Robert Timberg


Robert Timberg was interviewed on September 26, 2014. Mr. Timberg appeared on Booknotes August 27, 1995 where he talked with Brian about his book, The Nightingale's Song.


Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is Monday, September 29, 2014, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with author Robert Timberg, who appeared on Booknotes on August 27, 1995, to discuss his book, The Nightingale Song. Hello Mr. Timberg, thank you for speaking with us today.

Great hearing your voice, Lindsey. Glad to do anything for Booknotes.

So how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

You know, that's a mystery that I can't solve. I think somehow my publisher got in touch with Brian Lamb or Booknotes, or Booknotes got in touch with my publisher, but somehow, some way, somebody said to me one day, "You're going to be on Booknotes on such and such a date and such and such a time, so make sure you're there." That's it.

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

Essentially I didn't particularly prepare. I had done a number of press events before that, though nothing as extensive. I had been on Good Morning America and, I don't know, one or two other things, but they were relatively short. And I knew this was going to be long, and the only thing I can remember about preparing is that I was more uptight than I usually am, and I don't know why it was, but it may have had something to do with the fact that I got there too early, and it was like 45 minutes before I was even supposed to be at the studio, and it was really hot out. And I remember walking around outside smoking cigarettes for 45 minutes before I went in, and that frankly was my preparation.

Well, what do you remember most from your appearance on Booknotes?

I was surprised to find how much at ease I was and how comfortable I was answering Brian's questions. And I think that had a lot to do with Brian's questions and Brian's demeanor. He had the skill that I always think of as crucial for a reporter in terms of asking questions. It doesn't matter what you, the reporter, says. What matters is what the person you're questioning says. And a good reporter will elicit interesting answers, and if the reporter doesn't have to do anything but blink his eyes and he gets an interesting answer out of it, that's all you need. And so Brian was anything but a showboat questioner, but he asked good questions and then he let me answer. And I think the answers turned out to be frankly better than I ever thought they would have been.

Well you mentioned making the rounds at other shows, doing some of the morning shows. Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most other network television interviews, which would last three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

I can't think of any drawbacks. I think, you know, I just, you know, before you, when you guys contacted me, I went back and looked at a video of my appearance on Booknotes back whenever that was, 1995 or whenever, and I was amazed at how I actually was able to explain things in what seemed to me to be a way that would make people understand what the heck I was trying to do in a Nightingale song. And it was, I just seemed much more at ease and frankly much more, I can't even think of the word I'm looking for here, I just seemed to be able to explain things better than I ever thought I would be able to. You know, it just came out right.

Judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, Mr. Lamb read them very thoroughly before the interview. I'm actually sitting here with his copy of your book, which is very marked up. Do you find this to be normal for interviewers and did it change the interview experience?

I think, I don't think it was normal for interviewers, you know, for those who are interviewing authors. In many cases, the people that are doing it are people that have talk shows, they don't, you know, they have a million other things to do and they really either don't have the time or the interest in reading a whole book. Interestingly, I find that they're not, they're actually pretty good at doing, of faking it if that's what it is, you know. But what Brian was able to do was, you know, was to ask really perceptive questions and essentially, you know, it seemed to me, interesting responses for me. And, you know, I don't recall, you know, having the opportunity to talk at length in any other form as I did on Booknotes.

You've mentioned Brian Lamb's questions and his skills as an interviewer. Were you surprised by any of his questions?

I wasn't. I was actually a little surprised that he asked personal questions. I didn't mind it, I didn't resent it, but I didn't expect it either. And frankly, the questions that he asked, particularly relating to my Marine Corps service, I think, as a person helped to give perspective to my book and what we were talking about. I think it was, I think it was a good thing.

Mr. Lamb would also ask about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting?

You know, as far as the reading public is concerned, I really don't know. It seems to me that I'm interested in that, but I'm not exactly the reading public. I think some would and some wouldn't. As far as another author, I think in general they would be fascinated by it.

Did you watch Booknotes, either before or after your own interview? And did your experience with the show change your impression of the program?

I watched it a few times before and probably a few times after. I think, no, I don't think it exactly changed my impression of the show, because I always thought it was really good. But what I was really taken by was just how well prepared Brian was. I mean, it was just, you know, it was in a way kind of stunning. I mean, he had all the little points that, you know, that seemed to me worth raising.

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

Well I would consider it really valuable, but I'm not exactly the average person. I'm not claiming to be an extraordinary person, but considering what I do, and as a writer, I think it would be really worthwhile. And, you know, it would be really interesting just to read through these things, not necessarily read the whole book, but just see what Brian had marked. You know, I just think it just would be a - I mean Booknotes was really a special program and this is really - it was Brian's efforts that made it special. And I think it sounds like these books with his, you know, his interlineations and everything are, you know, were crucial to all of that. So, you know, if you're interested in how something really important is done, that's how you - you know, take a look at these books. That'll tell you.

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

Sure. I mean, in fact, they just changed the name of the show and I was on, you know, I did an interview with Brian two weeks ago or something like that. But that wasn't Booknotes. I don't even - I think that was what they call Q&A.

You found the loophole.

Yeah, right. That's exactly it.

Well was there a difference in sales, national attention, or even critical reception for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?

Lindsey, I'm not really sure because I never - I never really kept track of sales and things like that. I mean, considering that I had three kids in college during most of this period, you'd think I would have. But I mean, I think if suddenly it was on making all the bestseller lists, I would, you know, pay more attention. I was just happy that people seemed to be reading it and people I cared about seemed to be reading it. And I think in the aftermath of my appearance on Booknotes, I believe that those people were taking greater notice of the book.

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


Okay. What have you been working on since this book, and which works are you most pleased with?

Well, since this interview, which was in 1995, I've since written two other books. One was called A State of Grace, A Memoir of Twilight Time, which was a book about an old Sandlot football team I played with before I went to the Naval Academy. And this all took place in the late '50s. And in a way, I used it as kind of a metaphor for essentially the nation as the cloud of Vietnam was gathering over the nation. And the other book just came out. It's called Blue-Eyed Boy, which is a post-Vietnam memoir, which starts the day I was wounded in 1967 and follows me through numerous hospital time and surgeries and kind of learning to be a reporter and taking me through the writing of The Nightingale Song, and up to now, as a matter of fact. But that book just came out about three weeks ago. You know, there's one thing that I know there's no way we can go back and change this, but I think in the Booknotes interview, I got some dates wrong, if you can believe that. I went to Vietnam, I landed in Vietnam in 1966. I was wounded in January of 1967. And I think I had both those things a year later than that. So, as I say, it's not Brian's fault, it's not anybody's fault but mine. And I doubt there's anything you can do to correct it, but so it goes.

I'm surprised he didn't catch you on that.

Yeah, why?

Because he does his homework. I'm surprised he didn't say, "You got that wrong."

Yeah, I know, but on the other hand, I wrote it, and I got it wrong.

 Oh, okay. I thought maybe.

Yeah. It wasn't Brian, it was me.

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

Well, you know, I'm wary of, you know, sweeping judgments, but one thing that I think has happened, and I think Booknotes probably was the trigger for it, is that I notice a number of different organizations, particularly bookstores, are now videotaping their--those that have authors come and speak, are videotaping those talks and then making them available on their website. For example, in early August, I spoke at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, and they videotaped it, and you can actually go and see it on their website. I mean, it's--and I think others are doing the same thing, and I think that's a pretty valuable--a very valuable resource, and I think, you know, that Booknotes was the--was the pioneer, pioneered that.

Well, is there anything else that you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

Um, well, you know, I was--most of my life I've been a reporter or an editor, and much of it in Washington, and I have to say that C-SPAN came in handy God knows how many times. I mean, for reporters, it's just an enormous resource. As for Booknotes and Brian, it was just--it was just a wonderful experience. It started out with me, as I say, being nervous and sweaty, smoking cigarettes outside for 45 minutes, and it turned out to be one of the most pleasant professional things I've ever done. And I have to say, you know, I don't--I'm not exactly a buddy of Brian's, but I do, you know, I'm really happy that I met--that I've met him and had a chance to have exchanges with him, even if they were mostly on television. You know, Brian is one of those special people.

Well, Mr. Tibberg, we want to thank you for participating in the Booknotes Oral History Project. We appreciate your time and your insight.

Hey, thank you. That's been--It was my pleasure.