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.