Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

writersontheair.jpgWriters on the Air
Donna Seaman
Paul Dry Books
467pp

The best thing about an interview collection like Donna Seaman’s Writers on the Air is the eclecticism of the offering. In one book you can find authors as varied as Wade Davis, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Diane Ackerman, Terry Tempest Williams and Ward Just. The one thing they have in common is that all of them have been guests on Seaman’s Chicago-based radio show, Open Books.

I will admit that I am a big fan of interview collections, but I’ve read enough of them to know that unless the interviewer takes the time to know their subject, the result can be dull at best. Seaman clearly does voluminous research before going on air, as she states in her introduction, “I write out pages of notes and questions in preparation for each interview, hoping to structure a narrative arc so that each discussion has a story line and builds toward some sort of resolution.” This determination to have a point to her interviews, a “focused give-and-take” prevents the sort of inane questions that are certain killers and deadly dull to listeners (or readers).


Instead Seaman digs into unexpected areas of the creative process such as when she asks Anchee Min why she chose to write her memoir, Red Azelea, in English, rather than her native Chinese or what impels Alan Lightman to bridge the gap between science and art. Mostly, though, Seaman merely steers the conversation and listens as her guests expound on everything from their military experience as a journalist and how it correlates to the current situation in Iraq (Ward Just), to the impact a childhood cartoon about an American folk hero could have on their career (Colson Whitehead and John Henry Days). Her talent is to let others talk while providing critical prompts that allow revelations about all manners of reading of writing to break through. In this way she is able to craft something that is completely original out of her radio program, and then bring part of it now to her new book.

I enjoyed Writers on the Air because it is as close as most readers can get to understanding how the minds of their favorite authors work. I find it fascinating that Kate Moses was compelled to recreate Sylvia Plath’s original order to Ariel not out of any compulsion to stand over Plath’s grave (like so many others), but to serve as witness to the battle she fought for survival. It is small revelations like this that have made me use Writers to craft a list of books I now want to read that I had never even considered (or heard of) before. Seaman writes early on that “my heart sinks when, on telling a book-loving friend about a brilliant and prolific living writer whose work I revere, my friend says she’s never heard of him.” I think she is on a mission to let the world know about good books, and in the process, I think she has created an outstanding book on her own.

Colleen Mondor writes for Bookslut and Eclectica Magazine. She grew up in Florida, spent ten years in Alaska and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her book on Alaska flying is making the agent rounds and she has an essay in Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, forthcoming from Chin Music Press in February 2006.

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