Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel was interviewed on June 19, 2014. Dr. Sobel talked about her appearance on Booknotes on January 17, 1999, discussing her book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius.

Interview Transcript

Good afternoon. Today is Thursday, June 19, 2014, and we are interviewing Deva Sobel, who appeared on Booknotes on January 17, 1999, to discuss her book Longitude,  the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this oral history, Ms. Sobel.

I'm happy to do it.

Well, I would like to find out how you came to be on Booknotes.

I don't think I know. Probably someone from the Booknotes staff approached my publisher, and we had, of course, been wanting to be on the show from the time the book came out. And it was the publication of the illustrated version that seems to have made the difference.

And how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

Well, having recently looked at the interview again, I think I got a haircut. I don't remember doing anything else. I was often being interviewed at that time, and I was very close to the story, having worked on the original book and having worked on the captions for the illustrated. And it was also a NOVA documentary, so the information was very much in my mind, and I would not have had to do any particular preparation to be able to speak about it. Except you know that he likes to ask about unusual factoids. You know, how old was his first wife when she died, that sort of thing. Yes, he caught me on a few of those odd questions. I was glad I hadn't thought of that beforehand, because I might have driven myself crazy.

Well, may I ask, what do you remember most from your appearance on the program, and if you could describe your experience on the show?

I most remember that I got to mention the fact that my review in the New York Times appeared while I was out of town at a ballroom dance competition. And he latched onto that. He asked me a couple of questions, and then we got away from it, and he came back to it. So that I naturally asked him, "Are you a dancer?" And apparently I made him blush by asking that question. I think I was probably too caught up in the moment to notice that, but when I watched it again, I thought there definitely was a little color in his cheek there. And later, he didn't answer the question on the show, but later he told me that in fact he was a dancer, and he showed me his turning box step.

Oh my!

So that really made the day. And later I heard from people who had seen the interview, and that seemed to have been the part that everyone else remembered, too.

Well, Booknote's hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

We got to draw each other out on subjects, to banter, explore. And that felt great. I didn't feel rushed to get this or that point across. It became very relaxing, as relaxing as one could be being interviewed on television.

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

I find that to be absolutely not the case with most interviewers. I've been interviewed most on radio, and it is frequently the case that the host is so unprepared that the first question will be, "So, tell me about your book." And you have to be ready for that. You have to be ready for the host to be reading some questions that a staff member put together, and the host therefore having no ability or time to follow up on anything. And that's what made Booknotes so different.

Well, actually, I'm looking at Brian Lamb's copy of the illustrated Longitude, and he would write his questions in the front, the title page of the book.


And you can see the various questions he wanted to ask you, the wounded dog theory, sauerkraut, Rockefeller Center, but there's a couple of questions he left out. He wanted to ask you about James Squire.

Ah. And I do not remember her from the original, the first edition of the book. I think she only appears in the illustrated. She may appear only in the illustrated because there's an image of her book. Yeah. Yeah, she was one of the, what did we call them, lunatic to the problem. A historian of science at Harvard, Owen Gingrich, had given a talk at the original symposium with a title something like that. He may not have used the word "lunatic," but he meant "lunatic." And James Squire was one of the people he mentioned in his talk.

Well, I would like to ask...Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Longitude is such a beautifully researched book about a subject that's very difficult to put into a palatable form for the average reader. So, do you believe the reading public finds details about the practice of writing and researching interesting, and do you think other authors and publishers find them interesting?

Well, I certainly think other authors find them interesting. I think readers do, too. I don't recall that he asked me that many craft questions. He picked up on the fact that I said I worked very early in the morning. That was quick. And then he asked me, because I had a friend at the time who was a Booknotes fan, a huge, never missed the show, and he warned me, "He's going to ask you what kind of pen you use."

Right. That's the kind of question he'll ask.

And he didn't. But it only came up when we talked about answering reader mail, and he wanted to know if I typed the letters or answered by email or something else. And I got to tell the truth, which was that I actually wrote notes with a fountain pen.

Good for you. Although I don't write that way.   Mm-hmm. But Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you, and is this generally different from most author interviews you have experienced?

Yes and yes. It surprised me, and I can't recall having had those questions from anyone else. Maybe somebody would ask if I had children, but not usually. It wouldn't come into the discussion.

Well, of course, you mentioned your mother. You dedicate the book to your mother.


Then you got to explain where Carnassie is.

Right, Carnassie. Carnassie, thank you. Yes. I had actually received a letter from an amateur astronomer who thought Carnassie might be the name of a star with which she was not familiar. And the Polish translator wanted to know if Carnassie would have meaning for the Polish reading public. I didn't think it would, but there it was. So, again, I could say that in the dedication because I was so confident that nobody would read the book. You were kind of surprised, pleasantly, though. Oh, yes. I remain in a state of eternal pleasant surprise.

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

Oh, yes. When he asked me when my father died, let alone when Harrison's first wife had died. But when he asked me when my father had died, I was so stunned by the question that I couldn't remember for a moment. I really had to think about what year it was. Very surprising.

Well, why do you think he would ask some sort of a question like that? Any ideas?

I think he was just a curious – he is just a curious person. And things occurred to him that might strike the listener as odd, but he had a reason. It was connected by his train of thought, and I'm sure it made sense to him.

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? And if so, why?

I must admit, too, that I don't watch television at all. I think I watched it a couple of times to get a sense of it when I knew that I would be on, and afterward when I knew someone I was particularly interested in was going to be on the show. But I just don't watch television.

Okay. Well, for Booknotes, Mr. Lamb intentionally worked on a minimalist studio setting so that the viewer's focus would be entirely on the author being interviewed. And this is very different from network television, for example. What do you think are the pluses and minuses of such an approach for the interviewee and for the viewer?

I think it's relaxing for the interviewee, and I think the interviewer feels part of the conversation. There isn't so much glitz standing in the way. I think it makes it feel intimate.

The Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800-book collection with this focus?

Oh, I think they're a time capsule and show what issues preoccupied the readers of the country over that period. Brian Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked, would you have returned for another interview? Yes, and in fact I did. It wasn't technically Booknotes, but there was a roundtable discussion, a three-hour roundtable with two biographers. David Levering Lewis was one of them. I'm embarrassed to say I can't recall the other person. I was invited. This was just before Galileo's Daughter was published, and I thought three hours will never go by. But like the Booknotes interview, it really clipped right along. I think we took one break at the halfway point, but it just chatted right by. I can't imagine in today's media climate having that luxury to have three very knowledgeable people talking about their discipline for three hours on air. I cannot either. Even at a writing workshop, that would be unusual.

Well, I would like to know, you talked extensively in your interview with Brian Lamb about the sales, the book sales.

Well, that's because he was so curious. And how surprised and how thrilled.

I would like to ask you, did you find any sort of growth of sales after the Booknotes interview?

I tried to get in touch with my publisher to see if we could document that, but I wasn't able to. I didn't hear back. So I don't really know. But I am positive that that episode had a great impact on the sales of The Illustrated Longitude. That was a show for real readers who read and who bought books. So I think it had a great effect, but I can't give you any statistics. What I can say is that it's still in print. It's still in print? Yeah. So that says something. Wonderful.

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

I don't think so. The interview just made me feel appreciated. But you had established yourself as a professional writer for quite some time. Exactly. I was new to writing this type of book. I had written other books, but not a science history, which is what I've done ever since. And I couldn't say that it changed my attitude. No. It just, I think if anything, it reminded me of the need to be careful. And that even if you thought people wouldn't read your book, they just might really read it and question it closely. I hadn't been expecting that.

Well, I would like to give you an opportunity to talk about what you've been working on since Longitude, especially Galileo's Daughter, and what you're most proud of.

Ah, well, thank you. One of the things I discovered in the research for Longitude was Galileo's work on that problem was something he had devoted a lot of time to. And in reading a book, a scholarly book devoted to Galileo's work on time and timekeeping, I came across a letter from his daughter which concerned a clock in her convent. And I was so struck by this news that he'd had children at all, and that he had a daughter who had been a nun. It was Galileo who had always been presented to me as the great enemy of the Catholic Church. And I thought, "There's a story there." And that's what led me to look into finding out about Galileo's daughter. So that project took much longer. I spent about five years on it. And so I translated all of her letters. The first one I read had been in English because it was included in a book by Silvio Bedini, who was Italian-American and had translated that letter himself. But the others I translated. And so that alone took a long time. And then the way I approached the book really didn't please my editor, who suggested I rewrite it. So it was a long, involved process and lots of research to learn about the Catholic faith. And it was a fascinating journey and became very meaningful to me. So that was the first thing I did after Longitude. And then I worked on a book about the planets, which I hoped would appeal to that same kind of audience, an intelligent adult who would not necessarily say, "I'm interested in science," but would find the subject interesting and the presentation appealing. And I feel very good about that book, although it was not nearly as popular as the other two had been. And I think part of that was it read more like a collection of short stories than a novel with a storyline that carried all the way through. And then I got to do something I'd wanted to do since 1973, which was write a play about Copernicus. And that also took me about five years doing the research, writing the play, and winding up writing a book around the play to put the idea of the play in context and to be able to present what's known of his life from history with what might be imagined about the circumstances that convinced him to publish his book. And it's recently been produced in Boulder, Colorado? Yes, yes. It just had its world premiere. It's funny to think of a world premiere in Boulder, Colorado. But there it was. And it was great. And it was so exciting to see it on stage. Costumes, scenery, an excellent cast. Superb. I was just thrilled with it. I know that you were a history of theater major. And I'm just curious, were you familiar with Bertolt Brecht's play about Galileo? Oh, very familiar. I have qualms about that play because people who see it often think that it's biographically correct about Galileo, and it is not. For example, in the play, his daughter lives with him. She's not at the convent. And he ruins her chances for marriage with no regret. So he comes across as a cruel person. And he is accused at the end of the play of having recounted to save his fat gut. So the play leaves people with a bad taste about Galileo. And I think Brecht's real purpose was to use him as symbolic, as a symbolic figure on the question of standing up for, standing up to authority. And some of Brecht's own biographical details crept into the play. So I tried not to do that with Copernicus.

Well, in reading Longitude, I found that you were so good at finding that dramatic through story of the contest and the two competing ideas. And I found you had a lovely juggling trick going on with both having to explain very difficult concepts in mechanics, difficult concepts in astronomy, and at the same time, showing this dramatic give and take between the people who championed the two formats.

Thank you. Thank you. The story had inherent drama. The trick was not to kill it, which can happen. You know.

Well, I would like to ask, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the American society of the time and perhaps in subsequent time?

Well, there I'll have to plead my time capsule thought that some of us didn't realize as we were living through it what a golden hour it was. Nowadays, the publishing industry is threatened. There is no platform comparable to Booknotes. And there doesn't seem to be a public outcry to bring it back. So, I'm very happy to have experienced it. And I think serious readers in future who look at it will marvel at what it was and what was lost.

Well, I would like to, I'm at the end of my scripted questions, save to ask you is there anything that you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

Just that I admire him. He had an idea and he saw it through, supported it, and nurtured it until it grew into something far beyond what I think he would have expected at the beginning. And what a great life story to have done all those things. And I think he attracted a wide following of appreciative viewers whose leisure hours were greatly enriched by his work.

Well, that's the end of my questions. I want to thank you, Ms. Sobel, for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experience on this groundbreaking television interview program.  Thank you so much. 

My pleasure.