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Thursday, August 04, 2005

But Who WasThe One With The Recipe For Lemon Meringue Pie?

In an engaging article for The Book Standard, novelist Adam Langer divides authors he’s interviewed into categories, further dividing them into gold, silver and bronze winners. Herewith some (long) extracts:

Category #1: The Freewheeling Improviser: Just about everyone can answer the obvious questions (Why did you write the book? What inspired you? What authors do you admire? Is the book autobiographical? Updike or Roth? Beatles or Stones?), but that hardly makes for inspired or original copy. As a journalist, few experiences are more pleasurable than finding a well-rounded conversation partner who can dissertate on just about everything, from today’s headlines to recipes for lemon meringue pie.
Gold Medalist: Umberto Eco
. Anyone who can discuss Broadway musicals, comic-book superheroes, medieval history and mixed drinks in a single sentence without the slightest appearance of pretension exemplifies perfectly this category.

Category #2: He/She Who Does Not Suffer Fools Gladly: One would tend to think that grumpiness would be a less-than-desirable quality in an interview subject. But too much friendliness, especially in the event of an unprepared journalist, can often mean that the individual being interviewed just isn’t paying enough attention. Sometimes, a particularly prickly person is a particularly honest one.
Bronze Medalist: Nadine Gordimer (who once told me, quite reasonably, that if I asked her a stupid question, I’d get “a nasty answer”).
Gold Medalist: Toni Morrison...Dr. Morrison’s frankness was worth incurring her wrath for trying to research her background by interviewing too many of her friends and relatives. The first time I met her for an interview, I sat in her apartment with another editor from Book Magazine. Afterward, she remarked to her publicist that “the smarter one” asked more questions. I’m still not sure which one of us she meant.

Category #3: The Unself-conscious Subject: In this age of media consultants, spin doctors and over-rehearsed questions and answers, it’s wonderful to find someone honest and genuine enough to consider any question, no matter how bizarre or off-point.
Silver Medalist: Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White). A man who will answer absolutely anything seriously, respectfully and at length. Really at length.
Gold Medalist: Alex Garland (The Beach, The Tesseract)....The simple fact that he was able to field with a straight face the most bizarre and inappropriate audience question I have ever heard (“Have you researched comas? And do you know if it is possible for someone in a coma to achieve and maintain an erection?”) makes him an all-star in this category.

Category #4: The Consummate Storyteller: One of the best qualities an author can have, of course, is the ability to captivate the reader with his or her own words, but it is the rare individual who can do this both in person and on the page.
Bronze Medalist: Isabel Allende. Allende can answer a simple biographical question and make it sound like she is casting a spell.
Silver Medalist: Salman Rushdie. Before he wrote The Satanic Verses or Midnight’s Children, Rushdie was an actor (although probably not a romantic lead). During interviews, his thespian past shows (in mostly a good way).
Gold Medalist: Maxine Hong Kingston. The author of Tripmaster Monkey and The Fifth Book of Peace can do much of what the previous two can and she can do it without sounding as if she’s been rehearsing for all her adult life.

Category #5: The Genuinely Decent Human Being: ...For all I know, the people I am about to mention have deep, dark, horrible secrets, but for the space of an interview or conversation, they seemed like some of the most caring and generous people I have ever met... It hardly seems fair to rank this category, so let’s just list them in alphabetical order and call it even.
Gold Medalists (five-way tie):
• Richard Adams (Watership Down)
• Stuart Dybek (I Sailed With Magellan)
• Bel Kaufman (Up the Down Staircase)
• William Lychack (The Wasp Eater)
• John Murray (A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies)


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