Interviewing the Interviewer
The first time I saw Donna Seaman interview somebody was during the 2006 Story Week Festival of Writers. I was new to Chicago, in my second semester of my MFA coursework at Columbia College, straight from two years as a newspaper reporter. So I'd done interviews. Plenty of them. But nothing like this.
Donna sat on the stage at the Harold Washington Library next to Studs Terkel and Stuart Dybek, two writers who, in very different ways, had spent their careers documenting Chicago. Stuart struck a deferential pose, sitting back in his chair and not saying much. Studs was on a tear. At 93, he rattled off one hilarious, self-deprecating anecdote after another. When an audience member asked what his day was like, he snickered and said, "Well, mine is trying to keep alive. If I wake up tomorrow, I say, 'Jesus, what a day this is going to be!'... I'm working on a memoir. It's called Touch and Go." The audience--Donna and Stuart included--howled with laughter.
I, like the rest of the audience, felt drawn forward toward the stage until we all sat on the edge of our seats, grinning with fascination. Donna smiles when she talks; there's a calm presence about her that hides a burning enthusiasm for literature. Authors respond to that, and so do audiences. At the risk of sounding like a crystal-clutching hippie, that interview felt somehow transcendent. Before that night I'd been nervous about my new city, about leaving my reporting job, about trying my hand as a novelist. As the crowd filed out the doors and into the line for the book signing, I felt like I'd be just fine.
"So who were your favorite interviews?" I ask. Donna winces. She's already told me that when people ask what her favorite book is, she tends to blank. She doesn't like picking favorites.
We'd already talked about Stuart and Studs, and after a second, she comes up with a list that covers the rest of her Story Week resume: Chitra Divakaruni in 2008 ("That seemed pretty magical"), Sandra Cisneros in 2005 (She's "kind of a healer"), and Anchee Min in 2007 ("an incredibly insightful person with what she's gone through"). "These people have power," she says. "They have something different about them."
"Those women really went through some major cultural collisions and ethnic struggles-- working, and trying to mend things with family, being identified with a group that perhaps they've drifted away from. Complex lives that go into their work. I just so respect and admire that and feel it really deepens their levels of compassion for other people ... Those are profoundly moving experiences, sitting next to these writers, talking to them, and feeling the audience's connection to them. It really gets you sort of high."
And everyone who's seen her on stage with an author can attest to that.
Her office at Booklist is a good-sized one with a window, and we sit across the desk from each other as the sun sets early--it's another late night for her, made worse by the fact that we've all just set our clocks back. She's got three potted plants on the windowsill, and two other walls are hidden behind stacks of books nearly up to the ceiling; the fourth wall has a window looking out into the ALA's office, and the stacks on a low shelf below it threaten to wall off the glass. There's also a tightly packed library cart behind my chair. In the place where she spends most of her day, Donna is literally surrounded by books. And at home? "My house is bursting with them." When I ask how she manages to juggle all her projects, she shakes her head as if she's still trying to figure it out.
"Certain other things suffer," she says. "My house is really messy. I don't cook as much as I should. I do not have children. I could never do all this stuff with children."
As soon as Donna knows who she's going to be interviewing, she rereads the author's most recent book. Hopefully, she says, she's read most of the other books an author's written, but if not, she gets to work on those, too.
"It's a lot of work. You have to read the books ... I actually really love speaking to newer writers, not just because there's less to read," she says, laughing and shaking her head, a little embarrassed at how what she'd just said might be misconstrued, but I know what she means. Anybody who's used to giving interviews develops some shtick. "The conversation is often fresh to them, there's an element of discovery involved. They're really interested in what an interviewer will ask them."
Since I watched her interview Studs and Stuart Dybek, I've seen Donna at appearances again and again. It's no surprise, once you realize she's easily one of Chicago's most well-read people, not to mention busy.
Since 1990, she's worked her way up to Associate Editor at Booklist. On top of everything that goes into putting out a magazine--here, that includes reading enough review copies to generate about ten reviews an issue--she hosted Open Books on WLUW, which she's since taken online at www.openbooks.org. Her reviews grace the pages of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and she interviews authors at festivals throughout Chicagoland, including the Chicago Humanities Festival and Story Week. During last year's Story Week festival, she was given the Story Week Achievement Award "For excellence in writing, for promoting 'the fine art of reading,' (a quote from the introduction of Open Books) and for creative contributions to Story Week." She's edited a fiction anthology, In Our Nature: Stories About Wilderness, and written a collection of her radio interviews, Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books.
So she knows what makes a story. She understands the subtleties of the narrative arc, which is what she uses to pull the audience members to the edge of their seats.
"I usually describe what I do as a conversation more than an interview because I'm trying to be flexible with it," she says. "I do write down a whole bunch of questions, but I often don't look at them. You want to have a beginning, and then hopefully you go off on tangents that you want to end up on."
During her first interview as part of Story Week, Donna interviewed Chicago author Sandra Cisneros onstage in the Winter Garden at the Harold Washington Library. Afterward, a woman came up to her. "You seem so relaxed up there," the woman said.
"I just started laughing," Donna says. "And then she said, 'And I know that's because you work really hard before you do this.' What a great comment and compliment. It really stuck with me." The truth is, Donna tells me, her nerves go haywire before a live appearance in front of an audience. On the radio show, she could edit it. Live, she's working without a net.
"There you are in a room full of people, and sometimes a lot of people, who have come to hear this writer, and so you really want to develop a closeness. Trust is really important. One reason you prepare so hard is so the writer knows you know the work and respect it and value it. You can feel that connection happening. The sense that the writer is thinking, 'Oh, I'm in good hands. This person is interested in my work for a reason that we can get into, not just a surface kind of thing.'"
To those sitting in the audience, that rapport comes through strongly. I know. I've felt it. At times, you feel like you're eavesdropping on the conversation happening on stage. That's what pulls you forward in your chair. Donna approaches interviews for Story Week differently than she does for other appearances, she says. In front of an audience of young writers, she feels free to get personal about the ins-and-outs of the author's creative process, the writing and reading habits that go into crafting stories.
"I feel free to really talk about the artistry of it, which is good, but also what writers hope to accomplish in their books. What do they care about? Most good fiction writers are social critics and care a great deal about society and are very compassionate people ... I feel so fortunate I've talked to such amazing people."�