The mantra that most writers suggest is the best way to hone one’s craft. The same holds true for reviewers, publishing professionals and anyone else in this profession of letters. In order to improve the skill one seeks to excel at, it is best to read as much as possible. Yet there is always more to learn about an author. Usually a good interviewer creates a portrait of the author that is deftly written and sharp in its analysis of their writing. ( It is fascinating to observe the interviewer being influenced by the writer, evident in the style of writing, the form the interview takes shape and at times even in the vocabulary.) With the internet becoming a repository of information about authors, their lives and anything else of remote interest to them and being at times to connect with contemporary authors in real time via social media platforms, the need to publish a book of author interviews seems to be futile. Having said that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman and British Muslim Fictions by Claire Chambers. Two exquisite collections of excellent interviewers engaging with authors. In a matter of few pages they are able to introduce the author, give a bit of personal history (if required and relevant to the interview), a perspective on their oeuvre and highlight at least one essential aspect of the author that makes their writing unique. When John Freeman interviews Sarajevo-born, now settled in Chicago, Aleksandar Hemon, Freeman observes: ‘Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images this style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. “I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.” He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.’ (p.134) Or what he has to say of Michael Ondaatje — “Genres bleed between books in Ondaatje’s work.” Or about E. L. Doctorow that “his novels don’t read like researched books but restored originals, recently rediscovered.” Similarly Claire Chambers too has wonderful insights about the authors she meets whether it is Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Aamer Hussein or Mohsin Hamid to name some of them. The hard work that both John Freeman and Claire Chambers put into familiarize themselves with the authors is masked so well that each interview seems to effortlessly done. Yet it is obvious that considerable thought has gone into the preparation for every interview. They seem to be acutely aware of not being “over-prepared”, instead focusing on having “an actual conversation with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one”.
The beauty of each interview is that there is something for every reader to glean—it could be a person discovering an author for the first time or of a reader familiar with the author being interviewed. There is a restraint and a respect that each interviewer has for their author that shines through every profile. It also helps achieve the fine balance of the professional and personal dimensions of an author being presented without it seeming to be voyeuristic. Just enough of the authors personal lives, descriptions of their homes or even of their peculiar habits, such as Kazuo Ishiguro never likes to discuss what he is writing till he is done with it. These are two books worth buying, treasuring, reading for pleasure, to ponder over and if a student of creative writing, essential reading.
While reading these books, there were two other books from India that I recalled — Just Between Us: Women speak about their writing and The Big Bookshelf . Books published a long time ago, but continue to be relevant since they too consist of author interviews. The Big Bookshelf is based upon the years of experience Sunil Sethi had as host of NDTV’s Just Books. (http://profit.ndtv.com/videos/watch-just-books) It ran for many years to finally end in summer of 2013. All though in October 2013, the state television channel, Doordarshan, launched a books programme called Kitabnama:Books and More. ( Link to episode 2:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPCp8QyqAD4 ) It is a weekly programme, designed and curated by author Namita Gokhale. ( She is also one of the directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival.)