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NPR Correspondent Rick Kleffel on Books, Insomnia, and The Agony Column

Kleffel Kleffel's famous rolling shelves, 7/1

Rick Kleffel may be the hardest-working man in the book review/author interview business. Not only does he post daily updates to The Agony Column, his first love, including his famous Rolling Shelves (which inspired me to post photos of books received on my own blog), he also interviews hundreds of authors, both for his local NPR affiliate and for national NPR, usually for Sunday features. Kleffel's particular area of emphasis is science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but he also enjoys non-genre fiction and his definition of genre is wide and deep. Having been interviewed by Kleffel in the past, I thought it was time to turn the tables and see what makes this at times insanely dedicated individual tick. I interviewed Kleffel via email and asked him about his hellacious schedule, his interviews, and, of course, books. How do you keep plugging away doing book reviews, doing features, at The Agony Column day after day? Do you ever feel like you need a break?
Rick Kleffel: A compulsive routine and insomnia are the key ingredients. The insomnia I inherited from my mother's side of the family.  We're on the low end of the bell curve for sleep required, so I generally sleep about four hours a night, which gives me four hours a day more to work. I wake up--usually before the alarm goes off--at 3:30 AM every day and have a very set routine I work through. That basis gives me the time and energy to deal with the avalanche of worthwhile reading out there. There are so many great books worthy of our time and attention coming out that I feel it my duty to bring them to the attention of like-minded readers. My hope is that so long as the books are selling, they'll keep making more worthy of my time. I'm simply ensuring that I'll have something to read tomorrow by talking today about the books I read yesterday.

I do try to take a "weekend" and occasionally almost succeed. But I haven't felt the need or the inclination to take a break or vacation since I started the website. I try to provide a very consistent content. The site is totally independent, and I intend to keep it that way, even if I do end up bolting it under a paying umbrella. It's possible that someday I'll need to take a break, but thus far, I've got my wife to the point where she ensures that every vacation we go on allows me to keep working via my laptop. What do you love about fiction? What energizes you about it?
Kleffel: Fiction specifically is an organic whole and allows you to immerse yourself and your mind in another mind's vision. The reading experience is quite intense, really, and to my mind, not well understood or even much talked about. Directed dreaming while awake is one shorthand, but that leaves out the language component, that is, most of the picture. Many think language is what makes us human; reading therefore makes us more human, more intensely ourselves. Reading is a creative experience for the reader, and fiction involves the most intense creative process on the part of the reader. That creative process is what energizes my love of reading and fiction in particular.

All that said, I can get the same charge from non-fiction. I just talked to Robert Scheer about his work and website, His book was just as compelling as a novel though it had nothing of the novel in it. This sounds like and in fact is a contradiction--but I thrive on contradiction. I enjoy subscribing to mutually exclusive beliefs, much to the frustration of those who have to deal with me. You do interviews and features for local and national NPR as well. How does that fit in with your work on The Agony Column? What satisfaction do you get out of the on-air work?
Kleffel: They complement one another quite well. I recently got to write a piece for the NPR website, "Nine First Books That Make a Lasting Impression", which was sort of like closing that circle. The on-air work actually grew out of the column. Early on, I had the idea that I could do my column for my local NPR affiliate, KUSP. I called them up, then emailed them and said that I'd like to essentially read what I'd written on-air. They very politely (and wisely) said, "No, you can't do that, but you can do this..."  And that's been the story of my so-called career ever since.

I started out doing interviews with the science fiction authors I was reviewing for The Agony Column because the Santa Cruz audience was actually interested in them, and nobody else at the station was interested in covering genre fiction of any kind. But I'm an omnivorous reader, so the interviews have followed the Agony Column all over the map. The on-air work is immensely satisfying; it's the best (occasionally paid) job in the world. I get to talk to the world's most interesting people about something I love that they create out of whole cloth and the facts of this world. As a writer, it's like being in a series of one-on-one master classes with the best of the best, which explains all the process questions.

Editing the audio is another joy--scaring up the bits and pieces that become a report for NPR is a very odd but fun process. I comb the best out of the interviews then write a script that brings all those bit together in a synthesis I could not have imagined. Then I get to send it to my editor at NPR and we rip it apart and Frankenstein it back together. It's a great and unique collaborative process that I really enjoy and constantly learn from. Those reports may only last three minutes but they are very carefully sculpted.

And finally, all that talk and editing gives me a very deep and intense understanding and insight into what I read. It is all a big circle; as Charles Fort reminds us, "One measures a circle starting anywhere." What’s the hardest part of what you do?
Kleffel: Time, time and time. I have more than most, and I still need more. MORE! Each act, the writing, the reading, the interviewing, the travel to the interview, the prep, working in Dreamweaver, edit sessions with my editor at NPR, all of them are enjoyable. They'd be much more so if I could assign Editions of Me (cf Roxy Music) to attend to each of them. We might have enough time to do what needs to be done! I do find editing audio is potentially very difficult. It requires a significant act of will for me to listen to my own voice. Happily I can't reach into the sound file and slap myself upside the head.  Also happily, I can shut myself up with a click of the mouse and the CMD-E ("Erase") command in BIAS Peak. Delete is my best friend. Can you tell Amazon readers about some of your favorite moments interviewing authors?
Kleffel: I take something away from every interview I do; otherwise, I wouldn't be doing them. That said, I'll always remember my first interview with Al Reynolds telling me about the rotting train yards of Wales. Phil Rickman and his wife Carol gave my wife and I a recorded and guided Merrily Watkins country that was sublime. I can still hear the crunch of the gravel or the ring of the bell in that church. I remember the lesson-learning chat I had with Chuck Palahniuk the first time we spoke--before the tape was running! And he and I have had many a fine conversation since, the best because I consistently ask questions to which I think I know the answer, but I'm wrong--and happy to be told as much on tape. "You must be doing it wrong, Rick!  It's dirty and disgusting!"

Richard Ford and I had a great discussion about how he used the word "f---", and like T.C. Boyle, he just had such an intense vision of his writing craft it was truly illuminating. I had a blast talking with Whitley Strieber in his home. He and his wife were very gracious; and the interview was funny, chilling, highly intelligent. Strieber is really quite amazing. I've lots of great interviews in the attic and in the back office at Capitola Book Cafe--Ann Vileisis, then a few months later, her husband Tim Palmer. And for that matter, the Mollie Katzen / Michael Pollan / Ann Vileisis panel at J-School at UC Berkeley. Salman Rushdie on stage at the Rio Theatre. Robert Scheer. Countless bookstore owners; I can remember the feeling when Nancy Bass Wyden told me her husband was Senator Ron Wyden. What a rush!

I suppose one theme of late is that I do like taking my kit on the road and doing remote interviews. You can get great sound and a more relaxed feel. I recently spoke to Jim Houston and Tom Killion in Jim's Santa Cruz house, once owned by a survivor of the Donner party, then with Karen Joy Fowler who wrote about a very different house with the same survivor, in her backyard. You can hear the birds tweeting. But for all these individual mentions, I have to stress that every interview has these moments. Ask me tomorrow and you'll get a different list. I feel lucky, lucky, lucky every time i think about it. Can you give us some recent book recommendations?
Kleffel: Alan Cheuse's latest, To Catch the Lightning is a quintessential Great American Novel.  The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is also in this genre, with a bit of the mystery thrown in.  Rushdie's latest, The Enchantress of Florence is a fantasy chock-a-block with delights; Haroun and the Sea of Stories is equally good but much lighter, an eclair instead of a sixteen-story cake. Charlie Huston's latest, Half the Blood of Brooklyn will not leave your hands once it gets in them, so long as you love the word "f---" and the hyper-violent humor. And Robert Scheer's The Pornography of Power is essential reading. Even if you don't agree with his POV all the time, he's always an engaging writer; and, of course, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother works though the same ideas in the guise of YA fiction.  Benjamin Wallace's The Billionaire's Vinegar is one of those books I picked up on a whim and read in an afternoon. Al Reynolds' The Prefect and Neal Asher's Line War are why I read science fiction. As with the interviews, there are too many out there to mention. There's just not enough time. Run out now and read a book. Take the time--make the time!


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What do you make of Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND? Does it appear dated for you or is it something you admire?

It is always a pleasure and interesting to read correspondents about topics like insomnia from people who overcome them. I for one enjoyed reading the correspondence.

Rick's Agony column is wonderful. I love that it has an SF/F focus - but also that he will interview children's book authors, scientists, cookbook authors, booksellers.... It's one of only two podcasts that I listen to every single episode of. Brilliant stuff.

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