight off the route.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Lots of subjects obsess me, I'm afraid.  But I'd say I'm really concerned about the global economic crisis -- especially what's going on with the eurozone and the effects that these bailouts will have upon other banks and our ability to earn a living -- and the remarkable public indifference towards it.  On the literary front, I was very obsessed with Saul Bellow after reading The Adventures of Augie March for the first time as part of my Modern Library Reading Challenge, my dutiful effort to read (and write about) the top 100 works of fiction.  Ended up reading the two apprentice novels that came before, a volume of letters, and cursing myself for reading this masterpiece so late in life.  Because it surely would have given me the right push if I had read Bellow in the right order in my twenties. (I read all the later books then.  Like much of my life, I tend to do things in idiosyncratic order.)  Income inequality, the gender divide, the marvelously inventive television show Community, the strange increase in zombie-like incidents in 2012.  What doesn't obsess or interest me?  I'm afraid, Caroline, that I'm going to have to curtail my response, lest I burden you with a protracted tract of bullet points and grievances.

What question didn't I ask that I should be ashamed of myself for forgetting?

Never be ashamed about what you do not ask.  Even the most able and curious types are subject to some variant of l'esprit de l'escalier.  If we ask nothing at all, or have no answer (even a wrong one) when someone asks us something, that's when we're in real trouble.  

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