THE BELIEVER: Do you consider yourself an interviewer?
MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: I tend to consider myself first and foremost a reader and a conversationalist. I don’t know how to interview people. I never went to journalism school. I don’t know what’s conventionally wanted from an interview, and I know that the things that I hear about it all strike me as wrong. Interviewers are supposed to be neutral and faceless, and I don’t believe in that. I don’t know how to talk to someone who’s neutral and faceless.
BLVR: You get really honest and raw responses from your guests. How do you do it?
MS: In the course of interviewing, I’ve discovered that if you don’t give your guest something to react to, they don’t react. They simply say what they’ve been saying every time they’ve been interviewed. The last thing you want is to have people say to you what they’ve said to someone else. On the air, the microphone picks up a certain mechanical quality, and the interview sounds dead. I want something to happen, and I know it’s not going to happen on what’s conventionally called a writer’s tour, because they’ve been going from city to city to city. If I can create a context that’s unusual enough, make it strange enough to get their ear so that they’re listening again and can hear what I’m saying, I will get a response that’s genuine. I’m not trying to make people confess that they’ve had a relationship with an animal—that’s not of any interest to me whatever—I want to talk to the person, the part of the person that wrote the book. What I’m interested in is characteristic of the privacy they have at the writing desk.
BLVR: But your questions are never intrusive.
MS: I wouldn’t call what I ask questions; I consider them to be lengthy Rorschach blots in words, in language. You’ve got a person coming into your studio. They’re tired, they’re nervous. By now, after twenty years, many of them have heard Bookworm shows and think, Oh, he’s so smart, he’s going to ask me things I don’t know how to answer. I want to ask a question that allows the interviewee, the guest, to hear certain words that then they free-associate about. There isn’t usually an answer to the question. And what they come up with doesn’t usually answer the question. It has just brought them to a state where they realize, I’m going to go wherever this takes me.
BLVR: Is that why your guests seem to admire you as much as you admire them?
MS: Rather than interviewer, conversationalist, reader, I believe in calling myself a host, which makes the person a guest, which makes the traditional guest-host relationship come into play, which is one of courtesy, welcome, conviviality. I’m not there to do shock-radio or to create tension; in fact, I’m there to do the opposite. I’m there to show that when someone feels comfortable, when someone is being respected, when someone’s attitudes and values are being mirrored—maybe even shared—they become more articulate, more interesting, more willing to speak their minds, and are willing to go deeper.
BLVR: Do you actually say this to your guests?
MS: I tend to tell people when I start, “I am here to help you shine. I don’t have any interest in embarrassing you. I have no interest in asking you a question that you can’t answer.” What kind of good radio would that be? And how many more guests would I have after a couple of shows in which I did that? No, the questions have been tailored to the guest.
BLVR: When you say “tailored,” what do you mean?
MS: I’ve read all of the work, or in some cases as much of the work as is humanly possible. We all have time and deadlines, accidents, emergencies, but I read as much of it as I can. I’m very against interviewers who do not have time to read the work, who accept jobs knowing that they don’t have time to do the preparation. And that is almost everyone who has a daily interview program. How could you read, or see, or watch, or hear as much as you need to? So, you wing it. And it’s not going to stop. Winging it is going to be the American way. But I want to read the work. What for? To be able to be a mirror to my writer. I want to read the books that have influenced the work, childhood books, all kinds of things. And so my preparation is infinite.
Most writers have never spent time speaking to someone who’s read all the work except someone working on a dissertation or in an English department, in which case it’s rather different. They’ve read the work to test a theory or an idea. No, I’m there to astonish them by the extent to which I can mirror them. And I like to think that at best the interview becomes something like the unaccountable experience of talking to oneself in a mirror.
An interview with Michael Silverblatt (June 2010).
All twenty years of Michael Silverblatt’s program, Bookworm, can be heard at kcrw.com/bookworm.
Click here to listen today’s interview with Anne Carson.