My Life in the Bush of Books Part 6: Commentary by Rick Kleffel

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My Life in the Bush of Books, part 6:
From Great American Novels to British Invasions

The Agony Column for November 8, 2003
Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Having finished one enjoyable whirl, I stepped right into another. Apparently I'll keep doing this until I fall off the merry-go-round. And who can I sue for injury then? I have only myself to blame, having built the ride, bought the ticket and stepped aboard. I must say that for the most part I'm enjoying the hell out of all this, other than the small bits where I wake up in the middle of the night wondering what's going to cause the fatally embarrassing breakdown in public, on-the-air, unavoidable as the oncoming train.

My tiny-type Lethem cheat-sheet for the interview.

By the time I finished interviewing the thoroughly engaging Win and Meredith Blevins, I was well into preparation for both the Jonathan Lethem and the Terry Pratchett interviews. I was quite nervous about talking to Jonathan Lethem. I was building the interview cheat-sheet I was planning to take with me, a single piece of paper consisting of an introduction and two columns of tiny-type questions. This format had worked well with the Blevins, but there I was in the rather unique position of interviewing a husband and wife who seemed to have the form of telepathy common amongst married couples. How this would work in a one-on-one setting with a highfalutin' literati was not particularly clear. Nor was it clear whether or not Jonathan Lethem was a highfalutin' literati.

I also started a similar document for Terry Pratchett, with whom I suspected I would have an easier time, if only because I'd just seen him at Worldcon, where he seemed the type at whom one could simply aim a microphone. I was also quite sure that I'd be able to read more Pratchett than Lethem, simply because the arrival times of the books and the different reading speeds I suspected each would require.

[Even as I write this column, I've got two documents opened up in a similar format, one for Colson Whitehead, and one for Gregory Maguire. Hoping for inspiration or at least a coherent thought.]

Terry Pratchett's 'The Wee Free Men' is a bit more somber than than the other work I'd read.

Yes, I admit, I was enjoying Pratchett's work in the slack-jawed drooling manner of a TRUE FAN. That's still true. As this narrative starts I was partway into 'The Wee Free Men'', and finding it to be as readable as the rest of Pratchett, but a little subtler, a little slower and more pastoral of tone. It's written for the say -- twelve and up set, so I even showed it to my fourteen year old son and told him he'd love it. His response was that he would never read a book with that title. It only goes to show that you can't predict what kids will like in any way. In retrospect, I think he'd like Win's novel, 'So Wild A Dream' a bit more, even though it would seem to be a tougher read. He [the 14 year-old] has always liked adventure books, in particular the work of Gary Paulsen, including 'Hatchet' and 'The River'. Those both share a man-in-the-wilderness theme with Win's novel.

But Pratchett's work was just fine with me, and much of the best, I thought, was yet to come. Still, I also had a bunch of Lethem to choose from in delightfully perfect hardcover first editions. What to read to inform me for my interview of this very erudite, intelligent and literary author?

One of the things I do to research before an interview is to look at other interviews done with the author I'm talking to. That way if there are questions they simply hate, I can save myself the trouble of asking them and the authors the trouble of having to be in the vicinity of someone asking them. I can also avoid asking them the questions they get asked all the time. For Pratchett that seemed to be the old "If humor can't be mapped, why are there now maps for Discworld?" For Lethem, it was quite a bit more nebulous.

Jonathan Lethem's first novel features a kangaroo detective. The crinkles in the jacket are part of the illustration, not evidence of wear and abuse.

Looking at Lethem's oeuvre, which I'd always intended to buy and read since having read 'Motherless Brooklyn', it seemed that he had started out in a very science fictional mode. Terry D'Auray's response to my announcement that I was interviewing him was that she loved his novel where the kangaroo was the detective.


Surely she didn't mean that a kangaroo was a detective?

But that was exactly what she meant. 'Gun, With Occasional Music' was an initial frontrunner for reading before the interview. In the first place, it would give me an idea of where Lethem (say it now: Lee-thum; practice, because you've been saying 'Leth-um' for all your time spent reading this author's work, that's years and you're going to talk to him and you really, really want to pronounce his name right, don't you?) got his start. It was short, and it looked funny, rather like one of Lem's or Philip K. Dick's japes. But in tone and content it appeared to have little to do with Lethem's latest novel, 'The Fortress of Solitude'. In many ways it was the polar opposite; hyper-unreal SF as opposed to hyper-real Brooklyn memoir; well, hyper-real except for the super powers, that is.

But I had just a little over a week to read the Lethem work, and I was disinclined to read back-to-back-Lethem. Having finished 'The Wee Free Men', I was already anticipating Pratchett's 'Night Watch' and 'Monstrous Regiment'. Pratchett had opined that his favorite was the former, while he'd read from the latter and there were quotes I absolutely loved in it from when he read and I was hell-bent on getting him to read those quotes again for the interview.

This McSweeney's novella is a beautifully produced hardcover book.
So looking at my complete collection of Lethem's work, I elect to read the shortest thing I can find, which is also the most recent work. 'This Shape We're In' is a wonderful little hardcover published by Dave Eggers McSweeney's Press. I remembered seeing it when it came in at Bookshop Santa Cruz, thinking I should get it, and then having it disappear before I could do so. It was also extremely difficult to get a read on what it was about, where it was coming from. I thought at the time, "I should buy that next time I'm in." By then the small stack of copies was gone; good for Jonathan Lethem but bad for me. Thus did I end up buying it from Bella Luna Books, and thus being short and recent, I read it in prep for the interview.

I can tell you right now, I never would have guessed what it was about from what I read on the covers, even though the cover is a beautiful literal illustration of events in the story. 'This Shape We're In' is Lethem at his most absurd, yet it's written in a very literal, straightforward fashion. It was a one-sitting short novella that plays on his favorite themes of memory, of history, and has a wonderfully imaginative science fiction background. Yet it doesn't read in the least like science fiction. It's not genre fiction by any measure. I enjoyed the hell out of it and wondered how it fed in to the development I saw in Lethem's fiction from the absurd to the mundane -- well, sort of mundane. I framed a few more questions and dove into the next Pratchett.

'Night Watch' is a gritty police procedural set in Pratchett's fantasy Discworld.
'The Night Watch' certainly caught me by surprise, though I suppose it shouldn't have. I'd heard enough of 'Monstrous Regiment' read to know that Pratchett wasn't as fantasy-oriented these days as he was back when he wrote 'The Color of Magic'. But 'The Wee Free Men' read pretty much like fantasy to me; well-written and thoughtful, but yes, at the end of the day, fantasy. So it was something of a shock to encounter the urban cop feel of 'Night Watch'. Yes, there was a brief bit of magic in there, to get the protagonist back in time, but once he was there what you had was one of the grittiest police procedurals I had read in a while. Pratchett really laid it on. Even as he served up werewolves and other stock-issue monsters from the fantasy toolkit, he created a cop so street-savvy that he wanted thin-soled shoes to feel the sidewalk so he could tell where he was without having to see. And the monsters didn't act like standard-issue fantasy characters. They behaved like real people -- with peculiar abilities -- working in a real city. Yes, like many a reader dropped into a long-running series, I had the feeling that I was missing some jokes about the characters, but that rapidly evaporated as I was caught up in the story. Clearly Pratchett had designed Discworld well, as a playground where he could do, well, anything.

I found myself filling in questions and comments for my interview like a madman. I had to reduce the font size twice to fit them all on a single page. I'd read interviews and force myself to look away when he was talking about books I had in my queue but had not read yet before the interview; at this point, the next scheduled Pratchett was 'Monstrous Regiment' and then, if I had time, 'Mort', since I had the sense that 'Mort' was somehow an important entry in the pantheon.

I had to restrain myself from sending Terry D'Auray my copy of 'Night Watch', just because it seemed to me to be such a strong mystery. But she's a busy girl, and even something this good couldn't hope to get very high in her queue when there were Minette Walters books to be reading. It's not like either of us needs books. But then it is exactly like we both need books.

Jonathan Lethem's Great American Novel is easily one of the best books of this year, and a sure contender, one would hope for any one of a number of awards.
The Lethem interview was fast approaching on a Friday, and I had time to read one more book. I'd obtained his entire catalogue -- I thought -- and then realized that I needed 'Girl in Landscape', which was his most recent novel before 'The Fortress of Solitude'. I'd had 'Girl in Landscape' express shipped to me, but by the time I was ready to read the final Lethem before the interview, I was unsure whether I could finish it before the interview. I weighed it and 'As She Climbed Across the Table' and decided on the latter, again, because it was the shortest and the most recent besides 'Girl in Landscape'.

Jonathan Lethem's romantic triangle includes a black hole with a personality.
'As She Climbed Across the Table' was yet another very different work from the apparently chameleonic Lethem. (Say it again: Leethem.) Once again, he uses a very science fictional device in a very literary fashion. But this isn't highfalutin' literary, it's simply literature, and funny as hell at that. 'As She Climbed Across the Table' is the tale of a romantic triangle, one corner of which is a physics experiment, a selective black hole. It's written with such limpid simplicity that you can read it in a day if you're fast, but be careful where you read it, because it's going to make you laugh out loud. It's also going to mess with your expectations at a fundamental level. You don't expect physics to be made so clear that it can play an integral part in a very cleverly observed romantic comedy. You don't expect romantic comedy to make you think about the birth of a universe. You don't expect academic satire to ring true with acidic insights into the male and female mind. And you don't expect it all to hang together in a page-turning thriller that seems consummately accessible to the masses. Yet Lethem does all this and makes it look easy.

I was still reading 'As She Climbed Across the Table' when I left for KQED to tape the interview. I stashed in my car, along with the now-traditional bag o' books that I lug to be signed by the author. Yes, I feel like a total dweeb asking them to sign the books and perhaps I shouldn't. Nobody ever minds or even indicates that they might possibly have minded, but I feel that a quote true professional unquote wouldn't need the books signed. Yet I also feel that a true professional who didn't need the books signed probably would be able to be as effective an interviewer as someone who read and loved the books, or at least read and paid close enough attention to the books to want them signed. So I endure my own self-induced sheepishness and bring the pile. And I've got to say that I love having a pile of wonderful hardcover first editions of the authors I interview. It's very fun for this compulsive book-buyer.

The lobby within for San Francisco's public radio station KQED.
The drive from Santa Cruz to San Francisco is about an hour and a half. It can be quite beautiful if you take the 280, but somehow the travel-bots on the web haven't accounted for the 280 yet, so my drive to the Lethem interview was a slog through traffic up the urban-blighted 101. Yes, the 101 does hit the coast and there are some beautiful views, but it also crawls through territory all-too-reminiscent of SoCal. Happily, the directions for getting the studios after getting off the freeway were simple and easy to follow and the "Studio package" includes free parking in KQED's garage.

Public TV's version of NORAD.
I parked almost next to the entrance, watched the doors slide down and then made my way across the garage floor to the elevators. A card-key carrying guard let me in and sent me to the lobby, where two administrative assistants shared the room with two very expensive LCD monitors showing current program content. I'd arrived almost an hour early, since I was leery of letting myself trust that traffic would not be an issue. That gave me some time to tool around and see the digs.

KQED is a big, big deal. They're one of the major west coast PBS radio and TV stations, so I got to peek at a bunch of high-tech control rooms filled with monitors showing the paths of incoming missiles launched from -- no wait, it was Sesame Street. And the Yan Can Cook. I think I prefer Big Bird to the Big Bang any time.

The atrium of KQED that leads from the lobby to the studios.
I made my way back to the radio station portion of the building which is currently in more than a little bit of chaos, as they convert to a totally digital operation. There were discarded console shells, (those expensive pieces of audio office furniture designed for mixing and audio/video production) littering the would-be waiting rooms outside the studios. The studios themselves were the real deal with a separated control room and recording booth. Since the very kind studio engineer was in the control room, I stepped inside, introduced myself and after a brief bit of explanation, began setting up my laptop so that I could record on the laptop as well as a DAT. For although the studios were in the midst of this high-tech upgrade, they didn't have CD recorders, nor could their existing computers simply spit out a CD for me. Whatever, I was happy enough to be there.

One of the control rooms at KQED studios.
I got myself set up in the control room, then situated in the booth. I spent my remaining time gazing stupidly at my cheat sheet, fussing with the computer and paging through 'The Fortress of Solitude'. I was a more than a bit worried about whether Jonathan Lethem would even show up, to be honest. He'd just done an interview two days ago with Terri Gross of Fresh Air. I wouldn't blame him for blowing off a local NPR guy.

But of course, he didn't. I moved to the lobby shortly before he was expected, and he showed up the precisely correct amount of minutes early himself. In person, Jonathan Lethem is a very nice, easygoing guy. We discussed his tour and I was pleased to have caught him at the beginning rather than the end. We got to the booth, got ourselves situated, and then I went back into the control room, turned on the computer, came back to the booth and started the interview.

A recording booth at KQED; the "real thing" with desks and all.
I was quite at ease because I'd done so much prep for the interview and Jonathan seemed relaxed as well. In spite of this, as I launched into my standard issue introduction, I mis-pronounced his name. (Say it: Leethumb.) But he was quite understanding, and once we got going, we really had a nice conversational connection. Of the interviews I've done, it was easily one of the most relaxed I've ever managed. Of course, I learned that I'd probably made the wrong decision in reading 'AS She Climbed Across the Table', since had I read 'Girl in Landscape', I would seen the first incarnation of his theme of motherlessness. There's a sort of feeling one has when interviewing that one should pretty much know how a question is going to be anwsered. But the real fun is when you get an answer you don't expect. We talked effortlessly until the time was just about up, and I wound up things -- which means I 'signed off' the interview and then ran to the control room to shut down the recording on the computer. Then while he signed my books, I frantically saved and edited the interview. That wasn't easy on the TV-tray-type platform I had the computer sitting on. It seems to take forever to save these huge audio files, even on my ripping new laptop. But I was able to not only save and edit, but to print out a CD for him, which he (surprisingly to me) appeared to want. We exchanged email addresses, shook hands, and he was on his way to a row of signings across San Francisco.

Alas by the time I got to the freeway, a bit of a problem had developed. A truck had jumped off a 35-foot wall where freeways intersected and dropped onto a car beneath killing the passengers, stopping the freeway and creating a "sig-alert"-size traffic jam. It took almost two and a half hours to get home. But I brought with me one of my best interviews.

'Terry Pratchett's latest novel is about an unwisely waged war.
That day, I had finished 'As She Climbed Across the Table'. It was totally wonderful, fun, easy-to-read and yet pithy, intellectually stimulating. From one high to another, I stepped directly into Terry Pratchett's 'Monstrous Regiment'. I'd been anticipating reading this since before Worldcon, where I heard Pratchett read from this title. Like a long delayed meal for the famished, 'Monstrous Regiment' was to be relished, and I did relish it, as well as the time I had to add to the interview list for Pratchett. I whipped through it in three days, and as I did, I read more interviews on line with the seemingly ubiquitous author. How could I have missed him? Well, it was at least partly due to my deliberately ignoring the more popular authors. Pratchett was obviously a superstar in the UK -- one of the more common quotes I heard was that 1% of all UK book sales were Pratchett titles. But in the US, he hadn't been getting the superstar treatment until quite recently.

I enjoyed the hell out of 'Monstrous Regiment' and wrote a rather ripe review as a result. I was planning on airing the review live as a "Bookend" on KUSP's Fine Print show. But the review ran to a bit over 1,000 words. So I tormented my producers as I rehearsed the review speaking at lightning speed to fit it in to the 3-minute segment. I also tormented myself as to what I should read next. I had 'Mort' and 'The Thief of Time'. I could tell that 'The Thief of Time' was much closer in sequence to 'Monstrous Regiment' and 'Night Watch'. And, as I later found out in the interview, there was talk about a Booker prize nomination for that title. But once again, I let my impatience rule the day, and read 'Mort' simply because it was shorter, but also because it was somehow familiar.

Wayne Barlowe's vision of Mort from the novel of the same title by Terry Pratchett.
My 17 year-old son pointed out that familiarity to me. He said, "Dad, isn't Mort in that Barlowe book we have?" Why yes he is, as it happens. Mort is illustrated in 'Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy', and probably in a few other places as well. 'Mort' was quite good, easily up to the high standards of the later material. I was still reading it come Saturday morning, when I was scheduled to interview Mr. Pratchett.

The Terry Pratchett interview was to take place at KUSP, since he was signing at Bookshop Santa Cruz. But his signing was at noon, and I had him scheduled to come in at 10:30 AM. I showed up at about 9:30 AM, and found out that the studio was in use. The gentleman using it cleared out fairly quickly and I was almost able to get myself in and situated at the time I had hoped to. Simultaneously, since we are a public radio station, a pledge drive meeting was gearing up in the room outside the studio. It was a fairly chaotic scene.

I trend towards the worrying side of worrying, and I thought that there was again a good chance that Terry might not show. It was after all, early on a Saturday morning; well, early for some people at least, though I myself tend to wake up at 4 AM. By now I had grokked that Terry was something of an international superstar, and it seemed perfectly possible that he might just blow by in a limo waving as he passed the station. On the opposing side was the argument that Terry had in part built up his reading public by dedicated appearances in the UK, touring relentlessly to meet his fans. That was the side that won out, because he showed up quite early. I was barely in the studio and only sort of ready. Fortunately, I know the gear at KUSP well enough so that it doesn't give me any problems. I shook hands and handed Terry some of my reviews to read while I finished setting up. I asked him if he remembered the two people in his Discworld 101 panel at Worldcon who had not read his work; ah, yes, I was a bit of a familiar face.

When I record at KUSP, I use two DATs and a CD recorder in addition to my computer. I've never had occasion to regret this and I have had occasion to be thankful. As Terry read my reviews, he began commenting on them -- disputing some of my points. Uh-oh, I thought, this isn't going well. But then I thought -- this is going well --hell, we were conversing before I could even get the tape recorder going! I popped in a CD, two DATs, hit record on everything, then attempted to start the interview.

Readers who have listened to other interviews will note that I like to start interviews with a brief reading by the author on occasion. Since I had heard Terry read it at Worldcon, I was absolutely fixated on having him read the following except from 'Monstrous Regiment':

"But we are at war!"
"Yes, that's where they've got you," sighed Polly.
"Well, I'm not buying into it. They keep you down, and when they piss off some other country, you have to fight for them. It's only your country when they want you to get killed!" said Tonker.

Alas, the more we tried to get it going, the more complicated it began to seem. Terry wanted (rightfully) to set the scene, though my thought was that the last paragraph alone said volumes about this world, let alone Discworld -- and that was my point. But to set the scene just a little required a little bit more, then some more until Terry and I jettisoned the whole idea and just rambled off into the standard-issue interview -- or so I thought. Terry and I started talking and the time just disappeared. I glanced up and 45 minutes were gone. I glanced up again and 65 minutes were gone; both DATs had run out of tape, and we were relying on the CD and computer power now. In point of fact, had we started on time, we would have been well into the time of his signing. But Terry had lots and lots of really interesting stuff to say and he was thoroughly enjoying himself, as was I. We yakked over the hullabaloo of the pledge drive meeting outside, which is probably audible during the latter parts of the interview. Sorry. When his very kind driver was standing outside the studio window pointing to his watch, and they had a mere fifteen minutes to get to Bookshop Santa Cruz, I regretfully wound things down, said goodbye, had my books signed (oh yes, they were going to get signed!), and then sent Terry and his driver on their way. I had no time to give him the CD of the interview before he left, so I promised to make them and show up at his signing. It was certainly the most easygoing talk I've ever had with an author.

Pressing the CDs proved to be a lot easier said than done. We'd gone well over the limit of audio you can put on a single CD. This meant finding a decent stop point, and saving all sorts of huge files that seemed to grind away for frigging ever. Meanwhile, my chance to enjoy Terry's speech at a local bookstore, and at a time I could actually be conscious and out of the house, was being rapidly eroded.

Bookshop Santa Cruz in the sun.
It was a bright noon and a beautiful day when I finally arrived at Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was also totally, utterly, wall-to-wall packed with book bearing, book-buying Terry Pratchett fans. I saw more than a few people I knew, and stopped and said hello to some old friends I hadn't seen in a while. There was a line of at least 100 people to talk to Terry. I hemmed and hawed a bit, but there was really no contest; I simply stepped up to the podium and handed him the CDs. I hope he was able to keep hold of them. Meanwhile I looked about and saw the wonderful new Bromeliad trilogy hardcovers and thought to myself, "Why, since Bookshop usually has their authors sign stock, I'll buy one tomorrow signed, after the rush." I poked about a bit, and then headed home to upload the interview.

I had to wait about a week after the signing before this book showed up again at BSC.
The next day, I returned to Bookshop to learn that not only did they have no copies of the Bromeliad trilogy, they had no hardcover books of Pratchett's whatsoever. They had sold out of Terry Pratchett books, which is something of a shame. Presumably they'll learn their lesson. I finished 'Mort' that day, relaxed and wrote a review, posted the interview and entered the strangely polite world of There I tried to delicately explain what Terry had told me, which was that he preferred not to have interviews transcribed because it tended to put words in his mouth. The fans were most understanding, polite and rather interesting. I've visited it since, checking out what's up in the satellites surrounding that vast spinning disc.

By then I was already headed towards my next two interviews, having seen the Gregory Maguire title 'Mirror Mirror' resting in the Inbox at KUSP and having talked to Jonathan Lethem's (Leethumz) publicist about a very funny guy named Colson Whitehead. I'd be doing a bit of reading in the future; by Colson Whitehead, 'The Intuitionist', a droll and intelligent take on the detective novel, and 'The Colossus of New York', a word-lover's feast of fantastic writing about the titular metropolis. By Gregory Maguire, I'd read 'Mirror Mirror' and 'Wicked'. Now, while I'd bought 'The Intuitionist' (twice!) on my own steam, I'd never quite got round to Maguire. Yes, I'm still learning. I'm learning now.