David Foster Wallace and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum in the Bookworm Cocoon

Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW's Bookworm radio program and podcast (recent episodes available on iTunes), wraps his interview subjects in silky skeins of flattery and analysis.  Inside Bookworm's audio cocoon the atmosphere is unrushed and contemplative.  Dead air is allowed to breathe, as we listen to Silverblatt thinking in the middle of asking, and to authors thinking before answering.  Issues of language, identity, and culture are spun from text into speech, some of it slippery.

Occasionally Silverblatt's interpretations are so psychologically ecstatic that I lose my sense of what's written and what's inferred, and I have to ratchet the tracking diamond on my iPod backward for a second listen.  Sometimes the tenderness is too much and the cocoon seems a fantasy--it's hard to believe that there is someone out there lavishing such microscopic attention on approximately 50 writers a year (Silverblatt preps for each interview by reading the author's oeuvre).  But usually I can't resist Bookworm's devotion and intimacy, especially if the subject is a writer I like.

What's remarkable is that Silverblatt's spinneret generates filaments capable of capturing both big concept writers (David Foster Wallace) and subtle-moments-of-change writers (Sarah Shun-lien Bynum) in their own contexts.  What makes the cocoon so cozy, I suspect, is that Silverblatt's ability to discern authorial intent sometimes surpasses the author's.

Fractals in Foster Wallace
Silverblatt opens his interviews with a highly specific and unusual appreciation of the work, a softening-up that often generates moments of mutual human giddiness before the half-hour is up.  Early in his 4/11/1996 interview with David Foster Wallace (repodcasted in memorium on 11/26/08, and available on the Bookworm archive), Silverblatt posits that Infinite Jest seemed to be written in fractals (!).  This really gets DFW's attention, who responds by riffing on the Sierpinski Gasket, which he describes as a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal that looks like "a pyramid on acid. " (How miserable that we are now deprived of this mind, with its talent for clarifying the esoteric via the vernacular).  Minutes later, Silverblatt thrills over how great Infinite Jest gets around 200 pages in, and says, "It didn't seem like difficulty for difficulty's sake; it seemed like immense difficulty being expended because something important about how difficult it has become to be human needed to be said." (Minute 8)  DFW's wonderfully po-voiced response: "I feel like I want to ask you to adopt me."

The many pleasures in this recording are made more poignant by the knowledge that Foster Wallace cannot be interviewed again.  He lets Silverblatt lead the discussion, and permits some Bookwormian elevation of theme, but he also stands fast by his authorial humility.  Their conversation covers the challenge of writing demanding fiction without being a show-off, the loneliness of art, DFW's desire to write something really sad yet also fun, and the nihilism and double-blinds of contemporary culture in the absence of organizing principles.  The podcast, like DFW's writing, contains more complexity than you can process with one listen.  I am grateful that it exists, and that Bookworm has put it back on iTunes, so I can carry it around in my pocket.  (The archive contains additional interviews with DFW, but this is the one they chose as a commemoration.)

Cherry Blossoms in Bynum
The pleasures of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles are more acrescent than fractal (thought the cover art is weirdly fractal-ish), and Silverblatt's interview flatters with vocabulary in place of geometry.  In his introduction he remarks on the biddy-ness prevalent in the teacher-novel genre (I wished he'd explored this in more depth), and notes Ms. Hempel's relative youth and mutability.  He quickly draws Bynum out on her book's theme of becoming an adult while surrounded by adolescents, and they laugh together over various teacherly foibles.  The interview gets more craft-related around the 13th minute, with a discussion of consciousness and point of view.  Silverblatt also coos over Ms. Hempel's charming vocabulary teaching-tactics, and highlights the author's cherry blossom compliment simile, solidifying a rapport that propels their conversation through an awkward question about the revelation of narrator/author ethnicity.  Prior to hearing this Bookworm interview I had dipped into the first chapter/story and thought that Ms. Hempel was too twee for me, but now that I've listened to Bynum's good-sportiness and sense of humor in the Bookworm cocoon, I've given the book another chance, and found myself won over by its exquisite detail and empathy.

How to Listen:

Live program, Thursdays 2:30-3 pm PST, KCRW 

David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest Bookworm interview recorded 4/11/1996, 28:30,  downloadable from iTunes with a repodcast date of 11/26/2009, at least for a while, then available for computer-listening on the archive, along with other DFW conversations.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Ms. Hempel Chronicles Bookworm interview 1/15/2009, 28:30, also on iTunes, and on Bookworm's archive.