When Bomb magazine launched in 1981, it quickly became the collective voice of a very particular urban scene, that of the avant-garde underground of New York in the ’80s. Provocative, fractious and conceptually sophisticated, it was the cool downtown chick of magazines. In the decades since, the magazine has broadened its once cultlike following, but its signature innovation — the author-on-author interview — remains intact. “Bomb: The Author Interviews” brings together a selection of these conversations in a handsome anthology. The book, which offers 35 of the magazine’s interviews, is both a primer on authorial strategies and a record of the evolution of an iconic literary institution.
Today, it may be hard to think of artists interviewing each other as a bold and transformative idea, but back in the ’80s it was. The point was to avoid professional critics and journalists and let authors and artists speak directly to each other in an authentic, improvisatory dialogue. The appeal of this technique was — and is — voyeuristic: It provides a glimpse into an imaginary heavenly club where writers lounge about in chummy camaraderie, admiring each other’s works with suave generosity, tossing off polished aperçus about the life of the mind. (The truth about writers, at least in my experience, is rather less glamorous.) In one respect, though, writers are exactly like everyone else. As the novelist Jim Lewis puts it in a 1998 interview with Dale Peck: “It’s worth remembering that writers lie a lot when they talk about their own work. Lie all over the place. It can’t be helped.”
For better or worse, though, the author-on-author form has softened and expanded to the point where the conversations often sag under the weight of smug, self-congratulatory pontification. This is not all bad, necessarily — a forum for writers such as Álvaro Mutis or Nuruddin Farah to unfold their thoughts on cultural identity is, in some respects, more necessary than ever. But it can often be quite dull. The problem is amplified in this collection, in which Bomb founding editor Betsy Sussler has made the understandable but misguided decision to draw heavily on interviews from more recent decades, with only two of the excerpts coming from the magazine’s heyday in the ’80s. Understandable in that this choice means there are more familiar names on the cover, misguided in that it means readers get little sense of the weirder, artier stuff that represents Bomb’s original ethic.
An early interview of Kathy Acker, a foundational downtown feminist, by filmmaker Mark Magill, for example, takes the form of a profane, caustic detournement of a census questionnaire: “33. Q: Favorite animal: Male. 34. Q: Do you have any pets? Yeah, sometimes. 35. Q: Do you have any house plants? I never raise the shades.”
Unfortunately, few of the other conversations collected here capture that same quirky irreverence. Twenty years later, Jonathan Safran Foer wonders “if writers and artists use drugs because they think they’re supposed to,” while Ben Marcus talks about woodworking and cooking and the effect of parenting on his work schedule. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, exactly; it’s just that Bomb was originally written for people who were too busy stealing spray paint and doing drugs in East Village dives to be bothered with such mundane things; that was the whole point.
Those days may be gone, but the audience for intellectual inside baseball remains. There will always be a certain segment of the book-buying public who get a charge out of writerly shoptalk. Brooklyn is lousy with them — earnest young men and women who are dead serious about the craft of writing and whose faith in the fundamental communicability of the mysteries of the creative arts is absolute. They devour such artifacts in the hope of absorbing some reflected rays of glory. This anthology will serve as a handbook of sorts to these aspirants in refining their own authorial perorations, which they are constantly secretly rehearsing, in the shower, perhaps, so as to be ready for their moment.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
The Author Interviews
Edited by Betsy Sussler
Soho. 460 pp. $40