Article - Winter 2020

Encounters Of f the Page

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After conducting 250 author interviews over four decades, I’m still engaged but a lot less awestruck

By Wendy Smith | December 2, 2019
National Book Award picks have been known to prompt second-guessing, and Mary Lee Settle was a respected but not widely known writer. (Nigel Henderson,
National Book Award picks have been known to prompt second-guessing, and Mary Lee Settle was a respected but not widely known writer. (Nigel Henderson, "Photograph of Mary Lee Settle," Tate, London 2018)

One sweltering day in the summer of 1980, I stood nervously at the door of a Manhattan hotel room. I was there to interview John Gielgud, whose memoirs were about to be published, for the trade magazine Publishers Weekly. The prospect of meeting one of the most distinguished actors on the English-speaking stage was intimidating enough for someone who had been a passionate theatergoer since she was 12; on top of that, I’d been an assistant editor at Publishers Weekly for less than a year, and this was my first author interview. I was miserably overdressed, in a suit far too warm for a July afternoon, and I brandished a three-page list of questions more suitable for someone planning a full-length biography. Luckily, Gielgud was so chatty that even a 24-year-old novice could fashion a reasonably entertaining profile from his nonstop flow of talk.

I thought of that day 37 years later after an interview with Dara Horn, a brilliant writer who at age 40 was young enough to be my daughter. We had been talking about Eternal Life, the most recent of her five novels, and her conversation was as intelligent and stimulating as her fiction. I was relieved, I told her, that she bore no grudge about the mixed review I had given her fourth book, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I had characterized in The Washington Post as “one of those enthralling, excessive works so stuffed with ideas and images as to be sometimes maddening.” Not at all, she assured me. “It was a thoughtful review. It’s an honor to meet you.”

That second sentence threw me. You know you’ve been around a long time, I thought, when someone as accomplished as Horn says it’s an honor to meet you. I was, naturally, flattered as well as startled. Although I pride myself on being a perceptive critic and a good interviewer, I don’t kid myself that a stack of book reviews, profiles, and essays constitutes the same kind of achievement as five novels. Mulling over Horn’s comment prompted me to think about how my own perspective on interviewing authors had changed alongside my subjects’ perspective on me.

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