Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on March 6, 2015. Ms. Shlaes appeared on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on April 11, 1999, discussing her book The Greedy Hand.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is March 6, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Amity Schles, who appeared on Booknotes on April 11, 1999, to discuss her book, The Greedy Hand, How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy, and What to Do About It. Hello, Ms. Schles, thank you for speaking with us today.

Thank you

How did your book come to be on Booknotes?

Well, I'm sure a publicist from my publisher, this is a 1999 book contacted  C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb may have found it himself. We were acquainted from earlier work. I had written a book about Germany.

And how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

A particular book in 1999 was a tax book, so I probably looked at tax rates. One of the things we discussed was the concept of marginal rate, and we also discussed tax clarity, so there's some technical aspects to this, and I probably read my own book, but also other people's.

And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program?

Oh, just the difficulty of being honest, because when people ask you precise questions, you want to be sure you're, oh, let me say that again, not the difficulty of being honest, the difficulty of being accurate. Because when people ask you precise questions, you might get a little sloppy in the answer. Oh, how do you remember this? What was the tax rate then? And Mr. Lamb has a high standard of accuracy, and one has the sense that if one is inaccurate, one is dishonest, which is not really the case, one is just sloppy, but anyway, the difficulty of being accurate.

Well, Booknotes, hour long format, differed greatly from most other network television interviews, which could last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or even potential drawbacks of this longer format interview for the author and for the viewer?

There are a few drawbacks to the longer format interview. There are many benefits. Over and over again, people have come to me having seen the 1999 video with questions. The authors often give speeches around the country, say, at universities or at book clubs, or maybe to chambers of commerce and economic clubs. And so many of those places that have invited me watched Brian Lamb, because they get a feel for the author in depth. They also get a feel for the topic in depth, which is even more important. They think, say, with this book, "Oh, there's a lot to know about taxes, and Amity or Brian could convey it, but since Amity's the author will invite Amity." And thereby one can get the message with which one is concerned out to more people.

Well, judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this kind of preparation to be normal for interviewers and how did it change your interview experience?

Well, Brian does prepare, and therefore the guest wants to live up to Mr. Lamb and see the tension over accuracy, always being accurate. And you know, you pick that up right away. You can tell he knows what he's doing. He knows about you. Other interviewers sometimes know and sometimes don't. That's a very uneven experience. Usually television knows less because the medium moves so fast. Sometimes radio knows a lot, but not always.

Well, Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting?

Well, the technique of writing books interests everyone, because it also affects the content. For example, the 1999 book was written in the era of the facts with some internet, which would be the 90s. So if I wanted the statistics of income, I would call the IRS and get them to fax me that. My later books were written with the internet, and so I used searchable databases. And I believe the textbook in the 90s would have been better had I had access to what I had access to later. So, of course, it's like a picture, a snapshot of the technology of writing in time. And that's very useful.

Well, you mentioned that Mr. Lamb knew some information about you personally before coming into the interview, and that makes sense because he frequently asked his guests by graphical questions. Did that surprise you? And is this different from other author interviews you may have experienced?

Yes, it surprised me. And it's interesting...the combination of his intense preparation and this puts the author in a difficult spot because you want to live up to him because he is accurate. You want your record to be accurate. You don't want to withhold information as on the witness stand, right? But you don't want to betray material that you're not interested in sharing with the nation. And that tension is definitely there. It did surprise me when he asked biographical questions.

Were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's other questions?

Not really. They were just good high quality questions. Also, I think he asked questions about employment. Where do you work? What's it like there? Again, you have to be careful what you say. You don't want to say something that you'll regret later, even if it is true. But you want to be accurate. And when accuracy includes complete, you have a challenge.

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? And did your experience on the show change your perception of it?

Not at all, except for I think I noted about the personal questions. I knew I had watched it and I knew that it was a very valuable show. It's an honor to be on the show. And it's always a pleasure to be at Seastman relative to other TV shows, stations, because of the seriousness with which Seastman takes its work. And that, of course, stems from Mr. Lamb. 

Well, as you may or may not know, George Mason University has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books used in the Booknotes series. This amounts to some 800 non-fiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think the benefits and uses of such a collection might be?

Well, Brian Lamb is an eclectic fellow. Sometimes he interviews people whom others don't interview. And he provides a snapshot of popular culture too. So whatever Brian Lamb was reading, that's what the intelligent person might read in a given year. Not necessarily what was on television the whole time, but what readers were reading as part of the culture of television and the computer. And his notes are very bright. I wonder what about his notes. It would be fun to look at them because he clearly knows a lot about the material. He knows the material. He knew the tax rates, probably better than I did. And so I'm wondering if he shared all that he saw in this interview. He remains a supremely neutral when he interviews. Well, you should definitely come in and take a look at the collection in your book to see the marks. I would be happy to.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked back, would you have returned for another interview?

Well, I was asked for a second Booknotes interview. So maybe I think it was because it was a different interviewer. It didn't break Brian's rule. Maybe it was after the period he was doing the interviews because I did one with Nick from Reason. So there you go. And I always come back. There's also a giant retrospective sort of show that C-SPAN does. And I've done that too. And I'm very grateful to have all these opportunities.

Was there a difference in sales or national attention after discussing your book with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?

I think there was some difference in sales, but more importantly, as I mentioned before, there was a difference in the number of invitations to speak. And people who go to hear authors speak are themselves multipliers. You'd rather speak in a very, very important venue. In my case, then go on Good Morning America.  People might not be interested so much in my books because they're pretty technical or historical. But there are a lot of Americans who are interested and they turn to Brian Lamb.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

Not really. Just that one shouldn't be sloppy. I think Brian likes precision. He's right to like precision. Today I'm sitting here writing an article about effective marginal tax rates versus statutory marginal tax rates. And that difference actually means a lot because you know what your statutory marginal tax rate is and you sort of only guess at what your effective average rate is or what your overall average rate is. That's the kind of thing he would be interested in. And so one always has a few readers in mind when one writes and one of the ones I have in mind whenever I write is Brian.

Well, what have you been working on since this book and which works are you most pleased with?

The book that I let's say I'm pleased with all my books or just pleased in different ways. The book that had the strongest reception with the forgotten man which came out of Brian Lamb in part. The book Brian interviewed me for that first time was about tax. And at the beginning there was a little history story about a man named Beardsley Rummel who figured out that if people could pay taxes as they pay a credit card a little bit at the time they wouldn't mind paying them. And if their money were withheld that is they never even thought they would mind it even less. He had worked in a department store. And that story Brian liked I believe as well. And it was history, not current day argument. And I came away from that interview and from other events that happened in those years with the feeling the next book would be history. So The Forgotten Man the next book was history. It wasn't about now. It was about 1920 to 1940. And I like that book best and the market seems to have liked it best. I also did a cartoon version of the Forgotten Man which is extremely, let's see, was extremely labor intense it took years to do especially time was given by the artist whose name is Paul Revos. So I've done a lot of different things. I also wrote a biography of President Coolidge and I believe I've talked to Brian about that but I can't remember where.

In your estimation what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society and perhaps since.

Oh it's just the it's a better part of America Booknotes. It's the thinking brain of the American public Booknotes listener is not a sheep. He doesn't just vote for someone because he wears red or blue or she and it makes all of us happy we have a spring in our step when we leave Booknotes because we've been made aware yet again that that America does exist. If you watch standard television especially old network television you wouldn't have that feeling. I'll just stop and say that.

Well is there anything else you would like to add regarding Booknotes,  C-SPAN or Brian Lamb.

Well there's one thing I'd like to add because I think Brian would like me to add it--which is that there was a mishap when I recorded this particular Booknotes in 1999. A man flipped a switch and thought the camera was rolling but it was not so they looked in the can after I departed and I lived in New York and they didn't have something that they could air and he's been with embarrassed and Brian invited me back and so we re-taped the hour. And he wanted to know if I would be angry he kind of drilled down and that I wasn't angry at all these things happen I was I just felt lucky that he was still willing to do the interview again. But he's asked me that quite often when I've seen him because he's embarrassed he need not be he has a great record record of professionalism as does he span.   Well with that opportunity to redo your interview or any of the questions or your answers different. Not that I can recall it would be fun to study it not that I can recall. 

Well great thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Of course.