Article - Winter 2020

Encounters Of f the Page

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.

The mingled fear and excitement I felt when I knocked on Gielgud’s door were familiar companions throughout my first decade as a freelance writer. I left Publishers Weekly in 1983, but I continued writing interviews for them, and in those pre-Internet times, when newspapers across the country devoted multiple pages to books, I also picked up regular assignments from Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Author tours were already being abbreviated by publishers under increased budget constraints from their corporate owners, but major writers still came to New York City to publicize their latest books. Early in my career, I was fortunate—and as impressed as I should have been—to interview such preeminent figures as Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Germaine Greer, and John Fowles.

I obsessively prepared for those interviews, reading as many of the authors’ books as I could and carefully writing out pages of questions in whole sentences. It paid off with Lessing and Gordimer. Both were courteous but aloof until they realized I had done my homework, and then they unbent to talk in some depth about their books. I didn’t have to prove anything to Morrison; she was gracious and warm from the start—though my openly awestruck reaction to Beloved probably helped. Preparation hardly mattered with Fowles, who arrived late after what had clearly been a liquid lunch and responded to questions with more or less random comments, including a snarky but shrewd one about Flaubert (“there’s a kind of massive, mechanical onwardness in Flaubert that you do slightly dislike”) and an amusing one about the deliberately enigmatic quality of his novels (“I know it’s anti-American!”). Greer was sober but equally inclined to stream-of-consciousness conversation. I won’t repeat her explanation of why she wore stockings with a garter belt instead of pantyhose, but the reason she took off her shoe and began banging it on the hotel room table is printable: it had a loose nail. Greer was a force of nature and quite delightful; she even spent part of her time talking about the book she was allegedly promoting (Sex and Destiny).

It took a while for someone as romantic as I was about books and their authors to realize that even the most eminent writers are human beings, not icons. A couple of particularly trying interviews helped drive the point home. Kurt Vonnegut still ranks as my most disagreeable subject. In 1985, his books remained popular, but the recent ones had not been well reviewed, and although I was polite, he probably sensed that I didn’t much like Galápagos. I learned years later from Charles Shields’s excellent biography that Vonnegut had trouble dealing with anyone who wasn’t a worshipful fan, and I certainly got the message as his responses grew curter and curter while he chain-smoked angrily, flicking ashes into a wastebasket. I thought the interview’s most alarming moment had arrived when the wastebasket caught fire, but the flames subsided after Vonnegut dumped cups of water on them; the nadir of our conversation was yet to come. I no longer remember what I said that prompted it, but I’ve never forgotten his reply: “That’s a stupid question. Why did you ask it?” I emerged from his East Side brownstone trembling, convinced it was the worst interview I had ever done. Transcribing the recording afterward, though, I discovered to my mingled relief and fury that virtually every nasty crack he’d made was bitingly funny in print. In the interview that ran in the Sun-Times, Vonnegut came across as a colorful curmudgeon.

Since I didn’t particularly care for Vonnegut’s work, this encounter was unpleasant but not upsetting. My first interview with Margaret Atwood was both. I was thrilled to be talking with a writer I had long admired, about her best novel yet, The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a terrible disappointment to realize that Atwood hated being interviewed and was not disposed to hide her displeasure. She sighed impatiently at every question and replied to several with the discouraging words, “It’s not for me to say.” She wasn’t nasty, exactly, but she certainly was difficult. I realized when transcribing the interview that she had misleadingly paraphrased some of my questions to make them sound dumb before she answered them, which didn’t make me like her any better.

Seven years after that, less starry-eyed and more experienced, I enjoyed matching wits with Atwood when she defended The Robber Bride against a criticism I hadn’t made by asserting that “everyone” had complained about her unlikable protagonist. She proceeded to justify her bad-to-the-bone antiheroine (whom I had thoroughly enjoyed) by saying that rotten characters are always the most memorable (a debatable point) and by posing what she obviously thought was an unanswerable challenge. “Everyone knows which play by Shakespeare Iago is in, but I double-dare you to tell me which play features Imogen.” She was not pleased that I knew it was Cymbeline.

By then, I was no longer disconcerted that Atwood wasn’t especially nice with the press. I had probably interviewed a hundred authors at this point and had long since realized there was no linear connection between a writer’s work and her (or his) personality. I have talked with mediocre authors who were sweet and a lot smarter than their books, with others who were smugly satisfied with themselves and their mediocre prose. (The only two authors who offered to sign their books for me without being asked fall into that category.) I have met wonderful writers who are off-putting people and wonderful writers who are warm and engaging.

A few times, I’ve revised my opinion. I didn’t take to Paul Auster in 1997. He seemed much more interested in his new sideline directing movies than in the memoir I was supposed to ask him about, and it was hard to concentrate with his film crew chattering in the next room and the reek of cigarettes everywhere. In 2016, talking about the Booker Prize–shortlisted 4321 two days after Donald Trump’s election, Auster was shell-shocked, vulnerable, and eloquent in his contention that “writing a novel is always striking a blow for democracy.” I liked him even more when he told me he thought his wife was a genius; I consider Siri Hustvedt one of the smartest, most gifted novelists and essayists writing today, and Auster’s pride in her was endearing.

More often, I’ve felt the same about a writer on the second go-round. Jim Harrison remained a charming flirt—he kissed my hand and said, “I think I remember,” when I told him we’d met before—and refreshingly down-to-earth; his conversation both times had the same blend of intellectual seriousness and robust appreciation for life’s pleasures that I enjoy in his fiction. Pat Barker was similarly forthright the two times we talked; I was particularly struck by her no-nonsense attitude toward her craft when she capped a serious discussion, about how she hoped to write a novel about rape that would capture its rawness for the victim and counter male writers’ use of it as a literary metaphor, with a wry smile and the blunt conclusion: “I’d like to try to do it, but to be honest it could turn into a load of crap very easily.” Eighteen years later, when I read The Silence of the Girls, I saw that Barker had finally figured out how to write her rape novel, and I thought it was among her best.

My most poignant second interview was with Peter Matthiessen just a few months before his death. The ill, elderly man I met that day made a painful contrast to the charismatic writer I had interviewed 28 years earlier, when I was so smitten that my husband jokingly worried that I might run away with him. My crush was (mostly) intellectual. In 1986, I was the dazzled audience for an enthralling near-monologue about two books on subjects close to Matthiessen’s heart, the Long Island fishermen whose boats he’d worked on as a struggling young writer in the ’50s (Men’s Lives) and Zen Buddhism, the “religion before religion” he had practiced for many years (Nine-Headed Dragon River). Soaking up the sun in back of his Sagaponack, New York, farmhouse on a beautiful spring day, Matthiessen spoke fervently about the concerns that linked those books and informed all his work: the vanishing of traditional ways of life, the need to live in harmony with nature, the desire to suffuse each moment of day-to-day existence with meaning. His conversation had the richness and thematic coherence of a good novel. I thought of it when Matthiessen won the 2008 National Book Award for Shadow Country, a fictional portrait of an adventurer in turn-of-the-20th-century Florida that brought those themes and more together in a single blistering masterpiece. I am grateful that I had the chance in 2014 to tell him how much I admired it.

For years I told friends and colleagues that the 1986 interview with him was the best piece I’d ever written. I still think it’s very good, but reading it now, I can see that my affection for it was fueled by the impression Matthiessen made on me. Inevitably, over four decades and (at a guess) 250 interviews, I have grown, not jaded, I hope, but less likely to be bowled over by any author, no matter how talented and articulate. What I have gained in compensation was flagged, without my quite realizing it, in the first paragraph of a profile I wrote of the novelist Gish Jen for Publishers Weekly in 1999:

If your idea of a serious writer is a man sequestered in his study, thinking deep thoughts in seclusion from society’s trivial pursuits, then Gish Jen definitely doesn’t fill the bill. Like most women with young children (her son, Luke, is seven years old; her daughter, Paloma, seven months), Jen inhabits a world in which the competing demands of work and family are everywhere—literally underfoot, like the baby toys strewn on the floor of the sunny kitchen in her Cambridge, Mass., home. Motherhood has extinguished neither her intelligence nor her artistic ambition, but it’s changed both in ways she could not have anticipated. Life is complicated and hectic, but it’s also rich and interesting in ways not available to that hypothetical sage in his study. After all, he will never refer to a new collection of his stories as “the book that hormones wrote.”

I doubt I would have got that quote from Jen if I hadn’t arrived at her house and immediately asked to use her phone (in that antique era, neither of us had a cell) to call my babysitter in Brooklyn. My three-year-old son had woken up that morning with a fever, and I was anxious about being 200 miles away. Jen shared her own sick-baby stories and soon was analyzing in earthy terms the benefits of completing Who’s Irish? while pregnant: “There’s all that estrogen: It’s phenomenal how productive you can be when you’re not throwing up!”

Feminists had been claiming women’s points of view as essential components in meaningful public discourse for 30 years, and I had interviewed plenty of female authors, but Jen was the first who simply assumed that discussing her experiences as a woman in no way compromised her standing as an artist or pigeonholed her work. Since then, I’ve talked with a heartening number of younger writers who proceed from the same assumption. Rachel DeWoskin handed in her first book, a memoir of six years she spent in China in the 1990s, the day before she went into labor with her first child. When we met, her daughter was eight months old and DeWoskin had just completed a draft of her first novel. “Now I want 10 babies!” she declared, glowing with the euphoria of new motherhood. I suggested she’d probably write a book to accompany each one. After agonizing over Song of Achilles for 10 years, Madeline Miller told me that she was much more focused while writing Circe when pregnant with her second child. She handed in the final draft three days before a scheduled C-section—“a very good motivator,” she said, “because that is a hard deadline!”

Becoming a parent opened my eyes to a much more realistic understanding of the creative process for artists of any gender. Writing doesn’t take place on some exalted plane remote from ordinary life; it’s snatched from, yet nourished by, your quotidian obligations, born of bargains made with your spouse, your kids, your bank balance. You may be walking on Parnassus with the Muses, but the clutter of your daily life is always underfoot.

Looking back at the interviews I conducted before I had a baby, I can see that I had always sensed this (fairly obvious) fact, though I couldn’t articulate it. I now understand why some of the moments I remember best from my meetings with authors often didn’t make it into the published profile or were included with some hesitation. They revealed connections between the writer’s art and life that seemed to me at the time either too intimate or too mundane for a published piece, but they lingered in my memory for just those reasons.

Peter Taylor overflowed with anecdotes when I visited him in Charlottesville, amply justifying the South’s reputation for breeding great storytellers, but the one that stuck with me wasn’t on the face of it terribly dramatic. It concerned his mother. Like other Tennessee ladies of her class, she didn’t spend a lot of time with her children, who were tended by the family’s African-American servants. But every morning, Taylor said with a glint of amusement in his eye, they would be presented to her for inspection, his brother and himself in knee pants and his sisters in pinafores. Their mother would reach down and straighten the seams of their stockings, then send them on their way. The story was marvelously evocative of Taylor’s aristocratic background, and those adjusted seams were just the sort of precise, elegant detail that distinguished his fiction. My only excuse for not including it in the interview was that I judged that Publishers Weekly’s readers were more interested in Taylor’s literary friends (Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Randall Jarrell), and of course he had great stories about them too.

I liked Mary Lee Settle too much to even consider making public use of the most nakedly revealing statement she made during my visit to her (also in Charlottesville, as it happened). She was a charmingly unconventional host. After lunch, learning that we had each spent a sleepless night worrying about an impending mortgage, she ushered me into her guest bedroom and firmly announced that she would meet me downstairs after we had both taken a nap.

The postnap interview went well. I was interested to learn that Settle’s novels all arose from initially mysterious images; her then-new novel, Celebration, sprang from a vision of a woman sitting alone making a list, she said, and a lipstick she spotted on the ocean floor while diving was the inspiration for Blood Tie. My innocuous comment that it must have been a thrill to win the National Book Award for Blood Tie got an unexpected response. She had gone to New York so excited and happy, she said, to find “all these articles” with headlines like “Who is Mary Lee Settle?” I suspect she was exaggerating about the extent of the bad press, but National Book Award picks have been known to prompt second-guessing, and Settle was a respected but not widely known writer. She had tears in her eyes, and her voice cracked as she continued, “I was an innocent little baby, they treated me like dirt, and they broke my heart.” I could hear the same wounded rage at injustice that simmers in the Beulah novels, Settle’s magisterial quintet examining the American democratic experiment from its roots in England’s Civil War through three centuries in her native West Virginia. But there was no way I was going to make that connection in print; the most I allowed myself was to write that she had a “warmth and open-heartedness that go much deeper than manners.”

In the 1980s, I interviewed Robert Parker, the African-American former maître d’ of the U.S. Senate dining room, about a memoir he had written. I certainly would not have allowed myself to write about his painful recollection of how, at age 11, he saw his father forced to leave his 15-year-old sister alone with a white man who subsequently raped her, except that he had written about it himself in Capitol Hill in Black and White. Parker’s explanation of why he didn’t express more anger in the book, which also chronicled his adult experiences with racism on the job in the 1960s and ’70s, has stayed with me ever since. “Why should you walk around with anger, use your energy being angry with somebody?” he said. “It doesn’t hurt them, it hurts you.” Parker’s hard-won perspective struck me so forcefully that everyone I know has heard me quote his comment—most of them more than once.

I felt some compunctions two decades later, in 2006, about quoting Susan Cheever’s rueful confession, “I always was a failure as a girl, and I still am; I can never get it together with the right suit and the right hairdo.” She was explaining her sense of kinship with Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott, two literary women whose struggles with traditional notions of femininity were part of the story Cheever told in American Bloomsbury, but I knew that if I had made this kind of admission, I would be embarrassed to see it in print. Ultimately, I decided that Cheever could take it: not only had she written openly about her father’s alcoholism and homosexuality in Home Before Dark: A Personal Memoir of John Cheever, but she’d been even more brutally frank about her own issues in Note Found in a Bottle and joked during our talk that “the only thing anybody noticed about that book is that I slept with three men in one day.” I noticed, however, in the appreciative email Cheever sent me after the piece appeared, that “failure as a girl” was the only line she mentioned.

It’s those very human revelations that stay with me now, along with stray moments of humor and insight scattered across four decades. When I pulled up in front of the novelist Ivan Doig’s Seattle home in an enormous white Lincoln—the only car I could rent at the airport—he deadpanned, “Wow, freelance journalism must pay a lot better than when I was doing it.” I learned about the struggles that underpinned that joke after Ivan and I became friends; several times, over a drink or a meal, he referred lovingly to his wife Carol’s financial and emotional support during the years they scraped by on her salary as a teacher and his occasional freelance gigs while he worked to establish himself as a writer. Ivan finally made it, gaining a solid living as well as critical respect for his lovely novels steeped in the history and character of his native Montana.

Rick DeMarinis, though he had won the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction, was under no illusion, when I visited him in El Paso in 1991, that his unclassifiable fiction, careering across the page with black gusto in sui generis prose, was going to pay the bills. “The work has to be enough,” he told me. I repeat those words almost as frequently as I share DeMarinis’s gleeful remark, “The novel is a wonderful, big, blowsy slut of a form—it forgives everything!” It remains my favorite definition.

In retrospect I realize that my most memorable interviews took place in writers’ homes. In the days when Publishers Weekly had no competitors and publishers’ margins weren’t being squeezed toward zero by Amazon, I got flown across the country to meet people, and it’s harder to hold someone at arm’s length when she’s eaten in your kitchen, been nuzzled by your dogs, and looked at your baby pictures on the wall. That rarely happens now, and Skype and phone interviews, though fine, are not the same. So perhaps my feeling of having to some extent traded enthusiasm for experience, a swap I’m not entirely happy about, is partly the result of these less favorable circumstances.

Then again, I interviewed Madeline Miller and Dara Horn in their homes just a few years ago, enjoyed their informative, often revealing conversations, and was pleased with the profiles that resulted without feeling the exhilaration I experienced listening to Peter Matthiessen, or the shocked empathy Mary Lee Settle’s angry tears provoked. I’m more detached now. There’s always a voice inside saying, “This will be a great quote” or “There’s your closing line.” When I met food writers Matt and Ted Lee last December in Ted’s Brooklyn loft, I was interested in their discussion of how writing Hotbox, a behind-the-scenes look at the catering industry, differed from their three successful cookbooks, and I enjoyed their stream of polished talk. (They’ve been interviewed a lot and are very good at it.) But what I was thinking about as I smiled and nodded was, “How do I get that slightly competitive sibling dynamic of theirs into the piece?” Twenty years ago, I would have been too focused on what the brothers were saying to notice those undercurrents; now, I was waiting for the interchange that would let me bring them to the surface in print. I found it—and received a gratifying note from Matt after the profile ran, saying, “You really got several levels deeper than most.”

I still love interviewing writers. The rewards are different from the thrill I felt at 32, thinking, “I am actually sitting here with Doris Lessing!” If I had interviewed Salman Rushdie then—which happened to be the year The Satanic Verses gave him unwelcome international celebrity—I would have been intimidated by both the celebrity and his reputation for abrasiveness. This year, meeting the 72-year-old Rushdie to discuss his new novel, Quichotte, I was almost disappointed to find that no special skill was required to interview a much more mellow author, who peppered his formidably knowledgeable conversation, ranging over 500 years of literary history, with praise for his editor and generous assessments of younger writers.

Now, when I interview Elaine Weiss about The Woman’s Hour, her nail-biting account of the final ratification of the 19th Amendment, or Beth Macy about Dopesick, her wrenching investigation of the opioid epidemic, I’m meeting contemporaries with similar histories. We chat about our decades as journalists, bemoan the decline of print media, share stories about our adult children. They’re peers, not idols, and I enjoy our human exchanges as much as our intellectual ones. With younger writers, I learn how traditional literary concerns play out for people whose experience of the world has been shaped by smartphones, the Internet, and the myriad other technologies that didn’t exist when I was growing up. I’m happy to say that they talk about structure, tone, word choices, and themes with the same attention to detail, and delight in it, as writers I interviewed four decades back. The demands of making art are constant, and for nearly 40 years I have been privileged to explore the infinitely varied intellectual and emotional responses of writers to those demands. Dara Horn had it backward: I’m the one who’s honored.

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