Meetings of Minds
Some Conversations about Books, Writing, and More
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
If there is a uniquely American quasi-literary genre, it is likely to be the Interview. Preferably, an Interview with a deft, informed, charismatic Interviewer. (And a worthwhile Interviewee!)
One of our most popular forms of communication, the Interview is an intended entertainment that also promises some degree of (painless) information. The premise is most reasonable: the viewer could hardly hope to access the subject on his own, so the Interviewer is the medium, asking questions the viewer might wish to ask, or had never thought of asking.
For many years the interviews conducted by Larry King were a sort of gold standard for a certain kind of televised conversation in which the Interviewer, Larry King, knew virtually nothing about the subject of the interview. Pointedly, deliberately, Larry King would not have read the subject’s newest book, which was the focus of the interview. It was King’s strategy to know nothing more than the viewer, to put himself in the viewer’s (uninformed) place, in order to ask just the right questions.
Larry King’s interviews were derided in some quarters, by persons not likely to be invited onto “The Larry King Show,” and so indeed they were not conversations that involved much depth or interpretation; yet, there was warmth and humor in King’s presentation, and books of a literary kind not usually discussed on television, and their authors, were given a good deal of respectful attention.
PBS’s Charlie Rose was also, for many years, one of the major TV interviewers who paid serious attention to books, including even literary books of unusual length and ambition (like my novel “Blonde”).
Dick Cavett, who interviewed me long ago in 1978, was another first-rate Interviewer, deceptively low-keyed, understated; but quick-thinking, smart, and highly intelligent.
And there was the legendary Oprah, whose Book Club dominated afternoon TV for decades, providing a showcase for fiction by both women and men of a kind that might be called “accessible-literary”: the choices of Oprah’s Book Club were not popular commercial fiction nor were they obscure literary works but something in between, usually with a focus on domestic life, racial conflict, family crises, coming-of-age in difficult circumstances. (Among writers singled out by Oprah, and brilliantly interviewed on her “live” show before a large, enthusiastic studio audience, were Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Franzen, Isabel Allende, Elie Wiesel, and Joyce Carol Oates. (My novel “We Were the Mulvaneys” was the #41 selection of the Oprah Book Club and, as a consequence, sold approximately 1 million more copies than most of my novels did, quite an impressive fact!)
I am hesitant to say that there is no one today quite like King, Cavett, Rose, and the Oprah of the original TV series which ran for two decades on TV—that era, before myriad cable channels have fragmented TV viewership, is gone forever—but the Internet is a vast galaxy of excellent interviews (including those by King, Cavett, Rose, Oprah) available on YouTube and elsewhere, at any time.
From myriad interviews of the recent past, here are favorites of mine that are, in fact, more like conversations with friends than formal interviews. I think of the genre of Interview as an exchange ideally between persons on subjects that engage both equally and provide revelations not otherwise forthcoming; in an era of Zoom, when the Interviewee is likely to be sequestered at home with her therapy animals, there is even the possibility of a kitty held up to enliven the occasion.
Joyce Carol Oates, June 2023
Discussion with Otto Penzler at the Mysterious Book Shop about “48 Clues Into the Disappearance of My Sister.”
“Report from Santa Fe” interview with Lorene Mills.
Discussion of “Babysitter” with Erik Karl Anderson.
Discussion with Eric Karl Anderson about “Blonde.”
Discussion with Erik Karl Anderson about the reading life.
Discussion with Erik Karl Anderson about the writing life.
Conversation with novelist and friend Jonathan Santlofer at the San Francisco Public Library.