An Interview with Daniel Menaker

by Lisa Yanaky

At the beginning of March, a revolution in the world of books was launched – Titlepage, a literary show made just for the internet. Its engaging host and editorial producer, Daniel Menaker, is obviously quite comfortable around books and authors – he was a long-time editor for The New Yorker, worked as the Executive Editor at Harper Collins, and recently finished a stint as Editor-in-Chief at Random House…not to mention writing several books of his own while still managing to fit in some teaching.

Titlepage, which is halfway through its debut season, features groups of writers discussing their latest books, their ideas and inspirations, and their writing methods in a roundtable format. Recently, the host that keeps them all chatting about the world of books (not to mention the world that inspires the books), Daniel Menaker, was kind enough to take time away from the show and his own writing to answer some questions about the show, some favourite authors, and how the seemingly permanent world of books is changing and evolving.

You have an impressive resume that includes prestigious positions in the world of publishing – Random House, Harper Collins, The New Yorker – what made you jump into the relatively uncharted waters of the internet with your literary-themed show, Titlepage? Why now?

Well, my contract was up at Random House in the summer of 2007 and so they and I talked for a few months before then, and I think it’s fair to say that we amicably failed to come to new terms, so I was set loose in the strange new sea of What’s Next? I’d had an office job since 1969, for Heaven’s sake, even though I was writing all the while. I figured I would write (which I’m doing), teach (which I’m doing), and review (which I’m doing), and I had no idea that a very smart Belgian person and a very smart Lebanese person would be approaching me about this new and exciting internet venture. But when they did, and when I saw their work as documentary filmmakers, and when the entire idea behind the program seemed to me so worthy and interesting and, for me, educational, and such a natural extension of all the work I’ve done so far, I said yes. I considered the opportunity an incredibly lucky break to chart some of those uncharted waters.

How are the guests chosen for each episode? Is there already a theme in mind when authors are approached?

A small group meets at a location that must remain undisclosed for reasons of making this answer sound secret and important, and we talk about books and what’s coming and what seems good and what the pre-publication reviews are like and what we know of the authors and who is in New York or might be able to come to New York and so on. We narrow down our choices centrally on the basis of quality but also with the idea in mind that every program should have a general theme or congruity. (If you’ve ever been in a Comparative Literature course, you know that all works of literature have common denominators, but we try to be a little more overtly connective than that.)

What goes on behind the scenes in preparation for each episode?

Well, after I have fought off the hordes of fans that throng the streets around the studio, we go into a big, warehouse-like room where the set that you see online is to be found – where the cameras and lights are – and then into the greenroom and hair-and-makeup room, where we get styled and, well, made up. (The lights would otherwise make most of us look like Lou Reed.) There is wine and cheese and fruit and the writers meet for the first time or get re-acquainted, and the conversation is lively and informal. Then we go to the set and get miked and tested for sound level and then we sit down and then the cameras start to roll. But you know, I don’t think they actually “roll” anymore, those cameras, but I’m not sure. Some techy waters will no doubt remain uncharted for me.

Some of us may be lucky enough to see authors interviews on a regular basis, either in person or on television, but one thing most of us aren’t used to is how interactive Titlepage is proving to be. People comment on how to improve the show, or what they want to see more of – and, surprise, the suggestions have been heeded in the next episode. Quite innovative when books seem so permanent and even television can be slow-moving about change. How are you, the producers and the rest of the staff reacting to this level of interactivity from your viewers?

Very happily, except for the person who has suggested somewhere that because of my black outfit I am angling for a role in a sequel to “The Karate Kid.” It has been gratifying to read the responses from our audience, and the Internet has generally been kind to us, I think because its denizens understand the seriousness of our purpose, the fact that we have started up pretty well out of nowhere, and the general imperative to sustain the life of letters during a time when all media are in a transition of a magnitude not seen since Gutenberg put the monastic illuminators largely out of business.

How are your skills as an editor and writer adapting to hosting an internet show? Has anything caught you off-guard?

The skill sets (as they say), insofar as I have them, are in some ways remarkably similar and in others entirely different. It’s the performance set that I am working hard to master – they are far less familiar to me, of course. The similarities have to do with attending closely to what is being said and trying to develop it to its most interesting advantage. And with finding cohesion in the program as it develops – not unlike a text. The new challenges arise from the medium, really – I ain’t sitting at a desk by myself with my bottomless comma bin and with nothing to think about but the writing in front of me and how to make it as good as it can be. On Titlepage I have to think about how much time has gone by with each guest, how to make transitions from one guest to another, how to help generate full conversations among all four writers, how to help someone end an endless sentence (that is, interrupt!), how to nod less vigorously than I have inexplicably been doing from time to time, as if I were on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney, how to use my glasses as a prop but not chew on the earpieces until they are in shreds, how generally to come to terms with being what Yeats calls “a public man.”
What has caught me off-guard is generally how terrifically challenging it is to be a “host.” I have gained enormous respect for those who do this work with intelligence and professionalism. Even the supposedly “downmarket” presenters have a talent that is very unusual and very hard to acquire.

The debut episode was called “All Over the Map” and featured authors who had written about various places in the world. As a reader, are you drawn to books and authors from any particular region of the world? Do books about places you’ve never been intrigue you the most, or are you captivated by the absolutely endless takes on your hometown, New York City?

I have some particular interests in my personal reading (as one does in music), but I have worked with all kinds of writers as an editor and I respect any written work that is good for what it is. I was just in New Orleans and was reading a guidebook to the city and I ended up with enormous admiration for that work, because it’s clear that its author or authors put their hearts (and their humor) into it. I love books about New York, of course – though it is the setting for so many novels that I sometimes think authors should pay a Locale Tax or something like that – but I think and believe that anything done with rigor, feeling, and energy is to be admired. I particularly appreciate works in translation, though I fear that nuances are inevitably lost. (This is why I’m partial to books of poetry that have the original language on the left page and the English translation on the right.)

The second episode, “You Always Remember the First Time,” featured four engaging first-time authors. You’ve obviously had some amazing first books cross your desk during your years in the world of publishing, but what debuts have you fortuitously stumbled across in bookstores, brought home, read, and just gone – “Wow!”?

Actually, none, at least not for some decades. Because at The New Yorker and in publishing I was lucky enough to see those writers and often those books that would have wowed me in the stores before they got to the stores. And since I’ve been reading so much for so long, to be honest it’s hard for me to make this sort of serendipitous discovery in a bookstore. But when I was a kid it happened a lot – Catch-22 was like that for me, as was Lucky Jim, as was Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. I was also wowed by, um, a “marriage manual” that I stumbled upon when I was ten or eleven.

“The Horror! The Horror!” is the third episode of Titlepage, and while it features non-fiction writers, one thing is apparent: they’re all still telling us a story. Does this human drive to hear a story make you think that despite what alarmists are preaching, books will never be obsolete? You’re obviously using the internet to get people buzzing about books, but how do you think ink and paper will stand up to electronic book devices or people simply turning to rapidly consumable blogs?

Well, if you and I knew the answer to these kinds of questions, we would be rich pretty quickly, I think. Story will remain essential. The need for story is wired into our brains by evolution. In fact, that need for story has its dark side as well as its bright, cultural side. Because we tend to narrativize and often fictionalize events and beliefs in ways that can be destructive. I will go out on a bit of a limb and say that we will certainly have “real books” for the foreseeable future and that they will remain of a certain book-like length, but I strongly believe that far more of us will be reading them on electronic devices far sooner than many of us believe. If I had to bet, I would say that a hundred years from now books as we know them will be more nearly a specialty or niche artifact – but still vitally important, in their way – than culturally central and commanding objects. Shoot me, if you want to.

Your biography mentions you’re working on a book called A Good Talk, which is about ‘conversation.’ Any connection the wonderful guests you’ve been chatting with on your show?

Well, they do seem to go together, don’t they? I’m sure the two enterprises will support each other in various ways, though the book will be about people getting together socially and professionally, not in interviews or panels or forums.

What four authors would make up your dream episode of Titlepage? Either personal favourites, or guests that you think would spark incredible conversations amongst themselves.

We’ve been amazingly lucky so far in the quality and spirit of our guests, and this question is a little like asking, What other two fruits besides apples and oranges would you like to compare? The living tend to be invidious, easily insulted, and, well, alive. So I will stick with the dead: Shakespeare, Virgil, Dante, and Austen. But how unfair to limit me – or anyone else – to four! Just let me have four more, OK? Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, and Aeschylus.

What else can we look forward to seeing happen with Titlepage? Does a second season look promising? You must know that readers can never have enough books in their to-be-read piles, and Titlepage is certainly doing its part keeping the stacks high!

Well, thank you so much for the compliment and for all of these intriguing questions. We very much hope to continue this program and are bending every effort in that direction. Of course, Fall is when the so-called “big” books come out, so it would be great to talk to some of those writers, but you know, like all readers we’ve found that there are good books coming out all the time. Hoping for the best, we’ll see what happens.

Thanks to Daniel Menaker for the interview, we wish him and all of the other people who have worked to create Titlepage continued success with the show!

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