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« Bookmarks Chicago Literary Hall of Fame to Induct Six Authors »

Author Tue Nov 25 2014

The Other Chair Up There: An Hour with Donna Seaman

Donna Seaman was happy to speak with me. It was a surprise; her reputation preceded her. I knew Seaman was the woman who'd interviewed Martin Amis at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. She is also a senior editor of Booklist.

These facts alone I describe as a "reputation": leafing through its pages on the bus downtown, I recognized Booklist as the answer to my past weekend's wondering, of literature's fading importance; and Amis was the coy and mellifluous knight at the masthead of that importance. We had all cheered, in the audience, when he came on stage. Because in his dry wit and Swansean tone we all thought we were hearing something of the truth.

She had a hand in both worlds and that fact alone led me to anticipate she'd be a little bit scary. She wasn't.

We met at her office. I was given a white badge with an arbitrary number/letter code at its base and we road the elevator with giddy introductions.

Donna SeamanUpstairs, she pushed a few copies of Booklist toward me across the conference room table.

"This is what I do," she said, "I don't know if you knew that." I told her how thoroughly I did know that; the magazine's reputation, its taste in books, her taste in books. She asked me my background, I told her. Seaman is a slight woman with bright red hair and a very welcoming smile. She is an astute listener.

Before I broached the subject of interviewing Martin Amis we discussed her background with the Humanities Festival (she has been an moderator many times prior, including once for two doctors discussing the body and illness in Jane Austen), a short career as a literary-minded radio host and her time at the Tribune writing book reviews when book reviews had their own section in the newspaper.

What's a newspaper? I joked.

"Literary criticism was much more vibrant then," she said. "It was an art form, a part of the whole conversation." She smiled, remembering Amis' humorous scorn toward criticism.

"I'm not sure what exactly eroded that, but when he was sort of mocking reviewing it was sort of a sad moment."

I recalled expansive reviews I'd read in Booklist, Harper's and The New Yorker and Seaman nodded. Amis himself has written brilliant literary essays.

"[They're] models of that form," she grinned, "and he still does and still will, which is why his comments...might be disingenuous."

Had you met him before? I asked.

"No, I've had no contact with him. I've read and reviewed him for a while."

And when you reviewed him, what did you think of him? I asked.

"I've always admired his style; I mean, his language is just phenomenal. He's so clearly brilliant. He's written some novels, like Yellow Dog, for instance, that are just detestable in so many ways," she laughed, delighted by the gall, "but I sort of admired him for doing it. He had something he really wanted to get done. A lot of his books, though, I just think are so smart and so deeply connected to the whole tradition."

She smiled and said, "I mean he's a really powerful, powerful writer."

Seaman recalled the first moment she met him, backstage in a music room that served as the green room at the Parker School. "A sort of fake green room," she laughed.

"They ask us to get there early, and I got there pretty much on time. I didn't really expect him to be there and he wasn't."

He showed up and quickly retreated outdoors for a smoke. "He was very nice, I mean, he knew who I was, he thanked me for [moderating]..." she dismisses the idea that these niceties are in any way an obligation. "I mean, he's such a pro; writers understand that it's a lot of work for someone to prepare for these things.

"He was very quiet and thanked me for my reviews. We got in the usual conversation of, you know, where are you on your book tour. He was very anxious to go home."

No horror stories. He had a good time. Amis was surprised, in fact, that so many people turned out.

"He felt 'very fortunate' and 'very grateful' that people had even shown up," she recalled. On stage, he had remarked that in London no one would "cross a street" for such a program.

He's not very tall? I asked.

"Oh, no, he's not tall, but he has tremendous presence," she said. "I mean, I'm not tall either."

Neither am I, and I could attest that the "presence" which resonated a few feet away on stage also reached the balcony.

As Amis and Seaman waited backstage they bonded over the strange choice of drum n' bass preshow music and wondered together if the club atmosphere might be completed by dimming the lights. But no one seemed ready to dance.

"I've done a lot of these things and some people get very nervous and it's your job to help them to relax, but he was fine," she said.

She seemed to think the interview, as well, went rather well.

"It's rare for writers to give you really short answers, but it can happen. You prepare questions sort of expecting writers to speak at some length, especially for an audience like that who want depth, but it does happen -- they'll turn and give you a sentence." She wiped a hand across her brow, feigning anxiety.

Martin was the opposite: he spoke almost exclusively in beautifully formed paragraphs.

"When he was talking about the Holocaust, he was talking about research he's been conducting for years and years and years and an obsession of his," she explained, "I'd guessed a long time ago that he had, maybe, a photographic memory and you can sort of tell that he's fluent in books. He can remember things he's written and things he's read. He can really summon it; I was sure he could recite poems and chapters and sentences.

"It was kind of fun to sit there and watch him do it, and think 'yeah, this is what I figured!'"

I related it poorly to a tennis match. Seaman nodded politely and continued:

"You know, he's lived and breathed literature his whole life; his father was a famous, famous writer. I don't know if Americans realize the degree of celebrity that surrounded his household. I mean, it was a circus! So Martin grew up with that; and it was not an easy way to grow up."

He had no intention of being a writer, it seems. That was "dad's thing."

"He hated school; he was sort of a rowdy guy!" she said.

What did he want to do? I asked.

"I don't think he knew!" she said. "He was sort of a famous, privileged guy who didn't really have to do anything."

Once he really started in, though, he worked very hard. He was on the staff of the Times Literary Supplement; he wrote reviews and literary criticism.

"There were a group of literary guys in the '70s who were just partying and writing and reading and [through them] he sort of realized, 'this is who I am', but up to that point..." she laughed, "he got thrown out of schools, I mean...he was unruly. As was I, actually!"

Seaman laughed again and I was reminded of how exciting literature can be.

"A lot of people who end up doing creative things have a hard time conforming, right from the start.

"Even though his household wasn't conventional it was sort of upper class and his father was kind of rowdy in his own way but he had this career. Even his mother, and stepmother. They were all really impressive people.

"So you know, he had some reaction to that, too."

There's combativeness to Mr. Amis that Seaman believes must have been borne of his childhood.

"He was hounded, you know; as he wrote about so acutely in
Lionel Asbo
, the British press is brutal. He grew up dealing with that and is still dealing with that and has some very strong feelings about what that does to you."

He's a warrior, she added.

Exemplifying this combative spirit, the reading contained unabashed reference to not only the Holocaust (the subject of his new novel, Zone of Interest), but also ISIS and Vladimir Putin. Zone of Interest has come under attack from some who consider it too ironic a treatment of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in general, a subject some believe better left out of literature altogether.

"I would have bet money that he was going to talk about [ISIS and Putin]. I wasn't going to ask political questions," she continued. "I expected the audience to, and they did." She shook her head in admiration.

"You expect him to utilize that style, people call it super-ironic; but every perspective he took on it was just so perfect; it let you see again how inexplicable -- and he used the word opaque -- [the Holocaust] is. But it's also an amazing novel because he is also playing with novelistic tradition, as well."

Zone of Interest is particularly interesting in its elements of the classic British novel and even some echoes of Flaubert (though it quickly shifts to something far darker and stranger).

"He has such command of all those forms, all those traditions, even if readers aren't aware of how he's using them."

Seaman continued: "The whole idea of treating the Holocaust as a business problem, an assembly line issue -- you know, 'How do you get rid of bodies?' Which I think everyone's thought about because the numbers are so appalling and we've all seen the images of the stacked up clothing and hair, all these grotesque collections the Nazis created. There are all sorts of scenes of this. And then the corpse disposal..." she laughed unexpectedly. "Which is really, very....you just find yourself laughing in horror. But laughing nonetheless! It's sort of like Modern Times, the old Charlie Chaplin movie with the sped up assembly line, but these are dead people!

"So this idea of industrial death, he really makes you see it in a very personal way."

There was a great deal of laughter at Amis' reading. Some of it nervous, some guarded. He described in detail many specific horrors of Auschwitz he had come across in his research. Oozing, popping fields of decomposition, for example; and his descriptions went on and on with a strange fascination. I was surprised at how virginal my ears felt, hearing the horrors come out his mouth with his detail and his metaphor. I remembered reading about the Holocaust before; I'd seen films; I'd visited museums; but the horrors hadn't translated as they did filtered through his brain.

"You can watch him go back in that place," Seaman said, "and I felt like I had to pull him out of it at some point. I remember doing it and it was almost like he snapped out of it, and he gave me this sort of bemused look, sort of "sorry, right...maybe enough putrefying corpses...'" She laughed, then, too.

"He's been accused of being cold and clinical, but I absolutely know that's not the case, it's quite the opposite, he is deeply caring and compassionate...I mean, certainly he is often appalled at humanity, but I think there's a deep morality to paying attention the way he does."

We care about literature because writers are not doing it soullessly.

"You can see it in him, this deep feeling for history, and this deep curiosity for how we do what we do and how we justify it. I think he's been often misunderstood and misread." She paused. "I've always felt that fiction is so important to our understanding of what's really at stake."

We briefly discussed Amis' privilege in being able to approach the subject of the Holocaust as a writer, where others are forced to live with it -- whether it is a part of their personal, familial or cultural history.

"Amis knows he's privileged," she said, "and yet he's really put himself through things addressing issues that are horrifying and disturbing, and I really admire that."

Amis, like his mentor and surrogate father-figure Saul Bellow, writes about the dirty parts of people with an intention to specificity that betrays a sort of secret empathy and humanity.

At the reading Seaman asked him whether he enjoyed coming to Chicago because it had been Saul Bellow's home for so long; he said yes, he did, and for that reason.

"He wrote a review of a novel of Bellow's and at the very end -- I thought this was very sweet -- he wrote that he thought Saul was misspelled, that it should have been 'Soul'." Seaman's smile is warm and meditative.

"That's a pretty amazing thing to say, especially about Saul Bellow, who was a tough character." Seaman adjusted her shirt collar. "I was really shocked by it when I came across it a decade ago. It was very curious..."

She trailed off.

Do you ever get nervous? I asked. I couldn't imagine this bright, caring, intelligent person getting nervous, ever.

"Of course I get nervous," she said. "But I also know that no one's coming to see me, so I just need to get it together!"

We spoke of Ralph Ellison and magazines and movie sets and parted ways. I was happy Donna Seaman had been happy to speak with me, as I had been happy to speak with her.

Preparing for the next Humanities Festival, I would be sure to find out which events Seaman was moderating and buy my tickets well in advance. I'd wait in the audience, knowing she was waiting in the green room for whichever someone smoking outside, thoroughly prepared for whatever came her way. She'd have read every book, each essay and criticism, too. I'd drag some friends along with me and if we saw her waiting in the wings as the lights dimmed, I'd point and whisper, "That's Donna Seaman," and we'd cheer when she came on stage to sit in the other chair up there, knowing how nervous we'd be interviewing so-and-so, and how difficult it would be to "get it together."

We'd come to hear Seaman ask the right questions and keep the night on track, and we'd cheer because we would think, perhaps, that we were hearing something of the truth in Donna Seaman, in her generous follow-ups and notecards; and we'd listen to what she had to say, knowing confidently she probably wasn't nervous at all.

 
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