Susan Swain

Susan Swain, Co-President and Co-CEO of C-SPAN was interviewed  on April 16, 2015, discussing  the history of C-SPAN's Booknotes program.

Interview Transcript

Hello. I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtje, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is Thursday, April 16, 2015, and we are recording from C-SPAN offices where we are speaking with Susan Swain, co-president and co-CEO of C-SPAN, who is involved with the Booknotes series. Hello, Ms. Swain. Thank you for speaking with us today.

Hi. Nice to do this.

So what was your involvement with the Booknotes program?

Well, my involvement with most of the programming here is kind of at the 30,000 feet level. So I haven't produced since the very earliest days that I started at C-SPAN, which was a long time ago.  The programming department reports to me through Terry Murphy, the vice president of programming. So generally, I'm involved at the idea-generation stage, the budget-approval stage, the strategic level of things.

Well, you mentioned being involved in the idea-generation process of the programming. So how did the idea for Booknotes come about?

We'd been doing books and authors for a while, as we continue to do on our interview programs, like our call-in programs, because there are a lot of important nonfiction books that are written about Washington and the political process and history, of course. And the idea for coalescing them into a regular series was an evolutionary one.  They worked.  We saw that callers were responding to them, authors, when we had them on the programs. They had something substantive to say. And Brian did a -- with his own history in Vietnam and living through Washington in the period of Vietnam, he did a long series of interviews with the author of the book, A Bright Shining Lie. And we got a lot of positive response, a lot of mail. I mean, people weren't -- it was the days before email. And phone calls about it. And I think from that, it really evolved into, you know, there's enough out there that we can do this on a regular basis.

Were there any hesitations about doing this kind of show?

 No. See, the thing about C-SPAN, that is, that we can experiment with anything we want, because we don't have advertisers. We don't have to look for sponsors. We're really in one of the most blessed places in the media in that regard...if we have an idea, we can simply act on it. The downside is we don't have any numbers to know whether people are responding to it. So we have to really rely on anecdotal evidence. Luckily, with Booknotes over the years, we had enough of that.

How were authors chosen for Booknotes?

Well, mostly Brian's interest and a very collaborative process with the producers.  Booknotes has always been blessed, perhaps not surprisingly since it was our CEO, with having really strong producers. And the important part was a good working relationship with Brian. When I look back at some of the names of the people who were there in the early days, some of the really very talented people that we've had at the network were early Booknotes producers. One of them, Greg Barker, went on to become a well-regarded documentarian himself. Others stayed in producing for a very long time. And so they brought their own editorial sense to the table. But ultimately, Brian was the person that had to read the book and sit down for the hour to do the interview. So it really had to be something that he warmed to, that he would be interested in doing as well.

You know, those were the days when there were a lot of bookstores around, too. And a lot of it was walking through bookstores and seeing what was coming out on the shelves. Sadly, those days are really diminishing now. But we had a great bookstore right over here in Union Station that you could wander through at lunchtime and see what the latest releases were, pick things up, and kind of thumb through the pages, which really feels like a luxury now.

So what was the philosophy behind the Booknotes program? 

Well, we ended up having a tagline eventually for it that captured the whole thing:   One author, one book, one hour. And the idea really was an antidote to what was happening on commercial television. And really what still happens is people that can spend years of their lives putting together the scholarship for a book end up on commercial television because of the pressures of time, getting two to three minutes. And there's so much more there to tell, not only the content of the book themselves, but often the interesting stories of how they developed that content. The years of research, the travel, the grant funding. And we wanted to get both of that in what we were doing. And we didn't have the commercial pressures. The other thing is we don't even have to take commercial breaks. So the fact that we could sit for a full hour of conversation and people who wanted to watch could stay with it as long as they were interested is, again, a real luxury of C-SPAN's format.

A  Booknotes interview is quite simple in appearance with two people sitting in front of a black background. What was the reasoning behind such a simple set?

Well, that was Brian again. I think he really was hearkening back to the early days of television and the simplicity that he remembered from those days. And in particular, I think the Charlie Rose set was one that he referred to. And I think it's a philosophy that you see with -- throughout all of C-SPAN's programming--is not to let the production get in the way of the content. So the simpler the set, the more that the audience at home would focus on the person being interviewed. And that really was the goal. So that black background was challenged sometimes that we were -- in the days we were growing. So we sometimes had to move him out of his studio and kind of recreate the black curtains and less -- I mean, if you go back and look at some of the tapes, there's some pretty dicey setups for a while while we were reconstructing our studios. Curtains that were a little out of line and maybe some boxes piled in corners and things like that. Because we really...we were at a big growth stage during a lot of the days of Booknotes. And we couldn't always keep Brian in his soundproof studio for the entirety of the program. It was a long program, too.  Long running.

How would you describe Brian's interview method or style for the Booknotes program? And in what ways was it similar or different from other interview styles?

Well, Brian has a very peculiar style. And I will say that it's reflective of the philosophy of C-SPAN, and we really do try to train all of our incoming hosts to emulate it. But let me ask -- your question was twofold--preparation and interview. His preparation was a thorough reading of the book. And you certainly can tell that from picking up any one of the Booknotes books that you have in your collection. Because he marked them up extensively. And I know over the years, I've heard many authors remark at how carefully he read the books. Sometimes it would put them on the spot. Because I can tell you as having worked on quite a few books myself, when you've done a project and you move on, you lose some of the detail of the project that's behind you. And Brian was at that point deep diving into detail in books. And he would sometimes catch folks off guard with some of the level of detail he was asking about their projects. The best advice for a Booknotes author to be interviewed is read your own book once more before you go on the set, because Brian's certain to find things.

And he underlined pages, made marginalia. His particular habit was to write in the inside and back jacket covers with lots of notes, which are indecipherable to anybody except for Brian, I think. I would sometimes look at those notes and would say, "What the heck? I hope this stirs your own memory of what you're wanting to ask for, because it's impenetrable to me."  So that was his -- he didn't do lots of ancillary research other than knowing the biography of the person. It really was a book interview. So the best way to prepare for it was read the book.

As to his style, Brian asks very spare questions. He's probably told you stories or authors have told you stories about how surprisingly spare and sometimes very basic, routine, ordinary types of questions. His thought is get out of the way as much as possible. This is where it might stand in stark contrast to other interviewers. And I guess without criticizing, I'll really point to Charlie Rose, since Charlie Rose was an example for the set. When you watch Charlie Rose, his questions are voluminous. He often sets it up with a big theory that he has and then asks the author to respond. We have a different -- that works for him. He's got lots of fans. Our philosophy is really different, which is get out of the way as much as possible. Set the table and let the author then go on and bring their knowledge and scholarship and their storytelling to bear without influencing it too much. So Brian's questions have always been spare. We've really tried to embody that in a philosophy of how to interview C-SPAN style that we teach to our next generation of hosts. And it's -- I think it works for us because we're not trying to play gotcha. What we're trying to do is let a story unfold.

 We've actually transcribed those notes from within the Booknotes books. So --- 

How'd that work for you?

--- you could read the typewritten transcript. It might be a little bit easier.

I'll let the scholars do that. I've had my whack at it.

 Well, you mentioned Brian's preparation. Can you recall any particular interview or guest which best illustrates the time and care that he put into this preparation?

 No, I really can't because, again, I'm not the producer. And I didn't work with him from week to week. But I will say I can attest to the fact that he gave every author equal amounts of care. Later on, we might talk about the end of the program. But I know Brian spent hours reading every single book very carefully. And ultimately, that began to consume him, which is finally what I think led to the sunset of Booknotes after the years.

But, no, he really took the job seriously. He would leave with -- remember, he was not just reading the book that he was going to author the interview. But he was also scanning through books to see if he wanted to do interviews. So he would often leave here with stacks of book looking like a college student and needing to have all the stuff to read for his Booknotes interviews. So I think, you know, he was meticulous about this and cared about it very much.

What was the reasoning behind the interviews being an hour long without exception?

 Well, for one thing, it was a little marketing hook. And Lord knows C-SPAN needed some marketing hooks because we don't really have an advertising budget. So one thing was to give it a time slot of its very own.   

Let me back up and tell you a little bit about C-SPAN's schedule before Booknotes. And Brian and I used to always kind of go a bit tug of war at this. Brian envisioned C-SPAN in a way that just doesn't work with most people's lives, which was totally free form. Things would just be on the air when they happened and things would be live and they would -- but people live their lives around schedules. And so one of my early nags, when I came on board, was we need a couple anchors in the block. The rest of the day can be free form, but we really do need some anchors. And for many years after we established the Sunday night anchor, as you will, when we'd be in meetings, he'd say, "Susan always says we have to have something regular in the schedule." But we did. I mean, people needed to have a place to know to go on Sunday nights at 8 o'clock that they would always find Booknotes there. And it worked because if it had been in one place at one time, in one place another time in the days before searching on the internet, no one would have ever found it. And it really developed its own audience. And maybe people that only watched that on C-SPAN because they wanted to be conversant about books that were being published, wanted to be able to talk to their friends about authors that they'd seen without having to read the whole book, which was kind of the beauty of the thing. One hour and you've got basically everything you need to know about an author in the book and you can be quite conversant without spending days and days or weeks going through it yourself. So I think people really that found the program and stayed with it liked it for that reason.

Well, you were also very involved in creating the books about the Booknotes Program. 


And what was this experience like?

Seven of them we've done. Yeah, seven of them. Well, I've become sort of a past master at how to do them. We've had wonderful friends, Peter Osnos at Public Affairs,  First Times Books and then Public Affairs after that. And the idea was that, again, it was a marketing project which is to produce C-SPAN in another form so we could get it in other places and also do press tours and talk about the program as a way of introducing it. So having Booknotes contained in a book format made sense because it was a program about books. What we did and I was the lead editor for all of these things and, yeah, I've got the cross ties to prove it. And then the reading glasses from all the type I've been looking at over the years. We would get the transcripts of the interviews and then have to boil them down to their essence. The most important thing is we took out all of Brian's questions. And the idea for that was to have it flow in prose form or storytelling form.

But Brian's particular style of asking questions was really very intentional, what would be the word I'm looking for, it didn't follow necessarily in logical order. He would jump back to topics and throw curve balls at people and then come back to things later on. And I can tell you editing that together and knitting it into a cohesive whole was a challenge. I was a past master at cutting and pasting text. And then we had to develop a little system where we would cue the reader to the fact that it was no longer in sequential order that we'd move things around. But we were very, very careful sometimes to the chagrin of the authors to preserve their own speaking style. And we made a decision with the publisher early on not to send the copies to the authors to have them review it. One, we would never get them back in time so the book wouldn't be published. And second, they would really want to correct their grammar, their sentence syntax, and we'd lose the whole conversational point of the book. So I'm sure sometimes they looked at it and said, ah, I wish I'd said that sentence a little more elegantly. But the conversational flavor of the books really gives you a measure of the people that I love about them. I've just finished working on one drawn from our own first lady's interviews. I did the interviews. I wish I'd been more elegant myself in some of my sequencing of questions. But nonetheless, each one of the chapters gives you the flavor of the person being interviewed because it sounds like them in a way that the written word, carefully edited, does not. So there was a real, I think a real value to them. The series of books really captures, the seven books over time really capture these authors in their own thought processes and words. Now we did each one on different themes. The very first one was, and I guess I should interrupt myself to say, Brian always made a point of asking people about how they wrote, where they wrote, what time of day they wrote, which elicited sometimes some funny and interesting stories, how they did their research.

And our early Booknotes book was authors on reading, writing, and the power of ideas. So a whole section of that book was devoted to the art of writing, which you could build an entire class around. How famous published authors get to the point of publishing a book. There's lots to be learned about the real craft that goes behind it and the dedication that's involved in that. Later books we organized sometimes by subject matter. We did one on, called Booknotes on American character. We did one Booknotes on biography. Later on we did one specifically on Abraham Lincoln, which should have come out this week with the anniversary as we're talking about the assassination anniversary. But we had done so many Lincoln books and authors. We had enough to gather it into one place. And then the most recent one was mostly Booknotes and then a few interviews from Q&A, Brian's successor program. And it's called Sundays at 8. And it marked the 25th anniversary of Sunday night interviews. That was a very long answer, but was useful.

No, it was great. Well, do you recall any of those odd answers from the authors regarding how they researched or wrote?

Oh, you know, there are some people that have very peculiar habits. And I can't give you the name of the author and who does this. But remembering people talking about always having a system where they would always rise at 4.30 in the morning and always spend three hours at this and then connect with their family and have their normal lives as one example. There is one author, and I wish I could remember the name, who is really one of the funny and quirky ones. He had a cabin in the mountains and wrote naked. So, and I remember Brian hearing that from his answer where the author said that he sits on his porch and writes naked. And I mean, Brian was obviously intrigued and a little surprised at that. But I don't think there are too many people wandering by to see that. I guess it allowed for the free flow of ideas or something, who knows. But I think what you learn overall, people sometimes have big flip pads with paper where they would scrawl things down or they would have organizational systems of index cards with, you know, to patch storylines together. I think what the message is that every author needs to have a system because books are a lot of work to do. And how they develop their own system that works for them is a mystery probably to the rest of us, but having a system is essential. And the other thing is writing is not easy. And you learn that again and again. I think most of us who don't write think, oh, what's the big deal? You know, you sit down with a pad and paper in the old days or with your fingers on the keyboard. But it is a laborious process, not only from the thinking stage, but the art of saying it right. And unless you have a timetable, you're probably never done because you always want to go back and fix things. I know this from our own example, but just also listening to all those authors being interviewed over the years. At some point, you have to say to close it and have to be done with this and move on.

Well, were you ever surprised at the success of the show?

Well, I was happy about it, not surprised. And the success, of course, is anecdotal because, again, we don't have any viewership numbers. But people talked about it. And I guess if there's any surprise, the program's been gone for years now. People still talk about it. And they say they miss that program or they'll say, "I always watch his book talk program" or something along those lines. So it resonated with them and it stayed in their minds that he did it, so much to the point that even though he hasn't been doing it for years, they still make that connection, Brian Lamb, book interview, C-SPAN. So it provided a real anchor for this network, an important anchor for this network that was different than televising Congress. It gave us a way to explain to people that we were the Congress and a lot more and that a lot more could be very intellectually stimulating. So it was a very important program and continues to be an important program for us.

Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes?

Well, I think the fact that it is a contained look at 801 programs, and I can tell you the story of the 801, but 801 programs over the course of the decade that we did it that captured that period of time, a very important period in American history, lots of change going on with the fall of communism and the change in electoral politics, enormous demographics, recovery from the Vietnam War. There was a really important period in American society, and we have all of these nonfiction authors capturing that, and we've got an archive of that. I think that's a significant contribution for future scholars and certainly for everyday folks, the Booknotes archives is an important place for family members and for fans of particular writers. It's become an important place, believe it or not, for obits. When key authors have died, we have seen online references where they've gone back and connected to that person's Booknotes interview. It's been important for individual family members who have had an author in their family and their grandchildren can see that person at work. So there's personal things, there's societal things, and as I mentioned, the lasting impact for us is it gave us a real permanent toehold in the world of books, which we have continued in so many different ways, including BookTV, which was Booknotes' grandchild or stepchild. We went from the one-hour a week to saying, "Hey, we can do this 48 hours every single weekend," which was a great leap forward, to borrow the Chinese expression. We knew there was enough out there and there was enough interest based on the reaction to Booknotes that we could create a network within a network that was all devoted to nonfiction books. So we have this book franchise that I think is really synonymous for a lot of people that only do C-SPAN through books, and it's important. And we see that when we go out to book festivals with the Book TV cameras. People that would never watch the Congress, would never watch a hearing, really do connect with us and tell us, for example, that they might leave their computer on all weekend in the background and listen to author interviews while they're working on other things, or people that are going about their chores and keep C-SPAN 2 on because they're listening to book interviews. I think that's a big contribution. I think the authors in the publishing industry have recognized the uplift that we have tried to give to nonfiction books, and with all modesty, I think as much as this little place without much advertising can do, I think it's been a boon to that community. And I'm glad for it because we all care about books and authors, and we think they're important.

Well, I have to ask, what is the story behind the 801 books?

Well, I have to tell you the story of when Brian reached the end of the line. I mentioned that he was going home with all of these stacks of books, and my office is right next to where we're sitting. And I remember Brian went on vacation. I believe he went to Maine, and the Monday morning after his week away, he might have even called me before he got home, but he said, "I really need to talk to you." And he's not usually that serious about things, so it got my attention. And he came in, and he said, "I've reached the max. I recognize that the program is consuming my life. I spent most of my vacation reading books, worrying about reading books, thinking about author interviews, and I've done this for a very long time, and I just can't continue at this pace anymore." Because we never took a summer vacation with -- I mean, every other television network takes eight weeks off and goes to reruns. Brian was insistent that this had to be fresh 52 weeks a year. So that's 52 books a year to read. I mean, you try that -- anybody try that in their life. It's a huge commitment, and he did it for all those years for a decade, and I can appreciate when he finally said, "Enough. I can't read at this speed." So we then planned sort of a systematic demise for Booknotes, including telling people that it was going to go away and scheduling that the last book would be about reading and picking it in December, so, you know, the end of the year, the end of the program. And we thought we had been smart enough to get to 800, but we miscalculated in the end. So it will stand forever as 801, which is really kind of funny and quirky in a C-SPAN way.

Well, is there anything else you'd like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb?

Well, I guess I would say without sounding like I'm patronizing you folks from George Mason, I must say I really appreciate George Mason's interest in gathering this collection for the ages. It's something that we can't do, and in a way that we can't do it. And if we had any sort of wish for the program, I think it would be that there was more academic use of it, more research use of it, because of the breadth of the collection that I talked about. It's in some ways a real untapped resource for the academy, for teaching, for teaching about ideas, for teaching about writing. And it's my hope that making this available through a university system will inspire people to begin to look at the collection's use in that regard. It's one thing to have a C-SPAN archives and capture it and allow people to do word searches and find things, but that's really not very systematic. And I hope that over time the value of this collection will actually grow, because of the work that you're doing to help make it available and to really parse it in a way that it's accessible for the scholarly community. There's a lot there. I mean, look at the ability to hear Margaret Thatcher in her own words for an hour, Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Nixon for two hours talking about his books. And those are the world leaders and headliners. There's also some incredible thinkers and journalists of the age that are all there. And it's my hope that people will increasingly find it the resource that we hope that it will be.

Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing your insights and for participating in this oral history interview.

Thanks for your interest.