Welcome back to The Burning Hearth and Part II of my interview with David Naimon. I must begin by stating how grateful I am David agreed to not only do this interview, but to do it with the openness and honesty and thoughtfulness that he has. As you will read below, his time is very limited, and that he desired to commit to the length of interview he did speaks volumes to his character, which shines through in every interview he does. Always, he puts the interviewee and their work front and center, shining a light on the author and their writing with care and thought. David seems to me, to be someone who aims his interviewer’s gaze towards adding something worthwhile to our collective whole.
I reached out to author William Alexander, asking him to speak to his experience of being interviewed by David. He shared the following.
“David Naimon is one of our best living readers. He elevates homework to high art, drawing connections between far-flung poems, essays, and half-forgotten short stories in order to create whole new constellations of meaning. Someday the distant echoes of his interviews will convince alien civilizations that Earth is worth a visit.”
(Click here for David’s Crafting with Ursula interview with William Alexander.)
I love this! And I agree! David’s calm approach to his interviews is a balm. His introductions alone are Zen like. I’m always settled in and ready to listen, and I sense that the author is relaxed as well. David’s introductions set the table for real adult, unaffected conversation over a myriad of subjects with his authors. Aliens indeed would find us worthy upon listening to his interviews.
It would appear writer Isaac Yuen shares this sentiment. When I asked him about his experience of being interviewed by David, he stated the following.
“I have to confess that I was a little intimidated at being approached by David to be part of the UKL series! I know the caliber of literary conversations he brings to the Between the Covers series, being a big fan. But when it came time to doing the interview, I felt very much at ease. The almost two-hour conversation felt more like a relaxing chat between two people exploring a subject matter they were both engaged in and passionate about.
I think David has a knack for tapping into the core interest of his guests, on what they have long turned over in their minds, on what they would like to share with the world but haven’t had the outlet to do so. The amount of advance prep David does is incredible, and it was a delight as a writer and a reader to speak about a passage or an idea he unearthed while doing his homework. At times the interview became a joint journey of exploration in which questions opened up new perspectives and insights. I did a lot of figuring out of things while talking, and David was great in helping me facilitate that process, either through a good question in transition or sometimes just providing visual feedback (we did the interview on Zoom) that something I said made sense to him. I think we both were very happy with the end result.”
(Click here for David’s Crafting with Ursula interview with Isaac Yuen.)
I also reached out to writer Karen Joy Fowler in hopes she would be willing to share her thoughts on her interview with David. I believe her comments are a good place for my introduction to end and the interview to begin.
“As someone who has done a great many interviews over a great many years, Naimon managed to truly impress me. I’ve never worked with someone who was as well and widely prepared, whose questions reflected not only that preparation, but the depth of understanding and analysis that Naimon had. He is extraordinary.”
(Click here for David’s Crafting with Ursula interview with Karen Joy Fowler.)
David as Interviewer
BH: One of the things about your interviews that I have a real love/oh-no-here-we-go-again relationship with is that the stack of books I want to read continues to grow. I’m very much slacking in my ability to keep up with all the authors and their books you interest me in. Luckily, with your podcasts archived at Tin House, I can stop listening for a while, take time to catch up, and then return to listening. You have interviewed so many talented authors. Would you be so kind as to share a bit of your origin story from your first literary interview, which I believe was with Anthony Doerr, to where you are now?
DN: Thanks Constance. In a way this connects to what I was saying earlier about how a certain type of listening became less engaging over time. I had been doing a health show at a local community radio station for many years but the conversations gradually became less and less fulfilling for me because, when interviewing a doctor or herbalist or nutritionist or scientist, you would often know their answer to the question you were going to ask before they answered it. It would be more or less the same answer as in their book. There was little sense of surprise even if I loved the book, even if the guest were personable and dynamic, even if the audience were incredibly content and stimulated with the conversation. It was only with guests who also had a literary element to their writing—Sandra Steingraber, Siddhartha Murkherjee, Atul Gawande, Michael Pollan–it was only these guests where a sense of something alive in the moment endured. So when the station needed some help on the book show, I thought I’d see what that was like. I felt very much out of my comfort zone, didn’t have any bearings, had no background in English or literature, was entirely naïve to that world really. But my first guest Anthony Doerr (who wasn’t famous then) was so improbably kind and enthusiastic about so many of the questions I asked. Unbelievably he often prefaced his answers with praise for the question…really he should get all the credit (and me all the blame) for luring me into this other more dynamic form of conversation.
BH: I believe one of the reasons behind your success is that you are very interested in telling the other’s story, as you pointed out in the writing section of our interview. You are also, in my opinion, a very interesting person who is thoughtful, inquisitive, and sensitive. Therefore, your approach is thoughtful, inquisitive, and sensitive.
I also believe your success has to do with something you shared in an in interview with The Burning House Press in 2017.
“I’d rather have the depth of connection with listeners who appreciate my approach than a greater breadth of an audience by trying to appeal to everyone.”
This sounds like a very liberating mindset. Has it proven to be so?
DN: A couple years ago I was invited by Satya Doyle Byock to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin at the Salomé Institute of Jungian Studies which Satya is the director of. At one point after this event, in witnessing me in the world in relation to podcast and how I more generally manage (or mismanage) my life choices, Satya said “you are such a ‘meaning type’.” Satya has a book just out called Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood where she talks about “stability types” vs. “meaning types.” I haven’t yet read the book so whatever I now say about these types comes from my own imaginative take on her comment more than any informed knowledge of how she herself looks at it. But when we talked it seemed like she was saying that I was always leading with and making choices based on what seemed meaningful, not on what would foster material success or life security or attend to practical considerations. And perhaps also that it wouldn’t hurt for someone like me to invite these other considerations in, to do things that secure the stability of the show, that help me better attend to my life-work balance, that give me practical stability.
I do think most of my choices would not make sense to a business manager. If I were to begin by looking at what has been successful so far in the podcast sphere overall, or by looking at the norms and expectations that listeners typically have when listening to a literary interview podcast, yes, it would make more sense to do thirty- or sixty-minute interviews and to interview two or three or four times as many guests in a year, like most shows that are my peers do. This would surely help with how the podcast is ranked for instance. It would also make more sense to not go too heavily into craft considerations, as not all readers, even passionate readers, want to hear about questions of point of view or sentence syntax. Some just want to spend a warm and engaging half-hour getting to know the author of the book they love (and I am sometimes one of those people). If I were beginning like this, with my eyes trained on success, I would also choose guests who I knew were more popular or who have more social media followers or whose books have sold more copies as surely they would draw more listeners to my show. I think I could do all of these things and have a good show, even if this would skew the show toward convention.
But to prove Satya’s point, I start with my eyes not trained on this but on the type of show I myself want to hear as a listener and the type of conversation that would keep me most engaged as an interviewer. It turns out that I would rather spend more time with less people, explore what that expanded length of time can create that the shorter more normative time simply can’t. And to create a mode of engagement that is different than what already exists. One that attends to the text in a more rigorous way for instance. But that doesn’t mean I knew or was confident that anyone would want to listen to a show like this! It continues to feel miraculous that these two- or three-hour conversations have found people who not only like this themselves but feel strongly and deeply about it. The format probably does limit the sheer number of people who will listen, but for those that do, it feels like a meeting of kindred spirits.
There is a fallout to this meaning-type mode of being, however, this leading with meaning before stability. Even before I said yes to doing “Crafting with Ursula,” even before I increased my workload by fifty percent by saying “yes” to this, my partner Lucie was really worried about my life-work balance. I said “yes” not because it made sense. It was insane really to say yes. There was no practical, tangible way this made sense. I wasn’t lured by a grant or fellowship, nor did it come with financial support or added help making these episodes happen. I couldn’t say “no” simply because of my own desire and curiosity, the meaningfulness of the endeavor, and of course the honor of doing this. And I have no regrets about the decision. I’m really proud of it. I feel like the new series is creating new scholarship even. And with quite a few guests, especially those who knew Le Guin well, it was quite emotional to have these conversations with them.
But, and this is a big qualification, I’m also always working. Always. The main reason this will be a limited series is so that I can start puzzling out a saner way to be. It’s not like I don’t want to have a website as an author, or my episodes up on You Tube, or offer Between the Covers merchandise, or any number of other things people regularly request or suggest. I just don’t have the bandwidth to get them done. But more important than that, much more important, is that I don’t have enough time to attend to the health of my body, to be away from the screen, to attend to my own writing, to do nothing, to read something that isn’t for the show. Someday I need to figure that out in a meaningful and enduring way.
BH: Your interviews are firmly grounded due to, I believe, the exhaustive amount of research and preparation you do. This gives your interviews an organic, almost improvised feel, as if your questions sprung from this deep well of knowledge that you possess of your subject and his or her work.
I’m wondering if, within your approach, there is an element of Zen Buddhism’s “the beginner’s mind,” which you speak to in your essay “Always Beginning” published by Poetry Foundation in 2018. Within this idea of being open and available to new discovery, I believe one must be able to sit comfortably within what can feel like a childlike space. One must be able to embrace openness and vulnerability and to be filled with wonderment.
Do you approach each new interview with a “beginner’s mind?”
DN: I’m happy to hear that the interviews feel organic and almost improvised. That my preparation doesn’t make them feel stiff or overdetermined. It’s true, there is some improvisation when I’m talking to a guest. I might reorder things in real time, skip questions altogether, and of course have new questions occur to me as I talk to someone. But I do come up with a line of inquiry beforehand, an imagined throughline that will hopefully hold the conversation together beginning to end. I sometimes describe my research as a way to meaningful put myself within the universe of the guest’s animating questions and enduring concerns. In that spirit I want those animating questions, those that are specific to them, to be the ground from which I puzzle out and build that line of inquiry. The poet and essayist Simon Shieh once tweeted the following: “As far as I’m concerned, David Naimon doesn’t have conversations with writers, David writes beautiful, thought-provoking collaborative essays in real time with them.” I think this distinction speaks to that organizing principle, the throughline, in the way I try to set my questions in relation to each other, which, I agree with Simon, is different than a conversation. So I’m not sure I would say improvisation is the first word that comes to mind. Although, with writers who give a lot of interviews, who by necessity have to develop stock answers, ones that are meaningful and substantive, well-honed and often insightful, but also often repeated almost verbatim from one event to the next, with these writers I am often trying to get them out of the routine, to find a way to have them talk again from a place less rehearsed, to make the moment feel like anything might be said. Also, my individual questions, which sometimes are like mini-essays, I hope can sometimes do something similar. If my question demonstrates a lot of base knowledge of the things they care deeply about, then they can often start their answer in a different and deeper place, a place farther down the road than square one, knowing we have shared knowledge before they answer.
BH: How has the experience of interviewing so many writers affected your own writing, if indeed it has?
DN: The main way it has affected my writing is how it has affected my reading. You automatically read differently, for better and worse, if you know you are going to talk to the writer afterwards. It is far rarer to be swept up in a spell in the same way when you are also engaging with the book as a future discussion about it. But what you gain is an attentiveness to the author’s choices, to the effects they create, to their lines or sentences, to how they break up or bring together the book into sections etc. That can only benefit your writing to read this way.
But the other way I think interviewing has influenced my writing is in the curatorial role as host. Elaine Castillo, the author of How To Read Now, has this notion she calls the ‘unexpected reader.’ I’m paraphrasing now, but she says that a lot of writers writing from a privileged subject position (let’s say a white cis heterosexual male), when they bemoan political correctness after receiving criticism for their writing, what they really are bemoaning is the unexpected reader, the reader that is reading them differently than they expected. Something they’ve never imagined, sort of like a comedian who has built their career on homophobic jokes and the audiences that would laugh at them, suddenly getting pushback from the people not laughing.
Depending upon who you are, you may have lived your life never being an unexpected reader or, on the other hand, never not being one. I think of this now with regards to the unexpected listener. And not wanting to create a show geared toward an expected known one. Many years ago a listener, a writer of color who was also a facilitator of social justice trainings for educators and art organizations, reached out to me about a conversation I had had with a white writer. A conversation she was loving and then at some point near the end, she felt the conversation shifted in a way where she was no longer part of its considered audience. That the guest began addressing a fellow white person and an imagined white audience. This listener acknowledged the ways I was trying to steer the conversation back on the rails, and yet not succeeding, and offered me some advice on how to do so more effectively in the future. I loved this interaction so much, both for the belief that I might want to hear what she had to say, but also for how it really made clear that I not only had an audience of unexpected listeners but that as a host I wanted to create and hold a space (and now felt the more tangible responsibility of doing that) for the unexpected audience. I’ve been very lucky that periodically over the years that other people have reached out to very generously and kindly make suggestions around ways I could continue to do just that.
So how does this relate to writing? Many of my earlier stories, nonfiction and fiction, are really stories that come from an engagement with myself. My history, my memory, my imagination. But I think more and more my writing is porous to the other, to countervailing histories and imaginations. I think this comes from my encounters with guests over the years but also thinking about what encounters I want to have on the show, and when I say “I” I mean “we,” the expected and unexpected we.
BH: Do you have any teasers for future interviews you would like to share?
DN: I could give you real and true practical reasons why I wouldn’t want to tip my hand. For example, not every interview that I think is going to happen materializes, or happens when I think it will. But the real reason I will refrain from any preview of what is coming, is a purely selfish one. I love the experience of launching an episode as a sort of unveiling, as a surprise, something that can’t be anticipated and then is suddenly there out of the ether. I will say this though: I’m often booked a year or 18 months out but I do reserve one or two slots each year that are for Hail Marys, based on my own personal imagined dream conversations, improbable requests of people that I both can’t imagine will say ‘yes’ and ones, that if they do, will be particularly fun to present when that conversation goes live. This fall has a ‘yes’ that I really can’t believe. And I won’t believe it until it has actually happened (and many notional ‘yesses’ simply don’t). I’m supposed to call them in September to talk logistics, but it feels like I’m calling Borges or Camus. “Hello Albert? Jorge? Remember me? I’m that podcaster in the United States, David…”.
But given that we are talking about future interviews, and as I write this, this too is still a future interview, I would like to end by speaking about this experience of being interviewed by you. I’ve been interviewed here and there over the years many times about being an interviewer. But this experience is like no other I’ve ever had in my life to date. It is a singular, landmark moment for me. For one, I’ve never been interviewed as a writer. Where someone has sought out a variety of my uncollected texts and woven an attentive read of them into their questions for me. Your interest in my writing, coupled with the care in which you handled it feels very special to me. It also gives me new insight into how it might feel to be a guest on my show, or how I hope it might feel to be one. Thank you. But to bring this conversation full circle, I’ll confess that my survival strategy when trying to survive my childhood, the way I’ve tried to listen and be present for others, the manner in which I do this now, the specifics of the way I do this, really reflect, underneath what I do, a deeper desire around how I would dream being heard myself, being listened to, held and attended to. It is the strangest thing to actually encounter it in the real world, this most unexpected form of healing medicine, this practice of hearing and reflecting. I’ll never forget it.
BH: Nor will I. I am so honored to have the privilege of being the first to interview you regarding your writing. Something tells me, I won’t be the last.
Before moving on, I want to extend a special thank you to William Alexander, Isaac Yuen, and Karen Joy Fowler for adding their voices to the introduction of Part II.
And now, let’s turn our attention to your relationship with Ursula K. Le Guin in Part III.
Click Here to read Part I: David as Writer.
Click Here to read Part III: David and Ursula K. Le Guin.