Do you ever wish you could just pop the hood of a great piece of writing and see how it works? That’s the idea behind “Book Exploder,” an eight-part podcast series hosted by author and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean and created by executive producer Hrishikesh Hirway.
Like his popular “Song Exploder” podcast (also a documentary series on Netflix), where musicians break down their songs to show how they were built, this literary spinoff features authors taking their work apart: Michael Cunningham (”The Hours”), Min Jin Lee (”Pachinko”), and Carmen Maria Machado (”In the Dream House”) are a few of the guests.
But for the first episode, Hirway interviewed the host herself about a passage from her nonfiction work, ”The Library Book,” part ode to public libraries, part investigation into the largest library disaster in US history — at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. Led by Hirway, Orlean talks about a firefighter’s log that helped her re-create events and conjure sights, smells, and sounds. For instance: “The temperature reached 451 degrees and the books began smoldering. Their covers burst like popcorn.”
In a recent Zoom interview, we talked about the craft of writing, the beauty of close reading, and the mechanics of creativity.
Q. I really liked hearing about the firefighter’s log. Hrishikesh, what sticks in your mind from that interview?
H.H. The research was the thing that struck me the most, the fact that Susan could take a primary source like this firefighter’s log and then sort of transmute it into something that was beautiful to read. There’s an act of magic to it. Like, what are the liberties that you’re allowed to take? How could you imagine what happened?
Q. Susan, what was it like for you digging into one passage like that?
S.O. I, in a nerdy way, absolutely delight in talking about process. It’s very rare to get a question that’s about “How did you make that sentence?” I think people would be shocked to know how rarely writers actually talk about writing. We talk about our kids, and maybe ideas that we’re thinking about working on, but we don’t talk about process that much, and I think it’s so much fun to talk about. It often reveals a lot to you when you are forced to think about creative choices you made. You stop and think, “Why did I pick that word? Why did I structure this this way?”
Q. Talking about “craft,” I think people might worry about sounding pretentious.
S.O. In a way, it’s the opposite of pretentiousness because you’re really saying, “This is a work of craft. It’s a mechanical process to create this magical thing.” I think we’ve devalued creativity to a point that people feel funny suggesting that it’s an active undertaking.
H.H. The secret for me about how I make “Song Exploder,” and what I like about “Book Exploder” as well, is, yes, it’s about a piece of work. But actually the piece of work is a lens that we get to look through to get to know how an artist thinks.
Q. There’s something that puts people at ease when you ask them such a concrete, technical question.
H.H. That’s 100 percent the cornerstone of both of these shows.
Q. Let’s talk about how you chose these authors.
S.O. Well, Hrishi and I put together a sort of dream list. If we were to be able to ask anybody in the world, who would they be? And then we began filtering that by whether we thought they were available or accessible. In this case, they were people with whom I had some connection. They’re all people whose work I love. It was nice to try to mix it up in terms of the material and the style of writing. As far as the passage, we offered them the opportunity to suggest something if they wanted. Just about everybody came to us with a passage. Except me. I kept saying to Hrishi, “I don’t know.” So he said, “All right, well, I have a suggestion for you.”
Q. When we talk about the fact that every word counts, I immediately think of copy editors and book editors. Do other close readers ever come up in conversation?
H.H. Michael Cunningham talked specifically about his reader group of friends and how he relies on their perspective. One that I really love, too, is when Min Jin Lee was talking about her process. She talked about two roles, but they were both herself. In one instance, she’s the writer and she’s very kind to herself when she’s writing. But in a former life, she was a corporate lawyer, and she talked about how, when she’s finished writing, the corporate lawyer part of her comes out, and that’s the editor who says, “No, get rid of this” and is extremely harsh.
Q. My father’s a lawyer — he marked up my drafts with red pen. Lawyers are some of the best editors.
S.O. Yeah, and there’s an economy of expression that you have to regard.
Q. I want to talk about who you are as the interviewer. We always have to take on some kind of role or an amalgam of roles. So who are you?
S.O. Well, at the simplest level, I’m a reader. I’m somebody who’s read these books, and these are the questions that lingered. I’m also approaching this from the perspective of a peer: “I know I do it this way. How do you do what you’re doing?” As an interviewer, my posture in the world is I’m a curious person. It’s perfectly comfortable for me to be a little naive, or just innocent, like, “Tell me how you did this; I can’t figure it out.” Certainly in the case of fiction, I’m totally odd . . . it’s completely the inverse of what we do as nonfiction writers, which is, “Here are the facts — how do you make it eloquent?” There’s a part of me, talking to fiction writers, that’s completely dazzled.
Q. Who are the best close readers in your life?
S.O. The only person to whom I show stuff when it’s just a mess — and I think that’s really important to have one of those people — is my husband. It’s a really critical relationship because I feel like I want him to be honest, but also it’s a vulnerable thing to show people stuff when you know it’s not polished. He’s managed to straddle the tough-love-but-encouraging response. I’ll also say, I’m a really good reader of myself. I have become, with time, a good editor of myself. I’m maybe not quite where Min Jin Lee is, but I can really step back, and I’ve become much better at saying, “Nope, didn’t work,” or “this is disorganized.” And I’m a tough editor. I’m so much better than I was earlier in my career where if something was on the page, it was perfect, in my mind.
Q. Hrishikesh, you’ve had such success with “Song Exploder” — it occurs to me, and I’m sure it’s occurred to you, that you could “explode” a lot more. What’s next?
H.H. This was definitely an experiment to see if the ”Song Exploder” format could work for another medium. I don’t think there’s any limit to the kinds of things that you could talk about when you’re curious about how something got made.
“Book Exploder” episodes release every other Wednesday. The first episode, with Hirway interviewing Orlean, is available now.
Interview was edited and condensed.