Who could resist an invitation to interview a massive icon? A really great novelist, say, or a former US president? Hence the impressive cast of interviewers Dan Crowe has managed to line up to contribute to this collection: Joyce Carol Oates, David Mitchell, Ian Rankin and more. There’s a catch, however – the subjects of the interviews are all long dead (some, like Monsieur de Saint-George, have been dead for more than two centuries) – so each interviewer must supply both sides of the conversation.
Most of the interviewees are speaking to us from The Other Side – reached by Ouija board (Conan Doyle), by “Time Warp” app (connecting Rebecca Miller to the Marquis de Sade), or a public kiosk offering Rick Moody the chance to question a simulated Jimi Hendrix. “What’s Heaven like?” Michel Faber asks an irritable Marcel Duchamp. “The whole damn place is decorated with Rothkos,” he replies. “All very lovely, I’m sure, but it’s enough to make you want to kill yourself.”
The conversations’ territory is mostly predictable – Andy Warhol is quizzed about celebrity, Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes. (He sighs. He has been asked these questions before.) Henry James tries to deflect our intolerable 21st-century prurience, as Cynthia Ozick grills him about his sexuality. (He’s only lucky he wasn’t being interviewed by a (fictionalised) coke-snorting Geoff Dyer. How poor Nietzsche suffers!)
Some, such as Richard Nixon, are keen to tell their story, an eye on rehabilitation in posterity. Others are suspicious, or distracted. The Marquis de Sade is dismayed at the ultra-simplified legacy he’s left behind; he’s really keen to discuss his atheism, his theatre and his haemorrhoids. David Mitchell’s joint Johnson-Boswell interview is briefly interrupted by William Blake, who’s been asleep in the corner, being temporarily roused – “Please no, not another vision …” sighs Boswell. A sense of gleeful mischief prevails.
Some pieces tip slightly towards the respectful, but there’s the most brazen disrespect, too. The bold, high-voltage vulgarity in some (Dyer/Nietzsche) nicely offsets more quietly witty, clever others (Sam Leith carefully handling the John Berryman ego). The voices are often entertaining pastiche, and sometimes viciously funny. Not everyone benefits from the company, though. John Burnside’s interview with Rachel Carson, which, published in another context, might have been read as an inventive take on contemporary green issues and the political uses of language, in this company looks rather po-faced.
“You always make a fool of yourself when you meet your heroes,” says a star-struck Leith; others choose to make fools of them, instead. The collection concludes with an extended story of thrilling detail by Joyce Carol Oates, charting a brilliantly engineered ramping up of hostilities as a fictional interviewer meets Robert Frost and finds him a crude, proud bully.
Henry James’s interview is concerned in part with the afterlife of the writer – how will the work survive, how will the reputation change? – and he describes himself as passionately favouring “the universalization of epistolary arson”. But burn all the private correspondence you like; posterity, it seems, will find another way in, and it won’t always be pretty.