This page is based on an e-mail interview conducted by Jill Stahl of San Jose State University in preparation for an article she was writing about Bookwaves.
How did Bookwaves start?
Bookwaves started back in 1977 on KPFA-FM in Berkeley as an hour-long program about science fiction and science fiction writing called "Probabilities Unlimited." The first program was hosted by Lawrence Davidson, with Richard Wolinsky at the controls. One of the guests was novelist Richard A. Lupoff. A couple of months later, Wolinsky and Davidson became co-hosts and co-producers for the second program. After a handful of other hour-long specials, the program retitled "Probabilities" and was placed into a weekly slot as a half-hour show, and Richard A. Lupoff joined Wolinsky and Davidson as co-host. During the next few years, Richard Wolinsky gradually become sole editor of the pre-recorded program and eventuallly sole producer.
By the early 1980s, the show expanded into the mystery genre, with forays into westerns. This was during the height of the mystery craze, and "Probabilities" capitalized on it by interviewing most of the major mystery writers of the era. Many of those early shows focused on publishing history and other information these days unavailable at the time but now readily accessible on line.
During the late 1980s, Lawrence Davidson graduallly phased out, and the program became a two-man show, nicknamed "the Richard and Richard show" by regular listeners, and expanded to include literary and popular fiction as well as narrative non-fiction and political topics. There was a brief foray into satellite syndication in the late 1990s as Cover to Cover which ended in 1999 when Pacifica nearly went under. In 2001, after numerous extended sabbaticals, Richard A. Lupoff departed the program as an interviewer (but would continue as occasional co-reviewer) to focus more exclusively on his writing career, and the show was renamed Bookwaves. This was simultaneous with the move from tape to digitral recording and with the rise of the web and the creation of this website. Bookwaves began its current syndication life at the Pacifica Audioport website in 2006.
Who chooses the authors that Bookwaves interviews? Or the books that you will review?
Richard Wolinsky, as host and producer, makes all the choices of interview subjects, and Lupoff and Wolinsky choose all the books to review. The choices are based on both personal interest and the possible interest of the audience.
Do you have a most memorable interview?
Several stand out: Gore Vidal, Stephen Sondheim, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Arthur Laurents, Joseph Heller, Carol Channing, Isaac Asimov, Molly Ivins. There have been many other memorable interviews, from Ray Bradbury and Leonard Nimoy in the early days, to Anna Deavere Smith and John Irving in the more recent past. Oh ... and way back when, Louis L'Amour There have been many return guests, but the ones who've returned the most include Margaret Atwood, James Ellroy, Salman Rushdie, Paul Theroux, and Peter Carey. .
Do you recall the most difficult and/or contentious interview?
The vilest people were neocon icon Norman Podhoretz, who was a babbling gasbag, and British novelist Jeffrey Archer, who was equally disgusting. Most interviewees are on their best behavior, and it's the job of an interviewer to make the author feel at home and open, and willing to respond to any question. "Gotcha" questions aren't fair, and are only there to titillate.
The hardest authors to interview are those who give one word or one sentence answers to questions, those who are unable to finish sentences and trail off into oblivion. The most challenging interviews are those with people who have cult followings because the discussion becomes a trade-off between satisfying the casual listener as well as the committed fan.
What is the most surprising and/or useful thing(s) you have learned from the authors you interview as it relates to writing?
The most important sentence is the first, the most important paragraph is the first, and the most important page is the first. If someone can't get past any of those, they won't read your book. Also, that the most important part of a book is the voice. Once a writer finds the book's voice, writing becomes easier. Also, it isn't about "write what you know," it's about "write your passion." The only way you'll interest a reader is if you're interested yourself. Writing can be taught; talent cannot. There are tricks of the trade that can be learned. Writing groups work for some people, not for others. The worst writing groups are the ones in which the authors read their work aloud and then the group comments. Reading aloud does not help the prose writer because future readers will not read in the author's voice. Also, the best advice about someone else's writing is to point out problems, not try to solve them. Solving those problems is both the author's responsibility and their raison d'etre.
Are you seeing any specific trends in readership in the past few years or decades? If so, could you comment?
The iBook is taking over. There will always be a niche for print, but most people will be reading on devices in the future. The sad thing is that censorship will be easier to accomplish because it can be orchestrated with a single button from a single place. Other trends are mostly based on last year's best-seller. So after Terry McMillan, we got scads of black women friendship books; after Reading Lolita in Tehran, we got books on women friendships in Iran, Pakistan and India. Then later, we got the memoirs about childhood abuse.
The main trend in publishing, over all, seems to be the attempt to find "tentpole" authors, promote the hell out of their first novels, and then screw up their careers if those books don't sell. In the old days, publishers nurtured younger writers, giving small advances and printing small runs, signing multi-book deals that gave the publishers a backlist and allowed the writers to mature. These days that doesn't happen. Writers are pushed before they're really ready, and then they're screwed. It's a terrible system forged by corporate management of essentially an artistic environment.
Do you have a specific approach or technique when you interview the authors?
I read the book, and before the interview, spend a few hours on line searching out quotes and other information from various websites. i gather as much material as I can and am as prepared as I can get. I don't like phone interviews because I want to see the interviewee's affect to my questions, and can do follow ups based on their behavior and not just their words. The most important things for an interviewer are, I think: Be prepared with your next question but listen to the current answer and be prepared to do a follow-up instead, find the key elements in an answer that lend themselves to a follow-up, be aware of the kinds of questions your audience wants answered, and always remember --- it's not about you, it's about your guest.
I've given classes at Book Passage in Corte Madera on how to be an interview subject. If any author is reading this and would like to sign up for a class, please send an e-mail to bookwaves@hotmail. com and I'll let you know the next time the class is offered.
What do you hope to hear and/or learn when you interview the author?
Varies from author to author. I have no set agenda.
How is the program produced? How do you find the authors?
I'm contacted by publishers and sometimes by the authors themselves. I also keep an eye on what books are getting good reviews, getting buzz, and what authors are coming through town (if I'm not on that publisher's list). Unless there's something about the author that moves me, I won't consider an interview without the book in hand. Because I always (or almost always: the number of interviews without reading the book, over thirty years, is still well under ten, maybe under five) read the book, Thus, if I have no interest in reading the book, I will not do the interview.
Once I decide to conduct the interview, I work with the publicist or author to set the time and date. I read the book. The day of the interview I do my research on-line and set up my notes (which don't always take the form of questions). The interview is recorded at KPFA using our off-air studios (I have portable devices that can allow me to record off-site if necesssary). I then transfer the file to a disc and bring it home, import it as a .wav file and work via CoolEdit 2000, an inexpensive (now defunct) editing program. I take the 50-minute original interview, edit out the spaces, uhs, false starts, etc, and content that just doesn't work, and come up with a 35-42 minute edit, which I save as a .mp3 and download to this website. I take that and re-edit it down to just under 28 minutes, add an opening music tag and closing outro//music tag. I save as another mp3 which I upload for syndication. I take the .wav file and burn a disc which I take to KPFA for later airing. Bookwaves on KPFA is available for subscription through iTunes.
I receive hundreds of pitches a week and don't have the time or personnel to respond to each one individually. Sorry. If I'm interested, you'll hear from me.
Is there any sort of Bookwaves forum on-line?
Yes. You can join the "Bookwaves with Richard Wolinsky" group on Facebook and comment on programs, politics, whatever. I've chosen to keep my personal Facebook page private to individuals with whom I've had personal communication.
How can listeners, radio stations, or authors contact you?
The best way is through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Second best is through snail-mail:
1929 Martin Luther King Jr Way
Berkeley CA 94704
There is no satisfactory way to reach Richard Wolinsky by phoning KPFA and leaving a message. I do not check the Cover to Cover extension (I don't remember the protocol or password). Sorry.