June 2010
Michael Silverblatt illustration by Tony Millionaire

Michael Silverblatt

[Host of Bookworm on KCRW]

“I like to think that at best the interview becomes something like the unaccountable experience of talking to oneself in a mirror.”
Things to avoid when conducting an interview:
A neutral and faceless appearance
Asking questions that produce the same answers the guest has given before
Trying to make the guest confess that they’ve had a relationship with an animal

Michael Silverblatt is the host of the nationally syndicated radio interview program Bookworm. If I told you that he’s interviewed more than twelve hundred writers, including John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut, W. G. Sebald, and John Ashbery; or that Norman Mailer called him the best reader in America and Susan Sontag named him a national treasure; or how, on his weekly show, it’s not uncommon for a writer to pause after hearing one of Silverblatt’s characteristically astute observations and say something to the effect of “No one has ever understood my work that well before,” as if he or she just found true love; it would still tell you very little about him. What makes Silverblatt such an exceptional interviewer is not just his intelligence, dedication, and ability to read closely while still holding in mind the long view of any book, but also his humor, tenderness, and love for writers and books.

In October, while on a weeklong visit to the University of Iowa in Iowa City (the biggest literary small town in America), Silverblatt garnered the admiration of creative-writing and English literature students and faculty alike. Part of this has to do with the fact that he has the mind of a writer, reader, editor, and critic. He’s at once fiercely articulate and endearing. While out shopping at one of the many used-book stores in town, one member of the poetry faculty was so taken by Silverblatt he offered to carry his books for him.

Midway through Silverblatt’s visit, he and I sat down in front of about forty students and faculty to discuss the art of the literary interview. After helping himself to a cup of tea and a black and gold glazed doughnut, he told me he was nervous. But once we hit record, he was so loquacious and unassuming he made the art of interviewing look easy.

Bookworm is produced at KCRW public radio in Santa Monica. All twenty years of Bookworm archives can be heard at kcrw.com/bookworm.

—Sarah Fay

THE BELIEVER: Do you consider yourself an interviewer?

MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: I tend to consider myself first and foremost a reader and a conversationalist. I don’t know how to interview people. I never went to journalism school. I don’t know what’s conventionally wanted from an interview, and I know that the things that I hear about it all strike me as wrong. Interviewers are supposed to be neutral and faceless, and I don’t believe in that. I don’t know how to talk to someone who’s neutral and faceless.

BLVR: You get really honest and raw responses from your guests. How do you do it?

MS: In the course of interviewing, I’ve discovered that if you don’t give your guest something to react to, they don’t react. They simply say what they’ve been saying every time they’ve been interviewed. The last thing you want is to have people say to you what they’ve said to someone else. On the air, the microphone picks up a certain mechanical quality, and the interview sounds dead. I want something to happen, and I know it’s not going to happen on what’s conventionally called a writer’s tour, because they’ve been going from city to city to city. If I can create a context that’s unusual enough, make it strange enough to get their ear so that they’re listening again and can hear what I’m saying, I will get a response that’s genuine. I’m not trying to make people confess that they’ve had a relationship with an animal—that’s not of any interest to me whatever—I want to talk to the person, the part of the person that wrote the book. What I’m interested in is characteristic of the privacy they have at the writing desk.

BLVR: But your questions are never intrusive.

MS: I wouldn’t call what I ask questions; I consider them to be lengthy Rorschach blots in words, in language. You’ve got a person coming into your studio. They’re tired, they’re nervous. By now, after twenty years, many of them have heard Bookworm shows and think, Oh, he’s so smart, he’s going to ask me things I don’t know how to answer. I want to ask a question that allows the interviewee, the guest, to hear certain words that then they free-associate about. There isn’t usually an answer to the question. And what they come up with doesn’t usually answer the question. It has just brought them to a state where they realize, I’m going to go wherever this takes me.

BLVR: Is that why your guests seem to admire you as much as you admire them?

MS: Rather than interviewer, conversationalist, reader, I believe in calling myself a host, which makes the person a guest, which makes the traditional guest-host relationship come into play, which is one of courtesy, welcome, conviviality. I’m not there to do shock-radio or to create tension; in fact, I’m there to do the opposite. I’m there to show that when someone feels comfortable, when someone is being respected, when someone’s attitudes and values are being mirrored—maybe even shared—they become more articulate, more interesting, more willing to speak their minds, and are willing to go deeper.

BLVR: Do you actually say this to your guests?

MS: I tend to tell people when I start, “I am here to help you shine. I don’t have any interest in embarrassing you. I have no interest in asking you a question that you can’t answer.” What kind of good radio would that be? And how many more guests would I have after a couple of shows in which I did that? No, the questions have been tailored to the guest.

BLVR: When you say “tailored,” what do you mean?

MS: I’ve read all of the work, or in some cases as much of the work as is humanly possible. We all have time and deadlines, accidents, emergencies, but I read as much of it as I can. I’m very against interviewers who do not have time to read the work, who accept jobs knowing that they don’t have time to do the preparation. And that is almost everyone who has a daily interview program. How could you read, or see, or watch, or hear as much as you need to? So, you wing it. And it’s not going to stop. Winging it is going to be the American way. But I want to read the work. What for? To be able to be a mirror to my writer. I want to read the books that have influenced the work, childhood books, all kinds of things. And so my preparation is infinite.

Most writers have never spent time speaking to someone who’s read all the work except someone working on a dissertation or in an English department, in which case it’s rather different. They’ve read the work to test a theory or an idea. No, I’m there to astonish them by the extent to which I can mirror them. And I like to think that at best the interview becomes something like the unaccountable experience of talking to oneself in a mirror.

BLVR: So how do you read? Do you read as a writer, an academic, or a fan?

MS: No one ever gave me any flashcards telling me the difference between those things. I read like someone who has been subjected at one point or another to virtually every stimulus that is appropriate to literature. Let me give you some examples. When I was in junior high, Stephen Sondheim started publishing what were called “Cryptic Crosswords” in New York magazine. They are astonishing, extraordinary crossword puzzles, nothing like American crossword puzzles in that they have puns and anagrams. Sometimes they’re three-dimensional. Sometimes you enter the words as a knight would move across a chessboard. Sometimes you take the crossword and cut it up into pieces as indicated and reshape it so it forms a quotation or a syllogism. A typical clue goes like this: “Broken harmonicas floating in Manhattan, for example.” Now that is a very clear clue to someone who does this kind of puzzle. You take harmonicas and you break it, rearrange the letters, broken harmonicas, and if you have the patience you discover that harmonicas rearranges to Maraschino and you would find a maraschino floating in a Manhattan, for example. This led me to read funny.

BLVR: Wow—and this trained you as a reader?

MS: It’s just the way I re-punctuate things. I’m alternatively shaping sentences as I’m reading coherently for sense. Words jump off the page, and I rearrange them in my head. I remember a poem by Edward Albee in the New Yorker. Albee didn’t write many poems, but there was one and it had the line “rain turns to snow and calls for a cigarette.” And I thought, Hey, snow! You have a cigarette? The rain is literally speaking.

BLVR: Do you do this with everything you read?

MS: I have an experience of the book, and it’s as if I have not a flat surface in front of me but rather a beehive around my head. It’s very strange.

BLVR: Who else taught you to do this?

MS: I’ve been taught by some of the most extraordinary writers and teachers who’ve ever walked the planet, so I have nothing but reverence for a good teacher, for a great teacher. Among my teachers and the people from whom I’ve taken example: Hugh Kenner, a sublime literary critic who had the best ear that I’ve ever encountered for poetry, prose, and nuances, for hidden tickles inside a sentence; John Barth; Donald Barthelme; the journalist and essayist Dwight Macdonald. As a friend I’ve had Pauline Kael. I was privileged to be able to sit in on classes taught by Michel Foucault the first time he taught in America. I’m leaving out many who might be offended by my neglect, but I had such remarkable teachers and there’s nothing like having a teacher that you adore and going home and reading their book and hearing how their casual speech mutates into their prose.

BLVR: Did you ever feel spoiled by having had such great teachers?

MS: I began to believe that I could not learn from anyone who was not an eccentric speaker.

BLVR: So do you favor rhetoric over content?

MS: I believe that words and their arrangement in the sentences are what get our attention. I want, as Barthelme has his Snow White character say in his first novel, I want to hear words I have never heard before. I want the words and sentences to peacock around, to open their plumes. Art speech—I’ve called it that after art songs—is a form of speech no one can speak unless someone else is speaking it. In other words, when I start to speak it you can see a writer lift up their eyebrows and say, “Oh, it’s safe to noodle around. It’s safe to throw in a word or not know where the sentence ends.” In other words, to speak from the realm of style rather than from the realm of information or communicative exchange. I want to hear their styles, I want to hear the emotion that goes into shaping a style.

BLVR: Do you like your job?

MS: People tell me I have the best job in the world, which is true, but I also work with some of the best people in the world.

BLVR: Have you ever lost your composure during an interview?

MS: Stephen Dixon, a wonderful and under-known writer—we made each other cry during an interview. We were talking about the death of children. I’m often a crier and many things make me cry. I come from a crying family—my mother cries, my grandma used to cry. It was never shameful to cry. My father never told me men don’t cry. He wasn’t much of a crier, but on occasion he could get a good cry in. A beautiful word in the middle of a sentence can sometimes reduce me to tears in an interview, and when I’m reading, too. I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’m at the point of tears all the time because I use my eyes so much that they’re strained and on the verge of tears anyway.

BLVR: Do you remember the first book that had an impact on you?

MS: My first crucial book was Alice in Wonderland. My mom used to take me with her to the beauty parlor, and I asked her to get me the big Walt Disney Alice in Wonderland with the colored pictures because it was so pretty and mysterious to me. I remember the Cheshire cat, pink and purple with a heckler’s smile. My mother instead bought me the Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the black and white Tenniel engravings, and I was very disappointed. She did it not because she had a particular investment in literature but because the Disney was so much more expensive and we were always mindful of our economy. And when I finally read it—it took me a good two years—I was absolutely fascinated and perturbed by it, particularly by the section where Alice finds herself in the wood where nothing has a name and she doesn’t know her own name. The engraving has Alice in the woods with her arms around the neck of a fawn, not strangling the fawn, but embracing it as if for dear life, or as if she doesn’t know if she is a fawn, too. The mystery of reading all of those poems that made less sense if you didn’t know the popular poems they were parodies of made it even stranger. I was absolutely entranced by Alice and Lewis Carroll. I got Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic and The Game of Logic and in the back there were these exercises, syllogisms, lists of propositions. He was a mathematician. There were thirty propositions and they were all made out of nonsense, full of badgers and unicorns and sundials—Lewis Carroll nouns—and you were to deduce the final truth from all of them. Because his name was not Lewis Carroll but Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Queen Victoria, who loved Alice, summoned the list of his books and was surprised and indignant when she got these math books. There were no other children’s books. So, at her behest and knowing that he was writing for Queen Victoria he wrote some of his most sentimental literature—Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, which are full of fairy children and things that you might find in a Charles Kingsley book like The Water-Babies. It’s not what you want from Lewis Carroll. But I did teach myself logic and math through his books, and I developed quite a proficiency for abstract math.

BLVR: What was your major in college?

MS: I thought I was going to be a math major. My parents were both accountants and wanted me to major in business. Math was our compromise.

BLVR: How many hours a day do you spend reading?

MS: I really don’t know. It varies intensely. I never have experienced myself as someone who reads a great deal, but I don’t have anyone to compare myself to. I do know this: I wake up in the middle of the night and fresh from dreams in the quiet, the absolute quiet of the night, I get more read than I could imagine possible. In the morning, I’m surprised to find that I’ve read two or three hundred pages. And I can’t do that during the day. During the day, I’m an average reader who takes at least two minutes a page, which comes out to only thirty pages an hour and a hundred pages every three hours. I can’t explain it at all except I have seen the expression “night brain” used here and there. I don’t have the faintest idea what it means, but I suppose I do have something that happens in the night. I’m not exhausted but apparently I’ve done a hero’s share of nighttime reading.

BLVR: Were you always a devoted reader?

MS: No, I was a procrastinator and reading-avoider. When I did read, I liked to read a book very slowly. And I was not someone who in college was typically prepared with the assigned reading.

BLVR: Do you come to every interview with a prepared list of questions?

MS: Never. I don’t and I can’t. I know these are some of the basic rules about doing what we’re calling an interview. I often say that the writer’s face tells me what to ask. At the beginning of an interview, I try to look straight at the writer, to meet their eye and not break the gaze. I don’t turn it into a game—it’s not who blinks first—it’s meant to be casual. An unbroken gaze leads to an unbroken sentence. As soon as someone blinks or looks away, you get shorter and shorter sentences. If they talk in a long sentence, it’s akin to a meditative state or a state like dreaming or thinking to oneself. I want them to be there.

BLVR: Do you ever worry about getting too far off track?

MS: I do jump from topic to topic. I don’t expect it to flow naturally, except the way conversation flows, which is often associatively and illogically. If I want to have a conversation, I can’t have a list of questions, because the second question on the list is going to interrupt the conversation. When you transcribe an interview, you see how strange, how mad-tea-party-like, the interview has been.

BLVR: What’s the difference between interviewing for radio and interviewing for print?

MS: If you’re doing it for print, you have to invent coherence, edit for coherence. But people listening to an interview hear the naturalness and immediacy of the exchange, the freshness of it. I often say that people don’t really listen to an interview until they hear that the exchange is friendly or enjoyable. This has more to do with the sound of laughter, of breath, with the whole alphabet of the subvocal zoo—in the same way that they talk about the subnuclear zoo. There are all sorts of small animals in the zoo that don’t use words. In communication, breaths, eye wrinkles, and ear tugs, a thousand things are going on that you can interpret before you hear any words. When people hear that what’s going on in an interview sounds stimulating and interesting, they start to pay attention and hear the actual words. And that usually grows deeper over the course of an interview.

BLVR: When you and James Galvin returned after taping your interview with him, he looked stunned.

MS: I’m aware that people who are being interviewed may feel very self-conscious. They’ve just been walking through a jungle with me, and they don’t know how they did, because they haven’t had many such conversations before.

BLVR: How do you know when an interview is going well?

MS: I’ve been doing this for twenty years—I don’t know how many interviews I’ve done—but I can hear when an interview has gone well. Often the writer has taken the time to restate something. That’s part of a writer’s spell: wording it differently. Repetition and knowing how to artfully repeat—I’m not talking about Gertrude Stein here—these things remind a reader what, where, and who is speaking. These are often sprinkled throughout a novel. Conversation does that, and a writer’s conversation in particular will reemphasize elements. And when this happens, you start to enter the hypnotic world of writing, a world created by language and syntax. That is what a writer—whether they’re conscious of it or not—grows to be gifted at. And I’m trying to put a spell on them so they’ll do it for me while their mind is busy answering my question. It’s similar to the way I think of those broken harmonicas while I’m reading a book.

BLVR: What about silence?

MS: Another place where the conventional view of broadcast journalism and interviewing is incorrect, at least for me. With the kind of people I’m speaking to, silence is part of the vocabulary. And almost inevitably, the vocal delivery of a joke or something humorous is about the beauty of a well-placed pause before the aspirated word. I leave in what’s called “dead air” in the technical world of radio. Now that we’re digital, you’d be amazed how the minutest of pauses can be edited out of a sentence. And I don’t want them edited out. I really don’t, because part of the information that the listener is getting—especially the listener who knows the writer, who’s been thinking about or is excited about this writer—is how quickly the writer comes up with an answer to a question. We watch athletes as they pause and ready themselves, and writing is just another skill by someone who’s brought a form to perfection or their own version of perfection. And when someone thwacks the ball at them, we want to see how much aggression is in the return. It’s part of the information of the interview and shapes the interaction.

BLVR: Have you ever provoked a guest to get a response?

MS: I never want a fight. I just don’t have the human meat to want to engage in some kind of gladiatorship on the air. I don’t like hearing it either, and I hear it plenty. It’s almost all you hear, but it always embarrasses me because when people are fighting they say things they don’t mean. I want people to say things they mean, and I want them to make meaning in the course of the conversation. I like significance. I like resonant significance, and I don’t like snap or flash judgments. What’s more, 99.5 percent of my guests are not criminals or politicians. They’re not people who’ve committed crimes or disappointed public trust. They don’t need to be interrogated. They need to be taken on a beautiful walk or ramble.

BLVR: Have you ever felt intimidated by a guest?

MS: Almost all of them. I started out not being as responsive to poetry as I am to fiction. And my very first interview in public was with Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, and oh, did I wriggle. I even called a professor who teaches Irish poetry and said, “I shouldn’t be doing this interview. It should be—you should do it.” No dice. Couldn’t worm out. During the interview, I said to Heaney, “You are known to be a poet of sensuality, but there’s very little physical sensuality, very little sexuality in your work. In fact, there’s reticence about that. Can you say why?” And he loved it. It was something he hadn’t thought about, and he started taking ideas out of the air and laying them open for consideration.

BLVR: Do you like interviewing in front of an audience?

MS: The show is much easier for me to do than an interview in front of an audience, because in the booth no one’s there with us. The engineer is across the way behind a glass case, and so is my associate producer. My guest and I are encased in glass, too, directly facing one another in a somewhat darkened room. It’s a little bit like psychoanalysis, or like my psychoanalysis at least. (I have a talking analyst.) But in front of an audience, especially if the writer is beloved by the audience, I’m aware that many of the people have dreamt all their lives of being able to sit down with Kurt Vonnegut and have a conversation. Kurt Vonnegut gave few enough interviews in his life that when I did interview him in front of an audience, the museum where it took place had a line that lapped the block. The courtyard, the patio, all of the outdoor levels were full. It was like the Fellini set for Satyricon—extraordinary people everywhere. I’m aware that in that situation I am a delegate of the audience and I have to act that way. I have to look at the audience, I have to ask rhetorical questions of the audience, I have to make them feel fully participatory so that they don’t feel that I’m the asshole up there ruining every moment when Kurt Vonnegut isn’t talking.

BLVR: Do you ever become friends with your guests?

MS: Kurt didn’t sign books, he didn’t stay on, he was escorted into a car immediately through a back door, but he said, “Give me your book,” and drew a picture of himself and a bubble coming out of his mouth saying, “Would you be my friend?” and gave me his phone number and he looked at me and said, “I’m so lonely.” I had started reading him before he was discovered, around the time of Mother Night. He meant a lot to me. I had a hunger verging on addiction to enjoy how funny and inventive he was. He wasn’t Pynchon, he wasn’t Barth, he wasn’t Barthelme, he wasn’t the writers he was grouped with, but he had his finger on an American zaniness that hadn’t really been seen since Mark Twain. We began a phone relationship and saw each other several more times before his death. Several other friendships. But you were talking about intimidation.

BLVR: Was I?

MS: I try to keep the question somewhere in the back of my mind.

BLVR: OK, let’s go back to intimidation.

MS: I was scared of talking to Susan Sontag, not because I was afraid of her from her writing, but she had a reputation for biting people’s heads off. Donald Barthelme had always wanted me to meet Susan, and I would say, “Please, no, don’t introduce me to her, she’ll bite my head off!” I have a head that I like having, and I think that there are assaults that you might not recover from. She would very quickly make a snap judgment and then say, “That is the most vulgar and philistine thing I’ve ever heard. Have I traveled all this way to be insulted?” It was a technique of hers, let’s say. Susan grew up among the communist factions, and the wars were ferocious. The wars of the Partisan Review and the wars outside the Partisan Review. One person in a eulogy for the New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg said, “We fought our wars with every weapon at our disposal. We were our weapons.” That’s what she came out of. She came to New York both as a woman and as a leftist, having to be capable of not only defeating but silencing argument with shock tactics. I mean, it really was amazing to watch her in action, but not so amazing if it was aimed at you.

She was also gifted at providing you with a three-minute character denunciation, and it would change your life. It changed mine. She begged me to stop insisting that the best part of me was childish. When I was a child—because of an allergy—my parents threw out all my stuffed animals. Overnight! Into the incinerator! They were gone! I had my own version of a holocaust. So I thought I had to re-parent myself and started collecting the most beautiful stuffed animals imaginable. I would buy them here or there. It was a great collection. Susan said, “Michael, I know you’ve had an odd past, people tell me about it, I gather it was rough. It is over. Throw away those stuffed animals, you do not need them. They’re ridiculous. It makes you into a freakish, infantile creature. These are not the reasons, this whimsy is not the reason, people admire you.” I gave all my animals away. I didn’t and don’t tend to travel very much. I get nervous about travel. I don’t like to accept invitations to places. I’m an Emersonian: the world enters me through the imaginative world. I’m intimidated not by the airplane itself, but by changing planes. I’m convinced that I’ll never get to the second gate, or the luggage won’t arrive. Horrible, horrible, horrible. Anyway, Susan said, “And when you get an invitation to go to a conference in England, you say, ‘Yes, I will go,’ and when you’re leaving, you say, ‘See you next year.’” I mean, I hadn’t even asked! She forced me to cross borders created by fear and childishness.

BLVR: Who else?

MS: I was also afraid of Norman Mailer, but the truth is that the Mailer I spoke to was like a mellow bull in a pasture, with flowers wound around his horns. He was so sweet. He was so endearing and funny, and I loved him. He understood as some people do that in order to have a subsequent generation in the literary world, you had to lead people into it. He’s the one who said, “Michael Silverblatt is the best reader in America.” I mean, how would he know? He neither knows all the readers in America nor has he ever been with me when I’m reading. But he knew that he had had a good experience with me of a very unusual sort, and that if he could create me as a literary type he’d be likely to have that experience again. And he had so many enemies. Toward the end of his life, he said, “If there’s anything I regret it’s that business with women’s liberation.” But it wasn’t because he’d come to a different understanding of women. He said, “The majority of readers are women, and they won’t buy my books.” So he felt badly about having alienated a good section of the literary audience.

BLVR: Who else?

MS: I was really, really afraid of Joan Didion, simply because she’s a no-nonsense type. She has a mind that aggressively finds the flaws in an argument and the places where you’re trying to burnish your weakness with pretty words. And her attitude is “Everybody’s lying and life is the story we’re telling ourselves in order to stay alive. And an artist sees through the story. Sees through the fakeness of the story to the very bare and difficult impossibilities of the coping mechanism functioning in a true situation of devastation.” I was very scared, and that fear did not lessen, as it usually does with subsequent interviews. In fact, when The Year of Magical Thinking came out, about her husband’s death—that was a really hard interview to do! To talk to someone about the book about the death of her husband just after her daughter had died as well? And she had been talking about it all around the country, giving public readings. I’m in the position of someone extending meaningless condolence. If I don’t extend it, I seem like a jerk, but if I ask tough questions I also seem like a jerk. How was I going to do this interview? I was scared of her subject. Also of having at that time my own parents dealing with illnesses. I said to her, “Joan, please pardon me if I cry during this interview. And I’m very nervous about being unable to speak, because this is a subject that you’ve been handling that I don’t handle very well.” And she took my hand and she said, “I’ll get you through it.”

BLVR: If you were to give someone advice on how to interview, what would you say?

MS: You’re not giving an interview; you’re having a conversation. Start by doing it. It’s like walking a tightrope, and it should be. The more it’s like walking a tightrope, the more admirable it will be, and the more interesting it will be to your reader or listener. A steno pad prevents you from meeting a person’s eye. And it prevents someone from meeting your eye. Don’t use notes. There’s a conscious and unconscious response when someone sees that you’re speaking to him or her from memory and you trust yourself. You may never know when the answer is going to end or where he’s going to stop, or she’s going to stop, but believe in the politeness of letting someone speak uninterrupted and don’t interrupt. My advice to you: sit forward, listen with all your might, and don’t ever be thinking of your next question.

Sarah Fay is an advisory editor at the Paris Review. Her reviews appear in the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and the American Scholar. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa and is finishing her first novel.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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