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Confessions of a Part-Time Interviewer

Last week we had the pleasure of hosting poet Natalie Díaz for a Zoom reading and discussion, and a few weeks ago in late June we had author Carmen Maria Machado for a similar event. I had the particular pleasure of being the one to talk to both, asking them questions drawn from our preregistered participants as well as some questions of my own.

Pound for pound, minute for minute, these interviews are the most exciting part of my job here at Books We Read/SummerTales. I’m a literature scholar who works primarily on eighteenth-century Britain––usually I don’t get the chance to talk to living authors about their work! In addition, I’d been involved in selecting these authors for the SummerTales reading program and for possible invitations to campus, so I was already familiar with and interested in their work. I’ve taught Natalie Díaz’s poetry here at Rutgers, and selected Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Eight Bites” for Books We Read a year or so before we chose it for Summer Tales.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty more of their work to read before speaking with them. Before speaking with Machado, I read all of her short story collection Her Body and Other Parties, her memoir In the Dream House, and all of her uncollected stories that I could track down on the Internet, as well as a number of interview transcripts. Before speaking with Díaz, I re-read her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, and read her recent follow-up Postcolonial Love Poem for the first time. (A few weeks before speaking with her, we learned that this collection had earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry––we actually invited her well before the award was announced, but were gratified that the committee shares our taste!)

This preparation took a lot of time and effort, but it paid off in formulating questions and speaking with authors on the day of. For instance, in reading Natalie Díaz’s poetry I noticed some images that repeat across multiple poems, and in an interview she talked about a couple of them, saying that she tends to come back to a few motifs that are meaningful for her again and again. I noticed another image that repeats across her poems––fruit––and decided that it might be interesting to talk to her about fruit in her poetry, and in one poem in particular. Indeed it was! It felt like we were working together to figure out the place of this poem against the background of fruit-imagery across her work; things clicked into place (or for me, at any rate) as we talked about how the imagery of fruit-as-desire in her work more generally metamorphoses in this particular poem into fruit-as-shame. For the Machado event, I realized when reading an essay of hers about video game storytelling that she must have written it during or shortly after the events of In the Dream House, which she tells much of in second-person form including a “Choose-your-own-adventure” section. When I asked her if she saw a connection between these second-person forms and the stories they could be used to tell, she was surprised: it seemed that perhaps she hadn’t thought about that essay in connection with In the Dream House before, and at any rate she seemed delighted to be asked a question that demonstrated that level of familiarity with her work. She quickly took up the question of second-person narration and narration in video games, proving herself to be as much at home there as she was with experimental fiction.

event screenshotI think that’s what I appreciated most about both of our authors: both not only had thought deeply about their work, but were also ready and willing to think on the spot and consider it from different angles. In each interview I felt lucky to be in the presence of such a generous, creative intelligence, someone who could not only create a work of art but engage deeply in conversations about it.

I’m also grateful to the people who sent in questions for these authors. We used a number of those questions that either represented a widespread interest on a specific topic or struck us as particularly promising. I only wish we could have gotten to more! In the Machado event, we had to skip a few questions in order to stay strictly on our timetable. For the Díaz event, I had a bit more of a green light not to wrap up at 5:25 exactly, which was good––by 5:25 we had barely transitioned from talking about specific poems to her work in general! She graciously offered to stay a little longer so that we could squeeze in a couple more questions.

Thank you again to both our authors, to all of our attendees, and most of all to the Summer Tales and Department of Continuing Studies staff who made the event possible. My face spent the most time on screen but I was just the tip of the iceberg––it took a team effort to plan these events and bring them off smoothly. Mine was the easy, enjoyable part, easier and more enjoyable because of the cooperation of the authors, the contributions of our preregistered attendees, and the hard work of the rest of the crew: getting to talk to two talented and thoughtful writers about their craft. I hope you had as much fun as I did!

Image credit: Rutgers Summer/Winter Session