This week, I get asked by a journalist how it feels to be interviewed about my books, given that I occasionally put on my journalist's hat to interview other writers about their books. I give my usual answer, which is that it's a little awkward. I tend to assume three roles in that situation: the subject (the writer being interviewed), the journalist (the journalist doing the interview), and some strange intermediate role somewhere between the two, where I look objectively at both people in their respective roles and find fault with each.
Unfortunately, the journalist who poses the question is on somewhat dodgy ground, as he confesses that he hasn't read my book. As always, a little part of me inevitably switches off when I hear that. The nature of the interview changes. To be fair, I don't expect every journalist or interviewer who speaks to me to have read the book I'm publicising, or even any of my books. When it comes to short radio or TV spots, it's the exception rather than the rule to encounter someone who has actually read the book. It doesn't really matter, as my role in that case is just to fill a few minutes of what might otherwise be dead air, and I try to be as general and as light-hearted as possible. It's usually early in the morning, and I tend to view entertaining weary commuters or those at home as welcome challenge.
A newspaper or magazine interview is a different matter, though. It takes longer to conduct, and reading such an interview is a less passive pursuit than listening to three minutes on the radio, I would argue. On a personal level, though, I tend to feel a sense of disappointment when a journalist makes such a confession. It's not that I find myself particularly interesting; at this stage, there can be few people who find me more boring than I find myself when it comes to discussing my books. I'm not even a very interesting person. I live a pretty normal life, all things considered, when I'm not touring, and touring bears little or no relation to my real, everyday existence. (For a start, I don't get a clean gown every morning when I'm at home, and there are no chocolates on my pillow. On the other hand, if I wake up in the night at home I know immediately where the bathroom is, and run no risk of walking into a wall or attempting to relieve myself in a sink . . .)
No, it's more that I wonder about the relationship between the journalist in question and his/ her craft. The subtext, when one is told that the journalist hasn't read the book, is that he/ she was just too busy to read it, and that the writer should simply be grateful that he is being interviewed at all. That may even be true, but what, then, is the point of the interview? I would no more interview an author whose work I hadn't read than I would attempt to describe a piece of music that I hadn't heard, or discuss a film that I hadn't seen. Professional pride, in part, wouldn't let me, but also I know that I would have nothing worth saying. That was as true when I was a struggling freelance, grateful for any work, as it is now. I would spend a week preparing for the interview, often reading not just the latest book but any other books I thought might help to fill the gaps in my knowledge. If I thought it would help, I would browse the cuttings files (in those pre-Internet days). I might even make a start on the piece (itself a flawed exercise, as it's a virtual admission that one has already begun to form an opinion of the author before interviewing him or her). Inevitably, I would throw most, if not all, of that pre-written material out. If I did not, I would doubt the value of the final piece.
Recently, an interview with me appeared in a major newspaper. I was quoted extensively, but none of the quotes were mine. The words used bore little or no resemblance to what I had actually said. Instead, "my" words were what the journalist presumably wished that I had said. I wondered if the tape recorder had broken down. I wondered if my words had just been unspeakably dull, too mundane to even waste ink and paper upon. And I wondered if, perhaps, the journalist just didn't care enough to transcribe them properly.
Transcription is tedious. Listening back to an interview one has conducted is time-consuming. Again and again, journalists cut corners. At least, they do with me. My bad, I guess. I really must be dull. When I've conducted my own interviews with writers, though, I've always been very careful to quote them accurately. I consider it polite, I suppose. It's also a courtesy to those who read the final interview. If they're interested enough to read it, they should be allowed to read the writer's own words, not mine.
So I don't think the interview with the journalist who didn't read my book will be particularly enlightening. I did my best, but there was a limit to how much ground I could make up on the initial lack of interest. Then again, I may come out sounding much more interesting than usual as a consequence. It's hard to tell.
Yesterday, there was a rather different interview. The journalist had read the book, and we ended up discussing whether or not I was a liberal, as The Unquiet is a political novel with a small 'p', I think. (I am liberal, although that word tends to have different connotations in Europe than in the US. Many of those accused of the sin of liberalism in the US would barely qualify as mildly conservative in Europe.); the nature of the US criminal justice system; the chaining of children in US juvenile courts in 27 US states; the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction; British supernatural writers of the early 20th century; and a host of other topics that were linked, either tangentially or thematically, to my work. You didn't have to read my book to be interested in them, but you did have to read my book to be able to raise them to begin with.
I can't stress this enough: I'm not very interesting. My books may not be very interesting to everyone. But I hope that some of the issues they raise are interesting to people. It's why I write: to communicate things that seem important to me, or to explore them and, in so doing, come to some kind of understanding of them. I don't beat people over the head with the issues they raise (and it's curious to me that even raising them has left me open to attack in the past, as though the mere suggestion of discourse is unpalatable to some), and I recognize that a great many of my readers may not view them in the same way that I do, but I have faith in the fact that they are intelligent people, that they can make their own decisions about such matters, and that they understand that books are a forum for ideas as much as they are a conduit for storytelling. I read people with whose ideas I may disagree, for if I did not read them I would be less enlightened about the ways in which others view the world, and I would be guilty of a level of intolerance that I find abhorrent in others.
I still wish that journalist had read my book, though. Heck, he might even have liked it . . .
Since yesterday, John has read
Blaze by Richard Bachman