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.

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June 22, 2012

Barry Unsworth

As Cynthia Crossen reminds us in her “Dear Book Lover” column in The Wall Street Journal, on June 5 we lost two great writers in one day: Ray Bradbury and Barry Unsworth.

Bradbury’s science fiction, which I read as a preteen, is wonderful and classic. I read Unsworth’s “Morality Play” several years ago with a friend and still remember the beauty of the writing and how the story captivated me. It’s a particularly good novel for lawyers, since it’s about a strolling troupe of medieval players who solve a crime through staging a play.

May 27, 2011

Book illustrations, art, and story

Earlier this week I highlighted some beautiful sites and works of artists Lynda Barry, Kerry Dennehy, and Alyssa Sherwood and again mentioned Sue Symons‘s intricate and gorgeous Bath Abbey Diptychs. Over on the right hand side of this page, you’ll see some links to some art sites I really like. One of those sites is Old Book Illustrations, dedicated to illustrations scanned from old books.

Illustrations not only can capture and maintain a reader’s interest but also can help tell a story. I suppose that’s why they’re used so much in children’s books; kids who haven’t yet learned to read as well as they might can still get something out of the story by looking at the pictures, and those who read OK but who might not see reading as a really fun way to pass some time might stick with it longer if the book has some good pictures that they enjoy. Trial lawyers and other presenters understand this principle and employ it to good effect by using exhibits and PowerPoint presentations during trials and presentations.

But even apart from business or reading to our children, we grown-ups can still love pictures and illustrated books. I’d love to see publishers work with artists to provide more illustrated books for the adult market.  The Folio Society in London does; though its books are far more expensive than even the hardback editions of other publishers, they’re still an affordable choice (operative word being “choice”) if one of your priorities is to have beautiful copies of books you want to read and reread on your shelves. (Full disclosure: Alas, the Folio Society pays me nothing and gives me no discounts for my telling people how much I love their editions 😦 .)

Some writers have used pictures as the bases for stories. One of the best known recent examples is Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” inspired by a Vermeer painting. (Chevalier describes the moment of her inspiration on her website.) And Oscar Wilde‘s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has at the heart of its story a fictional portrait that changes with the soul of the title character, who remains outwardly forever young and beautiful–in contrast to his deplorable behavior and inner life. (Though the picture of that story is fictional, a 20th century artist, Ivan Albright, painted a real one that hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago.) And, of course, the growing graphic novel genre, in which the art is at least as important as the text to the story, has really come into its own over the past 30 years or so.

Have you read any books that featured memorable illustrations?

May 13, 2011

Fairness in fiction: Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom

In my last post, I originally wrote that Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the fictional protagonist of John Updike’s classic and beautifully written “Rabbit” tetralogy, and his family are absolutely dreadful, without any qualification.

Then I worried that I sounded overly judgmental.

It’s not that I’m worried about hurting Angstrom’s fictional feelings 😉 .  But as a lawyer and former administrative law judge, and now as a professional writer, I’ve striven to look at matters involving real people from all different points of view. (Even more than that, trying to see where another person’s coming from is the right thing for anyone to do in most situations, I think.)

Most legal disputes involve not black and white, but shades of gray. People are only human and, accordingly, behave imperfectly, and everyone involved in a matter, whether litigant, lawyer, witness, juror, or judge, has at least a slightly different point of view. That’s one reason that there’s always uncertainty when a case goes to trial, and one reason why lawyers and mediators usually urge their clients to settle their differences outside of court.

So I fretted that maybe I wasn’t being fair to these fictional beings. I decided to amend my post by saying that from Updike’s description of their circumstances, the reader could understand, if not excuse, why the characters are as dreadful as they are.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about Updike’s creations some more, especially in the second volume, “Rabbit Redux,” in which, as I wrote some time ago, Rabbit and others reach new depths of dreadfulness. You know, I really don’t think Rabbit’s background explains the degree of his deplorable choices and shameful behavior in that book. I’m not sure there is an explanation, or whether there needs to be one. Maybe Rabbit just is what he is, to use a contemporary cliche.

Would any other “Rabbit” readers like to weigh in on the matter?  “Redux” was a hard read for me.

Via Nathan Bransford comes this link to photos of The Book Surgeon’s intriguing artworks carved from books. Eugene has some other pretty amazing photos on My Modern Metropolis, too.

October 29, 2010

More stories from interviews–and lessons for trial lawyers

Monday’s Read This! post urged everyone to read The Paris Review Interviews with writers, all of which the literary journal has generously made available on its website.  (Much as I love being able to read them on line, it’s nice to have some of the bound volumes, too, as I do, thanks to my extremely thoughtful husband.) 

Now, the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers has interviewed another interviewer in the most recent edition of The Next Chapter, one of the Canadian network’s programs on books.  Rogers’s colleague, Eleanor Wachtel, hosts “Writers And Company” and is one of my favorite interviewers.  (I like Rogers, too, as long as she’s not calling great American writers such as Walt Whitman “arrogant” or “immodest.”)

Wachtel has been hosting Writers And Company since 1992.  In her interview with Rogers, which begins about 12 minutes from the end of the program, she played an excerpt from an interview with writer, critic, and Yale University professor Harold Bloom.  Observing that Bloom’s reputation as a pugnacious reactionary defender of the classics, who disdained anything new, had preceded him and had made her initially unenthusiastic about the interview, Wachtel said that after she prepared for the interview by reading his works, she found, contrary to other reports of Bloom, “an engaging, passionate mind, full of enthusiasm.”  So, she decided to ask him about what he loved, and not about what he loathed.  On asking him about the value of reading, Bloom audibly teared up on responding that getting letters from people saying that his writing had sent them back to reading, or sent them back to a particular work that had meant a lot to them.  (I, too, love the classics, and many modern works as well.  Though I haven’t read Bloom’s works, I question whether the suggestion that he disdains anything new is warranted.)

For me, Wachtel and other great interviewers stand out through their genuine interest in and enthusiasm for what their subjects have to say.  The same goes for lawyers when they conduct direct and cross-examinations of witnesses at trial:  the most effective lawyers, not only in their appearance to judge and jurors but also in the information they elicit, are those who appear to be genuinely interested in and paying close attention to what the witnesses say.  (For more on this, see my article in the December 2006 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, “Cross-Examination:  Beyond the Perry Mason Moment.”)

What makes an interview worth listening to or reading for you?

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