January 2006

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Writers on the Air by Donna Seaman

It is painful for me to admit this, but like every other fledgling writer in the world, I have fallen prey to the impressive sounding “how to be a better writer” books that seem to show up in greater numbers with each passing year. It is odd to me that as one part of the publishing industry is decrying the future of the novel, another part is trying to convince the struggling masses that they too can turn a “sow’s ear draft into silk purse stories” or learn “everything you need to know from completing a first draft to landing a book contract.” (And no, I’m not making either one of those up.) I bought more than my share of these idiot books over the years but never in search of a magic writing formula -- I’m not that desperate -- it was more out of a longing to read about writers, and what they think and how they think and why they write. I especially like to know what prompted a writer to craft a particular story or novel --what the initial thought or interest was that drew them to that subject in the first place. Sadly, this sort of thing is rarely found on the shelves today, (Stephen King’s excellent On Writing and Julia Alvarez’s equally well done Something to Declare are exceptions that I return to all the time), but I never give up hope. When a copy of Donna Seaman’s Writers on the Air landed on my doorstep I was pretty much in heaven. After reading through the more than thirty author interviews, I’m happy to report that the book has more than lived up to my very lofty expectations.

Seaman is an editor at Booklist and the sort of reader that I completely identify with. As she writes in her book’s introduction, “My heart sinks when, on telling a book-loving friend about a brilliant and prolific living writer whose work I revere, my friend says she’s never heard of him.” I identify with this thought. It is part of why I joined Bookslut, so I could spread the word on tons of books that I know would have larger audiences, if only readers knew about them. Seaman set about accomplishing her mission to “bring as many literary writers to the attention of as many readers as possible” by starting a book show, Open Books on WLUW radio in Chicago. Writers on the Air is comprised of interviews she has conducted since her first show in 1994. It is a collection that shows just how deep and eclectic Seaman’s literary interests are and has exposed me to the thoughts of so many excellent authors that I was almost overwhelmed by how much more I wanted to read when I was done.

In an attempt to provide readers with as varied a group of authors as possible, Seaman has assigned numerous subject categories, from “First-time Novelists” to “Genre Crossers” and “The Art and Intent of Creative Nonfiction” to classify her interviewees. I did a lot of picking and choosing as I read the book, bouncing back and forth between authors such as Kate Moses and Anchee Min (“Novels About Real People”) and Barry Lopez and Diane Ackerman. The first thing I did was look for writers I recognized, so I could understand how, for example, Colson Whitehead came up with such a fascinating book as John Henry Days. (Would you believe it was cartoon about John Henry that he watched in elementary school that sparked an initial and enduring interest in the folk hero?) But the more I read about authors I was unfamiliar with, the more impressed I became about Seaman’s instincts. Through either luck or skill, she has managed to attract some of the more fascinating literary figures in America today to her show and she gets them to reveal an enormous amount about themselves and their work. As anyone who has ever seen a clip of that infamous interview between Dick Clark and Prince on “American Bandstand” knows, just because someone is talented doesn’t mean they’re willing to talk about it.

So on my list of books to read in 2006 is now Wintering by Kate Moses, Red Azalea by Anchee Min, Oxford Days by Paul West and An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. I was also deeply impressed by the interview with anthropologist and writer Wade Davis, who made a very eloquent statement about human society: “No longer can we live in isolation,” said Davis. “CNN and global media carry the disconnection between our affluence and the rank poverty of the majority of humanity to every corner of the world. The ultimate lesson is that there has to be a new global declaration of interdependence where we recognize that no longer can we live in our bounty isolated, immune from the forces of revenge, envy and desire that will inevitably come at us from those who do not share in this bounty.” And this interview was before the tsunami, and before Katrina.

Part of what makes the interviews in Writers so effective is Seaman’s amazing preparation. Because she doesn’t have the resources for producing “carefully edited interviews heard on NPR,” her interviews are broadcast in their original form. In order to be as prepared as possible, she writes out “pages of notes and questions in preparation for each interview, hoping to structure a narrative arc so that each discussion has a story line and builds toward some sort of resolution.” The exchanges are not stilted, or too formal however, Seaman admits that they have “fought back tears, determined not to derail the conversation,” and “I’ve laughed so hard I’ve lost track of what we were talking about.” This ability to engage in a thoroughly researched and intelligent give and take while also allowing spontaneity to have an important part of the conversation is what makes Seaman’s work so enjoyable to read. It is clear that she is having a good time when she conducts these interviews, and that the writers are enjoying themselves as well.

I am sure I will reread Writers again and again in the future and different authors will appeal to me over time, different insights will reveal themselves to me both as a writer and a reader. Mostly, I am thrilled to have discovered a kindred spirit in Donna Seaman and found someone who so honestly and purely loves the world of books. “One of the more maddening aspects of my work as a reviewer and critic,” writes Seaman, “is the knowledge that so very many wonderful books are published without fanfare, accorded scant critical attention and allowed to slip out of view before readers have the chance even to consider reading them.” I feel the same way, and I’m so glad that I now have this wonderful resource so I can discover for myself some of the books that Donna Seaman has clearly loved for so very long.

Writers on the Air by Donna Seaman
Paul Dry Books
ISBN 1589880218
465 pages