"In conversation: encounters with great writers" is the title of Ben Naparstek's first book, published last year. Tim from Readers Services went to hear Ben in conversation (with Guy Somerset of the NZ Listener) about "In conversation" at AWRF 2010. I had to wait a bit for his comments (not a reprimand, I haven't gotten all mine up either, that's how it is at busy Central Library - did everyone see us written up in Canvas yesterday?) but it was super worth it. Here is Tim on Ben N. (and his anagram Mr P.) for all to enjoy:
Overheard after the talk:
"So...that was Ben Pasternak..." ( joking, old fellow's voice -- joking, I thought, but couldn't see his face to verify.)
"Yep" said his friend (tall).
Old Fellow: "His diction wasn't so good..."
Tall Man- "No...no..."
O.F.-"He mumbled so I couldn't hear and...it was a little rambling..."
He didn't mumble, to my ears at least, but Ben Naparstek did lack the seasoned delivery of a literary talk circuit veteran. He didn't command the stage or have the practiced sound bites ready at hand. My first impression was of an unassuming fellow -- quiet and maybe a little shy. Was he in the right place? His tie was a little askew, his hair a little messed up, he slouched to the side a little, and it is true what they say about him being very young -- The "Doogie Howser" of journalism he has been called.
Certainly, young and fresh-faced for someone in his position (age 24, but already editor of the Australian magazine of politics, society and culture The Monthly, with close to a decade of top level journalism under his belt, interviewed such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami at a tender age... ).
Occasionally he stumbled over his words- like when he read from his piece on Chomsky- and that's when he reminded me of a high school student reciting homework aloud. But one couldn't be shy or stumbling when interviewing such a towering figure, surely. His answer to the question if he got intimidated interviewing these people was "Well...no". He seemed a little nonplussed at the idea. The purpose of the interview is get material, not to impress his subjects, he said.
There would be no room for shyness running a magazine either, whatever your age. He told of how he first heard, aged eighteen, that The Monthly was in the works and needed an editor. He said that at first he didn't think of it as a magazine he might edit (aged eighteen!). At first. But he applied anyway.
He was asked at the beginning of the session how he likes to open an interview and he replied that it can be good to wrong-foot the subject a little, and by the end of the hour I felt as if I had been a little wrong-footed by my first impression of him. It became apparent that this fellow was smart and unflappable. He didn't display a gift of the gab, but he was articulate and thoughtful. I wondered if he used his boyishness as part of his journalistic tool kit -- to wrong-foot people, disarm them so as to get the genuine reaction, the telling quote...
Over the course of the talk he touched on his early academic leanings (idealised academic rigour only to be disillusioned by academic insularity, gave up the ivory tower in favour of writing for the wider public), the craft of the interview (he always makes full transcriptions of interviews so as to find the hidden telling phrase not so immediately apparent), and the job of managing a magazine.
Not much in the way of gossip about famous people though.
As they wandered away the Tall Man said to his friend that he would have approached the Norm Chomsky interview differently, asked him about his philosophy, politics, serious stuff, you know... Norm Chomsky? Maybe Ben Pasternak would have done a better job.