The Agony Column

An Interview with Ex-CIA Attorney John Rizzo

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Note: This program was originally broadcast February 2, 2014.

Rick Kleffel speaks with the man who was once the CIA’s top lawyer – John Rizzo, about the torture tapes, enhanced Interrogation techniques, dirty assets, drone strikes and about his new book, Company Man.

“Even inside the bubble, you find yourself fairly alone…” — John Rizzo

Rick Kleffel wrote:
I was most interested in the historical aspects of the story, and that’s where I took much of our conversation. There’s a very nice JFK connection in the book, and a scene that is impeccably described. We talked about Iran-Contra, and the part he would have willingly played had he been in the wrong place at the right time. All through the conversation, I have to say that John Rizzo was right there. I think that he was relieved to talk with someone who had read the book, and he was clearly happy to discuss events in the book that were not the focus of recent media attention.

Fantasy Writer Tad Williams

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Tad Williams’ newest books are hard-boiled detective stories with a fantasy twist; the detective is angel Bobby Dollar.

By Rick Kleffel

Attitude is everything in the Bobby Dollar books by Tad Williams. The Angel Doloriel, aka Bobby Dollar, tells the story in some of the most enjoyable, hilarious, smartest prose you can find in this particular veil of tears. Following hot on the heels of ‘The Dirty Streets of Heaven,’ ‘Happy Hour in Hell’ follows the narrative model of the first book. We start in the middle, in this case as Bobby crosses a bridge into hell, then whip back to the beginning and take the story straight up, no chasers.

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Author Roz Chast, “The Beginning of the End” to “The End”

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By Rick Kleffel

Roz Chast Asks ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’

No.

You’d think that living here in the 21st century, we’d be comfortable with death. It’s not as if we haven’t seen enough of it. But everyday, natural, he-lived-a-long-life-and-then-dropped-dead death gives us the heebies to the point where we’ve let ourselves be convinced that anything is better. Plus, there’s a healthy profit in tending to those who might otherwise have died but can be kept alive long enough to cash out every penny they had ever scrimped, saved and hidden away for that rainy day. If only it were just a day.

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Interview with Alan Furst

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While Alan Furst’s current novel is ‘Midnight in Europe,’ at this point in his career, you can’t really talk about a single novel. Make no mistake. You can read ‘Midnight in Europe’ by itself, having never read anything else by the man, cold, and it will knock you out. It’s a superb novel. But Furst is working on a unique literary form, a multi-volume version of a story in the style of a huge Russian novel.

“..but it was as nothing compared to the noise of planes landing…”
—Alan Furst

In conversation about his latest, I definitely wanted to open it up, to explore how Furst builds this detailed world, novel by novel. He told me some very interesting secrets that took me back to my time as a child, reading the Compton’s Encyclopedia. In retrospect, it seems that the hardbound encyclopedia has much more worth than one might presume, as it captures the world in a moment. It may give you some valuable information about the world, to be sure, but is certain to offer invaluable and un-reproducible information about the moment.

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Writer Sarah Lotz

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Read a review of Sarah Lutz’s The Three, by Rick Kleffel.

Author Sarah Lutz

Author Sarah Lutz

Sarah Lotz is something of a contradiction in terms. Here’s her first novel, by my reckoning, ‘The Three.’ Bu there are three in the “Also By” list, and I come to understand she’s part of three other “writers,” that is single names on the cover that prove to be collaborations, including one with her daughter.

“…people need answers…”

— Sarah Lotz

To be honest, she looks far too young to have a daughter with whom she could collaborate, but she tells me that this is the case. The point being, if ‘The Three’ seems like a remarkably accomplished first novel, then that’s because like most “first” novels, it’s actually, well, pretty far down the line.

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Interview with Author Bill Bryson

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This program was originally broadcast November 11, 2013.

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“It was the most amazingly eventful and magical summer…”
—Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s new book  ”One Summer: America, 1927″ digs into a transitional year in the history of the United States. His past books include  ”A Walk in the Woods,” “A History of Everything” and several other nonfiction books. KUSP’s Rick Kleffel spoke with Bryson about how he selects the subjects for his books and the importance of Charles LIndbergh to his latest.

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Interview with Author Steven Galloway

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Creating Harry Houdini

Martin Strauss makes some extraordinary claims at the beginning of Steven Galloway’s ‘The Confabulist,’ and like all such declarations, they require extraordinary proof. With Steven Galloway, Martin Strauss and novel’s focal point, Harry Houdini, you’re in precisely the right company to obtain it. Galloway’s novel manages to be a tense, imaginative historical thriller while simultaneously being a poignant mediation about love and loss.

The title of the novel suggests how it’s possible to reconcile such opposing literary notions. Confabulation is what happens when memories are blurred and the imagination supplies supposed facts to fill in the blanks. As we meet Martin Strauss, he’s not in the best shape. Suffering from tinnitus, and racked with guilt, he claims to have met Harry Houdini. Before we can blink our eyes, Galloway introduces us to Houdini, and the novel rockets forward and backward through Houdini’s life and Martin’s.

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Colson Whitehead and His Turn in the ‘World Series of Poker’

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By Rick Kleffel

Incandescent Memories of the Future

On the face of it, the world beats words, hands down, every time. Our lives are so immersive, so intense that it seems anything less, no matter how powerful the art, simply cannot conjure up reality. This would seem to be doubly true for Las Vegas and the world of high-stakes poker. Yet, one paragraph into Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Noble Hustle,’ you’re reminded of just how powerful — and fun! — language can be.

Fun is the key word here, it’s important, it matters, and not just because Whitehead keeps the reader entertained. It’s important because Colson Whitehead’s latest conjures up not just fun but serious fun. This is life and death stuff wrestled down the page with mere words. This is the triumph of the Lilliputians over Gulliver, this is hardcore wild-side writing. This is bright lights in black and white.

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Geoff Dyer: ‘Another Great Day at Sea’

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Author Geoff Dyer

Author Geoff Dyer

By Rick Kleffel:

I was intrigued with ‘Another Great Day Day At Sea’ pretty much from the moment it landed in my hands. Geoff Dyer’s prose voice was delightful and the subject seemed so odd and yet so obviously fascinating.

This wasn’t my first experience with Dyer, though. I’d read another odd little book by him titled ‘Zona,’ about one of my favorite movies of all time, Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on the novel ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

“..but it was as nothing compared to the noise of planes landing…”
—Geoff Dyer

I did manage to keep my focus (mostly) on the matter directly to hand, and talking about Dyer’s book was as fun as reading it. Here’s an interview where hearing the author’s voice will enable you to hear him speak when you read the book. We did make certain to talk about the book in a manner that left reading the book more appealing. Once you hear Dyer speak, you’ll hear him tell you the whole story as you read the book.

dyer-another_great_day_at_seaFor such a small book, there was a lot to talk about and the hour flew past. Dyer was a great sport, having just left one interview with the superstars to come talk with the podunk local guy.

I have to say Dyer was a bit surprised when I brought up ‘Zona,’ but there are not a lot of people who even know about the movie, much less revere it in the manner that Dyer (and I) do. Dyer’s book is a fascinating look at the power of art, and a hall of mirrors for anyone who is interested in how art makes you, well — human.

Kaui Hart Hemmings Discusses Comedic Reactions to Grief

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Author Kaui Hart Hemmings

Author Kaui Hart Hemmings

By Rick Kleffel

It’s hard not to laugh at most of what’s around you if you have just finished reading The Possibilties by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Sarah St. John’s voice will sharpen your ability to identify the many idiocies that surround you, and may inspire a more astringent response than usual.

“I burned that copy and started fresh.”
—Kaui Hart Hemmings

Hemmings is every bit as sharp as her character, but much more generous, at least to aging radio hosts who have hijacked a bit of her visit to San Francisco. I set up the interview on something of a lark. The day I got the book in hardcover, I emailed the author, and suggested that the next time she happened to be in the Bay Area, she should let me know so we could talk about the book. She told me she’d be here next week, and I had the distinct delight of having a very good reason to put down anything else I was doing (like re-finishing the back deck or getting the car fixed), and spending a perfectly delightful bit of reading time with Sarah S. John

hemmings-the_possibilities-homeOff-tape, I asked Hemmings about a movie based on this book, which to me seems dead-certain, given that the movie based on The Descendants was an award-winning hit. (It was an excellent adaptation.) She told me that there had been some interest, but that her first novel had been in movie limbo for quite some time, and this one was only just getting entrée into said limbo. Once again, the many advantages of book over movies are made clear. Committees do not create books after a withering and often badly thought out decision process. That artists-in-their-garrets image offers a real advantage.

[Let me hastily add that most books are the result of more than the authors' efforts, and that editors, publishers and publicists make a huge difference in getting a book to the public. But the core initial creative process tends to be fairly solitary. Hell, I know I could use an editor, a second set of eyes for this enterprise. Cast not stones, etc.]

Hemmings and I sat down to talk and immediately began to have more fun than one should usually attempt an author interview. But it didn’t get in the way of a substantive talk that ran the clock down faster than I expected. We spoke for nearly an hour and then it was time for The Lightning Round.