Confessions of a Failed Interviewer

marisha-pessl.jpgI have always done my best to learn from failure. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t report that, this afternoon, while conducting an author interview, I failed to carry out my duties as interviewer. I hope that my honesty here will atone for my inadequacies.

This afternoon, I attempted to have a conversation with Marisha Pessl for The Bat Segundo Show. I use the word “attempted,” because I saw no point to continue the conversation after the twenty minute mark. It wasn’t working out and we would have gone around in circles. I thanked Ms. Pessl for her time, apologized, and she ran away from me as if I were a leper.

We weren’t getting anywhere. I think it’s because Ms. Pessl, and please understand that I am not trying to make her look malevolent here, isn’t accustomed to having her assumptions questioned. Maybe it’s because, last year, I made about one tenth the amount that Pessl got for her book, and there was a division. Maybe it’s because Pessl is attractive and I’m just some average-looking thirtysomething going bald. Maybe it’s because my interviewing style is less rapid-fire Q&A and more conversational and idiosyncratic. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to ask questions that everybody else asks. Maybe it’s because Pessl doesn’t like to consort with my kind.

I honestly don’t know. But I deeply regret what happened.

My approach, which has been carried forth in over 130 author interviews, is to offer ideas and observations and to work in a series of conversational calls and responses with the author. These are things I have picked up from careful study of the interview masters: Robert Birnbaum, Dick Cavett, and a number of other interviewing influences. But in Pessl’s case, she kept asking me, “What’s the question?” When I offered a few unusual perceptions of her book, it was apparently incompatible with her absolute authorial intentions. And even then, you couldn’t talk about this, because figuring out Pessl’s book was up to the reader. So what then was the point of the interview? (Interestingly, while Mark Danielewski kept his cards close to his chest and doesn’t like to reveal answers, we were still able to talk about Only Revolutions quite well. Did I simply fail to read Special Topics in Calamity Physics? I don’t know.)

So I abandoned my usual approach and opted for a more routine approach of boilerplate questions.

“Okay,” I asked, “but what of literary ambiguity?” That stuff that William Empson was writing about more than seventy years ago. “What steps did you take to allow for invention? What kind of herringbone plot structure did you jump off from?”

I got terse responses from Pessl that had nothing to do with these questions.

Pessl had looked at her watch about ten minutes in and seemed about as happy to chat with me as if I were some porter she’d have to endure as she checked in her luggage. I failed to connect. It was my fault.

Why did I want to interview Pessl? Well, I’ve always done my best to talk with the misunderstood. And I had a sense that, irrespective of the class chasm, Pessl was misunderstood.

There had been considerable controversy over whether the book had been accepted because of Pessl’s good looks and because the book had been judged less on its merits and more on the amount of money. I had wanted to talk about some of the book’s constructs: the reliance upon annotations, the hermetic bubble that the protagonist Blue prevents her from interacting with the world, the like. I would stop, allowing for a pause, and then Pessl would stare at me.

I failed.

Then again, I suppose, after 130 interviews, a failed interview had to happen sooner or later.

I’m still determining what I plan to do with the conversation we recorded.

So for the moment, I apologize to Ms. Pessl, to Penguin for going to the trouble of arranging this, and to my listeners and readers.

The hell of it is, I conducted two really great interviews earlier in the week.

I’ve held my own with Martin Amis, John Updike, Richard Ford, and Erica Jong. Why then could I not talk with Pessl?

I look upon this failure as a learning experience. This incident has certainly made me rethink how I approach interviews. And aside from one interview I have lined up, I plan on taking a break from these conversations. I’m going to dwell upon what happened and get back to you with an answer on what I plan to do with this material.

In the meantime, there are many interviews in the can, all of them quite fun and good, and my conversation with Marshall Klimasewiski should go up tomorrow.

[UPDATE: Thanks to all for the kind words. I’m truly stunned. I’ve listened to the interview and I think it would be best for all concerned parties if I didn’t post it. If I came into the interview to have a literary discussion and it didn’t happen, then I’d rather take the high road here.]


  1. I think you should post it. Failed interview or not, I bet it’s good radio. Some of the best moments from interviews occur during failures, right? E.g. that crazy Crispin Glover interview on David Letterman, that Madonna interview on David Letterman. Unfortunately those are the only examples I can think of. Plus I want to see how accurate your description is.

  2. I sincerely hope you’re not taking this to heart quite as profoundly as it seems. The one time I saw Pessl field questions, it was apparent she expected the audience to take her answers, which included the most pretentious list of influences I’ve ever heard, as some kind of divine edict. I wasn’t buyin’ it and she shouldn’t have been sellin’ it.

  3. I agree – you should post what you’ve got and make it work. It’s probably rather entertaining.

    I googled her and from the interviews I’ve gleaned, she’s used to answering very straight-forward questions that are frankly not all that deep. She’s probably never been asked a question like “What kind of herringbone plot structure did you jump off from?”. She may have been intimidated or thought you were challenging her. Or maybe she was preoccupied, that’s all. In any case, it sounds like she was rather rude. Money does not buy you class.

    I’m just speculating though…all I know is that you’re a great interviewer. You’re friendly, well-prepared about your subjects and ask questions that aren’t cookie-cutter. That’s why your podcast is so popular.

  4. I don’t think you should take the majority of the blame, as you seem to be doing Ed. I understand it’s journalistic responsibility and class to take the blame for the interview not panning out, but from the sounds of it Pessl was simply not responsive. What can you do? I have also read a few of her other interviews and she was probably not used to someone asking her in-depth questions.

    You’ve already established yourself with 100+ quality interviews with some major literary figures, while Pessl is a new kid on the block with her “looks” and “money” the two most touted things about her. I wouldn’t worry too much.

    Wouldn’t you think an artist would be refreshed to be asked some serious questions?

  5. Yes, you should post. Let the person listedning make up their mind who failed. Maybe it wasn’t you, Ed. Maybe Pessl just thought that a litblogger with a set of probing questions could be brushed off with vapid pabulum.

  6. Post the interview Edward. And don’t beat yourself up because of it. Your interviews are amongst the best contemporary literary resources available right now, in the whole world.

  7. This is, to me, one of the real differences between so-called “professional” book journalism and the blogosphere. You don’t have to take the sucky interview and spin it into a bland “piece” for whatever publication you’re working for. I say post it. It’s real and no one’s going to draw the conclusion you’re a bad interviewer because we’ve heard you do too many good ones.

  8. Back when Letterman was on NBC he had Sam Phillips on – the Sun Records legend, not the briefly semi-famous alt-rock chanteuse – and Sam, who evidently had been imbibing something other than standard green-room potables, mumbled, chuckled, and proved totally incapable of speaking two consecutive intelligible words, much less a phrase or sentence; Dave went to a commercial in two minutes. And then there’s that wonderful clip from Merv Griffin’s show in ’68, featured in “Nico/Icon” (or is it? been a long time since I saw it), where the Ice Goddess, after playing a “tune” from “The Marble Index,” sits down and just stares at the Mervster when he tosses five or six questions at her. (A bit similar to that legendary encounter between Syd Barrett and Pat Boone.) But even with those precedents, your reluctance to air is understandable. Pessl is the woman for whom Gawker coined the term “book-hot,” not “book-smart.” I’d be willing to bet she had not so much as heard or read the name William Empson before you uttered it. Man, would I sure like to sit Dirda (who idolizes Empson) down with her (and with some of the print reviewers of her novel) for an hour or two. Maybe then he’d quit making cracks about bloggers.

  9. And then again….Pessl’s inability to answer questions of no greater difficulty than would be asked by, say, an academic-quarterly interviewer, brings to mind the old crack of Tin Pan Alley songwriters that Irving Berlin had a talented African-American hidden in the back of his upright piano….but I had best say no more. The blogosphere has a way, sometimes, of turning casual quip into factoid, if not to fact.

  10. Ed, as a journalist, I know exactly how you feel. A few weeks ago I sat down with one of the most well-respected Dodge Viper specialists in the country. I thought it would make an awesome feature article. But the guy had extreme ADD and I couldn’t get a straight coherent thought out of him, so what was supposed to be a long profile piece with lots of cool pictures, ended up being a 600 word news story thrown into the business section.

    Last saturday, though, i sat down with a guy who specializes in selling books to prison inmates, and it was one of those magical interviews that I just knew was going to turn into an awesome story.

    That’s how it goes sometimes. Some people seem designed to be interviewed by journalists, for others, it’s like pulling teeth.

  11. If you failed in doing the interview, then you shouldn’t post it. Why potentially embarrass a guest who went out of her way to meet and talk with you? It sets a bad precedent for your show.

  12. Do not stop doing interviews! I’ve listened to lots of them, even the ones where I don’t care about the author! They are always interesting! You are a great interviewer.

  13. Re the update: I think you owe it to Pessl to post the interview.

    You’ve already painted Pessl as a pretty awful character in your semi-apologia here. For all your “it was probably just me,” the very obvious subtext (so obvious as to not be subtext) of the post is that Pessl is a vain, shallow, maybe even stupid. person.

    Your statement of “I failed to connect. It was my fault.” isn’t the meaning one gets from the totality of the message. Failed to connect sure. Your fault? Though protest too much Ed. You absolutely paint her as the malevolent party here: allegedly repulsed by your average looks, unable to answer your questions inspired by the greats, watch checking, unwilling to even engage when you made a good faith effort to shift gears, your ability to connect with bigger fish than her.

    Of course your blog fans are sympathetic to you and unlikely to be sympathetic to the hot wunderkind whose advance was ten times our salaries. (And that hair! Holy shit!), and that’s exactly what your little passive aggressive display here is meant to do.

    Ergo, the only defense Pessl has is to let us hear the interaction. I believe that your interpretation of her behavior is a pretty close version of reality, but we’ll never know if you sit on it.

    You’ve made her look really bad already. You can’t make her look worse. If your motivation was really so high minded you never would’ve posted this message in the first place. You’re under no obligation to tell the “truth” about an event your readers would never have been aware of.

  14. Well, that’s your opinion, May Barber. Were you there? She did check her watch. She did not respond to my conversational lassos. How else am I supposed to portray these facts? The other inferences are all yours.

    Do I think she’s evil? Did I intend to portray her as evil? Not at all. Let me be clear: Marisha Pessl is not evil. And again I take full responsibility for failing to connect with her. I was the interviewer and I should have done better. Pillory me for being human.

    I would also urge all readers of this thread to judge Pessl’s work EXCLUSIVELY on Pessl’s work and not on her attractiveness, social status, her hair, or any of the other needless factors you may be drawing.

    Passive-aggressive? I made an ACTIVE decision not to post the audio. You may not agree with it, but it was mine to make. Since the purpose of my interview was to engage Pessl on her work, and I failed (and have apologized and do so here again), and the interview does not reflect anything constructive to this end, then I actively decided NOT to post the audio.

    So why did I post this entry? Not for attention, but to point out that some of us out here trying to innovate are highly fallible. By your standard, anyone who writes of their experiences is “passive-aggressive.”

    You continue to hide behind a pseudonym, Ms. Barber. When have YOU ever put yourself on the line with your real name attached?

  15. Please don’t stop interviewing, Ed. You do marvelous work…and fulfill a very real need for those of us outside the U.S.

  16. As Marisha Pessl’s editor and as a 20 + year publishing veteran who has sat in on any number of interviews and tour-stops with authors — I could, actually, say a whole lot about writing, market capitalism, author-commodification and hair. If we need to talk about money and who gets it — any the mechanics of how it happens — let’s do it directly with those who can answer for it. Authors did not invent the auction system whether or not they benefit from it, and if they chose their looks before birth they are certainly not aware of it now; in fact, they entered a profession that occurs mostly in private. The realities, costs and benefits of the “author tour” come as shock to most authors. But in general, more generosity toward human and writerly, idiosyncrasies and differences would help these days and lead to deeper and better conversations. Key impediments to communicating can actually, be identified — even beforehand. Deeper places can be found even on book tours. In general with all the verbiage being put forth, it might lead to some more depthful, and more helpful, conversations; and these days it seems like we need them.

  17. I think you should look at your double standards, Ed.
    Suddenly you’re concerned with issues of class?
    You have sympathy for those “trying to innovate”?
    I don’t know who May is– I think I do, based on encounters I had with someone using that name five years ago.
    I do know this about her– she’s a far better writer than Marisha Pessl could dream of being. (It should be obvious to those who’ve read her posts that she’s way more intelligent.)
    The question everyone should be asking:
    WHY was Pessl given the big advance and given ultra-hype in support of it, which you, Ed, have no problem participating in? (Would you ever review a ULA author?)
    Is it ONLY because of Pessl’s looks?
    Is it not also BECAUSE of her background that she’s been handed a modest success, and more, that she wrote that which appeals to the extremely narrow tastes of the mandarins of NYC book publishing, most of whom come from the same background as Pessl?
    Isn’t the problem with the system itself– how it’s structured; how it chooses its authors?
    I don’t know who May Barber is. I do know a writer or two like her, of extreme talent, from truly hard backgrounds, who were never given a chance, did not have the wherewithall or persistence to break through the barriers of walls, and so are floating around in obscurity– maybe writing posts to blogs like yours– writers better than 90% of the posers you, Birnbaum, and Company are interviewing. Unknown writers who by their talent and intelligence might save the crumbling realm of literature.
    (Vanishing book review sections after all aren’t the problem. They’re a symptom of the problem. The problem is with what stands today as American literature.)

  18. Ed, I’ve no doubt you’ve made the right decision if that’s how you feel. How many shows have you done now? It was bound to happen eventually. 🙂

  19. As a 20-year publishing veteran, Carole, you’re part of a failed system. A system which has failed American literature, and in so doing, failed the American public.
    Who are the great young writers produced by your tastes, your attitudes, your supposedly efficient methods for finding “the best”?
    Marisha Pessl and Jonathan Safran Foer??
    Rare birds of affluence writing from gilded cages.
    The system can’t be saved. It’s slowly collapsing from within, as its tastes become narrower and narrower.
    The answer is to offer a more exciting alternative, which some of us out here, with fledgling book companies offering authentic grass roots literature– literature that rocks– have begun doing.
    Thanks for the time, Ed. I appreciate it.

  20. This sounds unfortunate. Ed, you are an idiosyncratic reviewer, but that is what makes Bat Segundo such a superb listening experience. It’s like nothing you get on most audio interviews.

    It sounds as if she was being unprofessional, but she also could have been having a bad day, been jet-lagged, ill, or bothered by a personal problem. I don’t think you should take it personally or make the experience second-guess yourself.

    What’s interesting is that if you were doing a live broadcast, of course, something different would have had to happen to fill the airspace. I remember this question-and-answer session from the Washington Post with Diane Rehm about her experiences with a difficult author:

    Silver Spring, Md.: Do you have any past guests who just make you cringe when you think back on them? People who were just horrendous interviews or obnoxious?

    Diane Rehm: Here comes Tom Clancy into the studio one day, years ago, with his aviator glasses on. Barely shook my hand. Came in, sat down, put his hand over his glasses, so I couldn’t even see the top of his face. I figured I’d ask a broad question about his latest book. He answers “Yes.” I gulp. I ask another broad question, he answers “Nope.” So, I figure I can either invite him out, or invite listeners in. I choose the latter. First caller, a male: “Mr. Clancy,
    I love your books, but you sure are being arrogant with OUR DIANE!!!” At which point, Clancy throws off his glasses, and says “Oh, no, we’re having a WONDERFUL time, aren’t we Diane?” Before I can say a word, the caller\ says, “Well, it sure doesn’t sound that way to us!” At which point, and from then on, Clancy is a pussycat.

    Maybe you need live call-ins?

  21. This is the most smug and self-serving “apology” I have ever seen. You are a bad interviewer not because you “fail to connect” (please), but because you feel it necessary to showcase yourself in your interviews. If your subject isn’t prepared to answer the show-offy questions you have prepared, then it is your responsibility to make the “conversation” work. If that means you have to conduct a “fluff” interview, then do an interesting “fluff” interview — it is certainly possible. If it ends up showing that the subject is dumb as a post, then so be it. As long as you are fair in the way you conduct and edit it, that’s not your problem. Or don’t post anything at all, if you really feel that you failed. But don’t post a backhanded “apology” that insults the subject and mainly serves as a forum for you to preen and drop names.
    (I have no connection with Ms. Pessl, nor have I read her book. I got the sense that it wasn’t very good. But I wouldn’t wish this post even on a truly evil author like Michael Crichton, let alone a first-time novelist who happened to get lucky).

  22. How does a statement like this

    > If I came into the interview to have a literary discussion and it didn’t happen,

    amount to “taking the high road”?

    Or this:

    > think it’s because Ms. Pessl, and please understand that I am not trying to make her look malevolent here, isn’t accustomed to having her assumptions questioned.

    Or this:

    > Maybe it’s because I don’t like to ask questions that everybody else asks. Maybe it’s because Pessl doesn’t like to consort with my kind.

    Or this:

    > When I offered a few unusual perceptions of her book, it was apparently incompatible with her absolute authorial intentions.

    The high road? Please. However accurate your account may be (and who knows, it may be 100% accurate), this is NOT the high road. And to see your clearly disingenuous “it’s all my faut” protestations actually being taken seriously makes me think I’ve fallen into some Bizarro universe.

    One question:

    > I have always done my best to learn from failure. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t report that, this afternoon, while conducting an author interview, I failed to carry out my duties as interviewer.

    So if you honestly feel that YOU have failed (which, again, I don’t believe), what have you learned?

    You should post the interview.

  23. I enjoy this site a great deal, and also, when I have the time, enjoy the interviews. I think you do a service to all of us by putting them up. Even when I feel like, as in the case of Foer, you spend a lot of the front end of the interview grilling the author on all the stuff people say is wrong with him, as opposed to say the book he wrote, I still appreciate the service you provide.

    Having said this, I don’t understand why Ed made that post. It draws way too much attention to the failed interivew. Why not just apologize to the author and the publicist and eat the interview and continue on with the excellent work of this site, without making a stir about the time it didn’t work out.

    This was your answer: “So why did I post this entry? Not for attention, but to point out that some of us out here trying to innovate are highly fallible.”

    I don’t think that this holds up. I don’t doubt that Pessl may not have been the best guest in the world. I also don’t doubt that there’s a bit of honest regret on your part, that you tried to be inventive and she didn’t play along and you kind of feel bad that it all turned out the way it has.

    Meanwhile, behind all the self-deprectation, after all of your conditional apologies, you fried her. There was a reason for it. Which is fine. But don’t pretend it’s not there, or you can’t see it.

    This is the kind of bs that, I think, makes it easy to discount you and all the good work of the better literary blogs.

  24. Yeah, what he said.

    If you went into an interview in good faith and you feel that the author didn’t do the same and you’re pissed off and you want to call her on it, fine. Do it. But don’t couch it in bullshit about “just being honest and trying to learn from this” and pretend to be holding the moral high ground.

    If you want to make implications about her mindset or whatever, fine. Do it. But if you’re going to make those implications, STAND BY THEM for God’s sake. Don’t make them and then spread your arms innocently & claim that people are inferring things out of thin air. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  25. I concur generally with DW and Disgraceful, though I don’t think Ed is a bad interviewer. I’ve enjoyed quite a few podcasts, the vast majority of those I’ve listened to as a matter of fact. Sure, he asks what I think are some cockamamie questions, and occasionally seems like he’s trying to be the smartest kid in school, but those are traits I think he comes by honestly. I hear things discussed on his podcasts that I haven’t seen elsewhere in interviews with the same writers.

    But I read this post as pure revenge on Pessl while hiding under the guise of “self-examination.” Like DW, I’d be cool with a Pessl was a self-important, unengaging prima donna straight ahead analysis, but carving her up while claiming he’s not trying to carve her up seems beneath him.

  26. In you comments you respond to May Barber by saying, “Were you there? She did check her watch. She did not respond to my conversational lassos. How else am I supposed to portray these facts? The other inferences are all yours.”

    Come on, Ed. Are you seriously trying to convince us that you were just presenting the facts without infusing your post with your own judgment? Are you really convinced that your humility is sincere and that your only agenda is to show us that “some of us out here trying to innovate are highly fallible”? (By the way, what made you suspect we didn’t already know that you and others are fallible? Sounds like a pretty basic assumption to me.)

    I agree with others: If you think Pessl was a dud, just say so. If you don’t, reread the quotes DW pulled from your post and think about how those words come across to your audience. Can you say, with all sincerity, that there’s nothing back-handed going on here?

  27. But all of you who feel Ed is wrong to protray Pessl in anything other than a perfect light – well what if she really wasn’t all that nice and ready to be interviewed? She agreed to be interviewed – she chose to be there. If she had a bad day, didn’t want to do it, didn’t understand the questions, whatever, she could have just said “Ed, I”m having some trouble with these questions – I have a headache – I’m jet lagged – can we try something else?” In other words, if she was uncomfortable, why not let the interviewer know that and try to fix it?

    If you don’t want to be interviewed then just don’t agree to do it. It’s not rocket science to say the words, “No, thank you.”

    And as for the things Ed said about the interview, well he had a failed interview with her and he gets to post about it. She should be happy the whole thing didn’t happen on David Letterman – then it would be on you tube forever.

  28. “But all of you who feel Ed is wrong to protray Pessl in anything other than a perfect light…”

    I don’t think anyone in the entire thread implied such a thing. I think Ed is entitled to portray Pessl in any light he wishes. What I found troubling is how he decided to paint her in extreme unflattering terms while trying to deny he was doing so. I think Ed should say whatever he wants, but to just own up to what it is he’s saying.

  29. Despite my bitching about the ‘comedic voice’ in the Vollmann interview, you know you’re doing a great thing here and there’s obvious passion. Stay the course, fuck the squares. There is no such thing as ‘failed’, on to the next one-

  30. Taking the “high road” would have involved just shrugging your shoulders, admitting that sometimes things don’t work out as planned and not making a big show of self-flagellation that somehow manages to cast the person you’re allegedly apologizing to in a completely unflattering light. Honesty and discretion aren’t mutually exclusive

    This post displays all the sincerity of a “It’s me, baby, not you” break-up call.

  31. Damn…where have all these commenters come from? Usually I’m alone or only with a few people in this room. 😉

  32. Here’s what I am wondering: would this comment string be as long and as vociferous if the failed interview had been with, say, John Sheppard instead of Marisha Pessl? I think not.

    So what is it about Pessl that gets under the collective skin so much? What was it about her that prompted me to write my initial post about her book deal two years ago, thereby fanning the flames in post-modern fashion?

    Now that I’ve read her book – well actually, attempted to read, as I quit about 70 pages in because I couldn’t summon the urge to care about any of the characters – and granted, I’m basing this solely on an incomplete read of one novel plus what I’ve read in interviews, plus this post, plus a boatload of conjecture, but I think I know what the issue is:

    Lack of failure.

    Pessl is young, but she’s roughly around the same age as I am, twenty-eight. She’s benefited from a nice life, a wealthy husband whose financial success afforded her the ability to write full-time, a charmed path to publication, bestseller-dom and an incredible amount of buzz. Everything’s gone right, so why should she listen to critics or subject herself to questions that don’t conform to the Q&A 101 format? Why bother with any criticism from blogs when most of it has, up till now, largely centered around appearance and entitlement? They got it all wrong, and hey, the book sold, didn’t it? Voila, validation!

    And that’s fine, but it’s also creative death. I can only speak from my own experience but I led a similarly charmed experience up until my mid-20s. My first college choices, good grades, living the dream, all of that jazz, and not a single word of good writing whatsoever. Along came a few hard knocks that seemed terrible at the time but utterly necessary now and while there’s still plenty of room for improvement – thank god – having to rely on my own wits, triumph over adversity and generally grow the fuck up has made me appreciate what I have while still understanding there’s so much more I need to do.

    It’s not seemly to wish failure upon a person, of course, but failing means coming to grips with humanity. It means recognizing emotional honesty and a kernel of reality. Even among those who enjoyed the novel, the consensus I’m finding is that SPECIAL TOPICS lacked some sense of emotional center. And if Pessl can find a way to that center, then and only then will she live up to the hype and to the obvious talent on display.

    All this reminds me of Zadie Smith, another supremely young, supremely hyped author afforded heaps of praise and scorn when WHITE TEETH was published in 2000. Then came THE AUTOGRAPH MAN which even she kind of turns her back. And what happened? She grew up, got some life experience, wrote ON BEAUTY and no matter where one stands on her work, there’s little doubt she proved herself and has something to say and will probably be around for the foreseeable future. I don’t think it’s an accident Smith wrote a well-regarded two-part essay on the theme of “failing better.” If Pessl is smart, she’ll heed both Beckett’s original quote and Smith’s resulting essay.

  33. Just to clarify, there is not “considerable controversy” over what role her looks played in her book deal. Writers don’t send out head shots with our manuscripts. I’ve published with about fifteen publishers now and have never met any of them prior to selling the manuscript: that isn’t how publishing works. Good looks might help the marketability of an already-sold novel, but as I’m sure her editor can testify, selling the ms ain’t a beauty contest. And as you can see from the snide comments here and elsewhere, good looks hinder the female writer as much as they help, as some people have a hard time believing pretty girls can think. I know this is somewhat off topic, but I’m tired of hearing it.

  34. Note. When multiple publishers are interested in a novel, and are figuring out how involved they may want to get in bidding, it is not unusual for an agent to set up meetings between the house and the pub. This happens all the time. How the house is going to market an author is part of what has to be figured out. It happens at the point where the house is already interested in the book.

    Anyone can say what they want about Calamity Physics, and their problems with Ms Pessl and their views on her hair or her lack of failure, or whatever, but the novel was a best-seller, and one of the Times top ten books of the year. It’s been optioned for a film. If it hasn’t earned its advance back yet, it certainly will in paperback. It’s a total success, critically, financially, what have you; there are arguments about just how good it may be, but it’s obviously been a smash. We all know that, we all have opinions on whether this is just or not. But the book and its author have made their mark. To this end, I am sure that Mrs. Pessl can more than handle having a bad post or five made about her. I don’t think that is really here or there.

    Each person gets to decide how they want to move through the world and what kind of person they will be to others. My own feeling is that Ed made a mistake on this one, and while I do wish he’d own up to it, I also hope he’ll come away from it having learned something.

    If you’re going to spend all this energy talking about the merits of literary blogs and their place in the conversation and all that, then, well, you know …


  35. Quiick addendum to the previous post. Also, Ed, if you felt like she was being a b*tch and big-timing you and just felt like she was a crappy person to interview, I’d have no problem with you being up front and frying the living hell out of her, so long as you are straight up and transparent with the whole thing. But again, that’s really not the case here.

  36. maybe she thought it would be a short interview like most interviews and was ready to leave after 5 minutes. it would be funny if you had a 5 minute interview with all the other ones, that are 20-70 minutes. i think if she didn’t listen to any of the other interviews and just heard something from her publicist about an interview happening, that, even if the publicist told her what was going to happen, she might have forgotten or not paid attention and thought it would be a normal, five-minute interview. maybe.

  37. You win some, you lose some, ol’ flatmate chum. In fact, I’m surprised that more of your interviews aren’t as difficult. This of course indicates she hadn’t done HER research in knowing what it is you do (anyone planning on getting interviewed by Ed or ayone for that matter, should KIND OF know who it is they’re going up to bat with; e.g. – Charles Grodin on Howard Stern=4-fold cross rip in the time continuum).

    By the way, as a personal favor to me, Ed, could… well, could you please stop using the word “irrespective”?

    Trust me, you’ll be doing the world a service.

  38. Oh yeah, and I mean this in a good way, but you’re intellectually intimidating sometimes, Ed. Your… girth of knowledge and available recall at any given moment qualifies you as A.) An interviewer of East Coast Literati or B.) A contestant on the posthumous “Win Ben Stein’s Money”.

    I can, at best, call up random information on the most irrelevant topic at the least opportune moments. This qualifies me as A.) Perry Ferrell’s apt rival in a heated game of “Boggle” or B.) the ideal drone for one of those religious cult compounds — the one that hands out the guns during a siege.

  39. after I googled “herringbone plot structure”, I read the rest of the comments. What a tempest in a teapot! You were arrogant and shallow, she flubbed the required responses, and if you are both lucky, the world will rapidly forget that this ended up just being another episode in the tediously long history of men attacking good-looking women with intellectual bullshit.

    Thank all beneficent gods that in my 50s, now, only about half the men I end up in conversation with react first to my appearance and now and then one or two actually listen to what I say. She’s young, she’ll deal with it – what about you? Haven’t you got better things to do? No one reading this ought to be in the least deluded that feminism has actually gotten US much further in the past 40 years.

  40. “Writers don’t send out head shots with our manuscripts… that isn’t how publishing works. Good looks might help the marketability of an already-sold novel, but as I’m sure her editor can testify, selling the ms ain’t a beauty contest.”

    Yes, I’m sure Ms. Pessl’s ms languished in a Laker-tall slushpile until a red-eyed intern plucked it by chance from ignominy and was stunned…stunned…after hours of breathless page-turning to realise that he/she had struck that rarest of nuggets: pure literary gold! (cue: montage of faux naive cinematic rags-to-riches type “success” imagery, c. 1935)

    “Anyone can say what they want about Calamity Physics, and their problems with Ms Pessl and their views on her hair or her lack of failure, or whatever, but the novel was a best-seller, and one of the Times top ten books of the year.”

    Success, I find, is *without fail* the most accurate index of artistic seriousness. If only a few people buy it, it is a poor effort, lacking in merit. If many buy it, it is a brilliant example of what the finest and healthiest literary minds are capable of!

    Yo, Bellow, make room in The Canon, we’ve got a hot one here…and I mean that in both senses of the word! Va-va-va voooom!

  41. “Key impediments to communicating can actually, be identified — even beforehand. Deeper places can be found even on book tours. In general with all the verbiage being put forth, it might lead to some more depthful, and more helpful, conversations; and these days it seems like we need them.”

    And I’m supposed to believe that an *editor* of some sort generated this depthful verbiage.

  42. Final entry in this comment triptych:

    (quoting from the sophomoric work in question:)

    “There was Mona Letrovski, the actress from Chicago with wide-set eyes and dark hair on her arms who liked to shout, “Gareth, you’re a fool,” with her back to him, Dad’s cue to run over to her, turn her around and see the Look of Bitter Longing on her face. Only Dad never turned her around to see the Bitter Longing. Instead, he stared at her back as if it was an abstract painting.”


    “Some of the sweeter, more docile ones like poor, droopy-eyed Tally Meyerson, I actually felt sorry for, because even though Dad made no attempt to hide the fact they were as temporary as Scotch tape, most were blind to his indifference (see “Basset Hound,” Dictionary of Dogs, Vol. 1).”

    Reading such thuddingly unwitty juvenilia, methinks the morally outraged posters in this comment thread doth glow with a richly comedic light. The only question that remains is why Mr. Champion, who recently interviewed Martin Amis ferchrissakes, felt compelled to interview this bulge-in-the-bell-curve-type “writer” in the first place.

    The End Times are nigh, chillen…

  43. Well, that’s your great system. Devastating posts– yet this is what the lot of you continue to defend, criticizing it around the margins, but not daring to take real whacks at the tottering edifice itself.
    Still, Marisha has her defenders– as did poor Marie Antoinette.
    The privileged class always finds its defenders.
    We’re at the beginning stages of cultural revolution. Not moderate reform, but real change. Necessary change. Advocacy of change is the strongest argument and will win every debate– because it’s the only way this decrepit art form which we all in our different ways are involved in can be saved.

  44. For what it’s worth, I didn’t even finish Special Topics…I didn’t like it. My problem (and, I suspect others’ problem) with Ed’s post was what I saw as his lack of sincerity, not his personal take on Pessl. The author’s identity in this case was irrelevant, at least for me.

  45. I think you should post the interview as well. I don’t see a point in posting about the interview–you must know that a post like this will stoke the desire of your readers to listen to the interview–and then not posting the interview itself. Commenters here are attacking you or sympathizing with you based only on your post. You should let them draw conclusions based on the interview.

  46. Please talk again about how you were crying when you were arrested. Funny shit. You’re a real tough guy, which we all love. Minus the horse shoe haircut. Look you fucked up and you mean nothing wrong by her. No big deal… just keep the sad trip going smart guy.

    Or will you not recognize that the vast majority of people who read your post think think this is just lame. Come on buddy. Get some balls. Or least talk about the crying again.

  47. What’s all this “sincerity” (and the lack thereof) business, anyway? Has Rabbi Ed Champion failed his wide-eyed congregation again? Is the Segundo show about “sincerity” or is it an amusing variation on the grill-a-scribe format, provided for our entertainment as well as our intellectual edification? It’s a performance, folks. If you want a more seamless simulation of “sincerity” stick with your Oprah. Stick with your Bill O’Reilly. Your Bill and Hillary Clintons.

    For all those crying that it would have been *okay* if Champion had gone ahead and sincerely tore Ms. Pessl a new one: what planet do you wise citizens live on? One can only imagine the ensuing double-shitstorm if he’d done so…not to mention the blowback on Segundo as an institution. Champion had a point to make that he wasn’t permitted (by common sense) to make directly. We were offered the opportunity to read between the lines with wry smirks and move on. Being too literal-minded to accept this offer, of course, the finger-wagging pooh-pooh brigade (and so soon after the anti-Sarvas n+1-eMail Sanctimonathon, too!) went to work.

    What I for one enjoy about the frontier decorum of online bookchat is the personality on display, richly saturating the product. When I read lofty print reviews of Ms. Pessl’s book claiming it a masterpiece and a triumph (with the minor mitigation that it takes 300 pages…300 pages!… to “take off”), I knew the fix was in. Pessl was going to be the Next Big Thingy, regardless (irrespective?) of the actual merits of her book. I would have appreciated a gut reaction or two.

    It was refreshing to read Champion’s very human take on things; reassuring that *everyone* wasn’t in on the ruse. If Pessl is being promoted as an ueber-erudite writer (based on the fact that she, what, peppered the text with references both real and imagined?), and Champion reveals the middling intellect (with a modicum of verbal facility, and TV-bred plot savvy) behind the PR facade…I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful because I suspect that the bullshit facade rankled him, too, and he set out to do a little debunking. It was Quixotic on his part, of course. Pessl has been outflanking debunking attempts by guys like Ed since junior high school prep. One eye-roll and a flip of the hair and Ed’s toast.

    Would Special Topics… have been purchased and published and hyped if Pessl had been a fat, balding fifty-ish dude named Wilbur with a day job requiring a paper hat? As if.

    I’d like to think that Champion was thinking of Wilbur when he hit Pessl with that herringbone riff.

  48. How can I set up an interview with Marisha? I’m sure we can weave our way through that herringbone plot pattern together and find that key to open up that secret garden that I’m sure she’s hidden somewhere! We’ll explore unknown depths together and she’ll never be accused of superficiality ever again.

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