Art of the Author Interview: A Conversation with Robert Birnbaum
by J.C. Sirott
If an interview is a type of performance, then it follows that the director will play a large part in determining its success. Too often, authors are subject to flat, slacken interviewers who blurt a succession of pat questions that could just as easily be asked of one writer as another. Not Robert Birnbaum.
Simply put, Birnbaum doesn't ask authors the same questions other people do. In fact, a Birnbaum interview is much more of a dialog--a freewheeling, associative conversation. One encounters Stuart Dybek holding forth on whether Nelson Algren is more of a South Side or West Side Chicago writer, Edward P. Jones speculating on whether he should have become a father, and Birnbaum reminding authors about the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Birnbaum has interviewed everyone from literary superstars (Tim O'Brien, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates) to the criminally underrated (Julie Orringer, Frederick Busch). Birnbaum conducts interviews for both The Morning News, as well as identitytheory.com, where he is an editor at large. We conversed about his approach to interviews over email.
dislocate: What kind of preparation do you do before an author interview, and how well versed are you in a given author's work beforehand? Do you return to their work prior to an interview and read with a different eye than you might if you were just reading for pleasure?
Robert Birnbaum: When I began to have these extended conversations with writers, I was committed to reading at least the author's current title--that usually being the auspices under which they were engaging the book tour/charm initiative. In fact, I was interested in finding out everything I could about my intended co-dialogist. I soon discovered, of course, that I was in the minority of people engaging the author. I read the book, and the chats more often than not clicked.
I don't read my intended whatever's writing any differently because I am anticipating a conversation--certainly, I don't even feel obliged to like the narrative in question, though much more often than not I do.
All my reading is for pleasure. What may alter my satisfaction with something that I am reading is usually tied to the time frame I have in which to read it, and, of course, the usual travails of daily life.
dislocate: In 2003, you said to Frederick Busch, "The issue of autobiography in a writer's fiction seems to be belabored and yet that won't stop me from probing." Do you have any general, personal rules regarding when and when not to explore a fiction writer's autobiography?
RB: I don't think I have (m)any rules regarding my approach to my literary conversations. Frank Conroy writes in Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now about going to interview pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett was noted at least for a while as a great improviser--I'm thinking of his Köln Concerts. And he said that before he began to play, he would sit at his piano and attempt to clear his mind of any musical thoughts. This in an attempt to be as spontaneous as possible. I think that's a good model. I approach my chat partner having read their work and maybe knowing something about them. That's about it. And for people I have spoken with multiple times I don't reread previous interviews, though that would probably be useful. Maybe I have become too lazy.
dislocate: Do you have other interviewers you admire? Favorite literary interviews that you've read?
RB: Not really--I don't find them interesting. Or rather lively enough. I am inclined to look for the subject, and frankly, these days, given the easy access to authors and the apparent desperation of publishers to gain every shred of possible attention for their authors, it seems that there is a deluge of author interviews. I actually don't like Charlie Rose's style, but he did a wonderful interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was fascinated by an interview Chris Lydon did with Susan Sontag around the time of The Volcano Lover. I am ambivalent about Terri Gross, and when I lived in Chicago I occasionally enjoyed Studs Terkel's conversations. I suppose I am attracted to Amy Goodman and David Barsamian because of the people they interview.
There are two anthologies of interviews that I value. One is by Seldon Rodman, entitled Tongues of Fallen Angels (1974), which contains his conversations with Borges, Robert Frost, Hemingway, Neruda, Stanley Hunitz, Octavio Paz, Mailer, Ginsburg Derek Walcott, Vinicius de Moraes and Joao Cabral de Melo Neto. The other is a recent collection by Henry Kreisler--Political Awakenings, which includes Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth Warren, Shirin Ebadi, Michael Pollan, Daniel Ellsberg, Ron Dellums, Howard Zinn, and others. In the former case. I am enthralled by the subjects; in the latter, I am impressed with Kreisler's smooth and precise questions.
dislocate: In the same way Amy Goodman delves into issues not covered by the mainstream media in a substantial and more analytical way than the nightly news, do you see your longer, less canned interviews filling a similar void? Do you see your interviews serving as a sort of corrective to the more facile interviewers that authors often must contend with? And is the deluge of uninteresting author interviews harmful in any way?
RB: I don't think that the large number of author interviews is any more harmful than the huge numbers of books published or the large universe of commentators on subjects ad nauseam on the Internet. Large numbers and overpopulation are facts of contemporary life. And I suppose that, as in the matter of reading, it's better that people pay attention to writers and literature than watch the empty narratives of reality television or play Grand Theft Auto all day and night.
I occasionally wonder about the value of my conversations, and while I would find it impossible to conclude that they are worthless (I, at the least, am entertained), I would hope that they serve as digressive narratives about the writer involved (and I suppose me also), which should in some way illuminate something about storytelling. And reinforcing the meaning and centrality of storytelling in the human drama is very important.
On the infrequent occasions that I have reread one of my conversations, I have been impressed with their readability and coherence--though that is no doubt self-fulfilling, since my talks ought to be coherent to me. As an unrepentant political progressive, the only intention that attaches to my conversations is opportunity to air out the incongruities and contradictions of life in the post-industrial democracy known as the United States or its governments (which are devolving into jukeboxes--meaning throw some money in and it'll play your tune). I hope my chats are useful and stimulating, and given the obvious failure of people in a position to challenge the status quo to do so, I hope what I do is a corrective. And as to the notion of filling a void, I don't think there can ever be too much smart commentary in the so-called public conversation. I hope the work I do qualifies as that.
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