Colman McCarthy was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on October 24, 2014. Mr. McCarthy discusses his appearance on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on July 31, 1994, where he discussed his book All of One Peace: Essays on Non-Violence.
Hello, I am Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is Friday, October 24, 2014, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Coleman McCarthy, who appeared on Booknotes on July 31, 1994, to discuss his book, All of One Piece, Essays on Nonviolence. Hello, Mr. McCarthy, thank you for speaking with us today.
Thank you, Lindsey, for including me.
How did your book come to be on Booknotes?
I don't know how that happened. It might have been, they might have seen a review someplace, or the publishers sent it to them, but I did appear many times before Booknotes and interviews, and I'm delighted to say one of my former students, Steve Scully, I think he's about, he's one of the interviewers for the program, but Steve is a student of mine at American University back in mid-1980s, so I think he might have been responsible.
And how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?
Well, I was familiar with C-SPAN because I had appeared there on many interviews before when I was working as a columnist at The Washington Post in 1969, and so I had two columns a week, and so there was a, I was very familiar with the program, and I was, I knew that Brian was a fair-minded interviewer, so I didn't go in with any great apprehensions that it wouldn't be a good interview. So that was very relaxing, and I knew that Brian, I don't think he ever interrupted me during the program, and I don't think he ever interrupts anybody, which is a great skill in Washington, with all these programs, these talk shows where they constantly interrupt each other, and it gets to be so rude, and the cacophony is overwhelming, so it was very easy to prepare because you know you're going to be conversational.
And what do you remember most from your appearance on the program?
I remember the good cupcakes, the good yummy they had in the, while you're waiting to give me interviews, I did that, I think it was good food before the interview, that was very, very cordial, and so I do remember that, and I do remember the hospitality because as I said before, I'd been there many times for other interviews, so I knew how to get there, and I knew a lot of staff people, and so I'm a great admirer of C-SPAN, and it's a great public service, there's no commercials, GEICO commercials, so I'm very fond of the program, so I felt very relaxed to be there.
They gave you cupcakes and you brought them vegetables from your garden.
Well I actually did a little research Lindsey, I did that, and it was right at the, I think in July, wasn't the interview on July, wasn't it? Yes. And so the crops were just coming in, and I thought I'd bring some along for Brian, I did not tell him before the program that I was going to give him some vegetables, and I think I brought some squash.
You did yes, and some tomatoes.
That's right, and I always tease Brian because I say, you know, Brian's very guarded about his off-camera life, and I always tease him, Brian you ought to be at least a vegetarian, your name is Lamb, and so somebody who does not eat lambs myself, I think Brian you ought to start to reflect on your diet, and to get you started in the ways of vegetarian and vegan delicacies. It is a nice fresh piece of squash and a couple of tomatoes for you. So he's kind of caught off guard by that, and so but anyway after we had a good time, and then when he put that book out of Booknotes with all the writers, I think included my photograph holding up the squash on the program.
So Booknotes hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think the benefits or potential drawbacks of this longer format is for the author or for the viewer?
I don't think there are many drawbacks. I think this is a, this is how it ought to be done, and you know you have a full hour, and you can go as deep as you want, and Brian is an interviewer that really values that, and so and in every interview there's always somebody who seeks to control it, and when politicians are interviewed they want to control it, and so there's always that tension. But with Brian you don't have any sense that he's out to make a point and to use you for whatever ends he might have, whether those are adversarial ends or other ones similar to that. So it's more of a cooperative effort. It's not competitive. In other words, in many interviews you find there's a competition there, and when you get two alpha personalities it doesn't go anywhere because the competition becomes the main energy. But with Brian, I never had that sense with him, that he was out to prove a point or much less throw you off stride or try to trip you up on anything. So that I think is really one of his skills, and I think a valuable skill to have.
Judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Mr. Lamb read them very 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, I think it is unusual. And so you can tell right away when Brian begins a dialogue that he has prepared. He also prepares by getting film clips from earlier interviews. I think in this particular one, he had me about three years ago on Q&A, which was a very similar interview also, but in the Q&A interview he sent out a film crew to film me teaching a high school class at Wilson High School. And I thought that was really wonderful to do because it showed me teaching my class. I teach classes on non-violence, and this semester I'm teaching seven classes at five different schools, including American University, Georgetown Law School, University of Maryland, Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, and Wilson High School. So Brian sent out a camera crew to my Wilson High School, and he had a little fun with me I must say because they filmed me riding my bicycle up to the high school. And then I locked my bicycle, and I'd just come from another high school that I didn't lock my bike. So Brian had a little teasing with me. He said, "Now why are you locking your bike at this school but not the other school?" And the reason was that the two schools are very different. And so it was that Brian did enjoy catching me on my inconsistency, as if to say that I trusted my students in one school, but this school I didn't trust them. So he kind of was sticking it to me there a little bit, that I was a little bit inconsistent. But I did appreciate him coming into the classroom and having me conduct the class for about ten minutes.
Well, in talking about this sort of line of questioning that you got from Brian Lamb, he frequently would ask his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and is this generally different from other interviews?
It didn't surprise me because I'd long watched Booknotes, so I've been a faithful viewer all these years. So I was ready for that. And indeed, I brought along some pictures of my family. And so I gave those to Brian and he put them on the air. So there were some photographs of my wife and some of my children. And I thought that was very gracious of him to do that. It just adds a lot when you include the personal lives of people on the program. Otherwise, you don't get the full picture about a person's life. It's important to do that and not a lot of interviews do it. Like you look at the programs on there now, like John Stewart. Every night he has usually an author there or some celebrity. But the interview is only about ten minutes. And it really leaves you so frustrated that you don't really find out much about that person. So Brian stands out from the average interviewer and you get people on the other programs. It's so quick and hasty that there's very little memorable about it. And often the interview is just competition. The two people competing each other, I'm right, you're wrong, you did this, you didn't do that. That's why as I'm starting to repeat myself that the great value in the C-SPAN interview is that you don't have that. It's a very freeing feeling.
You mentioned that you watched Booknotes before appearing on the show. Did your experience on the show change your impression of the program at all?
Oh no, I came away most grateful. It was a privilege to be there. Not many people get that privilege. And so I was most grateful for that. As I say, it was a privilege to be there.
As you may or may not know, George Mason University has been gifted all of Brian Lamb's personal copies of the books which he used in the book note 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, as we move more and more away from books to e-books and digitalizing society, I think it's a wonderful thing to be doing. I don't know how George Mason pulled off this coup, if that's the right word, but much praise is important. I taught a writing course at George Mason many years ago. I know it's a good university, it's a big enormous campus and I think it's a pretty large population of students. So I'm glad people there really know what is valuable and to collect all those books in one place. It's really a treasure.
Well, you mentioned other interviews at C-SPAN, but Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on Booknotes one time. If asked, would you have returned for another interview?
Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb?
I don't know. I know the book went through a couple of printings, I think, so I can't say whether it helped sales or not. There's a lot of things going into selling books, but I would assume it helped a little bit. I still get a check every once in a while from the publisher, and so that's helped a little bit.
Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or your writing?
Well, when you're interviewed, you're always careful about being accurate and being relevant. You learn from every type of experience that we have, and so I learned a lot that there's such a thing as quality television. There's so much, I mean, it's just wasted time watching some of these programs, so I do spend a lot of time with C-SPAN. There's great information, you have no commercials, and I think that's so much trash on television. I'm not saying anything original about that, but what C-SPAN does is a great public value.
What have you been working on since this book, and which works are you most pleased with?
Well, I am working on a book right now that's going to be called Teaching Peace, and it's a collection of letters I've gotten from my students over the years, former students mostly, and as a columnist I would get letters from students, and I'd put them aside and not take them seriously, until I met Harper Lee, the great writer who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was giving a commencement speech at a little college in Alabama not far from Harper Lee's hometown in Monroeville, Alabama. Harper really leaves her town, but she did come, she was getting an honorary degree, and I was getting one, Harper's was deserved, and I was giving the commencement speech. So I'm up on the stage talking to Harper Lee, and I asked her, "Are you doing much writing these days?" And she said, "Yeah, I write every day." So I thought to myself, "Gee, what was the name of Harper's last book?" And finally I was embarrassed, I said, "Harper, what is the name of your last book? I want to get it and read it." And she gave a very touching answer. She said, "No, I don't write books, I write letters to school children." And I was so touched by that, here's this world-famous writer that answers letters from students, you know, the little eighth grade, the twelfth grade kids write, "Do you miss me? I read about Atticus Finch, I want to be a lawyer someday too," and answered all the letters. So I said to myself, "Well, I better start answering letters too, to my students." So that's how that book came about, and it's being published, I guess, in this coming spring by Vanderbilt University Press. So I'm very excited about that book. I don't know of any other book like that, where students write to their professor, and I answered all the letters, full, full, two or three thousand words, two thousand words, three thousand word letters. So that's in the works, but that's what I'm doing now. But I teach also, as I said before, and I run a center for teaching peace. We help schools all around the country and world to get peace studies programs into place. That's my main work right now. It's not really work, it's play. But I also run the Center for Teaching Peace with my wife, and we're a nonprofit that helps schools, as I said, to get programs and peace studies into place. I've been doing that for at least 30 years, since the mid-1980s.
Wonderful. Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes, perhaps in then contemporary society or since?
Well, I always tell you, Brian, that I want to get on the air and interview Brian, and you always laugh, and just to say that's never going to happen. But I think, I do know he never mentioned his name on television. Isn't that true? I think someone told me that one time. He never mentioned his own name. Oh, I'm not sure. Which is extremely rare. But I do know his background. He's an Indiana boy. I think he was raised Catholic. And I don't know what his politics are, but I do know, when I was on Q&A about four or five years ago, we were going on, and I was really talking about my far left political views, and after a while, Brian said, "Gee, you know, there's talk of all your liberal talk. People are going to be switching channels right about now." I said, "Brian, why do you say that, Brian?" And so we got to joke a little bit about it, but I do, I would guess that he is sort of a dedicated centrist. I don't think he goes too far to the left, not too far to the right, but I think he's pretty much a political centrist. But he does have a taste, obviously, for getting all viewpoints on there, and I think I'm one of those, you know, far left. I'm a pacifist. I'm also an anarchist. I was leaning in both of those. So not many of us out there, so I think I cover one pretty wide, far left viewpoint that doesn't often get heard. So, but he does have me on, so that was very nice of him to do that for both Booknotes and Q&A.
Well, is there anything else that you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?
Well, I hope that Brian has a good long life, and he's always been very, very causal to me. The last time I was on Q&A, it happened much by coincidence. I was taking my high school students on a field trip, and we'd just gone to a soup kitchen, near the U.S. Capitol, at the Father McKenna Center, right at St. Aloysius Catholic Parish. So I was taking my class from the soup kitchen back to the metro at Union Station, and C-SPAN's office is right there on North Capitol Street. So I'm walking on the sidewalk, and who walks coming the other direction, going back to his office but Brian? And he sees me with the students, and so I introduce him to everybody, and Brian talked to us for about 10 or 15 minutes about what he was doing. So he called me up the next day, "It's time to get you back on." So he invited me back on Q&A, and just because I happened to see him on the sidewalk. So I thought that was very kind of him and very causal. So I've always had good feelings about Brian, and I hope he stays with the program for a long, long time. And I greatly admire many of the interviewers. Steve Scully, as I said before, is one of my good pals and a former student, and I'm delighted he's doing so well with the program.
Well, thank you for speaking with us today. We appreciate hearing what you had to say regarding your Booknotes experience.