By James Draney
I think of my favorite literary interviews as revelatory events: occasions, in Toni Morrison’s words, “when some moment or phrase flares like a lightning bug” and all participants “see it at the same time and… remember it the same way”.
What is a literary interview, and why do people enjoy them? Often a literary interview is just a piece of marketing, a promotional schtick designed to sell books. Sometimes, as in The Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series, it can be a well-crafted piece of writing in its own right. At its best, however, an interview aspires towards the condition of conversation. It’s open, surprising, and follows a digressive rather than an interrogative logic. I think of my favorite literary interviews as revelatory events: occasions, in Toni Morrison’s words, “when some moment or phrase flares like a lightning bug” and all participants “see it at the same time and… remember it the same way”.1 Lightning bugs like this are what make the literary interview an exciting form.
Are we living through the golden age of the literary interview? I tend to think so. Now in its second season, Novel Dialogue belongs to an emerging audio culture of letters: a network of shows that host intelligent conversation about literature and criticism. The word “conversation” is crucial here–it’s what distinguishes this new culture of letters from its print-based forebears like The Paris Review or The Believer. Podcast interviews allow for a kind of collaborative dialogue unavailable to the culture of print. Embodiment has something to do with this. Oral forms open our access to the whole sensorium of thought. Radio host Michael Silverblatt describes “the sound of laughter, of breath, the whole alphabet of the subvocal zoo” that he soaks up during his conversations.2 While still bound to a set of generic conventions, oral interviews come closer to capturing the act of thinking as it emerges in real-time, collectively, in the messy constructions of dialogue.
Perhaps it’s this unpolished quality that readers want from literary interviews. As Rebecca Roach notes in Literature and the Rise of the Interview, the form is designed to “mediate conversation while promising communicative immediacy”.3 Oral forms, especially, appeal to this desire for proximity. They combine the rigor of good criticism with the intimacy of good fiction. This is what drew me to literary interviews in the first place: not only for serious reflection on craft, but for the sense of sociality they simulated. I enjoy literary podcasts because they offer a kind of companionship in thinking. They provide a way of getting to know a writer or a critic.
The first season of Novel Dialogue was designed to bring a sense of academic rigor to this intimate form. Listeners heard Kelly Rich, Aarthi Vadde, and Teju Cole speak about Bach and Blackness; we listened in as Bruce Robbins and Orhan Pamuk riffed on cigarettes, french fries, and the risk speaking out against the Turkish government; we heard Helen Garner confess to Elizabeth McMahon and John Plotz that she grew bored reading her old journals; and we were rapt as George Saunders, Michael Johnston, and Aarthi talked about the moral seriousness of good fiction. For all its conversational informality, these shows maintained the intellectual sophistication of academic dialogue.
The show’s second season will continue to expand its conversations in blog form. Each new episode will be followed by a bi-weekly post from an early-career scholar. The blogs are responses to the show’s dialogues; they are annotations on the recorded episodes. I think of them as a way of catching those lightning bugs of conversation and holding them up for closer inspection. In future posts, Paige Eggebrecht will riff on the role of worldbuilding in Jennifer Egan’s novels, Lorenza Starace will offer her thoughts on Tom Perrotta’s readability, Anya Lewis-Meeks will meditate on Caryl Phillips’s writerly education, and much more. I hope this season’s episodes and blog posts inspire you, or help you learn something new, or, at the very least, provide some companionship in a time of uncertainty and isolation.
1 Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison, “A Conversation” in The Southern Review, Vol. 21, No. 3 (July 1, 1985), p. 591.
2 Michael Silverblatt and Sarah Fay, “An Interview with Michael Silverblatt” in The Believer, no. 72 (June 1, 2010)
3 Rebecca Roach, Literature and the Rise of the Interview (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 7.