Entr’acte: Lights, camera…

Okay, I promised that I was going to send you all news from the front while I was being interviewed for the documentary, and it doesn’t get any closer to the front than this: they’re setting up the light and sound equipment right now.

To be precise, I’m sitting in a hotel room designed for one person to be able to walk around in relative comfort, surrounded by two technicians and the director, who are arranging and rearranging furniture and lighting equipment in an effort to create the illusion that I am alone in an extremely well-lit room, narrating my own past to myself. As one does.

I am writing this partially to stay out of their way. I distracted them earlier by asking them to tell me the names of Argentine novelists I should be reading (other than Borges, of course; I already knew him), and apparently, in this context, asking questions that prompt people to sit down and think is not the most helpful activity. Remember this, please, when you are famous: it’s frowned-upon for interviewees to interview the interviewers. I can never help myself.

Now that I have released them from bibliographic duty, they all seem to be talking at once; a tad disconcerting, as I understand about four words of Spanish (non-consecutive). Normally, it’s only your imagination that people who are speaking in foreign tongues around you are talking about you, but when there is a boom mike, monitor, and three light poles within grabbing distance, you may be fairly sure that they ARE talking about you, at least indirectly. The sound guy keeps saying, “Hola, hola,” into various little black items, the lighting guy seems determined to rearrange every object in the room seventeen times, and never has a hotel room been this brightly lit.

Apparently, someone intends to do surgery here sometime soon. It is not conducive to interview subject relaxation.

All of you out there who are ever planning to interview living, breathing individuals for your books: do be aware that being an interview subject is quite nerve-wracking. Most people (at least the ones who are not indicted for or witness to a felony) are not expected to be able to blurt out coherent accounts of the most trying moments of their lives on a moment’s notice. Nor is it reasonable for interviewers to expect interviewees to read their minds, to search through a lifetime of complex memories to pull up precisely the anecdote that corresponds most exactly to the interviewer’s preconceived notion of an event.

Yet 99% of the time, this is what interviewers do expect. And an interview subject is very likely to notice this, because it’s not as though any question in the process is asked only once. Everything is asked four or five times, sometimes in different background environments, so they can later piece together the answer they want. From the subject’s POV, this is rather like being cross-examined. From the documentarian’s POV, I suspect it is rather like editing a novel: cutting away the extraneous in order to create plausible characters.

Oh, come on: you didn’t think those reality shows weren’t edited to create a storyline, did you?

I ask the director about editing for character creation. Since it’s the only English that’s been heard in the room for a quarter of an hour, my voice startles everyone. He laughs, then talks about the difficulties and joys of trying to be an observant spectator of a range of people whose views of events differ rather wildly. It’s hard, he says, to ask questions that will provoke revealing responses without appearing to take sides.

“That’s just what a novelist does,” I tell him, “in constructing a narrative.” This is translated into Spanish, so everyone can enjoy the irony.

Having just lived through exhaustive pre-interviews and seemingly miles of let’s-walk-around-Berkeley shots (we seriously spent an hour today following my mother as she drove familiar streets, blasting Puccini, with the cameraman hanging dangerously out of the side of the production van), I have gleaned what I hope will be a useful tip for all of you would-be interviewers out there: it might not be the best idea to tell your interview subject what all of your other interview subjects have said about her. It taints what is, after all, a meeting with an inquisitive stranger with the annoying air of a visit from unpleasant relatives.

Not that I’d be saying this from personal experience or anything. It’s not as though, for instance, people who live off the proceeds of the late Philip K. Dick’s writing have been going around making sweeping statements about a memoir they haven’t read. Since you, my fine readers, are actually implicated as co-conspirators in some of these sweeping statements, I feel that I should let you know about one of them: certain sources who are not speaking to me have been telling third parties with recording devices that I have been posting large parts of my memoir here, on this very blog, for well over a year now.

I ask you, the people who would know this best: have I?

Actually, I couldn’t have, legally: once a publisher buys the rights to a book, the contract tends to be pretty darned specific about what the author can do with the contents. Amazingly enough, publishers seem to be under the impression that what they are buying when they acquire a book is the right to disseminate its contents. And if I had not retained the film rights to A FAMILY DARKLY, I would not be able to give this interview without explicit permission from my press.

I still own the film rights, though. And the foreign language rights. As I think I have explained before, what publishers usually buy from first-time authors on our continent (actually, it’s not my first NF book; I wrote a couple of travel guides years ago, but let’s say it’s my first, for purposes of illustration) are the first-time North American English-language rights only. Most of the time, if a book comes out first in hardcover, the paperback rights are sold separately; typically, a novel would need to sell in the neighborhood of 10,000 copies before a press would be interested in the paperback rights.

I have only just realized that the cameraman has been filming me writing this for the last couple of minutes, the observer of the observers being observed observing. (Try to wrap your brain around THAT one.) The sound guy has just lowered what looks like a space probe to eight inches in front of my nose, nine inches up. If I don’t stare either dead ahead or down at my computer screen, it will be very distracting.

I’m getting indications that it’s time for me to start strolling down memory lane, to recall some of the most painful and joyous moments of my life. Due to the lights and proximity of bodies in a too-small space, it is now thirty degrees hotter in the room than it was when we began. I am advised not to sweat. And to relax.

And we begin.

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