Law and Conversation

January 6, 2014

Cross-examinations and Author Interviews

A good author interview, like a good cross-examination, is a thing of beauty. In both, the lawyer or interviewer seeks to flesh out a story. For the lawyer, the story is the one told by the witness, which is a smaller part of the story presented by the lawyer’s client’s opponent. For the interviewer, the story is the author’s work. Like the witness’s story in a trial, a book is a component of a larger story that includes the real-life background and events that inspired the author to write it, which may include political issues, current events, history, and the author’s personal life.

An effective cross-examination or author interview will seem relaxed and effortless. But the lawyer or interviewer has to work really HARD to make it look so easy. The lawyer will know the facts of the case inside and out, including what each witness said happened, what, if any, motives the witnesses have to shade their stories, and how the witnesses’ perceptions might have been altered (as by a vision angle or tendency toward selective memory); what documents exist, what they say, when they were created, and who created them; and how to elicit the story so as best to help the judge and/or jury to understand it. The effective interviewer will have acquired a familiarity with the author’s works by reading or at least skimming not only the one designated for discussion but as many of the author’s other writings as possible, knows enough about the current or historical background of the book to speak and ask intelligent questions about it, and will have found something out about the author’s personality and personal history. A great cross is never about the lawyer, and a wonderful interview is never about the interviewer: both are all about the subject.

Apart from substantial reading and research, both trial lawyer and author interviewer face another challenge: getting the witness or the author to answer the questions. Both may be reluctant or even hostile. Court rulings may place limits on a lawyer’s ability to ask questions of a witness (even over the general rule that cross-examination is limited to the scope of the direct testimony), and superstar authors may succeed in conditioning interviews on avoiding certain uncomfortable topics. Even absent such special circumstances, witnesses often do not want to testify at all, let alone be cross-examined by the lawyer for an unfriendly party. While authors typically want to sell their books, they may not want to talk about them, or may not want to talk about the aspects that the interviewer wants to discuss. In fact, it’s not unusual for an author to hate book tours and interviews. An effective interviewer, like an effective trial lawyer, has to be prepared to deal with the hostile or oyster-like subject without losing equanimity.

The Paris Review’s long-running series of author interviews is renowned for its depth. I’ve also long been a fan of Australian Ramona Koval’s author interviews on “The Book Show,” a sadly now-defunct broadcast of the Australian Broadcasting Company, which I listened to for years via the modern miracle of podcast. I’m pleased to learn via The New Yorker that Koval has now published a collection of her interviews, “Speaking Volumes.”

Other interviewers whom I particularly admire include Dick Cavett, NPR’s Terry Gross, Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill, and the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Ghomeshi. All, like Koval, are impeccably prepared and show a genuine interest in their subjects, are unfailingly gracious, and elicit wonderful stories from their guests. For two examples of an interviewer’s grace in dealing with the difficult subject, see Ghomeshi’s interviews with Billy Bob Thornton and Cissy Houston.

Interviews occur every day in all kinds of work and life contexts. How do you deal with the difficult subject, whether at work or a cocktail party? Don’t tell me you just walk away; cutoffs are copouts. I’m looking for comments describing situations where you, like the litigator or the talk show host, MUST continue to engage and interact with the person.

January 24, 2013

Elena Ferrante is my #FridayReads AGAIN

I’ve written before of how powerful I’ve found the novels of the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. When I noticed her latest book, “My Brilliant Friend,” on my local library’s new books shelf, I had to check it out, even though I had several others in progress at home (nothing new there).

Like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s much-loved classic, “Anne of Green Gables,” Ferrante’s novel is the story of two young girls who develop a lifelong connection. But unlike Green Gables and the lovely, bucolic landscape of Prince Edward Island, Elena and Lila live in a gritty, unattractive part of Naples, and unlike the friendship of kindred spirits Anne Shirley and Diana, the undercurrents of Elena and Lila’s relationship are dark and powerful, so that Ferrante could aptly have named her novel “My Brilliant Frenemy.”

I’m about 1/3 of the way through this book and can hardly stand to put it aside. Much as I loved L.M. Montgomery’s books as a teen, Ferrante’s characters’ depth seems far more real and intriguing to me. It will be my first Europa Editions book this year, counting toward my proposed Cappuccino Challenge levelof 6 Europas.

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January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.

January 2, 2013

From 2012 to 2013

For several years I’ve been keeping a running list of books I read per year. During 2012, I averaged not quite a book a week and hope to increase that number in 2013. I also hope to read a few more that have been on my TBR list for a LONG time.

This year I finally got around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” a classic that I somehow missed as a child. I keep seeing references to it as one of the best examples of storytelling—the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, for example, said in a podcast that she rereads it periodically to try to figure out how Stevenson did it. It is unquestionably a fine story and I enjoyed it, but it held no deeper resonance for me.

Some maintain “The best reading is rereading.” I’m not sure about that – there are so many books I haven’t read that rereading just isn’t generally feasible – but I did spend some time this year rereading some classics and I’m glad I did. I discovered that I enjoyed Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion” more than ever now that I’m reading far more critically than ever before, and William Deresiewicz’s “A Jane Austen Education” was a delightful companion read. (Disappointingly, P.D. James’s “Death Comes to Pemberley” didn’t come close to doing Jane justice and mainly underscored the rule against settling for substitutes. It did, however, raise some really interesting legal issues and fascinating comparisons of substantive and procedural law in early 19th-century England and early 21st-century U.S.) I also reread some plays by Ibsen and a short work of Henry James, “Daisy Miller,” and enjoyed thinking about how they spoke to me differently today than they did when I read them as an adolescent.

In addition to getting “Treasure Island” under my belt, I finally read a short Dutch novel, “The Following Story,” by Cees Nooteboom, that had been sitting on my shelf for a number of months. It’s magical and surreal; I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read this curious little book with the Brueghel (?) gargoyle on the cover.

I read a number of books in John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” series—given to me by an extremely thoughtful area lawyer who had very kind words about my articles in the Illinois Bar Journal—and thoroughly enjoyed these well-crafted, thoughtful, fun stories about English barristers. The marvelous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus” had also been sitting on my shelf for a while; not only did I read it at last, but I also loaned my (already extremely used) copy to two friends along with exhortations of its excellence.

I love reading international fiction, and in 2012 I read THIRTEEN books published by Europa Editions. (Woo hoo! That’s one over the Caffe Luongo level!!) I haven’t been able to review all of them in my spare time, but you can read what I have posted over on the Europa Challenge Blog. I’m re-upping for 2013, which includes a commitment to write and post more reviews of specific books in the coming months.

I didn’t love everything I read, and that included some of the Europa Editions books. The last one I read in 2012, Edwin Yoder’s “Lions At Lamb House,” seemed to have everything going for it when I checked it out of the library—it’s the story of an imaginary encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud—but I struggled throughout with whether to bag it or finish it. The narrative style, which seemed to be an attempt to imitate the period style of a century ago, just didn’t ring true to me, and the author seemed to feel compelled to spell everything out in the narrative instead of leaving a few things up to the reader, which made me feel written down to.

I also didn’t love Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel “Ghost World,” which was incredibly well rendered. That’s not because it wasn’t good – to the contrary, it was very good, and I believe it’s generally considered part of the graphic canon – but because it, like John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” was so absolutely spot on at depicting two incredibly unpleasant characters going nowhere fast.

Deciding on a personal “best book” of the year is something I like to do, but none was as memorable for me as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel “Watchmen” last year, or Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” the year before that. Instead, a few candidates that stand out slightly from the rest for me are Russell Hoban’s magical and beautifully written “The Mouse And His Child,” graphic novelist Vera Brosgol’s “Anya’s Ghost,” and two Italian novels published in translation by Europa Editions, Elena Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment” and Amara Lakhous’s “Divorce, Islamic Style.” (I’m not allowing my rereads of classics to enter this competition that exists only in my mind. It just seems pointless to me to set even the best contemporary writers up against Austen and Ibsen. Apples and oranges can’t compete.) A book of graphic essays, “The Beats,” by Harvey Pekar and others, was also memorable—particularly the beautifully written and illustrated piece by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, and artist Summer McClinton, “Beatnik Chicks”–and inspired me to reread Joyce Johnson’s beautifully written memoir, “Minor Characters,” an essential read for any young person visiting New York for the first time.

Two neat literary events happened to me this year. First, on a business trip to Boston, I got to meet Marie from Boston Bibliophile, who runs the Europa Challenge Blog, in person. She patiently waited for me at the Porter Square T station even though I was almost half an hour late (I’d never been to Boston) and took me to the indie bookseller Porter Square Books where I bought Andrew Miller’s “Pure” on her recommendation (I really enjoyed it, thanks, Marie!) as well as the latest Granta. We had a tasty vegetarian lunch at Grendel’s Den and bopped around the area a bit, including the grounds of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home!

The other cool literary event for me was LauraPalooza 2012, a semi-scholarly conference on Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” books, at Minnesota State University in Mankato in July, where I presented a paper on the personal and business relationship of Rose Wilder Lane, the only surviving child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer, literary agent, best friend during the last dozen years of her life, and sole heir. A New Year’s Resolution for my leisure time is to get my presentation into publishable shape, either in a journal or, less formally, as a blog post. The conference was a lot of fun, I met some wonderful people, and I got to spend a lot of time catching up with one of my oldest and dearest friends (we go back to 5th grade!) who presented her own paper at the first LauraPalooza conference and moderated the session at which I spoke this time.

Looking forward to 2013, I hope I’ll be able to stay on track to read an inevitably hefty Dickens novel, most likely “Little Dorrit,” as well as his equally hefty biography by the amazing Claire Tomalin, both of which I’d planned to read during 2012. Having seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, I’m also planning on the highly praised and recommended Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” I also have a number of classics loaded for e-reading, including George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Enchanted April.” But before I pick up any of those, I’ll be finishing my current reading in progress: Hilary Mantel’s (first) Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” and a graphic novel, Harvey Pekar’s “Cleveland.”

Also in 2013, I’ll continue to enjoy reading critically and relating what I read to my profession, the law, whether it’s legal history, current legal issues, or simply noting that the writer happened to have studied law. I hope to post more often this year, too–among other things, it helps me draw conclusions about works that had eluded me and to remember what I read.

What are your reading plans for this year?

September 21, 2012

Happy Hobbit Birthday!

Happy 75th–not eleventy-first–birthday to one of my many favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit!”

Corey Olsen’s thoughtful essay from today’s Wall Street Journal points out what a deft job Tolkien did in creating Bilbo Baggins’s three-dimensional character with the conflicted heritage of the staid Bagginses and the fey Tooks. To tell the truth, I’ve always enjoyed “The Hobbit” far more than its epic sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” in which I felt inevitably mired down in the battles of the third volume each time I reread it. I’m far more interested in the development of the characters and their relationships, which I felt TLOTR falls a bit short on but “The Hobbit” gets just right. Give us some more details about Aragorn and Arwen, please–inquiring minds want to know the basis for their attraction! But Tolkien tells a great story, interminable battles or no.

I haven’t yet read George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, sometimes described as “The Lord of the Rings” meets “The Sopranos,” but everything I hear or read about it suggests it’s enthralling. Readers, what do you think? If you’ve read it, and especially if you have some thoughts about it and the Tolkien books, please leave a comment. And if you’ve read Tolkien’s posthumously published works, including “The Silmarillion,” I’d also love to hear what you think. And while you’re at it, what will you have for Second Breakfast or Elevenses tomorrow to celebrate?

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