In the last few years, podcasts have exploded in popularity. Perhaps it’s something about hearing the human voice and feeling that connection with another person. Like many people, I have podcasts that I regularly listen to. One of my favorites is David Naimon’s Between the Covers. On his radio show, Naimon interviews a wide range of writers, from those who are household names to those who are just starting out. He engages deeply with each writer’s work and always gives his listeners a new way of thinking about complex issues related to literature, life, and society. Between the Covers is essential listening for anyone who loves books and thought-provoking, even life-changing, conversations. Just as his show is illuminating, so too was this interview. We talked about writing across difference, what role writers play in these difficult times, and much more.
–Caitlin, Nonfiction Editor for Burning House Press
Burning House Press: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! How did Between the Covers get started? Were you already in radio or was this new to you?
David Naimon: I was already hosting a non-literary show at the radio station (KBOO 90.7FM in Portland, Oregon) before hosting Between the Covers. At some point the programmers of all the shows started receiving emails with inquiries like “Rick Moody is coming to town, anybody available to interview him?” It made me wonder if that show was all of a sudden in need of hosts. It turned out that one of the main hosts of the show had left and that my interest in filling that void was a welcome one. My first interview was with Anthony Doerr. At the time he was a writer’s writer, not the household name he is today, but he was so warm and responsive and enthusiastic that it was infectious. I never looked back.
Burning House Press: I’m interested in how guests come to be on your show. Is it a matter of them being in town and someone recommends them or do you actively seek out certain guests to speak to? Is it sometimes both?
David Naimon: KBOO radio has a mission statement to focus on marginalized or underrepresented voices. Because of this the programming at the station is incredibly varied, with everything from the Persian Hour to Rose City Native Radio, from shows on homelessness to those on issues facing the transgender community. Prior to my becoming a host of Between the Covers, however, the book show didn’t track its guests with marginalization/underrepresentation in mind. There wasn’t the same expectation to do this necessarily with the art and literature shows. Nevertheless, I’ve increasingly aimed to do so, not only for political/social justice reasons, but also because I think it makes it a better show, having writers from a wide array of backgrounds, writers who are raising different questions because of the particular experiences they bring to their art. Likewise, I’ve tried to apply the spirit of the station’s mission in considering more underrepresented or marginalized literary forms, to invite guests who are writing books that trouble the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction, or between poetry and prose, to have conversations about writing that is harder to classify, that is indeterminate or hybrid in form, that foregrounds experiment or play or expanding the boundaries of what we consider art over the pressures of the market, over what is marketable. Increasingly with time, because of this balancing act of considerations, I seek out more of my guests and try to actively curate the lineup. Of course, I still also book guests that are suggested to me too. The biggest constraints, other than the ones I place upon myself, are that I only do about twenty interviews a year, and that our news coordinator requires them to be done in-person, so the author has to be coming through Portland.
Burning House Press: What is your own relationship to literature? As you say, at first you were doing a non-literary show. I’m assuming you already had a passion for books.
David Naimon: Yes, I’ve always loved books and reading. But my relationship to books has changed, first by becoming a writer myself, and second by becoming an interviewer of writers. I suspect some writers read differently than nonwriters in the sense that they are puzzling out how a book is able to create a certain effect that one admires or desires in one’s own work. Similarly, when you know you are going to talk to an author when you finish reading their book, you can’t help but read the book with an active, questioning, observational part of the mind engaged. It isn’t a simple act of disappearing under the fictive spell any longer. It becomes particularly interesting if the author is also asking questions as they write, the way, say, Leslie Jamison will make a problem she is having with an essay the topic of that very essay, or watching how Thalia Field addresses the issue of the erasure of women’s voices in the historical archive when she tries to create a fiction through a collage of historical nonfictions. If we can switch art forms for a minute, this all makes me think of a film that you recently highlighted on your film podcast, Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais. The movie has a storyline, but its moves are more associative in nature, more like a poem than a story, or at least as much like a poem as a story. It is both a meditation on memory and trauma and in some ways mimics and moves the way memory does, with lots of recursiveness, with plenty of gaps. The structure creates spaces for unsaid things, for spaces where silence can be felt, where unsayable things can be felt. I think it is no coincidence that Godard describes the movie with two non-movie references “Faulkner plus Stravinsky” and calls it the first film with no cinematic references. I’m particularly excited by artistic endeavors like this. Ones where the artists (in this case both Resnais, the director, and Marguerite Duras, the writer of the screenplay) seem very aware of the limits of the form they are working within and are also very willing, even eager, to import techniques from other forms or genres to create the best, if strange, vehicle to realize their vision.
Burning House Press: I agree with what you say about Hiroshima Mon Amour. In my podcast, I even commented that it was more literary than cinematic, that I’m not sure we even have a language for how to discuss the film because it was so innovative, experimental, and ahead of its time.
I think that’s why I enjoy your podcast so much. You have a great mix of mainstream, well-known writers and more under-the-radar writers who are experimenting with form and with language, just as Resnais and Duras were doing in their collaboration on Hiroshima Mon Amour. Writers taking written language into new territories, which I think is always important.
I’m very interested in how you come up with questions for your guests. When you’re sitting down with Ursula K. Le Guin, Lidia Yuknavitch, and others, whether they write in a challenging way or not, how do you decide what questions you want to ask? What is the process like for you?
David Naimon: Beyond the questions that come to me as I’m reading their latest book, I do also read and listen to other interviews with the author. I do this mainly to identify the questions that are always asked of them, ones they likely have developed canned answers to, in order to avoid them. In addition, I’m looking to find interesting comments they’ve said previously that I’d like to pursue further. Sometimes I’ll quote something they’ve said back to them in order to go deeper with it or to take it in a new direction. Ideally, if I have time, I aim to read other books by the author beyond the book they are touring with. Particularly if they write in multiple genres. So, for instance, when I interviewed Idra Novey about her novel Ways to Disappear, I also read several collections of her poetry, some of which, like the novel, were in conversation with the author Clarice Lispector. This produced all sorts of questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I had only read her prose. Lastly, some authors’ projects prompt me to prepare outside of the author’s own writing. With Maggie Nelson I listened to philosophy podcasts on Wittgenstein and Deleuze and for my upcoming interview with Matthew Zapruder about his book Why Poetry I’m reading Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry and James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry to see how they all differ and converge. All of this is done in the hopes of creating an interview that doesn’t feel routine, where they are alive to the moment as we talk about their work.
Burning House Press: I think your depth of preparation and knowledge definitely comes through in the interviews that you do. I also think your interviews help to deepen the listener’s understanding of the writer, the writer’s work, and the issues embedded in the writer’s work.
What I love about interviews, why I think they’re important, is that you have two people sitting down and having a conversation. It’s a space in which there is contemplation, reflection, even exploration. It’s an exchange of thoughts and ideas and, in our culture, we don’t always have that.
What do you think makes a good interview? Do you think there are any specific qualities or skills an interviewer needs to have?
David Naimon: Thanks Caitlin. It’s nice to hear that something I’m aiming for, a space for something unanticipated and new to occur, comes across beyond my intentions for it. I don’t know if there is a specific quality or skill an interviewer needs to have, except perhaps in the context of a given guest. There are so many intangibles when two people meet in a room for the first time. What is going to facilitate one writer opening up vs. another? How easy or hard will it be to establish rapport? What expectations are both sides coming into the conversation with, what judgments are being made in the moment of the encounter? It occurs to me that one advantage of being familiar with past interviews of certain authors, particularly the writers who might be more mercurial or difficult in interviews, is that you can anticipate the sorts of inquiries that make them clam up, that irritate them, and also where they become more generous and forthcoming.
When I look back at my answer to your last question, where I say that I do all this advanced preparation in the hopes of preventing the conversation from becoming rote, in order to increase the odds that the author will be alive to the moment, I’m realizing that it is also a way for me to increase the odds of being more alive to the moment too. It might seem like doing a lot of preparation, even overpreparation, would result in something too scripted or inflexible. But in my case, I feel like immersing myself in the artist’s concerns and questions prior to the conversation gives me more options, more ways to be authentically and meaningfully spontaneous when we do talk. But in the end, what makes an interview ‘good’ seems to be a matter of taste. If you think of the big names in podcast author interviews, Michael Silverblatt, Rachel Zucker, Brad Listi, to me they have very little in common with each other in regards to approach and style other than the fact that they don’t aim for a neutral radio style. You may love or hate their approaches but you definitely associate the show’s aesthetic with the personality of the host. I think that is a good thing. I’d rather have the depth of connection with listeners who appreciate my approach than a greater breadth of an audience by trying to appeal to everyone.
Burning House Press: I think that’s a very interesting idea, that being well-prepared or over prepared actually creates a freedom and spontaneity with guests. It seems like interviews can be a very fluid thing. You might have questions prepared, but you don’t always know where things are going to go, how a particular answer might open up new avenues of discovery and investigation that you have to be open to. It’s a lot like life, unpredictable and uncontrollable to a certain extent.
Thinking back on the many conversations you’ve had over the years, would you say there are any that stand out for you in particular? I know this might be a tough question, but I’m interested if there are any moments or answers or interviews that stay with you and that you find yourself coming back to over and over?
David Naimon: The one that first comes to mind is something Claudia Rankine said, something that I find myself bringing up in conversation with other writers I’ve interviewed ever since. The issue of writing across difference is one that seems at the forefront of a lot of literary debates these days, particularly with regards to white writers imagining themselves as black or native or Asian and what risks and responsibilities come with that choice. Lionel Shriver’s provocative, hubristic speech (while wearing a sombrero) about her right to write whatever she wants, Jonathan Franzen saying he won’t write black characters because he’s never been in love with a black woman, the controversy around Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmit Till’s corpse, Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy as “art,” these are only a small sampling of fraught moments off the top of my head. But Claudia Rankine flips the script on this dynamic by asking why white writers so rarely stay in their own bodies, as white people, when they write about race. Why is there so little literature about race written by white writers while remaining within their white bodies rather than imagining themselves as the other? Why don’t white writers consider their movement in the world, as themselves, an act informed by race and the consequences of it?
There are other interviews that have stuck with me too. Kyle Minor talks about how studying poetry was the best thing he ever did for his prose. I’ve heard from several listeners who were inspired to do the same. And I can say that for me personally, there has been nothing I’ve found more helpful to my prose than studying, engaging with and ultimately writing poetry. And then there are the writers early in their writing lives—Solmaz Sharif and Valeria Luiselli come immediately to mind—where the conversations are memorable because I feel like I’m witnessing artists who I suspect, when we look back in a decade or two, will have become not only great artists but important public artist-intellectuals as well. Lastly, there are people like George Saunders and Ursula K. Le Guin who are both unusually articulate and particularly generous with their thoughts about writing, and also who seem to be grounded, truly good people even with all of the attention they have received.
Burning House Press: Your point about race and writing across difference reminds me of the recent controversy over HBO’s series Confederate and how many people of color are critiquing the idea of the show, which will be about what the world would be like if the Confederacy had won. The #NoConfederate campaign, started by April Reign on Twitter, is really trying to communicate why the show shouldn’t be made and how harmful it could potentially be. Of course, we’ve seen many white people pushing back and calling the criticism “censorship” when it’s obviously not censorship at all. What I’ve seen in a lot of tweets by critics of the show is the very important and often overlooked idea that people who create things–whether it be books or movies or tv shows–have a certain amount of responsibility, that what they put out into the world has consequences for people’s everyday lives. Ta-Nehisi Coates put it perfectly in The Atlantic:
The symbols point to something Confederate’s creators don’t seem to understand—the war is over for them, not for us. At this very hour, black people all across the South are still fighting the battle which they joined during Reconstruction—securing equal access to the ballot—and resisting a president whose resemblance to Andrew Johnson is uncanny. Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear.
We can really see how the conversation surrounding this show is exposing the fault lines of racial relations in the United States. You have white people who don’t see the big deal and you have black people and other people of color saying this is dangerous. I think it connects to Rankine’s argument that white people need to look at race from their own vantage point as white people, how race shapes their lives and their world views, how they might be able to create a work of art but may not have to live with the consequences of it.
I think it’s great that your own podcast can create these discussions and give your listeners a way of analyzing the world around us, of redefining the narratives we see. Your conversation with Solmaz Sharif was incredibly enlightening in what she had to say about the War on Terror and its violent consequences for people. I still think about certain parts of that interview on a daily basis. Her superb poetry collection Look was itself a book challenging how we define things and the language we use to dehumanize others.
We’ve reached a very particular moment here in the United States. It’s not that racism or misogyny ever went away, but it’s at its most visible and virulent right now than it’s been in a long time. We have an ongoing attack against truth and facts and statistics. We have an administration denying climate change and stoking racial divisions. This is an alarming and unsettling time in our country. What role do you think the writer plays at this time? What do you think the role of poetry and literature can be right now?
David Naimon: I must admit I’m obsessed with this question. And want to ask it of every author who comes on the show. And yet at the same time I also feel self-conscious asking it as it seems so impossible to answer. Now, as I find myself on the other side of the interview equation facing this question, I’m amazed that writers are able to respond to it in real time on-air. The person who responded in a way that moved me the most was actually my last guest, the writer Yanara Friedland. I’d love to share her answer here because it feels so on point. First here is the way I presented my question:
“In one interview you are asked what the theoretical concerns are behind your writing, what kinds of questions you are trying to answer, what even you think the current questions are. You answered with a list of questions :
How can I approach you with care?
What is hiding behind our disastrous present?
What are the invisible worlds communicating?
What is the root of this country’s sorrow?
How will we live here now?
Somehow I connect these questions of yours to a couple sentences in a piece you wrote for The Elephants magazine called “Orientation” where you say: ‘This backward stare, this return song, is not a nostalgia for origin, not a mourning for a burning city, for all of our cities are burning. It is, it must be, a tracing of what on that first spur, roving forward storming ahead, was overlooked, and which, through surreptitious circumstances, may still lie wayside waiting to be seen.” I wondered if this was in some way an ars poetica for you, both an aesthetic and ethical approach to how to create art in a world that is on fire. It seems like a question that is alive for many artists right now. How we create art when all our cities are burning.”
This is how Yanara replied:
“Maybe it is not enough for some people, but the task of how to write when all our cities are burning for me has a lot to do with what I pay attention to and what I choose to take charge of, and thereby what I am charging. There are vast materials to work with. To be very specific about what I take up and choose to illuminate. I think of a writer like Sebald, the way he would take up the most forgotten, remote, unimportant places and objects and imbue them with a kind of consciousness or thought, or simply with attention. I find that a very powerful gesture. To go into the small places, the forgotten places that may not be getting that much visibility, and to charge those. This feels central to my work at least.”
Burning House Press: The question of what role art plays when the world is on fire is one that obsesses me, too. It’s unanswerable really and yet it’s so important that we do answer it, that we fuse art with our lived reality, that we turn to art to make sense of the world around us.
This feels like the perfect place to stop, though I think we could keep talking forever. It has been a tremendous pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for all your insightful and thoughtful answers. I will just ask one final question; it’s one that we ask every person here at Burning House Press. If the house is burning, what do you take with you and why?
David Naimon: Presuming my wife and cat have escaped as well (hopefully with a stash of catnip and a good pillow and blanket) I would take my writing, and any books related to my writing projects. Given that now my house was aflame, that we were without a home, I’m sure I’d have a lot to write about regardless. So if I did lose my writing, if my computer were a caramelized ghost of its former self, if I left ‘only’ with my faculties and body intact, I hope I’d take with me a sense of gratitude for what did survive. And if not that, an unsinged remnant of my sense of humor. If that were not possible, if my humor went up in smoke with my gratitude, the motivation to write the best humorless, ungrateful novel starring a singular protagonist, a frustrated flame retardant scientist by day, a cat-like assassin of arsonists by night.
David Naimon is a writer and host of the radio show and podcast Between The Covers in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Fourth Genre, Boulevard, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. His writing has been reprinted in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and cited in the 2016 Pushcart Prize volume, The Best American Essays 2015, and The Best American Travel Writing 2015. His podcast and writing can be found at: www.davidnaimon.com
Caitlin is Nonfiction Editor for Burning House Press. She’s passionate about art house cinema, intersectional feminism, social justice, and literature. You can follow her on twitter at @ekphora and on tumblr. She also has a film podcast called Her Head in Films.