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Bookworm Host Michael Silverblatt's Trifecta: Reading, LA, and Novelist Sapphire

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Photo by Marc Goldstein
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Michael Silverblatt is the iconic host of the Santa-Monica based radio program Bookworm; a nationally-syndicated show about literature and poetry that has featured some of the greatest writers of our time (recent guests have included Joyce Carol Oates, Chris Adrian, and Eileen Myles). Regular Bookworm listeners know the passion Michael feels for books, so it should come as little surprise that he’s at the helm of this weekend’s KCRW UpClose event featuring critically-acclaimed novelist Sapphire (author of The Kid, and Push, which inspired the film Precious). Via telephone, LA's favorite literary pundit shared with us his love of literature, thoughts about the local LA literary community, and why he can hardly wait to meet author and poet Sapphire.

On Literature:
“I’ve found the world and all the things I’ve known through books. The first time I remember having a teacher who was worth the name 'teacher,' was when I was in the fourth grade. Mrs. Todd taught us Greek Myths (I had thought she’d said Greek Mints) and the story of Pandora’s Box. I went to the public library looking for the book, and the librarian there found it for me. I just loved it. Pandora was a magic story—a story with magic in it and there, at the bottom of the box, we have hope. And there I had it, the Trifecta: The teacher, the library, a book. Everything came from there.

"I hear that kids don’t read anymore and that worries me. I wonder how they’re going to know the world. How are they going to know what's beyond their own lives? The world is over when we lose the ‘cast of spell’ of reading. Without reading, all you have is ego and greed."

On Bookworm and 'LA As Literary':
“Anyone who looks at LA and tries to deny the literary scene here will have to deny the best book sales in the country and the best book show in the world. People who call LA names will also have to deal with the fact that for 21 years, while in the rest of the country they’ve closed down their bookstores and their book sections and their book shows, Bookworm has been here. We couldn’t get a show on in New York. Why not? Because they didn’t think there would be listeners for a show dedicated entirely to literature and poetry. And they still don’t have it.

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"Given that’s true, I never wanted the show to be about the LA literary scene. I’m talking to the world about writing. I’m not sure that I believe in the way, say, that Faulkner did, in the local. But, when I find a good book that is set in LA, I always have it on the show. I always do. Stone Arabia is a book by a local writer named Dana Spiotta that I think is terrific. And I’m always talking about the book Their Dogs Came With Them by Helena Maria Viramontes, which is about the Latino community in LA back in the days when the freeway divided that community off from the rest of LA. It’s a terrific LA-based book, but it didn’t get reviewed anywhere—not even by the LA Times.

"I know that Los Angeles needs and could thrive with a show devoted to all-local writing. I think it could be important and I think someone should set it up."

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Novelist Sapphire. Photo Courtesy of the author.
On Sapphire, Push, and The Kid:
“I was overwhelmed by Push. It moved me to tears. I really think it’s one of the great books of our time and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t turn out to be one of those books that defines us. For me, the character of Precious is one of the major creations in modern American literature. She’s large in spirit, in pain. She seems to me, truly, like a Shakespeare character. I couldn’t get Precious out of my head. It wasn’t just that ferocity, but it was that the character has a sense of humor, and a very big heart. Push has enough poetry in it and enough truth in it and enough subtlety and disguise in it. And best of all, if you ask me, is that it doesn’t take any easy ways out. What is the thing that kids in America are being given too much of? Too much 'happy ending.' ‘Having it all’ is the big American lie. You don’t ‘get it all.’ Really great writing doesn’t hedge any of its bets."I think Sapphire is the kind of author who has her audience in the palm of her hand. And I think we’re there because Sapphire doesn’t give out easy answers. Sapphire is saying I can make you want to turn the page even though you may dread what comes next. As a writer, Sapphire is in control, in command; you don’t write a book like Push on accident.

"The Kid is even more ferocious, and is written in the voice of a young teenage black male. In The Kid, Precious is gone, and her son, Abdul, is a boy who is somewhat delusional—suspended between fantasies and reality. All of the things we learn in Push are set on their head in The Kid.

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“I wanted this to be a public event because public radio is often faulted for being too white and too nice. And I thought, 'hey, there’s no better way than to start here.' I also really wanted something that would allow for an intimate event. I have a feeling this isn’t going to be any interview, it is going to be an event.

"I just can’t wait to meet Sapphire. I’ve given 52 interviews a year for 21 years, and, for me, this event is as frightening as the first time I talked to Joan Didion.”

You can catch "Bookworm" live each Thursday 2:30pm-3:00pm on KCRW (89.9 FM). Michael Silverblatt's next interview is with Jon-Jon Goulian, author of The Man In The Gray Flannel Shirt on Thursday, July 28. All Bookworm episodes are available via online archive. For more information, be sure to visit the Bookworm website and Michael Silverblatt’s Facebook page. For information on KCRW’s upcoming Sapphire event, click here.

KCRW Presents UpClose: An Evening With Bookworm Host Michael Silverblatt and Novelist Sapphire
July 24, 2011, private location.
5:00 pm. Ages 21+Tickets, $50.