Frank Rich

Frank Rich was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on February 6, 2015. Mr. Rich discussed his appearance on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on December 10, 2000 for his book, Ghost Light: A Memoir.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is February 6, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Frank Rich, who appeared on Booknotes on December 10, 2000, to discuss his book, "Ghost Light," a memoir. Hello, Mr. Rich, thank you for speaking with us today.

Delighted to do it, thank you.

How did your book come to be on Booknotes?

I don't really know the answer to that question, except that it was, I had been on certainly on Washington Journal on C-SPAN, with Brian Lamb hosting it a few times, if memory serves. And I think it would have naturally come to his attention because it was a prominently published Random House book that got a fair amount of publicity, you know, typical publicity and promotion when a trade book is published by a somewhat prominent author.

And how did you prepare for your appearance on the show?

I really didn't prepare because I guess I'm fairly practiced at being interviewed, being an interviewer myself in journalism, and so I didn't do any particular preparation.

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

I think what I remember most, and this might be something of a theme as we continue, is that Brian Lamb himself was exceptionally well prepared. I'm sure many authors will tell you, even back then, and it's worse now, you know, 15 years later, often broadcast interviews about books, the person who's interviewing you has never read the book, maybe not even looked at a flap copy of the book, gets things wrong, or just asks such generic questions you can tell in a second that they haven't read it. In those days, 2000, books still had a lot of pulpits, if you will, where authors had a lot of pulpits where they were interviewed on national television, including commercials like the Today Show and Good Morning America, and sometimes even the nightly talk shows like the Tonight Show. And of course C-SPAN, but there were many, many venues. Even by the standards of that time, Brian Lamb's interviews stood out because they were so much, they were longer, they were in so much detail, they were not subject to commercial interruption, and the choices of books he made were not always predictable. I should add that in 2015, books are really not promoted unless they're celebrity books or cookbooks. On any of those shows of C-SPAN aside that I'm talking about, and it's almost, book coverage has almost disappeared from television unless it's Fifty Shades of Grey or something like that, the one exception, two exceptions having been the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and when it existed, The Colbert Report. They both had authors on, but that was it. Them and NPR is sort of it for it now. So even by the standards and context of 2000, what Brian Lamb did stood out.

So you mentioned Mr. Lamb's preparedness. Do you find this to be normal for interviewers, and how did it change your interview experience?

No, as I said, it's completely abnormal. It was way, way above the level of most interviewers. In fact, I would say from that entire period, and I did a lot of interviews, the only person who was remotely as prepared and thorough as Brian Lamb was Tim Russert, who interviewed me for my book on a show that he had that was not Meet the Press. He had another show at that time, I can't remember what it was called, but it may have been on the early MSNBC of that period, who also did an in-depth interview. And so how did it affect the experience? It was a much more enjoyable and substantive experience.

You touched on Booknotes' hour-long format, which differed greatly from most network television interviews, which would last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or even potential drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

Well, I think the benefits for the author and at least the interested viewer are the same. You actually get to know a lot about a book, the process of writing it, and the creative process, if you will, of assembling and writing a book. What are the drawbacks? I don't think there really are any. I think that an audience that only wants to hear about a book for three minutes is not going to watch C-SPAN anyway or watch C-SPAN on the topic of books. But I do feel that there's probably a pretty strong correlation between book readers and people who do want to listen. And you can see it now, for instance, in Terry Gross' interviews on NPR, Fresh Air, another in-depth Brian Lamb-like venue for book coverage now, it has a huge audience. There is an audience for it. The audience that only wants three minutes isn't going to read or buy the book anyway.

You mentioned talking about the creative process on the show, and Brian Lamb frequently asked authors about their research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting?

I do. I think that, and I have to say as an author myself, I find other writers' processes fascinating. I think you learn something from them. I think people are always interested in how the sausage is made. And if people have a magical experience reading a certain book and can hear an author explain how he or she did it, granted, some of it is always mysterious in the creative process, you can't explain or articulate everything, I think people are fascinated by it. And the amazing thing is that Brian Lamb was willing to do it in such depth. It wouldn't occur to most interviewers. But I think one thing to distinguish Brian Lamb at heart is he actually is a reader. A lot of people doing these interviews aren't readers. They're just given a few questions on note cards and wing it. He actually so fully engaged in the book that it becomes almost an intimate conversation about what you wrote in the book and how you put the book together.

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

Yes. And I'll tell you why. My book, I was frankly surprised that he chose my book to do. He only does nonfiction books, as we know. The orientation of C-SPAN, and I suspect a fair amount of Brian Lamb's own passions as a reader, interviewer, is government, politics, and history. My book wasn't about any of these things. My book was an extremely personal memoir about growing up as a stage-struck kid in a family that was divided by divorce when I was very young. It was very much an intimate story about childhood, about my parents. It has virtually no politics or history in it at all. It's very much my family's story and my own story within the family. I could understand, and I wrote one other book that came out a few years later that really was about the Iraq War and the Bush administration and had to do with columns I then was writing for the Times. I would have thought that Brian Lamb would have waited to do a book like that of mine, or that's what he would have chosen. Instead, he did this book and he really got it. The questions were very personal, because the book was very personal, including about the fights my parents had that I ascribed to the book, my relationship with my parents and step-parents, all of that. It had an emotional tenor to it, which is not what you necessarily associate with C-SPAN or even with Brian Lamb. So I was surprised and delighted that he really, really wanted to get into the emotional meat of the book.

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview?

I regularly watched it. I would say that, yes, I regularly watched it before and after. Did your experience on the show change your impression of it? I admired it before I was on it, and I admired it even more when I had seen firsthand with my own book just how detailed and in-depth and smart Brian Lamb's interviews were.

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

Well, I wonder, do they have his notes in them?

Yes, he recorded within a lot of the books. He wrote his questions out and he marked up a lot of the copies.

Well, I think that combined with, I assume, the accessibility of the Booknotes programs themselves for each book would be an invaluable resource because, not so much necessarily because of the books he chose, some of them may endure, some of them may be ephemeral, may be topical at the time, who knows, but as an insight into the writing process and to how a great interviewer goes about his job, the craft of it, which is not easy. If you do it as well as he did, it's a ton of preparation, a ton of work and creativity in its own right and I think that would be useful for future journalists and probably to some extent people who write about literature in general, including literary critics and other interviewers, obviously.

Brian Lamb had a rule that authors could only appear on the program once. If asked back, would you have appeared on the show for a second interview?

Yes, I felt so strongly about his work, not just in Booknotes but throughout C-SPAN and what he did, that I would always--although I'm not someone who loves to appear on TV and often says no--I always before and after would do everything possible if asked to appear on C-SPAN and talk to Brian Lamb, even if it wasn't about another book of mine.

So you've mentioned briefly the reception which your book received, but was there any difference in sales or attention after appearing on Booknotes?

I don't know. I think only the publisher would know that. The book was a moderately well-selling book. It didn't make the Times list, but it made the runner up to the Times list and it was out there. I 'm not sure that it would have been possible at a time when I was doing, I don't know, eight interviews in a two-week period, we'll say hypothetically, something like that, that you could isolate one and say it had any particular effect. I just have no idea.

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

Probably not, which is no reflection on him. At that point in my career, I'm pretty settled in my ways as a writer and researcher and everything else. I would say the only real effect was it was touching to me that a book I wrote that was so personal and so outside the normal sphere of what I wrote about could land emotionally with someone like Brian Lamb. That was just unexpected to me. It just made me feel all the better about having written the book I wrote.

Well, you've mentioned another book, but what have you been working on since appearing on the show and what works are you most pleased with?

Well, since 2000, I've written a lot about politics as a columnist at the New York Times on their op-ed page and then the past four years as an essayist and writer at large at New York magazine. I also wrote one other book since then and I've also had a very active career in television and I'm sort of proud of all of it. On television, I produced a couple of documentaries, but I've also done a fictional comedy show as a producer about Washington called Veep that runs on HBO or just finished shooting our fourth season. I like to believe that Veep is like the absurdist view of the Washington people's see on C-SPAN, a little bit more behind the scenes of the chaos and farce that attends making the sausage in government and politics.

Yeah, I watch Veep. That's very fun.

Oh, I'm glad you like it. We're back with new episodes beginning April 12th. We're cutting the new season right now.

Great. Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society or perhaps since?

I think that Booknotes had enormous impact on people who watched it, the book readers in America who are passionate about reading and also passionate about seeing that rare bird, intelligent in-depth interviews, without any particular, with no agenda and no commercial motive on television or radio or anyplace else. I think that the legacy of the actual interviews continues to be big. People can call them up and read them. I suspect without knowing that they're used in classes and when people are going to study a book by, I don't know, Robert Caro and Lyndon Johnson or whatever, they're going to turn to these interviews as a sort of unique and valuable resource. I also think over the long haul, I think Brian Lamb set the gold standard for what an interview could be about a book. It's a standard very, very few even aspire to emulate in this culture we have now, but some do. As I mentioned, Terry Gross on NPR and there are others who at least sometimes locally, based on my experience, who try to do the kind of well-prepared, in-depth and lengthy interviews that Brian Lamb did on Booknotes. I can't imagine that they weren't influenced by his show, which was ubiquitous during its lifetime and almost anyone of age now to be conducting these interviews would have seen it at some formative point.

Is there anything else you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

I would simply say that for many reasons, Booknotes being just one of them, Brian Lamb's mission to create C-SPAN, the success with which he created it, its longevity is a truly, people throw around superlatives a lot, but I think it's truly a major contribution to American cultural and political life. To have a non-commercial space, to have non-partisan news and information with a huge fact orientation, I don't know where we'd be without it. In the years since he created it, of course, cable television news, which was in its infancy when he began, has become, as everyone knows, more partisan, more often more trivial, more driven by celebrity and entertainment values or ideology than facts and reporting. The lasting survival of C-SPAN and what he created is just very important to American democracy and he created something that was such a strong institution with such values, such high values that he inculcated that others are carrying on as instead without destroying it, but maintaining his values. Not everyone can be a Brian Lamb in terms of the quality of their work. He may be almost non-pariah in that sense. But just as Edward R. Murrow in radio and television news in another era, previous era, created a standard that survived at least for a while after Edward R. Murrow himself was no longer doing it, so Brian Lamb did this. And it's absolutely fascinating to me that he did. His tenacity in doing it, which included not only a journalistic integrity but a business tenacity to make it happen in the crazy arena of cable television, is a heroic story, I think. And the fact that he's completely modest, that he's never called attention to himself, that he just did the work and it was a ton of work, that he could do Booknotes with all that preparation on top of being the faith and guiding force of a sprawling network operation is kind of mind-boggling when you think of how labor-intensive that would be. It shows what kind of devotion he had and I don't think we can ever thank him enough because it was fantastic what he created.

Wonderful.  Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Thank you and I'm very happy and delighted to participate in helping provide a lasting record about Brian Lamb and what he contributed to American life.