Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Feature: Interview with Edward Champion (The Bat Segundo Show)

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

Edward Champion is the host of The Bat Segundo Show where he interviews various personalities, most notably authors. He also keeps a blog, Filthy Habits, and has contributed to publications like the The L.A. Times and Guardian.

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. First off, what made you start The Bat Segundo Show? What were some of the difficulties in starting out?

Well, thanks for having me, Charles. I'm quite honored and I hope I can be of some assistance to your readers. I'm a bit embarrassed to report that The Bat Segundo Show started off a shameless excuse to interview David Mitchell. I had obtained a UK edition of CLOUD ATLAS a few months before it appeared in the States, and I was, to put it mildly, blown away by it. It seemed only fitting to interview the man. So I called up Random House, tracked the appropriate person down, and arranged a telephonic interview. I had interviewed a number of people in the '90's, a period when I had conducted some journalism, largely in the film world. But books involved an altogether different beast. I was certainly writing about books in a number of places, but I needed to figure out through practice precisely how to make these conversations as entertaining and intelligent as I could in conversational form. It took a while to hit upon a dynamic. Trial and error. I would advise anybody new to the show to start listening at around Show #20, when I knew remotely what I was doing. And I should also point out that there aren't nearly as many literary podcasts or other conduits out there as there should be.

Being of an endlessly curious nature, I began to obtain fancy equipment. I began tinkering with software. I stole a few tricks from interviewers whose work elicited results -- Robert Birnbaum, Dick Cavett, Mike Wallace, Tom Snyder -- while staying true to my own particular observations, which originated predominantly from the text. I think good interviewing really involves being observant. From this emerged the herringbone structure of how I operated.

Why is the show named The Bat Segundo? And where did you come up with the idea of having Mr. Segundo open the show?

The podcast needed an intro. So I took the name "Bat Segundo" from the final chapter of David Mitchell's GHOSTWRITTEN and created a deliberately unappealing and grating character. This was, after all, the murky new medium of podcasting. And I felt that I needed to keep things a bit rough and somewhat amateurish on the intro to protect myself. Other podcasters seemed to see this medium as a tryout for FM radio. And I was content to do something that was almost the antithesis of NPR: to be as natural, as fun, and as passionate as I could be. To work, more or less, without a net. (Thankfully, David Mitchell gave me his blessing to use the name when I interviewed him a second time -- a good fifty shows in, I might add.) I never expected that people would like this guy or find him funny. I was only interested in sustaining a character. The now defunct blog, Miss Snark, even held a Bat Segundo fan fiction contest. (From the emails I get, people seem to either love him or loathe him.) I had deliberately mispronounced "Segundo" in the early shows so that people would get the hint that this was something of a postmodern act. I didn't expect that he would develop such an intricate backstory, intimated throughout the course of the intros and something that can be put together if you start connecting the dots.

Can you tell us more about yourself? You've maintained a blog and written various reviews but where else can we find more of your work?

I've dabbled in variegated places. I've been a journalist, a filmmaker, a playwright, a director, an actor, and probably many more things if you were to press me on my many ontological false starts. I was, for a time, one of those giddy bastards toiling quietly in law firms until this rather strange, anarchic, and by no means lucrative existence more or less found me. I will admit that I've let some of my early work slip through the preservationist cracks. Largely because I can't imagine who might be interested in it. But I have tried to preserve as much of my current work, which I'm more proud of, on the main site. One of these days, when some magical person deposits a good deal of spare time into my temporal account, I'm hoping to get all this up. But my present regimen involves focusing upon what I'm doing presently and not really looking back. Trying to get better. Who needs another Jay Gatsby? Particularly in these incorrigible and often uncertain times.

What's your criteria in choosing who to interview? Aside from the broad spectrum of fiction authors you interview, who else do you interview? Are you planning to branch out more?

A lot of my choices are intuitive. I've always kept close tabs on who's coming through town. And I try to book someone who will be interesting (or that I will be interested in), someone who can talk off boilerplate for thirty to forty minutes. (I try and go out of my way to ask questions that others haven't asked.) I've recently started experimenting with more film people and, perhaps because I like to keep any project I'm working on constantly evolving, I've found myself talking with more nonfiction people. Largely because I'm very concerned and interested in the many things around us, and I hope that this sense of curiosity can get others equally excited. I'd like to branch out more. Not only to other artistic mediums, but also to everyday people. But, for now, books seem to be largely the prism with which I work in. But that prism protracts with each show.

Is there a particular genre of fiction you personally favor? Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books?

I try not to be a snob about this. I read genre-blind. The book is the thing. I've tried to keep the spectrum as open as possible. You'll find hard literary, popular, mystery, science fiction, chick lit, and nearly every genre represented in the archives. Of course, there are a few gaps. But I've been trying to fill this all in as the show progresses. As for favorite authors: Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, China Mieville, Anthony Burgess, Carol Shields, Richard Powers, John P. Marquand, Kate Atkinson, Kathy Acker, David Markson, Gilbert Sorrentino, Richard Matheson, Octavia Butler, Colson Whitehead, and Nicholson Baker come immediately to mind. And I've been fortunate to interview some of these folks. But ask me this question in ten minutes and you'll have a completely different list.

It's been my experience that you ask very unique questions during your interview. How long does it take you to prepare for an interview? What's the most memorable interview you've had so far?

Well, thank you. I certainly try to do this. I prepare by reading an author's most recent book, and sometimes additional volumes in the backlist. I sometimes take notes. I then try to determine what questions have been asked of an author and strike these angles off my list, if at all possible. What often happens is that I'm set to interview someone during a particular day, and I spend a few hours before hand either typing or handwriting a list of questions. (There have been a few instances in which I've actually written out questions as I'm on the subway about to meet the author. As the shows have progressed, I've found that I've relied more on spontaneity.) Prep generally takes me anywhere from six to twenty hours. But this time is relative. Because I can only work effectively if I have a deadline in place. And I always seem to prepare on time. But it's only because of that deadline. Such is my rather bizarre work ethic.

It's hard to pick favorites. But, most recently, I had a lot of fun with Elizabeth Crane. The Wayne Shannon interview was very difficult for me, because I had no idea how much his process was tied in with the personal. But it was necessary to convey his story. Because he's such an underrated figure. The second Jeffrey Ford interview was quite funny, because we were both drinking quite a lot and managed to sound relatively lucid under the circumstances. And it was a great honor to talk with Bill Plympton. This is not to discount the other interviews in the archive -- many of which were quite exciting and led down unexpected avenues. But as I've conveyed to you, I try to keep things in the present and ever-evolving.

You're quite eloquent in your interviews. Do you have previous experiences in radio or podcasting?

Again, thank you. I'm wondering if you have the right guy. I do hope that these conversations are of value to other people. But I am aware of my limitations, and have tried to improve where I can, which is largely conducted through process. This was, aside from a few spoken word experiments, my first foray into podcasting. I did have a brief voiceover career, but I was appalled when I heard my voice over the radio being used to hawk a sporting goods store. So I stopped that. There was some college radio I conducted with a old pal of mine. But nothing really that serious. Again, most of what's been effected has been through trial and error, which is the best way to approach anything in life.

What are some difficulties you experience in your interviews (travel , setting up meetings, formulating questions, etc.)?

The greatest difficulty, by far, comes from publicists who don't get me the books in time and who don't seem to understand -- despite transparent communications -- that I need at least a week to prepare for an interview. Publicists who can't commit to a yes or no, or who lack the maturity of answering this simple question and who feel the need to string me along, make things a bit difficult. Because I'm trying to balance a good deal of interviews. Now I should point out that the majority of the publicists I deal with -- particularly the folks at Random House, who remain the most gung ho about this -- are absolutely professional and pay attention. But the bad publicists are, by far, the most thankless component of my role here. Because I don't demand much, I'm very clear about the parameters, and I keep things considerably organized by necessity But everything else more than makes up for this. This truly is a privilege, and I never lose sight of that.

Do you have any advice for people doing interviews?

Be as aware of your subject as you can. Be observant -- not just with the text and the research, but also with what gets your subject excited. Keep things fun. Keep a specific pace. Above all, don't be afraid to ask tough questions. And try and respect your subject as much as possible, even when you're asking them a tough question. Don't ask the questions that other journalists ask. Otherwise, what's the point of doing this?

When it comes to writing, what piques your interest? Any advice to aspiring writers?

This is a difficult question to answer. But if writing can seduce my head and emotions and completely take me away from the world, then it's doing a good job. If it can galvanize an entirely independent array of thoughts and feelings, then it's doing a great job. The best thing any writer or reader can do is keep this idea very much in mind. Also, don't give up. If people think you're crazy, don't listen to them.

Have you tried your hand in writing short stories or novels?

I've written a few short stories, and am at work on a novel right now.

What can we look forward to with The Bat Segundo Show in the future? Anything else you'd like to plug?

Well, I will say that the introductory format of the show is about to change in a big way. Look for a strange development around Show #200. Of course, there are clues to all this in the 190s. I have nothing worth personally plugging other than the main website, but if I'm in a position to plug, I would suggest supporting your independent bookstores, the writers you may know, and anybody who may be dabbling in a creative medium. It isn't easy for a lot of people to keep at this. But your support for others doing things a little differently often goes a long way.

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