Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Feature: Interview with Rick Kleffel

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Rick Kleffel is the editor behind the online book review and commentary site
The Agony Column. He also does radio interviews and book reviews for KUSP and has been described by Cory Doctorow as "the top science fiction person on NPR nationwide."

Hi! Thanks for doing the interview and I'm a big fan of the site. First off, for those unfamiliar with the website, can you tell them what kind of content is available there?

The Agony Column now includes over 800 book reviews, more than five years of daily book news and commentary, and more than 400 podcast interviews ... sort of. Some of the interviews were posted before there was such a thing as podcasting, so they're in RealAudio only. Currently, I post written book news and audio podcasts five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, even on holidays, along with a sprinkling of reviews.

Can you tell us how The Agony Column got started? How has it changed over the years?

It's very old. I started reviewing horror and science fiction for Chuq Von Rospach's OtherRealms back in 1987, I think. I wanted to write separate reviews and essays that tied the reviews together as well. Thus I found myself writing round-ups. That went on for a while, and I parlayed it into gigs reviewing for print magazines.

Then the web came along. I was writing book reviews for what was then Andy Fairclough's Horror World, and thought the web with the power of the hyperlink would be the ideal method to pursue my earlier goal. To this end, I wrote an essay called American Cheese, about cheesy American horror novels, which I do love, where I was able to link a mention of a book to a review. That was really the first web incarnation of TAC. The fans of Horrorworld took great offense to my piece. Ah success! But the IT world I was in began to eat my brain and rolled over any spare time.

I left the world of IT in July of 2001. Though I initially made a decision to do nothing, I ended up creating the first rev of The Agony Column website as a place to post my book reviews. Once I started, it became a sort of addiction to see what I could get posted each day.

My original thought was to post book reviews and then write little essays which I called columns. I brought Terry D'Auray on board to help with the reviews and columns and proof my copy when I sent it to her, which wasn't always the case. I met some reviewers in the UK via S1ngularity, a Strange Horizons / TAC-like web "zine" created by Gabe Chouinard. Serena Trowbridge, Stephanie Cage, Katie Dean and Nazalee Raja all wrote reviews for me for a while.

At first the format was just reviews with the occasional column. Then I decided to write book news daily, starting in late 2002. I've been writing book news daily, five days a week since then, even if I'm on vacation or there is a holiday.

Once I started doing radio interviews, I realized I could post them and people could download them. There was no podcasting at the time. Eventually, increasing bandwidth made podcasting possible, so already entrenched in five days a week news, I added once a week podcasting. Last year, in August, I bought a Telos unit to do phone interviews and decided to start podcasting five days a week, and I've done so even when I was on a cruise ship traveling to Mexico. Kind of compulsive, I know. Due to the podcasting workload, I've folded what used to be discrete reviews into the news. So now, it's podcasting and book news five days a week.

Why call it The Agony Column? On your site you define it on your site and reference Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Are you a big fan of Sherlock Holmes?

It is a tip of the hat to Sherlock Holmes; he used to get his jobs out of the Agony [aunt] columns, or look for clues there in what I think we'd call the personals, er Craigslist. Also, when I started reviewing, I was reviewing mostly horror and I wanted to emphasize that with the word "agony". It just stuck with me afterwards.

I was a huge Conan Doyle fan and growing up I remember making special bus trips as a twelve-year old from Covina where I lived into Los Angeles to a "big bookstore" (can't remember the name) that had all the Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger books in these neato-unified editions. I collected them all. Along with Lovecraft, they were among the first books I collected. So yes, Doyle and Homes and stuffy old Challenger are all very dear to me in a sentimental manner.

And while I'm at it, why Trashotron?

Well, I was in a electronics & guitars band, and we had this piece of gear called he Marlboro Quadra Sound Blender. It was an early piece of outboard gear (chorus, reverb and "echo") you could get at Sears with Sears fake-o guitars and amps. I was in charge of it to echo my monophonic Pro One synthesizer. It was very persnickety and would occasionally send a terrifying blast of static through the system that would trash our recordings. I called it the Trashotron.

When I started the website, I liked that as a domain name, as I saw myself as a sort of cultural trash compactor. Bazillions have whinged about the name, publishers and whatnot who would prefer something friendlier, including my wife. I also snagged bookotron and in the fullness of time may switch it all over.

How exactly is your site related to KUSP?

In the early days of TAC, I called up my local NPR affiliate, KUSP, and suggested that I do a radio show based on the columns, essentially reading them aloud. I was sensibly told that this would be a Really Bad Idea, but they did ask if I wanted to interview authors. I said yes. At first then, the interviews were for KUSP and went to TAC later or simultaneously. Then I wheedled my way into NPR and started doing more interviews than KUSP could handle. Now, I generate a lot of audio and slice and dice it to fit into a weekly show I currently host on KUSP. There's currently some doubt as to whether or not that will continue. Currently KUSP has podcasts of the KUSP versions of my interviews which are edited for time and content to fit the one-hour (actually 47 minute) format.

If I'm not mistaken, you're financially supporting the site. What made you decide to do so?

I wanted to keep the site advertising free so there could be no inference that I'm getting support from those I review. I'm a totally independent site and I write about what interests me. I'm an omnivorous reader, and there's a lot of stuff I really like and want to write about. It's almost impossible to keep up, but I do what I can. My reviews and commentary reflect precisely what I think, and nothing else. Supporting the site is possible because it really cheap to do so financially; time is the costly factor. Of course, I'm very much small fry in this world, which helps keep it cheap, I suppose.

Also I hate flashing blipping pop-outing jump-toing advertising. It looks and feels totally shabby, and drives me away from content I often actually know I like. Supporting the site financially is all about integrity. I do spot work for commercial sites and prostitute my writing without a qualm. Pay me, I'll say it. On my site, try to pay me and I'll run away.

I'm a big fan of your podcasts and I was wondering if you had any training doing interviews before or was it something you simply developed with practice.

I've been learning as I go for what, six years now? Before I sat down with the most wonderfully agreeable Alastair Reynolds, I'd never thought to do an interview.

Still, there's a lot *to* learn. I'm just starting to do live interviews in front of audiences, which as it happens, seems pretty easy, so long as I can find a copacetic spot to park my notes. I'd like to pursue that more as opportunities present themselves, or opportunities to make opportunities present themselves.

My biggest question is how do you find the time to read the various books that you cover, write about 'em, and then conduct the interviews?

Hereditary lack of sleep and Evelyn Wood speed reading. I only sleep four or so hours a night, read quickly and have developed a procedure for creating an interview. I'm a creature of habit and routine, so I follow the same routine seven days a week, which involves getting up 3:30 AM and eventually dropping off around eleven PM. In between, I strive to stay organized. I get total support from my wife, while my children are in college. So I have a LOT of time, well, it seems so at first, but I find myself rushing through every second of every day, typing to the point where I wore out the "e", "r", "a", "s" and "c" and Command keys on my last laptop. I organize everything on my laptop -- an Apple -- and use the OS integration of calendars and email, and now the iPhone, so I can get email while I'm out at KQED doing an interview.

What made you decide to expand the site? I remember back in the day when you were doing just one interview per month in the audio archive for example. Now there's one every week day.

I decided to expand the site on a dare to myself and haven't looked back. I can tell you I got a lot better at prepping and performing interviews once I started, and I'm still learning gobs every day.

Eventually, I'd like to do a syndicated radio or TV show. It seemed that it would behoove me to demonstrate that I can come up with content 52 weeks a year; I'm about 7 weeks from having done just that. Of course, the whole syndication deal is probably a pipe dream, but chance favors the prepared mind.

Can you tell us something about the people and contributors who helps out with the site? Can other people contribute or help out?

It's sort of catch as catch can. Terry D'Auray has been with me for a long time. She lives in Santa Cruz, and I know her via my wife, with whom she used to work. She's an incredibly good writer and I hope to get her interviewing for the site somewhere down the line. She balks at the prospect thus far, but I know she'd be good. Mario Guslandi wrote me and asked to write for the site and I like his work a lot. He has a very different perspective and style from me.

I'm now starting to work with Sean Cleveland and Lyle Troxell from KUSP. They host a computer show called GeekSpeak, and they're both huge SF fans, so I'm going to be joining them once in a while to do interviews and shows.

Time is always the issue when it comes to adding people to the site. I do all the HTML, well, Dreamweaver, work myself. All my writing, all the reading, all the audio editing -- which is incredibly time-consuming -- that gives me very little time to do up the HTML for contributors, and these days limits who can contribute. Also, I have a very peculiar vision for what I want to do, and how I want to do it. So that means I'm not for everybody, and conversely, everybody's not for me.

How'd you go about the exclusive fiction and non-fiction on your site? Are you a paying market?

Some of it given to me by the authors. I have thought about paying and have some probably over-reaching ideas, but at the moment no time to enact them.

Can you tell us more about yourself?

I''ll have been married for 25 years this September to my wife Claire. I have two boys, Dietrich and Nathan, both in various stages of college. I used to spend time playing electronic music, (petsgonewild.com is the moldy website) and have a studio that I wish I had more time to use. Did I use the word "compulsive" enough? I enjoy running down on the beach near where I live every morning between five and six AM. There goes an hour of my day! I'd like to get back to writing fiction more diligently, but the creative force seems to be in the website, and I'm trying, at least, to listen to myself.

Did you grow up reading books? What were your favorites back then? What are your favorites now?

Well, of course I grew up reading books. I still have my very fist Winnie the Pooh that Grandma Kleffel gave me. I really started to get into reading with the advent of the space program in the sixties, I'd read Life and Look magazine, then Willy Ley, then Arthur C. Clarke, then Edgar Rice Burroughs. I studied English literature in college and acquired a love of Dickens, Hawthorne, Bronte, the standard greats taught because they are indeed timeless.

Anything else you'd like to promote or plug?

I do work for NPR, and occasionally hope that someday they'll let me have a little show of my own, sort of an amalgam of my website and podcast. When I do pieces for NPR, they have this "Email this Story" button that I shamefully but relentlessly promote in the write-ups. In fact, my last piece on Paolo Bacigalupi is about to fall off the chart as I answer these questions. When those reports come up, the emailing really helps. I think that NPR's audience has similarly omnivorous tastes to mine, and in the best of all possible worlds, I'd love to have a show syndicated for NPR. I need but just look around to determine that as of this moment, we're not living in the best of all possible worlds, alas. So I just run as fast as I can, Wiley Coyote-like, off the edge of the cliff and pretend not to notice there's nothing underneath.

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