It was our great pleasure to interview David Naimon, the force behind Portland-based podcast Between the Covers, which produces thoughtful, in-depth interviews with a wide range of contemporary authors. We chatted with Naimon about writing that blurs boundaries, moments of surprise in interviews, and the Portland literary scene. Read the interview and then check out the Between the Covers podcast here. You will be glad that you did.
The Between the Covers podcast is your creation, so I’m curious to hear how you would describe it to someone who had never heard of it, beyond the fact that it’s a radio show in which you interview contemporary authors.
More and more, I like writing that is hard to categorize, that crosses or blurs boundaries. Conversations with writers who are either working in that space between forms, or interrogating traditional forms, are often the most dynamic ones. While every author on the show doesn’t fall into this category, I do think this is a through line for the Between the Covers roster of authors. The blurring of boundaries between genres is one example, between poetry and lyric essay in the works of Sarah Manguso, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson, between fiction and nonfiction in the works of Kyle Minor, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chris Kraus, and Sheila Heti, the strange interplay and tension between image and text in the works of Leni Zumas and Luca DiPierro, Veronica Gonzalez Peña, Valeria Luiselli, and Claudia Rankine, and writers that straddle the worlds of “literary realism” and “genre fiction” like Kelly Link, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Parzybok, and Jo Walton. I also try to create a sense of boundary crossing across episodes by juxtaposing unlikely authors. It gives me a perverse pleasure to imagine someone drawn to the show for Mary Ruefle finding themselves listening to Neal Stephenson or vice versa. I think this cross-pollination is super valuable and helps expand the sense of what literature is and can be.
Lastly, I should clarify that the Between the Covers podcast is my creation but the Between the Covers radio broadcast is not. The radio broadcast airs on KBOO 90.7 FM here in Portland fifty-two weeks a year, and I host only about a third of those shows. I created the podcast both to create a more unified aesthetic and interview style and to reach a more national and international audience, but there are some truly great episodes on the radio broadcast too.
What prompted you to start Between the Covers? What were you doing before that led you to it? What was the process of getting it off the ground?
I’ve hosted a health show on KBOO 90.7 FM for about fifteen years now. About six years ago, unbeknownst to me, one of the more active hosts of Between the Covers left the show, and all the programmers started receiving emails like “Rick Moody is coming to town, can anyone do this interview?” I approached our news coordinator about trying my hand at an interview for Between the Covers and did my first with Anthony Doerr (before he became a household name), whose short stories I held (and hold) in high esteem. Fortunately, he was so friendly and gracious and disarming that it was a great experience. I quickly discovered that interviews about literature were far more fulfilling than ones about health, mostly because there was an infinitely greater sense of mystery and spontaneity with regard to how an interview would go, how an author would respond to a given question.
As far as getting the podcast off the ground, I couldn’t have done any of it without author and web-wizard Ben Parzybok. He’s been instrumental every step of the way. Once the podcast was on iTunes and had its corresponding website, it really took on a life of its own. As of today, it gets 10,000 downloads a month, mainly from English-speaking countries (US, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand) and France and Germany. There is also a growing audience in Haiti, Mongolia, Indonesia, Japan, really all over. It’s fun to track.
One of my favorite things about Between the Covers is the variety of authors and genres. As you mentioned, your guests have written everything from essay to literary fiction to science fiction, and have included everyone from Mary Gaitskill to Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s like being part of the best book club in town. How are the authors chosen? Also, it’s clear from the show that you must do immense amounts of research on each guest. How much prep time do you have, and what do you to prepare?
I choose the guests myself but under certain constraints. The most notable constraint is that our news coordinator requires the interviews to be done in-studio, thus eliminating anyone who is not physically coming through Portland. That said, I have contacted several authors whose tours weren’t coming here (Lorrie Moore and George Saunders come to mind) who succeeded in getting the city added to their itineraries, and other authors who weren’t touring have flown here solely for the interview (e.g., Claudia Rankine did, prior to Citizen exploding within the national consciousness). But these are the exceptions.
The other constraint is time. As you noted, I spend a lot of time preparing. Reading and listening to previous interviews with the author, in particular, serves several purposes for me over and above learning about the writer and their work. For one, you quickly find the things a person says over and over again, the things they’ve prepared to say while they are on tour. I don’t want to avoid these questions altogether because for many listeners, Between the Covers is their first and sometimes only exposure to a given author in an interview context and this rehearsed information is usually material that is important to the author and potentially fundamental to their relationship to the work they are discussing. But I also think interviews, especially radio interviews, that remain solely in this realm run the danger of feeling flat. I think the main reason I’ll read other interviews is to find ways to nudge the author out of autopilot, to create moments of surprise or novelty for the writer on the air so that the interview feels more dynamic. If I have enough time I also read other books by the writer in addition to their most recent one, particularly if it is in a different genre (say a poetry collection by a debut novelist), which can give a different insight into their sensibility. But because I do spend so much time in preparation it both limits the number of people I can interview a year and means I find myself saying “no” to authors I would die to interview simply because I can’t squeeze it into my schedule. That can be frustrating.
How might your preparations change depending on the author?
When interviewing someone as intimidatingly smart as Maggie Nelson, whose work is so overtly in dialogue with philosophy, literary theory, queer theory, and more, and in such an astute and insightful way, the preparation was a little different. While I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from a long time ago, and I think I could’ve done an adequate interview without any special preparation thanks to the way she orients the reader to these questions in the book itself, I felt it would’ve been a missed opportunity to just skate over that aspect of her work in a superficial manner. I found myself jogging to philosophy podcasts on Wittgenstein and Deleuze, which was great for its own sake but also led to some interesting questions and angles of inquiry into Maggie’s work that wouldn’t have happened for me without it. And then you have someone like Neal Stephenson, who, in addition to being a canonical science fiction writer whose work delves into philosophy, mathematics, sociology, and history, is someone who consults in the real world with companies launching rockets into space or developing virtual reality technology frameworks, and who has inspired universities to develop projects based on some of the ideas in his books (i.e. The Tall Tower Project at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination). These writers definitely require a broader sort of preparation.
How much structure do you put into the interview before the show starts and how much does it tend to change in the midst of recording?
I definitely try to develop a through line of inquiry for each interview in advance. Nevertheless, I do change things up in real time as the conversation takes on a life of its own. Some questions never get asked, others I ask spontaneously. The shows are always quite different than what you imagine. You can’t anticipate what sort of rapport, or lack thereof, you will have with someone until you are there in the studio face-to-face. Nor can you anticipate how interested or completely uninterested an author will be in any given question.
What is the most difficult part of interviewing authors? What is the best part?
The most difficult part (other than the tedium of editing the audio file afterward) is when an author would rather let their work speak for itself. That, in my mind, is a totally legitimate position for an artist to take. But it is a tough one when you are on a book tour. You can really sense when someone is divided inside, half-answering your questions, with reluctance and hesitation. There are also authors who come with a reputation of being difficult interviews or of calling out interviewers for their stupid questions. These authors create some anticipatory anxiety but at least you can prepare, figure out what they respond to, look at the interviews of theirs that have gone off the rails. The best part of interviewing authors is when you ask something that an author hasn’t been asked before, or inadvertently suggest an interpretation or a perspective that gives them insight into their own work. Those are times when you feel the interview is fully alive in the moment.
What are some of your favorite moments from Between the Covers?
Memories that stick with me are often little interstitial moments. Before we begin, for instance, I have the author talk in order to test the mic levels prior to the interview. I usually ask them if they have any ritual or regimen while on book tour to keep sane and none of this ends up on the air. But sometimes you get really delightful moments like Lorrie Moore spontaneously reciting poetry or Gary Shteyngart revealing his armament of remedies to address prereading anxiety in the inner pocket of his jacket. The Shteyngart interview produced some really funny memories. He is a big foodie and we went out to eat at a Japanese izakaya after his reading at Powell’s. I’m sure he found it amusing, a confirmation of the Portlandia image of Portland, when the waiter kept talking about where every ingredient was sourced, but when I interjected and said “I know the farmers who grew that wasabi,” which I did, it was such an absurd Portland moment that he had to tweet it out to followers during dinner.
As a writer, what lessons have you learned from these interviews? Are there themes, specific to writing not to the books themselves, that repeat from author to author? Alternatively, how has being a writer yourself influenced these interviews? What kind of insight does it bring?
The show has influenced my writing but indirectly, mainly through the way it has changed my reading. Since I’m considering what questions I want to ask the writer while reading the work itself, the choices the writer is making in the text become more obvious. They stand out more. This awareness reflects back on my writing practice for sure. When the show first started I was only interviewing fiction writers, mainly because it was what I felt I could do most competently. But I feel like my skill set as an interviewer and as a writer have co-evolved. I still write traditional short stories but my writing, along with the type of writers I interview, is much more varied now. I write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, strange hybrids, and more formally adventurous prose than prior to doing the show. This is definitely due to the experience of shaping the podcast over time and also thanks to teacher/mentor/writer Leni Zumas.
On the flip side, coming into the interviews as a writer myself, I am definitely interested in questions of craft. I hope that the show is interesting and engaging not only for lovers of books but also for other writers as well; that when Lacy M. Johnson says there is nothing about chronological time that is investigative, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the limits of present tense and first person (or David Mitchell says what he loves about present tense and first person), or when Sheila Heti says she wanted to write a book that seemed uncrafted (which required a lot of craft to do), I hope that people find these questions illuminating both for their reading experience and, if they have one, for their writing practice.
Could you talk a little more about what you mean when you say that doing the show has changed the way you read and how that has changed your process when you sit down to write (as opposed to how it has given you the courage and insight to experiment with forms and styles).
I don’t know that I can articulate any direct, causal, one-to-one effect on my writing process. What I can say is that over time my interests have moved from how to achieve the fictive spell in story, to an interest in what I would call “language forward” prose, writing where the text, the language, draws attention to itself, where you notice the pleasure in pronouncing the words, the music in the syntax of the sentences, or the ways in which aspects of the writing over and beyond the meaning of the words cause an emotional effect (Gary Lutz has a great essay about this in The Believer called “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”). This has happened over the same course of time as the changes in my reading habits. By necessity I succumb less to the fictive spell when I read now because I am thinking about questions of craft to ask the author. Did this foregrounding of questions, of the author’s choices when I read, influence my writing aesthetic? The honest answer is “I don’t know.” Lots of other things also influenced me during that time, including some instrumental writing teachers. But regardless of what came first and what influenced what, it is true that as my writing has changed so has the type of writer I’ve been most interested in engaging with. It becomes a positive feedback loop.
Do you think of Between the Covers as being helpful to the budding writer?
I hope it is helpful, that a writer interviewing another writer raises interesting questions, and produces useful insights for other writers, while remaining entertaining for readers who aren’t writers. I’m probably the wrong person to answer this question. But in my fundraising efforts for the show, to make it a sustainable project going forward, the vast majority of people who have donated or become ongoing patrons of Between the Covers have been writers, editors and artists. I love that that is the case.
You have lived in Portland for around twenty years, and a fair amount of your guests are from Portland (Ben Parzybok, Lidia Yuknavitch, Ursula K. Le Guin, etc.). What do you think makes Portland a good literary city? How has it changed since you moved here? What do you think it could do better?
I think one of the reasons Portland is such a great literary city is because of how supportive the writers are with each other. There really is this sense of a community of writers here. It doesn’t feel at all like we are battling it out to get through the same tiny doorway. You see Karen Russell interviewing writers coming through town on stage at Powell’s, or Chuck Palahniuk taking lesser known Portland writers on tour with him.
Or consider the three writers you mentioned: Ursula K. Le Guin is a big supporter of KBOO 90.7 FM, the radio station I work at, not only, I imagine, because her politics dovetail nicely with the station’s progressive vision of serving underrepresented voices, but also because they share a certain place-based, regionally oriented community ethos. And Lidia Yuknavitch, she could be the city’s literary fairy godmother in my mind; she’s both a midwife for other writers finding their paths and a writer who takes extraordinary emotional and formal risks on the page. And Ben Parzybok, his latest book, Sherwood Nation, has been called a dystopia because it takes place in a future Portland where there is an unexplained seemingly never-ending drought. But it isn’t so much concerned with dystopia or apocalypse but with how a community can problem-solve in the midst of it. It evokes a certain DIY spirit that I think is particular to the Pacific Northwest.
As far as the changes Portland has gone through. I do worry about how rapidly it is changing, the rising rents and housing prices that are making it hard for the type of artist who defined the city’s culture to afford to live here anymore. But I am heartened by quirky enclaves of culture that spring up: Mother Foucault’s bookshop, the Church of Film, the Queen of the Night reading series. There is still a lot to love.
What is your dream for Between the Covers? Both a modest dream and shoot for the stars dream.
My modest dream is a straightforward one. This has always been a volunteer endeavor. But the audience for the show is really growing fast. For instance, in the last ten months the number of listeners has quadrupled. Last year, all of a sudden, I found myself with many hundreds of dollars in costs as a result of this growth, with the likelihood of next year’s costs being in the thousands. It was a true dilemma. I was excited the show was growing but couldn’t imagine it growing any more if I were going to have to shoulder the costs alone. Thus, I’ve started to reach out for listener support, both at Patreon and on my website. My goal is modest: For people who value these conversations to help the show grow, to turn the disincentive I face, regarding future growth, into an incentive to create more episodes. This seems very achievable.
My shoot for the stars dream would be to find a way for this to be something I did professionally, with enough of an income that I could then dedicate more time to it and thus create more episodes. What a dream that would be, to have my day job be reading and talking about writing with authors! A scenario like Michael Silverblatt’s at KCRW, where his show is underwritten by the Lannan Foundation, that would be something.
What can we look forward to from Between the Covers in the future?
The surge in interest in works in translation has been exciting to witness. And how translators themselves have become public figures, revealing to English audiences the works of writers who often should’ve been translated long ago, but who instead arrive here all of a sudden as if walking on stage from a parallel universe. And to see the great works that presses like New Directions and Deep Vellum are putting out, I’d love Between the Covers to engage more with this encouraging phenomenon. My interview with Valeria Luiselli really whet my appetite regarding this. She writes in both Spanish and English, yet collaborates with a translator in a really unique way, and even includes her translator as a writer within her work. Fortunately, Valeria lives in the United States and is fluent in English, but obviously that won’t be true for many writers whose works are being translated. So finding translated writers who both speak English and are touring through Portland may be challenging. But the upcoming spring roster does include some translation-engaged writers: Idra Novey, one of the translators of Clarice Lispector, whose debut novel stars a translator protagonist who goes to Brazil to look for her mysteriously missing author, and Brian Evenson who is best known for his fiction but who is also a translator of works from French to English. He has wonderfully insightful things to say about why Beckett chose to write in French, how it helped him create a certain effect in his prose by impoverishing his language, a prose that was then an influence on Evenson himself. And hopefully in the future I will be able to get some non-native English speakers to come on and talk about their books too. There is really no better way to discover the aesthetic biases of your culture, to learn about other ways of writing, the possibilities that have seemed closed down solely because of geography, than to read works brought to us from another land or another tongue.
Interviewed by Absolom J. Hagg