Life in the Bush of Books, part 6:
|My tiny-type Lethem cheat-sheet for the interview.|
By the time
I finished interviewing the thoroughly engaging Win
and Meredith Blevins, I was well
into preparation for both the Jonathan Lethem and the Terry Pratchett
interviews. I was quite nervous about
talking to Jonathan Lethem. I was building the interview cheat-sheet
I was planning to take with me, a single piece of paper consisting
of an introduction and two columns of tiny-type questions. This
format had worked well with the Blevins, but there I was in the
position of interviewing a husband and wife who seemed to have the
form of telepathy common amongst married couples. How this would
work in a one-on-one setting with a highfalutin' literati was
clear. Nor was it clear whether or not Jonathan Lethem was a highfalutin'
I also started a similar document for Terry Pratchett, with whom I suspected I would have an easier time, if only because I'd just seen him at Worldcon, where he seemed the type at whom one could simply aim a microphone. I was also quite sure that I'd be able to read more Pratchett than Lethem, simply because the arrival times of the books and the different reading speeds I suspected each would require.
[Even as I write this column, I've got two documents opened up in a similar format, one for Colson Whitehead, and one for Gregory Maguire. Hoping for inspiration or at least a coherent thought.]
|Terry Pratchett's 'The Wee Free Men' is a bit more somber than than the other work I'd read.|
Yes, I admit,
I was enjoying Pratchett's work in the slack-jawed drooling manner
a TRUE FAN. That's still true. As this narrative starts
I was partway into 'The
Wee Free Men'', and finding it to be as readable
as the rest of Pratchett, but a little subtler, a little slower
and more pastoral of tone. It's written for the say -- twelve and
so I even showed it to my fourteen year old son and told him he'd
love it. His response was that he would never read a book with that
title. It only goes to show that you can't predict what kids will
like in any way. In retrospect, I think he'd like Win's novel, 'So
Wild A Dream' a bit more, even though it would seem to be a
tougher read. He [the 14 year-old] has always liked adventure books,
the work of Gary Paulsen, including 'Hatchet' and 'The River'. Those
both share a man-in-the-wilderness theme with Win's novel.
But Pratchett's work was just fine with me, and much of the best, I thought, was yet to come. Still, I also had a bunch of Lethem to choose from in delightfully perfect hardcover first editions. What to read to inform me for my interview of this very erudite, intelligent and literary author?
One of the things I do to research before an interview is to look at other interviews done with the author I'm talking to. That way if there are questions they simply hate, I can save myself the trouble of asking them and the authors the trouble of having to be in the vicinity of someone asking them. I can also avoid asking them the questions they get asked all the time. For Pratchett that seemed to be the old "If humor can't be mapped, why are there now maps for Discworld?" For Lethem, it was quite a bit more nebulous.
|Jonathan Lethem's first novel features a kangaroo detective. The crinkles in the jacket are part of the illustration, not evidence of wear and abuse.|
Looking at Lethem's oeuvre, which I'd always intended to buy
and read since having read 'Motherless Brooklyn', it seemed
that he had started
out in a very science fictional mode. Terry D'Auray's response
to my announcement that I was interviewing him was that she
novel where the kangaroo was the detective. "But
we are at war!"
Surely she didn't mean that a kangaroo was a detective?
But that was exactly what she meant. 'Gun, With Occasional Music' was an initial frontrunner for reading before the interview. In the first place, it would give me an idea of where Lethem (say it now: Lee-thum; practice, because you've been saying 'Leth-um' for all your time spent reading this author's work, that's years and you're going to talk to him and you really, really want to pronounce his name right, don't you?) got his start. It was short, and it looked funny, rather like one of Lem's or Philip K. Dick's japes. But in tone and content it appeared to have little to do with Lethem's latest novel, 'The Fortress of Solitude'. In many ways it was the polar opposite; hyper-unreal SF as opposed to hyper-real Brooklyn memoir; well, hyper-real except for the super powers, that is.
But I had just a little over a week to read the Lethem work, and I was disinclined to read back-to-back-Lethem. Having finished 'The Wee Free Men', I was already anticipating Pratchett's 'Night Watch' and 'Monstrous Regiment'. Pratchett had opined that his favorite was the former, while he'd read from the latter and there were quotes I absolutely loved in it from when he read and I was hell-bent on getting him to read those quotes again for the interview.
This McSweeney's novella is a beautifully produced hardcover book.
I can tell you right now, I never would have guessed what it was about from what I read on the covers, even though the cover is a beautiful literal illustration of events in the story. 'This Shape We're In' is Lethem at his most absurd, yet it's written in a very literal, straightforward fashion. It was a one-sitting short novella that plays on his favorite themes of memory, of history, and has a wonderfully imaginative science fiction background. Yet it doesn't read in the least like science fiction. It's not genre fiction by any measure. I enjoyed the hell out of it and wondered how it fed in to the development I saw in Lethem's fiction from the absurd to the mundane -- well, sort of mundane. I framed a few more questions and dove into the next Pratchett.
'Night Watch' is a gritty police procedural set in Pratchett's fantasy Discworld.
I found myself filling in questions and comments for my interview like a madman. I had to reduce the font size twice to fit them all on a single page. I'd read interviews and force myself to look away when he was talking about books I had in my queue but had not read yet before the interview; at this point, the next scheduled Pratchett was 'Monstrous Regiment' and then, if I had time, 'Mort', since I had the sense that 'Mort' was somehow an important entry in the pantheon.
I had to restrain myself from sending Terry D'Auray my copy of 'Night Watch', just because it seemed to me to be such a strong mystery. But she's a busy girl, and even something this good couldn't hope to get very high in her queue when there were Minette Walters books to be reading. It's not like either of us needs books. But then it is exactly like we both need books.
Jonathan Lethem's Great American Novel is easily one of the best books of this year, and a sure contender, one would hope for any one of a number of awards.
Jonathan Lethem's romantic triangle includes a black hole with a personality.
I was still reading 'As She Climbed Across the Table' when I left for KQED to tape the interview. I stashed in my car, along with the now-traditional bag o' books that I lug to be signed by the author. Yes, I feel like a total dweeb asking them to sign the books and perhaps I shouldn't. Nobody ever minds or even indicates that they might possibly have minded, but I feel that a quote true professional unquote wouldn't need the books signed. Yet I also feel that a true professional who didn't need the books signed probably would be able to be as effective an interviewer as someone who read and loved the books, or at least read and paid close enough attention to the books to want them signed. So I endure my own self-induced sheepishness and bring the pile. And I've got to say that I love having a pile of wonderful hardcover first editions of the authors I interview. It's very fun for this compulsive book-buyer.
The lobby within for San Francisco's public radio station KQED.
Public TV's version of NORAD.
KQED is a big, big deal. They're one of the major west coast PBS radio and TV stations, so I got to peek at a bunch of high-tech control rooms filled with monitors showing the paths of incoming missiles launched from -- no wait, it was Sesame Street. And the Yan Can Cook. I think I prefer Big Bird to the Big Bang any time.
The atrium of KQED that leads from the lobby to the studios.
One of the control rooms at KQED studios.
But of course, he didn't. I moved to the lobby shortly before he was expected, and he showed up the precisely correct amount of minutes early himself. In person, Jonathan Lethem is a very nice, easygoing guy. We discussed his tour and I was pleased to have caught him at the beginning rather than the end. We got to the booth, got ourselves situated, and then I went back into the control room, turned on the computer, came back to the booth and started the interview.
A recording booth at KQED; the "real thing" with desks and all.
Alas by the time I got to the freeway, a bit of a problem had developed. A truck had jumped off a 35-foot wall where freeways intersected and dropped onto a car beneath killing the passengers, stopping the freeway and creating a "sig-alert"-size traffic jam. It took almost two and a half hours to get home. But I brought with me one of my best interviews.
'Terry Pratchett's latest novel is about an unwisely waged war.
I enjoyed the hell out of 'Monstrous Regiment' and wrote a rather ripe review as a result. I was planning on airing the review live as a "Bookend" on KUSP's Fine Print show. But the review ran to a bit over 1,000 words. So I tormented my producers as I rehearsed the review speaking at lightning speed to fit it in to the 3-minute segment. I also tormented myself as to what I should read next. I had 'Mort' and 'The Thief of Time'. I could tell that 'The Thief of Time' was much closer in sequence to 'Monstrous Regiment' and 'Night Watch'. And, as I later found out in the interview, there was talk about a Booker prize nomination for that title. But once again, I let my impatience rule the day, and read 'Mort' simply because it was shorter, but also because it was somehow familiar.
Wayne Barlowe's vision of Mort from the novel of the same title by Terry Pratchett.
The Terry Pratchett interview was to take place at KUSP, since he was signing at Bookshop Santa Cruz. But his signing was at noon, and I had him scheduled to come in at 10:30 AM. I showed up at about 9:30 AM, and found out that the studio was in use. The gentleman using it cleared out fairly quickly and I was almost able to get myself in and situated at the time I had hoped to. Simultaneously, since we are a public radio station, a pledge drive meeting was gearing up in the room outside the studio. It was a fairly chaotic scene.
I trend towards the worrying side of worrying, and I thought that there was again a good chance that Terry might not show. It was after all, early on a Saturday morning; well, early for some people at least, though I myself tend to wake up at 4 AM. By now I had grokked that Terry was something of an international superstar, and it seemed perfectly possible that he might just blow by in a limo waving as he passed the station. On the opposing side was the argument that Terry had in part built up his reading public by dedicated appearances in the UK, touring relentlessly to meet his fans. That was the side that won out, because he showed up quite early. I was barely in the studio and only sort of ready. Fortunately, I know the gear at KUSP well enough so that it doesn't give me any problems. I shook hands and handed Terry some of my reviews to read while I finished setting up. I asked him if he remembered the two people in his Discworld 101 panel at Worldcon who had not read his work; ah, yes, I was a bit of a familiar face.
When I record at KUSP, I use two DATs and a CD recorder in addition to my computer. I've never had occasion to regret this and I have had occasion to be thankful. As Terry read my reviews, he began commenting on them -- disputing some of my points. Uh-oh, I thought, this isn't going well. But then I thought -- this is going well --hell, we were conversing before I could even get the tape recorder going! I popped in a CD, two DATs, hit record on everything, then attempted to start the interview.
Readers who have listened to other interviews will note that I like to start interviews with a brief reading by the author on occasion. Since I had heard Terry read it at Worldcon, I was absolutely fixated on having him read the following except from 'Monstrous Regiment':
"Yes, that's where they've got you," sighed Polly.
"Well, I'm not buying into it. They keep you down, and when they piss off some other country, you have to fight for them. It's only your country when they want you to get killed!" said Tonker.
Alas, the more we tried to get it going, the more complicated it began to seem. Terry wanted (rightfully) to set the scene, though my thought was that the last paragraph alone said volumes about this world, let alone Discworld -- and that was my point. But to set the scene just a little required a little bit more, then some more until Terry and I jettisoned the whole idea and just rambled off into the standard-issue interview -- or so I thought. Terry and I started talking and the time just disappeared. I glanced up and 45 minutes were gone. I glanced up again and 65 minutes were gone; both DATs had run out of tape, and we were relying on the CD and computer power now. In point of fact, had we started on time, we would have been well into the time of his signing. But Terry had lots and lots of really interesting stuff to say and he was thoroughly enjoying himself, as was I. We yakked over the hullabaloo of the pledge drive meeting outside, which is probably audible during the latter parts of the interview. Sorry. When his very kind driver was standing outside the studio window pointing to his watch, and they had a mere fifteen minutes to get to Bookshop Santa Cruz, I regretfully wound things down, said goodbye, had my books signed (oh yes, they were going to get signed!), and then sent Terry and his driver on their way. I had no time to give him the CD of the interview before he left, so I promised to make them and show up at his signing. It was certainly the most easygoing talk I've ever had with an author.
Pressing the CDs proved to be a lot easier said than done. We'd gone well over the limit of audio you can put on a single CD. This meant finding a decent stop point, and saving all sorts of huge files that seemed to grind away for frigging ever. Meanwhile, my chance to enjoy Terry's speech at a local bookstore, and at a time I could actually be conscious and out of the house, was being rapidly eroded.
Bookshop Santa Cruz in the sun.
I had to wait about a week after the signing before this book showed up again at BSC.
By then I was already headed towards my next two interviews, having seen the Gregory Maguire title 'Mirror Mirror' resting in the Inbox at KUSP and having talked to Jonathan Lethem's (Leethumz) publicist about a very funny guy named Colson Whitehead. I'd be doing a bit of reading in the future; by Colson Whitehead, 'The Intuitionist', a droll and intelligent take on the detective novel, and 'The Colossus of New York', a word-lover's feast of fantastic writing about the titular metropolis. By Gregory Maguire, I'd read 'Mirror Mirror' and 'Wicked'. Now, while I'd bought 'The Intuitionist' (twice!) on my own steam, I'd never quite got round to Maguire. Yes, I'm still learning. I'm learning now.
we are at war!"