The Agony Column

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.

Interview with Kent A. Kiehl

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Author Kent A. Kiehl. Photo: Mark Petersen Photography

Author Kent A. Kiehl. Photo: Mark Petersen Photography

Review by Rick Kleffel:

Kent Kiehl begins ‘The Psychopath Whisperer‘ with his first day of work as a twenty-three year-old graduate student; he’s entering the Matsqui maximum-security prison near the town of Abbotsford, British Colombia to interview the prison’s most violent inmates. “Prison is never boring,” he tells us. As this utterly compelling books proves, for young neuroscientists studying the brains of psychopathic killers, that is certainly the case.

‘The Psychopath Whisperer’ is a fascinating book on a variety of levels. The science is groundbreaking, the characters are riveting, Kiehl’s story arc as a young scientist making his mark in the field is involving, and the way Kiehl brings together all the threads for a stunning denouement is authentically thrilling.

Interestingly enough, for a fellow who speaks with those whom he describes as having a “flat aspect,” Kiehl’s prose is itself rather flat of aspect. It seems a bit odd at first, but as he goes on to interact with and describe some of the most vile humans one might hope never to meet, the reasoning behind this choice, if it is indeed one, becomes quite clear. There’s a clinical precision at work in the prose for this book that is actually quite appealing. The upshot is that Kiehl’s voice is unique and well served by his prose.

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Author Justin Go, The Steady Running of the Hour

Justin Go

Justin Go

Justin Go proves to be every bit as cosmopolitan as you might expect him to be from reading his first novel, ‘The Steady Running of the Hour.’ He’s sharply dressed, well spoken and more than able to talk about the odd mix of subjects that go into his engaging and rather intense book.

When asked about Dan Simmons’ ‘The Abominable,’ which does cover some of the same material albeit in a very different fashion, he tells me that he’s heard about it but not yet read it. In the world of two-books-make-a-trend, that means there’s a WWI/Everest meme in the wind. Taken on its own, ‘The Steady Running of the Hour’ is engrossing enough to talk about all by itself, and talk we do.

“… there was always something that had to happen …”
—Justin Go

Go told me that he had to mess about with all Britishness of the narrative, even though he’s an American. He spent some college time in London, and more besides, enough to consider the city a second home. In fact, travel plays a pretty big part in his life, as it does in his book. In our time, you can hop on a jet and get anywhere in a day or two. A century ago, you might have to take a steamer or a train, and get anywhere in a page or two via the magic of eliding the unnecessary bits.

Go told me that much of the novel would never have been completed had he ever thought that anybody was going to read it. To my mind, he could easily have a bestseller on his hands. I think the novel to be quite good and that it possesses a wide appeal.

Interview with Matt Taibbi

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Author Matt Taibbi

Author Matt Taibbi

By Rick Kleffel

Alas, I missed Matt Taibbi when he was in town. His schedule was so packed between addressing the Commonwealth Club about his new book, The Divide and working his new venture with Glen Greenwald that my last minute attempts came to naught. But thanks to his fearless publicist and the joys of ISDN connections, we were able to talk, at length, and still have one hell of a good time.

“… the biggest bank robbery in the history of the world …”

— Matt Taibbi

Make no mistake about it. Taibbi is dead serious in his examination of the New American Dystopia, but he and I also managed to laugh, early and often, at his wonderfully tweaked portraits of hell on earth. It’s hard not to laugh at some of the mind-bogglingly outlandish exploits that Taibbi documents.

In our previous interview, he and I discussed material similar to this from ‘Griftopia.’ This time around, we once again were talking about the financial scammers who are real-life Bond villains. It’s all in good fun until somebody steals 45 billion, that’s BILLION with a B, dollars from millions of small investors and pension funds.

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Interview with Author Ben Tarnoff

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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

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Ayelet Waldman. Photo by Rick Kleffel

Ayelet Waldman. Photo by Rick Kleffel

By Rick Kleffel | Bookotron.com

“…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

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Author Mona Simpson

Author Mona Simpson

By Rick Kleffel | Bookotron.com

“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

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Author Michael Katakis. Photo:Ralph Elliott Starkweather.

Author Michael Katakis. Photo:Ralph Elliott Starkweather.

By Rick Kleffel | Bookotron.com

“..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

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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.