"Bookworm": For Serious Writers and Their Readers, an Oasis on the Air

ANTA MONICA, Calif. -- When Ana Castillo, an award-winning Mexican-American writer, appeared on a weekly public radio show called "Bookworm," the host did something strange. He had read her entire body of work and he asked intelligent questions.

For 30 minutes, Ms. Castillo held forth on matters like the parallels and dissimilarities between her novels and her poetry, the proper use of irony in romantic and passionate passages and the influence of both the telenovela and 16th-century Spanish literature on her work. Only a close critical listening would have revealed the bottom-line reason for her visit: to plug her new novel, "Peel My Love Like an Onion."

No matter. In the world of serious poetry and fiction, where text and technique are more important than conventional book tour prattle or even plot, "Bookworm" is considered something of a national resource, a sanctuary from lightweight pop fiction and/or the celebritization of well-known authors.

Although run on a shoestring and distributed free to a shaky network of 50 or so public radio stations, the program has run for 10 years and attracted heavyweights like Tom Wolfe, Scott Turow, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Richard Ford, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Paul Theroux, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Gore Vidal, Ann Beattie and Nicholson Baker.

The creator, producer and host, Michael Silverblatt, a tall, round-faced man in his 40s with a slightly nasal, somewhat monotonous but oddly compelling voice, welcomed them all in a tiny basement recording studio at KCRW, a Santa Monica public radio station.

"The purpose of the show is to help my listeners look through writers' eyes," Silverblatt says in his small Hollywood apartment (lined from floor to ceiling with books by the thousands).

"It's to show them, whether they're reading or not, how writers re-enchant the world," he says passionately. "How they surround us with the miraculous. That's what books do to me and what I want my show to do, to remind people how odd and special writers' minds and imaginations are.

"It might include the listeners' having read or planning to read the book, but the ideal is to have them simply look at the world in a different way. And saying: 'They're talking about nothing I've ever heard of, nothing I have a background in, but the sound is fascinating."'

Such a reverential and unfiltered approach to literature doesn't seem to have a wide audience in even supposedly sophisticated markets (in fact, "Bookworm" was recently dropped by its only New York City outlet, WNYE in Brooklyn), but the unalloyed enthusiasm shown for it by both the publishing and writing worlds compensates. Jeff Seroy, vice president for publicity at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says: "Michael's show is of the highest importance to us. He's the best interview in America. There are other good interviewers around, but he gets a deeper engagement and a more genuine response than anyone."

The writer and artist Art Spiegelman, who has been on the show several times, says: "His show is an oasis. When you're on a book tour it's like, 'Thank God I've arrived in a place for a real conversation about something."'

Silverblatt, who spends an average of six hours each day reading, maintains that his main interest is in "creating something of a mad tea party rather than conveying information." He believes in "derouting the expected track of an interview, because the subject of the 'subject of the book' has usually been calcified around certain inevitable answers that are so regularly presented that the talk no longer sounds like human talk."

Accordingly, when Tom Wolfe arrived here early this year to discuss his novel "A Man in Full," Silverblatt quickly steered him away from talking about the horrors of working in a refrigerated warehouse (where one of the book's protagonists was originally employed) to the writer's allegiance and debt to the 19th-century French writers Flaubert and Zola, a subject upon which Wolfe was only too glad to expound.

When Salman Rushdie was interviewed in July about "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," the topic of the recently lifted death threat on the author was barely touched upon, while the parallels between his story and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and "the problem of writing about love with a narrator who has trouble believing in love," were discussed at great length.

James Galvin, a Colorado-born poet and teacher at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, recently had his first novel, "Fencing the Sky" -- about a deadly conflict between longtime Western cattlemen and arriviste hobby ranchers -- published by Henry Holt. When Galvin was interviewed for "Bookworm" in October, Silverblatt bored in on the author's feelings about Melville and "Moby-Dick" and the uneasy relationship between fictionalized reality and the nature of truth.

After the interview, a spent-looking Galvin climbed a stairway to ground level, sat down on a bench and told a visitor that Silverblatt's interview had seemed more intelligent and focused than any he'd experienced.

"Most people capable of that kind of insight are writing criticism or teaching in universities," he said.

In fact, Silverblatt's career path has taken several more unlikely twists and turns than are readily apparent. Born in Brooklyn, and guided toward a deep love of books and literature by his parents, a dedicated fourth-grade teacher and congenitally poor eyesight, which limited his other activities ("I liked reading because when a book was in front of my face, it completely occupied the field of vision," he says.

"There was nothing I couldn't see"), Silverblatt went to college at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where he was taught by and exposed to eminent writers and critic-scholars like Dwight MacDonald, Leslie Fiedler, John Barth and Robert Creeley.

In graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, however, Silverblatt quickly became disillusioned with academic life. "I sensed a love of theory and scholarship, but not the kind of crazy, irrational love for the material that I felt," he says. He dropped out and moved to New York, where he found the publishing world too insular and too peopled with young trust-fund-subsidized editors for his taste.

In 1980 he moved to Los Angeles to try screenwriting. He got some scripts optioned but supported himself mainly by working in bookstores, as a publicist (one of his clients was Sherwood Schwartz, creator of "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch") and as a development executive for a movie production company.

In 1988, at a small dinner party for a client, he was overheard discussing the work of the Russian writer Osip Mandelstam by the general manager of KCRW, Ruth Seymour. Ms. Seymour invited him to start the local show that became "Bookworm."

For the next five and a half years he did the show as a "public service" (his words), subsidizing it totally with his earnings. In 1994 he began receiving a continuing grant from the Lannan Foundation, a Santa Fe-based family arts fund, which allowed him to hire a two-person staff and quit his other jobs to work on the show full time.

These days, faced with as many as 50 new books a week -- he attributes his ability to devote so much time to reading to the fact that, not having a driver's license, he travels mostly by bus and in the back seats of friends' cars -- he is able to accommodate only one in 40 of the authors who ask to be on "Bookworm." His voice is sometimes recognized in public, particularly in upscale bookstores, and on one glorious day recently he was approached by a regular listener: Meryl Streep.

On the other side of the equation, both major public radio networks, deciding that the show's focus is too narrow, have continually declined to subsidize or distribute "Bookworm." But no matter. "Listen, the day this show started was the day my real life started," says Silverblatt. "I'll keep on doing it as long as I can."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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