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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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On Your Wavelength
It all began at lunch. A few years ago, Donna Seaman brought up an idea to a longtime friend, the station manager of WLUW, a local community radio station located on the campus of Loyola University in Chicago. During their conversation, Donna suggested that his station needed a book program. As is always the case when anyone indicates that something new needs to be done, Donna had in effect volunteered to take on the assignment. She created an hour-long program on which she presented essay-reviews about new books. Publishers and authors soon got wind of her show and began asking if she ever intended to do interviews with authors. That concept intrigued and challenged Donna, and she reconfigured the program as an hour’s worth of pithy discussion with significant writers. Fortunately for book lovers across the country who are out of dial-in range, Donna has now collected many of these author interviews into a rich and revealing compilation called Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (Paul Dry, $24.95, 1-58988-021-8).
Some of the well-known authors who have sat down to exchange ideas and information with Donna include Margaret Atwood, T. C. Boyle, Madison Smartt Bell, Edward P. Jones, Alice McDermott, and Joyce Carol Oates. When asked whether some writers open up more easily than others, Donna admits that some interviews were left out of the book because of that very reason: that getting responses was like pulling teeth, that some writers make very shy and nervous interviewees. Some of the big names she talked to turned out to be unengaged in an interview situation; they simply repeated their stock answers, their “shtick,” as Donna calls it. The interviews she chose to include were the ones in which she and the author quickly established a rapport.
Although her conversations with these authors have a natural flow from question to response, from one point taken to another point taken, Donna prepares a list of questions before she enters the recording studio. She believes that preinterview preparation is the sum and substance of the hard work her book represents. “I have to steep myself in an author’s work,” she says, and part of her preparation is imagining the conversation as taking the shape of a “narrative arc,” a dialogue that “begins somewhere and ends somewhere.” But Donna admits she must be flexible during the actual interview; she must be prepared to let the conversation go in a direction in which it wants to go. It is obviously a matter of finding the balance between a mapped-out route and an enjoyable detour, a balance Donna easily achieves.
Donna mentions in one of her interviews that since she first started to read, she has used books to help her navigate through life. And it is apparent in her interviews that that core belief is the chord she struck with all of these authors: that they, too, have used books in the same fashion. “As I sit talking with these writers, people I revere, I am aware that they and I are bookish people, that we are kindred spirits in that regard, that we all turned to books at an early age.” That leads to an easily recognizable and spontaneous trust between her and her interviewees-which, of course, is what leads to the smooth flow so much in evidence in the interviews.
Librarians will be pleased to see that Donna adds a readers’-advisory dimension to her book with several “Related Reading” lists on topics such as “First-Time Novelists,” “Genre Crossers,” and “The Art and Intent of Creative Nonfiction.”
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