Robert Birnbaum, Identity Theory
Robert Birnbaum’s résumé looks something like this: nightclub manager, short-order cook, shoe salesman, medical secretary, teacher, adman, cabbie, journalist, publisher, photographer, blogger, interviewer.
Mr. Birnbaum’s digital home is Identity Theory (a literary Web site, sort of), which hosts his blog, a reader’s progress, his portraits of authors, and a truckload of interviews. And more still reside at The Morning News. He has interviewed more writers than you’ve likely read—somewhere over 500, from Amis to Zinn. No, wait: make that from Abraham to Zinn. Yeah, that’s right. No, wait—better still: Abraham to Zulkey.
We love reading Mr. Birnbaum’s (aptly titled) Narrative Thread because the interviews are not really interviews (at least, not by any routine question-and-answer formula). They’re conversations: fluid, garrulous, exploratory, and by the end, you feel like you’ve actually learned something genuine about the subject. If nothing else, that Douglas Coupland swears like he’s on Deadwood.
Sample question by Mr. Birnbaum:
“You strike me as a rock of stability. What’s this flamboyance thing?”
[Posed to author T.C. Boyle.]
Y.P.R.: It’s hard to think of an author who hasn’t sat down for a conversation with you. How do you select your subjects?
R.B.: My selection process—if it could be dignified by being called that—has to do with the vagaries of my taste, schedule, previous history with a writer, and, frequently, which publicist has the good sense to come to me a couple of months in advance.
Y.P.R.: To what lengths have you gone to secure an interview?
R.B.: I have flown to L.A. to talk with Herb Ritts and then turned right around and flown back to Boston. Having said that, I should point out that Boston is right on the literary Silk Road—eventually everyone passes through here.
Y.P.R.: Is there an elusive white whale that’s consistently dodged your tireless pursuit?
R.B.: Anna Deveare Smith. Up until this week, it had been Jim Harrison. I haven’t tried much (once) but I am interested in talking with Gore Vidal. I think that may take a while.
Y.P.R.: Of all the late, great authors, whom would you like to have interviewed?
R.B.: Hannah Arendt, George Plimpton, Julio Cortazar, Mary McCarthy, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugene Izzi, Nelson Algren, Joseph Heller.
Y.P.R.: Your interviews rarely adhere to any standard Q-&-A format; they often feel more like meandering conversations between old friends. How much do you rely on prepared questions? How freely do you let the interview roll?
R.B.: Frank Conroy in his sweet anthology, The Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On, talks with Keith Jarrett, who claims that before his solo (improvisational) concerts he would sit down at the piano and clear his mind of any musical thoughts or ideas. That approach appeals to me. I think that any reasonably well read, careful reader can do a Q & A with really smart questions. Heck, I could probably do them. But I am after something else. I am not sure what it is but for the most part what I do satisfies me, my conversational partners, readers, my family—did I leave out anyone?
Y.P.R.: Could you give us some dirt? Who were the best and worst interviews?
R.B.: No, I cannot give you any dirt. But I will say that in all the time that I have been having these conversations, maybe three were, uh, less than satisfying. These days I am partial to talking with people I have talked with before. Over 15 years I have talked with Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Amy Bloom, Rick Russo, Richard Ford, Will Self, Howard Zinn, Andrea Barrett, and Tom McGuane, a few others, a few times each. I like that this suggests a tiny germ of a small friendship.
Y.P.R.: This interview is being conducted via e-mail, but we know you like to have face-to-face conversations. Does this feel artificial to you? Does the lack of spontaneity allow better or worse responses?
R.B.: I am a pretty frequent correspondent so this does not feel artificial. It’s kind of like writing the book after the audio text. No—It’s not like that. But writing is different from speaking. I have done this before and I try to do this in one take, without a lot of forethought. I couldn’t speak to whether the responses are better or worse. In the subjective world, the world of personal opinion and biography, I would offer you the idea that my answers to this pop quiz might be different tomorrow and yet not be untrue.
Y.P.R.: Do you ever get a little starstruck when talking to a subject?
Y.P.R.: Who’s your favorite interviewer (TV or print)? Who do you wish would interview you?
R.B.: I do not usually pay attention to other interviewers. For one reason, they are operating under far different conditions and with very different values. As much as I find Charlie Rose vexing, I once caught a conversation he did with (photographer) Henri Cartier Bresson that was brilliant and personable. I like Terry Gross when I happen to catch her. I like Chris Lyden. I will say that the interview as practiced in mainstream media by people like Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters is a degraded art form.
The question of who I would like to interview me sounds like a form of who would I like to play me in the movie of my unwritten-but-tending-toward-self-glamorization memoir, Three Hands Clapping. If Robert Duvall were playing me then I would like Jennifer Connelly playing Joan Didion interviewing me. In real life, I would hope that Cynthia Ozick could be interested enough in me to want to have a conversation.
Y.P.R.: Who asks the best questions: Torquemada, the Riddler, or Tim Russert?
R.B.: Jeremy Paxton of the BBC.
Y.P.R.: It’s pretty much required that a writer has some wacky job experience on his résumé, and still your list of past jobs seems incredible. How has your work history shaped your current career?
R.B.: Career? What career?
Y.P.R.: Surely you’ve been on a great many job interviews. Could you please share a funny or disastrous incident from one of them?
R.B.: I have found the few job interviews I have been on to be tedious and forgettable.
Y.P.R.: We imagine you read a frightening amount of books. How much do you read, and what are you reading right now?
R.B.: I am curious why you would use the word ‘frightening’? I finish between 80 to 100 books a year, which in my world is light. A postal agent at one of the P.O.s I go to reads 4 or 5 books a week. I sample many books and read lots of short-form stuff.
I am rereading Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, Percival Everett’s American Desert, and Death of Innocence (about the Emmett Till case by Till’s mother) and Raimond Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog. I am hoping to get to the Book of Ralph by John McNally and Andre Codrescu’s Wakefield very soon.
Y.P.R.: By ‘frightening’, we simply meant ‘a number that shames our own vociferous appetite.’ How do you feel you’ve grown as an interviewer?
R.B.: If I have grown it’s that I am not in pursuit of the definitive conversation with so-and-so (which by my definition would be the last one with that person). I don’t feel urgent about getting everything said within the hour or so I set aside for a chat—and an unspoken assumption (of mine) is that I will have a chance to speak with my latest co-dialogist again. Also, I am not (that) interested in asking really brainy, abstract, lit-crit, post-graduate, late-model capitalist metrosexual questions. Forgive the trite metaphor, but I see my conversations as streams flowing into a larger body. And that larger conversation is never-ending.
Y.P.R.: Quick Rorschach test: What’s this look like to you?
R.B.: Two Mongols dancing.
Y.P.R.: O.K., it’s time to show off them interviewing skills: Please ask us an incisive question.
R.B.: Besides Saran Wrap, what is the great contribution of America to civilization?
Y.P.R.: That reminds us of Mel Brooks’s 2000-Year-Old Man, who declared that the greatest invention in two millennia was cellophane. America’s come up with some great stuff: the light bulb, the assembly line, denim jeans, standup comedy, jazz, animation, comic books, TV (as we know it, anyway), the ice-cream cone, atomic power, Velcro, cowboys, the artificial heart, the greeting card, the Frisbee… But I think I’m going to go with sneakers. I can’t even imagine childhood without them. They’ve become so universal that it no longer looks incongruous when you see someone wearing high tops with a burqa or kimono or sari. And what’s a better symbol of American propagation than the Nike swoosh?
R.B.: The story goes that when film director Milos Forman moved to the States he quickly acquired the three things he thought uniquely American (or something like that): a Zippo lighter, a Smith & Wesson pistol and a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Personally, I favor the baseball cap (especially over those wussy French bicycling caps or those wanky British school caps).
Y.P.R.: Will you pencil me in for an interview after the publication of my unwritten-but-tending-toward-self-glamorization memoir, Clapping Hands with Robert Birnbaum?
R.B.: After all you have done, how could I say no?
Y.P.R.: Finally, in your expert opinion, how’d we do on this interview? Any advice for our next one?
R.B.: This would be the part where I show my acerbic, Kingsley Amis-like wit, yes? As they say, “Enough about you. How did I do?”
The questions were decent questions—meaning they were clear and answerable without giving rise to the temptation to digress (much).
One thing, if you are really aiming for spontaneity, you might do these e-mail Q & A’s live…