The Agony Column

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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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.

Life With Mom the Pornographer

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Rick Kleffel speaks with Ann Rice about her new novel The Wolves of Midwinter, her son Christopher Rice about his new novel, The Heavens Rise, and the two of them about life in a family of writers.

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The Heavens Rise is both a  novel about people with magical powers and a story concerned with the emotional development of its protagonist. Author Christopher Rice told Rick Kleffel that many authors writing about supernatural events are using the genre to tell psychological stories.

Anne Rice’s The Wolves of Midwinter is the latest in her series about a clan of werewolves who live in Northern California.

Interview with Bill Bryson

Play

bill_bryson-2013-pgc

“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.

Read more.

How Yemen Became a Battleground

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Listen to the full  interview above or the short radio clip below.

In recent weeks U.S. drones in Yemen killed more than 30 people suspected of being militants. Gregory D. Johnson tells the stories behind the new Al Qaeda homeland, in an interview with KUSP Rick Kleffel.

Author Gregory Johnsen. Photo courtesy of

Author Gregory Johnsen. Photo courtesy of Jeff Taylor

By Rick Kleffel | KUSP’s Agony Column

“..he would shell somebody with one hand and then embrace them with the other…”

— Gregory Johnsen

Gregory Johnsen is immersed in the world of ‘The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.’ I must admit that it was only as I wrote the review of the book that I realized the part that world-building plays here. That’s what enables Johnsen to turn news is story and history into a suspenseful, exciting and informative book.
For Johnsen, the book was all about the story, not just the news. As we discussed ‘The Last Refuge,’ the pleasures of the reading experience returned. realized that John creates the places that he describes so well that as a reader, after you’ve read the book, you can go back and visit the scenes in your mind. It takes a certain kind of talent to extract the story from all the data, and Johnsen and I talked about finding the story in the headlines.

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David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill “A Rope and a Prayer”

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Photo: courtesy of trashotron.com

By Rick Kleffel

Every day we live to look back upon is history. Yet even when we live it, it’s difficult to learn from our own history. So often, we make the same mistakes in our lives again and again. But that does not stop us from trying to improve our lives. It is the hope that has launched a thousand thousand self-help books. These books often turn on a single thought; they force us to examine our personal histories from the perspective of the author’s premise. In a sense, they personalize our personal histories.

So how can the people of a country or a culture learn from history? The details of our nation’s exploits are there for all to see and none to agree upon. Viewed from afar, what should be perspective is transformed into wiggle room. We pick and choose the facts to suit our beliefs.

There’s no picking and choosing going on in ‘A Rope and a Prayer,’ by David Rohde and Kristin Mulvilhill. The story of the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde, and how his new wife, Kristen Mulvihill, negotiated for his release, is laid out in sparse, harsh details. Though it reads like a page-turning action-packed thriller, it’s all undeniably true. A reader cannot help but be moved, and moved to think about our nation’s foreign policy. This is history wrought small, and very powerful. This is personal history.

The game plan is simple. In alternating chapters, ‘A Rope and a Prayer’ tells the story of David Rohde’s 2008 kidnapping by a sort of Taliban mafia, from his perspective, and from that of his new wife, Kristin Mulvihill. Neither wastes a single word. Eight pages in, Rhode, who is hoping to score one more interview that will add perspective to his book on Afghanistan, is kidnapped by armed men, including the man he was supposed to interview, Abu Teyy. His translator, the man who set up the interview, Tahir, and their driver, Asad, are also taken. His kidnappers initially seek $25 million ransom and the release of some fifteen prisoners. Kristin Mulvihill, his wife, first gets the news from David’s older brother Lee, but her smart, accommodating relatives let her take charge of the negotiations. It’s not fun — the Taliban call collect when they demand these multi-million dollar ransoms.

The back and forth story constantly seems about to come to an abrupt and generally unhappy end as Rohde’s captors consistently lie to him about his fate. He’s dragged from one surreal situation to another and along the way meets a variety of fascinating and weird people. High-tech jihadis and suicide bombers are his guards, and the man who seems to be in charge of his kidnapping take on a variety of names and personalities, sometimes kind, sometimes hectoring, sometimes casually brutal. Rohde is well-taken care of physically, and lackadaisically guarded. He often contemplates escape.

Mulvihill finds herself in equally surreal albeit seemingly friendlier company. The FBI steps in with silent power, but not a lot of grace. Legally, it seems there is little they can do beyond provide helpful advice and gather potential evidence for eventual prosecution. All our laws, police and armies are legally prevented from participating — officially. Mulvihill’s and Rohde’s families are Kristen’s first line of help. She has allies beyond, but they are not easily found, and what they can do is quite unpredictable.

‘A Rope and a Prayer’ is a compelling, engaging book to read, and it is almost possible to read it for thrills alone. Rohde and Mulvihill are both engaging writers with very different voices. Rohde writes hard facts with a deep feeling of regret and responsibility. If anything, he underplays the severity of what happens to him, because he is busy taking the brunt of responsibility for getting himself into this position in the first place. But he has a keen eye for developing the characters of his comrades and his captors, as well as his own state of mind. And he is being dragged at gunpoint, generally laying down in the back seats of cars, around one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Mulvihill finds herself stepping into situations whose contrasts threaten to submerge her in the surreal. She’s supervising the photo shoot of a fussy celebrity, then stepping out to view kidnap video in a car parked in front of Starbucks. She approaches her extreme situation with an understated appreciation of the absurdity, a quiet sense of humor that is pretty funny given the horror she is clearly simultaneously experiencing. She’s deeply in love with her new husband and intent on following her gut instinct, which generally proves to be correct.

Beyond the thrilling and the emotional power of this book, there is a deep sense of the cultural and political decisions that have created the world in which we find ourselves. Rohde has been in Afghanistan for years now, and his captivity offers him a chance to reflect and recount the actual history that not only got us into this conflict, but beyond that, the deep history of the region. All of this is tied into the deeply personal history of what is happening to Rohde at any given moment, and it’s a potent combination. Rohde makes history exciting, relevant and real. Mulvihill, meanwhile, offers a concise vision of the kidnapping process from the perspective of those being compelled to pay ransom or meet demands. As readers, we join her on a crash course in Kidnapping 101. The lessons we learn are not comforting.

But the overall arc of ‘A Rope and a Prayer’ does indeed offer substantial comfort — the comfort of knowledge, both factual and emotional. In their entrancing duet, Rohde and Mulvihill manage to make a very complicated message entertainingly and often excitingly clear. This is the excitement of understanding for the first time, the arcane history that has trapped us in a dangerous situation. We see the levers that have been pushed and pulled for centuries. Their history becomes ours — and something we can, potentially, learn from.

Gregory Johnsen “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.”

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Photo: courtesy of Jeff Taylor

By Rick Kleffel

“… he would shell somebody with one hand and then embrace them with the other …”

— Gregory Johnsen

Gregory Johnsen is immersed in the world of’ The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia. I must admit that it was only as I wrote the review of the book that I realized the part that world-building plays here. That’s what enables Johnsen to turn news is story and history into a suspenseful, exciting and informative book.

For Johnsen, the book was all about the story, not just the news. As we discussed ‘The Last Refuge,’ the pleasures of the reading experience returned. realized that John creates the places that he describes so well that as a reader, after you’ve read the book, you can go back and visit the scenes in your mind. It takes a certain kind of talent to extract the story from all the data, and Johnsen and I talked about finding the story in the headlines.

Johnsen has traveled extensively in Yemen, and understands the importance of the differences between the culture there and our own culture. Moreover, he understands how the political history that you can read about helped shape the characters he wrote about.

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Courtesy of the Author.

Johnsen’s talents as writer are matched by his talents as a speaker. It’s one thing to write a deeply researched book, but as we spoke, I came to understand that he had internalized the research to such a deep level that he was able to call up analysis and story at the same time, and analyze his own process.

I probably could have talked to Johnsen for twice as long about this book, because there\’s a great deal of detail that is really enjoyable to read, but I wanted more to tease out the threads he uses to connect all the details. I have to say that the book is much funnier than you would expect, and we talked about the humor, which is matched, word for word, by the horror. The ineptitude of Al Qaeda is not what you read about in the paper or see on the news.

Johnsen himself has been in the news of late, writing essays for the front page of the New York Times, and we talked about the difference between writing the book and writing for the papers. When you read this book, or even, I think, listen to this interview, your vision of news from this part of the world is irrevocably altered.

Dave Barry “Insane City”

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Photo: Courtesy of trashotron.com

By Rick Kleffel

“Where’s the beef, Mr. Lama?”

— Dave Barry

Yes, in ‘Insane City‘ Dave Barry does manage the seemingly impossible, climbing to heights of absurdity with an admirable ease. He manages to mock the Dalai Lama, in a manner that is actually quite funny but good-natured.

The good-natured spirit that makes the book so utterly enjoyable is not just the result of literary skills, though Barry is clearly an astonishing perfectionist. Barry’s ability to convey a sweet and happy sensibility is simply a reflection of the man himself. After all, here is a fellow who is booked to the gills for his tour. He’s out in a Saturday, and before noon, he’s already done one live appearance. He’s got at least one and probably two more in the afternoon and evening (if not more), but he’s willing to give me a chance to talk to him in his hotel room in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful, sunny, crisp day, and I don’t even know if he’s had time for lunch.

He certainly is keeping up on his sports, watching a game while I set up the studio. But the second he sits down to talk about his new novel, he is — and you can hear this in the interview — charged with energy to discuss the inner workings of comedy. As an interviewer, I tend to be very wary when it comes to comedy. It’s easy to kill that patient while you examine the inner workings. But Barry is so smart and so much fun that he can make jokes about writing jokes. It’s like watching Bruce Lee karate chop his own moves.

Barry and I discussed a number of aspects of his book, and his inspirations and influences. What struck me was how seriously he takes his art. There’s no doubt that ‘Insane City’ is first and last a joy to read. It is perilously easy to pick up and dangerously difficult to put down. Barry makes all this seem so easy that one might be tempted to believe that it’s as easy for him to write as it is for us to read. Talking to the man will disabuse you of this sophistry. He works very hard to make his own art, his own hard work, quite invisible.

But Barry has this joyous energy running through him when he talks. These books are no more than a literary version of the man, who had his son’s wedding to contend with. The real joy in ‘Insane City’ is that it not just rings true, but big old slabs of it are based on what comes and goes in an average day in Miami. Barry manages to make it seem as if, while the individual bits in the novel are fiction, the whole shebang is something that a lucky documentarian might end up filming.

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Cory Doctorow “Homeland”

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Cory Doctorow. Photo courtesy of trashotron.com

From Rick Kleffel at trashotron.com

Cory Doctorow gets to KQED pretty much straight off the red-eye; he arrives at 8:20 AM to talk about ‘Homeland‘ and ‘Rapture of the Nerds’ having had his day start the same time as mine, that is at 3:30 AM. This is my standard insomniac wake-up call, but Cory is ready to talk and bristling with energy. We start early because he’s anxious to get to the high school events he has scheduled after our interview.

“Student debt is the new sub-prime.”

— Cory Doctorow

Creating new readers is something that science fiction does really well. The old joke is, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12,” and while there is certainly some truth to that, it’s not a bad thing. Doctorow has embraced that and he has a very aggressive and enthusiastic schedule that gets him into as many high schools as possible in front of what I am guessing are very excited audiences.

I’ve been speaking with Cory for a long time. I have very fond memories of lugging my portable DAT recorder and some very heavy microphone stands and cables into the offices of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco to talk with him about ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.’ Of all the times we have spoken, this was the first in the ultra-luxurious studios at KQED, with master engineer Howard Gelman on the board. For me, this was like a coming home party.

‘Homeland’ is superb sequel, and lots of fun to talk about. Doctorow cover so many interesting issues here, and creates a nicely even-more complicated version of the world we found in ‘Little Brother.’ He really hit his stride with student debt, in the sort of talk I’d like to hear on say, 60 Minutes. To my mind, it’s that level of importance; I pay attention to media coverage of this subject, or I would if there were any.

But Doctorow is a reading enthusiast as well. We talked about the contribution that his work for Boing Boing makes to the science fiction he writes. It actually was the inception point for one of the standout sequences in ‘Homeland.’ There are a lot of those to pick from.

And yes, because Doctorow mentioned coffee tech so prominently in ‘Homeland’ we talked about his favorite brewing methods. These may or may not involve the purchase of forbidden technology that has the potential to explode should it be left unattended. Not surprisingly, Doctorow mentioned Intelligentsia, the coffee shop favored by Michael Harvey in Chicago.

Cory Doctorow managed to get his cup of coffee slipped in just before the interview started, though so far as I could tell, he was already ready to discuss his newest ripping yarn. And we did not forget ‘Rapture of the Nerds.’ I still have my copy of Argosy with an early version of one of the parts of this novel.

Ian Rankin “Standing in Another Man’s Grave”

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Ian Rankin. Photo courtesy of trashotron.com

From Rick Kleffel at trashotron.com

“Everything I know about writing I’ve learned from reading books.”

— Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin looks impossibly young to have written as many books as he has, from his first Rebus novel to the latest, ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave.’ I learned during the interview just what that is, but when he arrived at KQED, I had to re-adjust my expectations.

To be honest, I was indeed expecting a gentleman a bit more Rebus-like than the one who stepped out of the elevator. But one learns to annihilate expectations in the face of reality when one does interviews, simply because they tend to derail better questions. Of course, the other derailer-of-questions is a big long talk before the interview. Alas, we were both early, so we headed up to the fabled “green room” while the studio techs prepared.

Fortunately, there was one thing we could talk about that was tangential to the books but not a derailer; that being music, as there’s certainly plenty of it in the books! It turns out that Rankin is younger not just in fact, but also in musical taste than his protagonist, so there was a good deal to be said about the glory days of 1970′s and 1980′s music.

Once we sat down to talk about the books, the answers with regards to Rankin’s youth were answered; he is young, with such a large catalogue, because he started young. Once you get that factored it, it all becomes clear. Rankin is very straightforward about his writing process; there’s a bit of planning and a bit of instinct and very much writing.

One of the fascinating aspects of ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’ is the presence of Malcolm Fox. In fact, Malcolm Fox himself is an interesting story. He’s in the unit they call “the Complaints,” which is the title of the first Malcom Fox novel. That’s the UK equivalent of what we in the States call “Internal Affairs,” that is, the cops who ferret out bad cops. As Rankin points out, they’re hated by everyone.

Fox started out as a clear — and very different from Rebus — protagonist in his own novels. Of course, when he shows up in the return of Rebus, it’s a very different matter. Rankin found that the hero of one novel would be the antagonist of another. Rankin and I talked about turning the tables on Fox. I have to day that I was barely into ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave,’ when I sussed that the stuffy Fox was the protagonist in two of Rankin’s novels.

I had a grand time reading ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’ and talking to Rankin about the novel. And now I have a huge back catalogue (and hopefully more interviews) to look forward to.