The Agony Column

Interview with Author Ben Tarnoff

Author Ben Tarnoff

Author Ben Tarnoff

By Rick Kleffel

Ben Tarnoff is an amazing speaker; he’s so precise, so knowledgeable and so much fun to talk to that I can’t imagine anyone not already convinced by the title alone not going out to buy The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature after hearing our conversation.

“How do you build a time machine? And it feels like narrative is the best way to do that.”
—Ben Tarnoff

Believe me, we left pretty much all the really juicy parts out of the book, but talked about what he wrote and how he wrote it in a manner that I found to be breathtaking even as we recorded the interview. Tarnoff was kind enough to come to my house, where we sat in the living room and discussed history, the Internet of telegraphy, and especially culture.

I really enjoy reading about history, and Tarnoff writes one hell of a ripping yarn about the men that we often think of as inventing the ripping yarn. The real danger with a book centered on Twain, as this one is, is that Twain is not an unfamiliar figure. He wrote about himself extensively, and has himself been well-served by many writers.

That said, by looking at his early career and putting Twain in perspective amidst his peers and by re-creating the intense literary scene that Twain came into his own in, Tarnoff manages to give us yet another good look at Twain, tell a hell of a story at the same time.

To my mind, Tarnoff should be on the lecture circuit, perhaps with David Talbot who wrote engagingly about a very different San Francisco in ‘Season of the Witch.’ Clearly, Tarnoff’s ability to speak about his book comes from his ability to craft the past as a world, then live in and write about that world.

Interview with Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman. Photo by Rick Kleffel

Ayelet Waldman. Photo by Rick Kleffel

By Rick Kleffel |

“…I was a kid in a candy store coming up with these characters…”

— Ayelet Waldman

When you hear Ayelet Waldman speak you’ll quickly understand why you should make a point of seeing her if she’s in town. The verve and enthusiasm she has in person comes across on the page in ‘Love & Treasure,’ with an attention to detail, a passion for the prose and a fantastic sense of story. This is a novel like the movies, but far better than the movies.

A book like ‘Love & Treasure’ is especially nice to talk about because Ayelet and I could discuss some of the factual backgrounds behind the various sections of the novel without ever really getting too far into the plot. There are really three novels’ worth of story and characters in this relatively short novel, and skimming the surface of the research managed to be fascinating conversation that never steered into dust-jacket flap material.

But we also went beyond this novel and talked about writing in general, and some of her other project in particular her work for TV — none of it produced as yet. No matter what she does, Ayalet has this incredible sense of enthusiasm. It’s impossible to listen to her speak and not want to read everything she’s written; she even has a very nice bit about the heroin high of writing.

Ayelet Waldman’s enthusiasm for writing is tempered by an incredible talent and precision. When we spoke, she talked quite a bit about how the novel was influenced by her understanding of the Holocaust, and how she wanted to approach the subject but craft her own perspective. The novel i9s a superb example of this and hearing her talking about the substructure is just as entertaining

Interview with Mona Simpson

Author Mona Simpson

Author Mona Simpson

By Rick Kleffel |

“I think love stories do have a lot of terror in them.”

—Mona Simpson

Interviewing Mona Simpson, as we discussed her superb novel, ‘Casebook,’ I could not help but be impressed by the combination of human insight and sheer intelligence she brought to the conversation. Her characters seem real to readers because she builds them in her own mind with an intimate degree of detail.

‘Casebook’ is a very intense novel to read. It’s often very funny, then quite terrifying, then unbelievably poignant. Bu as a reader you never notice the transitions until after they have transpired. Her prose has the prickly feel of real life, and she’s able to discuss how she achieves these effects.

Simpson and I also discussed her vision of Los Angeles. In the novel it feels spot-on, but my description of that differed sharply from hers. I’ve lived in both LA and Northern California as both an adult and a child. I was brought up as a child in both places, for long stretches of my life, and I brought up my own children in both places as well. It was fun to try to chart out why we had such different takes on the same sun-baked streets.

Interview with Michael Katakis

Author Michael Katakis. Photo:Ralph Elliott Starkweather.

Author Michael Katakis. Photo:Ralph Elliott Starkweather.

By Rick Kleffel |

“..we haven’t lived up to what people’s illusions and dreams are…”

— Michael Katakis

I’ve done many a tough interview; some were difficult because they required a great deal of specific knowledge gleaned from the reading, some because the reading was emotional and the knowledge was abstract. Sitting down to talk to Michael Katakis about ‘A Thousand Shards of Glass’ put me in the room where the last interview I had done had included his late wife, Dr. Kris Hardin.

“My True North.” It’s the title of a piece from ‘Words and Pictures,’ his book co-written with his wife, about his wife, and that magnetic North acted on us as well. We need ghost stories, I realized, because we live ghost lives. But storytelling has many forms. We do not need characters. The power of Katakis’s book is that we are a character in every piece in his book. We’re the other half of the conversation.

So yes, Michael and I were a bit haunted, but the man is a monument to the elegance of the words he’s written. If, when reading this book, you feel as if it is very shiny, then that’s because the author polished it until it was ready. Every removed word changes all the words around it. This is word sculpture as much as it is prose or language.

Small Pieces Of The Madness Of This World – Lorrie Moore / “Your Inner Fish” With Niel Shubin


9780307594136_custom-944489ff003da542eeadae562662e441e0fdd603-s2-c85Lorrie Moore discusses the stories in her new collection, Bark, which look at post-divorce hysteria, middle-aged dating and classic grifter themes.  Stories full of desperation and sadness with characters who exist in the context of modern times. Despite their darkness, these stories are also deeply humorous. Laugh until you cry or let them both happen at the same time.












14_EP02_SAThen in the second half of the show it’s an interview with University of Chicago Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin from our archives. Shubin’s first book was Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Now he’s hosting a short PBS series titled “Your Inner Fish.” In this interview he discusses the book and how human biology reflects an evolutionary process visible in fossils.

Screenwriter and Novelist David Rich’s Latest Novel, ‘Middle Man’


David Rich

By Rick Kleffel

I think listeners and readers will get a sense just how much fun David Rich’s ‘Middle Man’ is as they listen to our conversation. I have not had so much fun, or been so relaxed in quite some time. And let me acknowledge this right now; David Rich is to be credited with re-casting my “Time to Read” mini-interviews as “the lightning round,” which says quite a bit about his wit and his intelligence.

But wait; there’s more. In ‘Middle Man,’ Rich presents what I suspect is the first concrete example of something we’re going to see quite a bit of in the future, which I call blogoflage. This is the art of creating false blogs and references to blogs as a means of backing up some big ol’ lie, whether you’re talking about global warming or trying to create a false identity. In the novel, Rich lays out in an iconic scene as Rollie Waters is re-invented for his mission. I can’t say if blogoflage (or bloggerflage) is “thing” yet, or if it will be named thusly, but for me it happened in print first here. This was a lot of fun to talk about.

…so much is known so quickly…

— David Rich

But Rich is the sort of writer who writes for fun and makes sure the readers gets it as well. So pretty much whatever we touched on (no plot details) we had a grand time talking about, from his writing-between-genre style to his work in the movies and upcoming novels.

Interview with Carol Cassella


Carol Cassella discusses medical ethics, brain death, identity and the health care system. She also talks about her new novel, ‘Gemini’, which combines medical mystery, love story and an exploration of family dysfunction.

Author and anesthesiologist Carol Cassella.

Author and anesthesiologist Carol Cassella.

By Rick Kleffel
Talking about ‘Gemini’ does present some challenges, because there are aspects of the plot that one simply does not want to discuss. Readers know that in my interviews, I try to preserve the reading experience, and we’ve done that quite handily here. It’s a tribute to how much Cassella packs into this slim, tense literary thriller.

“… we could provide good care for everyone…”
—Carol Cassella

Cassella wrote me after our interview and asked if I’d include this statement from her in my write up of the interview. It certainly bears thinking about and is pertinent to the book.

“The one thing I forgot to share with your audience is that there are good estimates that around 30% of our healthcare dollars are wasted now, on inappropriate care, medical errors, pricing failures, and a cumbersome administrative bureaucracy. If we could capture that waste and reallocate it, we could provide good care for everyone who needs it.”


Well said, and certainly pertinent to and present in the novel, which uses fiction to craft an emotional vision of the less than thrilling facts about our current healthcare system.

Laughing with Humorist Dave Barry


Dave Barry’s new book is ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty’.

In this episode, Rick explores Dave Barry’s new book “You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty”, with it’s author. And on the “Time to Read” segment, Carol Cassella discusses her new novel of medical suspense, “Gemini”.

By Rick Kleffel

I thought, I seriously, seriously thought that having read ‘You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty’ would somehow inoculate me from laughing during my interview Dave Barry. I should have sold myself the Brooklyn Bridge while I was at it.

So, here’s the deal. You will hear me, throughout this interview trying, almost always without success, to avoid laughing. My attempts might themselves be laughable, were their humor not dwarfed by Barry’s genial ease. I’ve spoken with Barry before about5 his fiction. but this was the first time we got to speak about his essays, which he can just reel off again and again, every time making you laugh.

We did get to talk a bit about how he does what he does, which is sort of like a live autopsy. Barry is a skilled enough patient / doctor in this equation that we did in one very memorable exchange get to the heart of his skills with language. Barry brings a lot of pertinent experience to the table, and not from a source you’d necessarily expect.

Standing in the Shadow of the Past



By Rick Kleffel

John Rebus is back — at the bottom. As ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ begins, he’s a DS, working for his one-time DS, now DCI Siobhan Clarke. His nemesis from ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave,’ Malcolm Fox, is back as well. What looks like a car crash might prove to be something else entirely. Simple events will prove to have complicated backgrounds. And readers should have no doubt that wherever you end up, one you start on a journey with John Rebus, getting there is all the fun you need.

As the mystery genre dissolves into serial killers and science experiments, Ian Rankin and his character, John Rebus, do things the old fashioned way. Both writer and character seek and tell utterly engaging stories about characters we give a damn about. Make no mistake; there are plenty of well-wrought mystery elements that make ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ a ripping, gripping yarn. But for this reader, the joy of just hanging out with Rebus and his gang was the primary draw.

Rebus has not aged well in his life, but as literature, he’s a hell of a find. Here’s a crabby old man who hits the mark every time. ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ is funny as hell, with lots of snappy dialogue and undersold poignancy. Rankin has a way of painting a vivid scene with very few words and infusing that scene with feeling and intimacy. Siobhan Clarke, his one-time underling, now his sort-of supervisor (the man can’t really be controlled), provides the right amount of reticent realism as opposed to the wild hairs of Rebus. And Malcolm Fox takes reticence to a whole new level as his time in the Complaints comes to an end. Soon to be unleashed as one of the cops he used to investigate, he’s none to easygoing.

Rebus and company begin the book investigating a car crash, but it’s not long before the political battle over Scotland’s independence come into the picture and from there, everything unravels into a series of enjoyably twisty knots. Past sins are revisited and present ones are scrutinized. For all the tension that he generates, Rankin also manages to give the book a distinctly literary feel. Between the life of crime, the life of a crime and the lives of his characters, the world he creates is complicated and vivid. Plus, it is fun as hell to read.

Rankin’s prose manages to feel detailed but read sparse. He has a talent for telling us just enough to make us feel we are really in that old house with his old friends, or out on the moors with a surly but tense felon. You can read this book and go on vacation with Rebus and Fox in the pub, half-sneering at one another as they discover they have more in common than either is willing to admit. It’s great to have rebus back at the bottom, even as ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ demonstrates that Ian Rankin has hit a new high — with more, we hope, to follow.

Michio Kaku Foresees ‘The Future of the Mind’

Theoretical physicist and author, Michio Kaku

Theoretical physicist and author, Michio Kaku

By Rick Kleffel | KUSP’s Agony Column

It’s obvious that Michio Kaku is about four steps ahead of the rest of the world. His books, ‘The Future of the Mind’ and ‘Physics of the Future,’ are as outstandingly entertaining as they are informative. In person, he’s just like his books, smart beyond belief and lots of fun.

“But I’m a physicist…”

— Michio Kaku

While I didn’t see a “But I’m a physicist…” button when we spoke at KQED, I’m pretty certain if there was one he would have been hitting it more often as I was hitting the cough button. To be honest, I find the man astonishing. He’s always on, and he has his subject down with a delivery that is authentically enthusiastic. It’s easy to see why he has two TV shows and two radio shows.

I tried, with some success, to get him to talk about crafting the books. He clearly gets to have a blast in the process, particularly with the interviews, and I can see the “kid in a candy shop” scenes when he talks about visiting labs, and seeing dreams and telepathy demonstrated by actual scientists.

Readers will get to hear as well the thrill in Kaku’s voice when he talks about how much he enjoys science fiction, and the importance of science fiction to the process of science. Here’s where the rubber meets the road in the form-following function arena. Listening to Michio Kaku you can get an appreciation of hard science and completely nutso, goofy science fiction.