Insightful Interviews

Two decades after studying the author John Edgar Wideman in the Kingswood Oxford English Symposium class, writer and critic Alex Dueben ’97 recently interviewed the author for the literary website The Millions. He discussed that experience, how he reads books and the role of the graphic novel.

What do you remember about the Symposium class with John Wideman?

I loved the class and I loved his writing at the time. That class was foundational for me as a writer and a reader and a critic. I had read a lot of fantasy and science fiction and mystery novels and for years I had been used to thinking about how an author’s work changed over time, how certain ideas and themes recurred and looking for connections between them.

Having said that, the symposium is a very rare chance to study one author in depth. In college, you might elect to study Shakespeare or Milton or a handful of others, but never someone contemporary. Bonnie Scranton was my teacher and I think one reason we’re in touch today is because we shared this deep obsession with Wideman’s work. I think the teacher has to be even more passionate than the students to spend that much time and energy with one author. I ended that semester thinking that John Wideman was one of our greatest writers, and time has not changed my opinion. Part of my introduction to my interview read:

“I began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers.”

What was it like to interview the author?

Interviewing can be intimidating. Really, there’s two of us there, and I am the dumber one. Having said that, I’ve found that writers and artists really respect and appreciate people who have read and engaged with their work. That’s what they want and hope for and ideally, an interviewer is one of the people who understands the work.

How do you prep for an interview?

It varies. In general, I read as much as I can. In the case of this interview, I read Wideman’s new book, American Histories, reread his previous book, Writing To Save a Life and reread a number of his short stories. For other interviews, I’ve literally read every book I can get my hands on by an author. That can be overkill. Sometimes I’ll just read their new book a couple times. I don’t really have a method to it. Sometimes it’s about timing or the focus or nature of the article.

In addition to reading their work, I’ll read other interviews with the writer and articles about their work. I don’t want to ask the same questions and cover the same ground as so many other interviews have. But, I have to keep in mind that just because I know fifty million things about the writer doesn’t mean that anyone else reading the article does. There’s a lot of triangulation.

Have you conducted difficult interviews where an interviewee isn’t forthcoming?

Yes. That happens sometimes. I interviewed Anne Carson a few years ago. She does very few interviews because she hates doing interviews and so she was not always forthcoming. It was a very dry piece. I still think she’s a genius and I still read her – and honestly, if given the chance, I would interview her again. Sometimes people don’t want to open up for whatever reason. Of course, sometimes people are not forthcoming because they don’t know the answer. A writer or artist has to analyze their own work a lot, but I think there’s a lot about their work that is a mystery to them.

With the recent death of Philip Roth and the other generation of writers like Saul Bellow, Updike and Mailer, I’m reading that this may be the end of the big, literary novels. Are novels still important and relevant?

I think people have been saying that the novel is “dead” since a few years after it emerged. The novel's place in culture has changed obviously, but people are still reading even if more of our cultural conversation centers around television. But what’s one of the highest compliments that people give to a TV show? “It felt like a novel.” And how many series are based on books?

It always comes back to the novel. There’s nothing quite like it. No one has found a way to replace it or create a new art form that can do everything that it can do. In the past few years, we’ve seen books like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and others that have seized people’s imaginations. I don’t think that’s going to change.

Do you have a particular type of genre that you enjoy?

I’ve always been a fan of mystery novels. I'll even read even a middling crime novel if it sounds interesting. To the degree that I relax with a book, those are the books that I read.

Does it matter if people are reading romance novels or Fifty Shades of Gray as long as they are reading?

People can read what they want to read. I will judge them for it, but I don’t begrudge how anyone relaxes. I’ve read plenty of crime novels that are the literary equivalent of junk food and people can judge me for that.

Do you read on a Kindle?

I don’t have a tablet. I’m umbilically tied to my laptop all day so part of the joy of reading a book is that I’m not on a screen. There’s a lack of distraction when reading a physical book. That’s important for me, and I enjoy that even if I’m studying the book.

Do you have a methodology when you read?

I’m constantly underlining as I’m reading and use post-it notes to bookmark. I take notes, either on my phone or in a notebook. Even when I’m reading for pleasure, I’m still analyzing and thinking. I can’t turn it off.

Who determines the books you review?

It depends. I pitch magazines and outlets. Editors will sometimes pitch me. Publicists are pitching both of us different ideas.

For the Wideman interview, I had pitched a few outlets, essentially arguing why this is a good idea for an article and how I would approach it. My editor at The Millions, the amazing Lydia Kiesling, replied “Dear Alex, Yes! Best, Lydia.” It’s usually not that easy, but it’s always nice when an editor trusts you.

Are you writing any novels yourself?

Right now I’m writing one book and editing another. One is a book about kids on the Connecticut shore and it’s about being twelve years old and all that means, and it’s very much an homage to many of the books I loved when I was young. The other book is a sort of a mystery and it’s about getting older. It’s also about the history of burlesque and the history of Hartford and how families pass down trauma more easily than memory. They’re not autobiographical, but also, they are. There should be a part of you in every book. I am also working on a radio piece, and I’m in that, too. But, hopefully, each of them sound completely different from each other, and nothing like me.

Was there a writer that you interviewed that you had pinch yourself?

There have been a few. In college, I interviewed Seamus Heaney. That was my first big interview, or really, my first medium-sized interview. Heaney was smart and funny and thoughtful and everything you could hope for – to the point where it can ruin things because of course, I have not spent my career hanging out with deeply entertaining and thoughtful Nobel Prize-winners.

Jules Feiffer was huge interview. Richard Wilbur. Alison Bechdel. I interviewed W.S. Merwin a few years ago. He’s done some of the best work of his career in his seventies and eighties, which is really inspiring. He’s one of those seminal writers for me and his book, The Lice, is one of “the” books of poetry for me.

I’ve also interviewed John Lewis a couple of times. The Congressman is just one of the nicest people imaginable. It’s intimidating because I was thinking, “I was taught about you in elementary school.” I interviewed him on stage later, which was intimidating in a whole other way. Of course, no one was there for me. Lewis spoke about the March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, and nonviolence, and when we finished, he hugged me and called me brother. It was a little nerve-wracking, but it wasn’t just my career highlight, it was one of the great experiences of my life.

You also write about graphic novels. What role do you believe they play?

One answer is simply that I like graphic novels. I’m interested in art and design, and we live in a very visual culture.

But to bring it back to John Wideman, one of the things I learned from studying him is the importance of form. That’s something I also learned from studying poetry. Form and structure are not decoration, they’re vital to understanding what is being said. Sometimes what’s needed is a new form. John Wideman does that in The Cattle Killing and Philadelphia Fire. You can see that same impulse animating Marquez and Achebe and Doris Lessing and Ruth Ozeki and Patrick Chamoiseau and so many others. I would argue that there’s a similar impulse in Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel and Emil Ferris. It’s trying to find a new way of telling stories.

Stories are how we define ourselves and how we are defined. For example, greater Hartford is home to large Puerto Rican and West Indian communities. Are they a part of the stories we tell about who we are and who lives here and what our community is? How often do most people in Connecticut think about the Native Americans who live here except in the context of casino gaming? There are so many stories we tell in history classes, in our daily lives, in literature, that are true but they are not the whole truth. Sometimes we need to ask different questions, to consider what we’re seeing in a different way, to pay attention to who’s not speaking, to what’s not being said. The result is often new ways of seeing the world. The result is more voices and different voices and new possibilities for everyone. I think that’s true in both literature and in life.

Are there any particular KO memories or people that still stay with you?

There are a few teachers who defined KO for me, and one of them was Warren Baird. I have this very vivid memory of early in the semester the first time I had him for English. We had read a story by Jamaica Kincaid, from Best American Short Stories, I think, and Baird asked how much of the story was true. I said, “Well, that's a stupid question.” Then I proceeded to explain, and I remember him grinning as I was talking. He liked my answer, and we shared a certain irreverence and sense of humor. He was my advisor. He was one of my very best teachers. He was my friend. As flattering as it is to be asked to do this interview, the fact that it's meant that I got to think back on Baird, is something that I appreciate. I miss him.
 
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