The Precarious State of the Literary Interview

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There are plenty of dull, insipid conversations with authors out there, but the form isn't worth writing off completely.

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The 2010s may rightly be called the age of the interview. Interviews appear regularly in magazines and newspapers, on blogs, websites, videocasts, television, and podcasts. On iTunes this week, eight of the top-ten podcast revolve around or include conversations or interviews. The popularity of interviews indicates that although we may be isolated in our technology-clad bubbles, we still like to listen to people talk and engage, reflect and share, even if we've stopped doing it ourselves.

According to some, literary interviews—which were oncethe apotheosis of the form—have become platitudinal and monotonous. In 2006, Pico Iyer attributed the decline of the literary interview to an overreliance on sound bites about authors plucked from search engines like Google and recommended that interviewers actually read an author's work. "[I]nterviews," he wrote, "have become a circular form in which almost every interviewer asks the same questions as every previous interviewer." Although some writers and readers have given up on literary interviews, now is not the time to abandon the form; some of the best examples of literary interviews are available on the Internet.

KCRW's weekly half-hour broadcast and podcast "Bookworm" with host Michael Silverblatt reminds us that the literary interview can function as art. Silverblatt prepares for each interview by reading almost everything a guest has ever written. He is a sensitive and careful reader who shapes his questions based on a guest's responses rather than a set of rote queries. Silverblatt's questions spark analysis, discussion, and storytelling. As a result, his guests break subjects apart and examine them more closely, entertain multiple points of view, and create narratives rather than blab anecdotes. Silverblatt takes the role of "host" literally. He is cordial and considerate without being sycophantic. (Silverblatt's Lannan Podcasts are also available via podcast.)

The Paris Review (where I'm an editorial associate) continues to publish interviews that aren't merely Q&As with someone in the literary profession. Paris Review interviews are well crafted, typically by both the interviewer and the interviewee. Their "rewritten interviews" function as a mode of self-education and self-culture. The magazine has interviewed practically every author from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison, T.S. Eliot to Stephen King. The Paris Review Writers at Work series (then six volumes) won the George Polk Memorial Award for excellence in reporting for an interview series in 1968 and was nominated for Pulitzer Prize.

Other magazines that post smart, lively literary interviews on the Internet include Tin House and Callaloo. (Unfortunately, Callaloo's website is inhospitable.) Similarly, the Atlantic interviews, available as part of the "Atlantic Unbound" series, include interviews with writers, such as Tobias Wolff and Edwidge Danticat.

NPR's weekday interview program Fresh Air with Terry Gross has been broadcasting since 1975 and is available as a podcast. Given the number of guests that appear on her show, Gross manages to conduct relatively substantial interviews with authors. An anthology of her author interviews, Fresh Air Writers Speak with Terry Gross, includes conversations with Philip Roth and David Sedaris and is available on audiobook.

To hear interviews with writers of the past, Wired for Books MP3 Page includes many (if not all) of the interviews conducted during the 1980s by journalist and writer Don Swaim for his radio show "Book Beat." The downloads are loose, uncut, 30-minute versions of what was eventually edited down to two-minute segments. Swain not only interviewed authors, but also biographers such as Peter Ackroyd (Dickens), Brian Boyd (Nabokov), Robert DeMott (Steinbeck), Ian Hamilton (Robert Lowell and JD Salinger), Diane Middlebrook (on Anne Sexton), and Arnold Rampersand (Langston Hughes).

FORA.tv includes 10,000 video conferences, lectures, and interviews available for download. Funded by investors Adobe and William Hearst III, FORA.tv is prohibitively expensive but offers access to talks with authors held at the New York Public Library, The New York Times 'TimesTalks,' the 92nd Street Y, and The New Yorker Festival. You can downloadDavid Remnick's 2011 interview with Jonathan Franzen orJanet Malcolm's interview with Ian Frazier. In a similar vein, Harvard University's Forum Network runs videocasts of interviews and conversations with novelists, graphic novelists, poets, biographers, and scholars as diverse as Stephen King, Alison Bechdel, Touré, and Helen Vendler.

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Sarah Fay is an editorial associate at The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New Republic’s “The Book.”

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