Tag Archive for lewis buzbee interview

James Preller Interviews . . . Lewis Buzbee: Part Two!

I’m back for Part Deux of our chat with my lovely and talented co-host this week, author Patty Duke Lewis Buzbee. (To catch up with Part One, click here.)

As a nod to tradition, let’s open the show with a brief musical interlude, which expresses in musical terms how I feel about Lewis . . .

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

They don’t write songs like that anymore. Anyway Lewis, one of the things that comes through in your writing is that you love books, the physical objects themselves.

Books are unique tools. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. A CD, say, or a DVD, those are great tools, too. And have some physical pleasures to them. Even certain iPods are lovingly designed. But those objects are just mediums for the message — the sound comes from space still — if only the space in your ears. Or the movie appears on the screen, over there. But a book is the thing it imparts. You cannot separate the two. And because of this, I think, we have decided that books can be beautiful, sensual objects.

A bookseller knows this. Next time you go into a bookstore, watch the browsers. So much of how we choose a book is done with our hands. We pick it up, stroke it, turn it over, weigh it in our hands. We’re buying the thing itself.

Is your book available on Kindle?

No. Not this one. But, hey, I’m open to it.

It was significant to some viewers of Star Trek when Captain Picard pulled down a leatherbound edition of Shakespeare, or whatever it was he read. Actually, I believe he was a fan of the hard-boiled detective genre. Viewers were reassured by that vision of the technological future, which — let’s face it — frankly scares the bejeezus out of us. And of course, I have to mention our shared enthusiasm for Battlestar Galactica, where frak is a word and books are revered, treasured links to a broken past. Those scenes when Admiral Adama is reading to Laura Roslin.

Did you ever watch Hill Street Blues?

Of course. Loved that show.

There’s a great scene where one of the detectives is reading to his horse, who is quite ill. They’re in the stall together, and he’s reading to the horse from Faulkner, “another great horseman,” he says. Very moving. And of course, the final scene in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where all those people have each memorized one book, to preserve it.

It’s clear that the Kindle-monster is here to stay, and too much lamenting will do us no good. But I assert — very strongly — that the book is not going to disappear in the next five minutes.

It’s not a question, really, of either/or, for me, either books or computers, it’s a matter of both. Hey, if someone’s fearful of losing books, there’s a simple remedy. Go buy a book, turn off your damn computer, and read. Simple. World saved. Lamenting about it on Facebook does nothing. Read.

I ordered my copy of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop from Amazon.com. Does that make me a bad person?

Not at all. Listen, for years people complained about the chain stores, and the ruination . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. Truth is, chain stores have been crucial to keeping alive the literary culture, the publishing business, the diversity of the books we have available to us. The same is true of Amazon. It’s here, it’s not going away, and it does a lot of work on behalf of writers and publishers everywhere. I’m not a Luddite . . .

. . . I just happen to love books and bookstores. And I don’t believe that the bookstore will be replaced, completely, by Amazon. I mean, I still need to get out of the house now and then. And we are Americans, so shopping is what we do best. Books, more than ever, in many ways, are more current than ever. They are more widespread than ever, and there are more of them than ever. And we will want to go to bookstores to buy them.

Listen, if it gets to the point where we can do everything we need to do on a computer — and I can think of three things, off the top of my head, that you can’t do via computer — then go ahead and shoot me. Really don’t want to live in that world.

True or False: The novel is dead, literacy is dead, the computer has triumphed.

Pshaw. Not a chance. In the nineteenth century, with the advent of the bicycle, the op-eds of that day declared the death of literary culture. We would all spend so much time on our bicycles, we’d never read again.

Case in point: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Katharine Ross and that bicycle. They never read a thing in that movie.

Uh, Ms. Ross to you. And frankly, if I had a bicycle and that woman and a trusty sidekick and a loaded revolver — I’d never read again either.

Please don’t let thoughts of Katharine Ross distract you. But, gosh. Look at her . . .

We were discussing the death of the novel . . .

The novel was declared dead, once again, in 1962, I think. Before One Hundred Years of Solitude, Catch-22, and a thousand other great and important books. Humans are storytellers, we need stories. And long stories. We will build them one way or the other.

Like I said, computers are cool, but they ain’t everything. They’re just another thing. We’re a little bit obsessed right now with them — because we just invented them. We really have no idea what we’re going to do with them yet. It’s been, what, thirty years since they became user-friendly. Books have been around a lot longer than that.

And I want to say, right here, I also don’t believe the whole, “oh, we have such short attention spans” argument. People have always had short attention spans. And long ones. Right now, you know at least a dozen people who can tell you every single thing that happened on every episode of The Wire, or something else. We have huge  brains.

I think you are such a good writer. You have this clean,  direct style — it’s never, “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” I think when we read a book, it’s so important to have that feeling, to know we’re in capable hands. That this author, like a good limo driver, can take us where we need to go.

Thanks so much. The check is in the mail.

But again with the books. The writers I’ve studied and feel most drawn to are those writers who want to communicate with readers, not impress them. Even at fifteen, I knew there was no real cache in being a writer — dude, I was gonna be a rock star. But at fifteen I also felt the power of communication, what John Irving calls one genius speaking to another genius. I strive to communicate. When I want to impress you, I juggle.

Lewis! Put down the chainsaw . . .

the bowling ball . . . and the live chicken. Right now! I’m not kidding around.

Oh, they’re not for juggling.

You are a sick, twisted man. Nevertheless, I have to say, you are one of the few published authors that I can enjoy on Facebook. You don’t see it as an endless promotional loop . . . and I thank you for that.

I am so done with networking. It’s one of the great fallacies, don’t you think, of the twitterverse — somehow it will make us all rich and famous. My new motto: working without a net. Facebook is one large Post-It note. I’m just amazed that there are writers who spend so much time promoting themselves there. Shouldn’t they be writing?

In the end, for me, all the self-promotion is just so tedious. But here I am, knee-deep in bloggy blogness.  Yet I contend there’s a distinction. A reader comes here by choice. I’m giving this stuff away, folks. And I try to keep the self-promotion to a minimum, because it’s boring, borderline tacky, and I don’t think it works. But I do feel that new authors, especially, are getting the message loud and clear from publishers and friends: “You’ve got to promote yourself relentlessly! You have to get out there — and sell, sell, sell!”

Now for a commercial interruption from Dennis Cass, who has struggled with some of the same issues . . .

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

My publisher suggested that I go on Facebook. And I did. But what I found, instead of a new way to pester people, was a few actual friends. And when I hang out with my friends, I’m not trying to sell to them. And I’d expect the same courtesy from my brother, Al, who is in the insurance business. I don’t want to hear about his work, either. “Al is drowning in paperwork!” — he’d sound like another author, and we don’t need that.

I love it when I’m supposed to stand up and cheer for the most minor accomplishments, too. Oh, I finished a chapter; oh, I applied for a grant. I mean, I’m happy for everyone, but seriously, it’s like doing an end-zone dance for tackling someone on 2 and 7 in pre-season. Too much chattin’, not enough chewin’.

It’s hard to talk about this without sounding a little mean-spirited. And I’m sorry for that. But . . . just do the work and shut up already. Pass along some info every once in a while, sure. But too much is a turn off.

We do live in this weird “provincialism of the contemporary.” If it wasn’t invented in the last twelve seconds, it ain’t worth it, that’s the prevailing ethic. Twitter, Facebook, all the rest, they’re so new. Next year they could be the new Pet Rock. We don’t have a clue, as a culture, what any of this new technology means, or what we’re going to do with it, or really, how it will change us.

Me, I’m going old school for the release of my next book: blimps.

Gee, I hope it’s a good year.

Uh, Mr. Preller, please step away from the jokes; someone could get hurt.

My favorite thing I ever posted as a status update on Facebook was this: Go to blogblogblog.com to read my new blog about why there are too many blogs. People actually looked it up. And it turns out there is a website — it’s weird and Japanese.

So is my dry cleaner, but that’s a story for another day. You seem alert to all the little treasures and surprises in each bookstore. You mentioned one in Vermont, Bear Pond Books, where two signs hang near the front entrance, each with an arrow pointing to a different half of the store. One sign read, FACTS; the  other, TRUTH. You had a great line about that, “I’ll let you figure out which was for Fiction and which was for Home Repair.”

With me, home repair is definitely in the fiction section. Ask my family. When something breaks in the house, my daughter says, oh, it’s okay, mom can fix it.

You obviously have great affection for booksellers of all stripes. Perhaps we could take a moment to raise a glass (don’t worry, I’m buying) . . .

. . . to the idea that, as you said in your book, “all readers should be grateful that there are people foolish enough, rash enough, courageous enough, and pig-headed enough to open bookstores.”

Here’s to idiots everywhere! The world would be awfully dull without them.

End of Part Two.

Please click here for the thrilling conclusion of “The Never-Ending Lewis Buzbee Interview” — where we (finally) talk about Steinbeck’s Ghost, unlearning the lessons of college, parenthood, Charles Dickens, Katherine Paterson, Tom Waits, favorite bookstores, Rebecca Stead, Bystander (!), and more.

James Preller Interviews . . . Lewis Buzbee, Author of “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.”

As a kid, I used to come home from St. Frances De Chantal Elementary in the late 60’s and early 70’s to find my grandmother sitting in front of the television, sipping brandy, watching the soaps. She especially loved “The Edge of Night.”  Then at 4:30, I’d get up and switch the channel for her, turning the big knob over to “The Mike Douglas Show.”

It was a daily, syndicated variety show, and Mike would begin each day’s show by singing a popular song. I loved it. I sat with Granny Good Witch — as we called my grandmother — for many, many hours watching Mike Douglas. He seemed like such a nice man.

One of the great things about the show was that he’d have guest co-hosts who would stay for the full week. It could be Sammy Davis, Jr., Richard Harris, Charo, Soupy Sales (photo, below), Barbra Streisand, whoever. Most famously, Mike snagged John Lennon and  Yoko Ono for the week-long co-host gig, February 14-18, 1972. It was an inspired invitation, and made for legendary, if at times uncomfortable, television.

That’s how I want to play it this week. I’m Mike Douglas, and my guest co-host will be author Lewis Buzbee, and he’ll be hanging out all week long. There will be laughs and there might be pie.

Originally, we set out to do a standard interview. But as happens with good conversations, we couldn’t stop talking. Lewis is a terrific guy, quick on his feet, with deep thoughts and insights, and a sense of humor, too. Mostly, he’s a book lover and a man of great passions (fortunately, I carry a taser). I know you’ll like him.

What follows is Part One of a Three-Part Mini Series, titled “The Never-ending Lewis Buzbee Interview.”


Hey, everybody, look — it’s my co-host for the week, Lewis Buzbee! The man who asks the question, “How do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?”

Everything all right, Lewis? You look a little drawn. Ho-ho. Seriously, thanks for stopping by, Lewis. No, we don’t need to hug. I mean it, DUDE. That’s enough. I’m warning you! I keep a taser in my man purse . . .

. . . and I will tase you, bro. Go sit in the big comfy chair.

Don’t tase me, bro!

And don’t tase my bro, either.

Congratulations on your first children’s novel, Steinbeck’s Ghost. I definitely want to talk about that book later in the week. But first, I have to say: I loved The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

Thank you, Mr. Preller.

Please, not so formal. “Mr. Preller, Sir,” is fine. Your book opens with a confession of sorts:

“When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher’s sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn’t I be blase about it all by now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store’s displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain — books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.”

First, Mr. Buzbee, Sir, that was beautiful. But as I read your book, I kept worrying about your family. Do they have enough to eat? Does his daughter have new clothes for school? You seem to buy a LOT of books.

You know, we do buy a lot of books, but now that I’ve given up bookselling for the glitzy life of a writer, well, it’s just money, money, money.

It’s a funny question, though, that I get a lot. People assume if you buy hundreds of books a year that, well, it’s somehow superfluous spending. But people with $60,000 cars never get the same sort of grief. I mean 60 G’s for a car? You’ve gotta be kidding.

You’ve lived a life that’s been centered around the reading life. Tell us about your background.

I grew up in a very working class home in San Jose, California, where we had books, of course, and where my parents read for their own pleasure, but nothing too New York Review of Books about it. My parents, children of the Great Depression, looked at books as a way for their kids to get a better education. But I never set out to be a bookseller or a writer. It happened, and quite by accident. I was on my way to being a rock star,  when my life was changed by a high-school book report on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

I was fifteen. I had never before felt anything so powerful, his words, and I had never felt so connected to the rest of the world either. After that, the other pieces of my life followed, if not purposefully, then easily. When I was eighteen, I got a job in a bookstore; I’d heard you got a discount on books. And when I discovered that booksellers sometimes got free books, well, that was it.

Can you remember a specifc scene in the book when the light turned on for you? I have to confess, I read it for the first time this summer — and I was staggered by the writing, the pure telling of it. Also, Steinbeck’s humanity, the strong feeling he so obviously had for those characters.

It’s that first chapter, the description of the Dust Bowl, one of those epic, overview chapters. Seeing the world described with such power — that’s magic isn’t it? You put some black squiggly lines  on a page, and an entire world appears.

And it was that sudden. I read that first chapter — somewhat grudgingly — and put the book down, deciding there and then that I would become a writer. Then I wrote my first short story, and it was only I finished that story, that I went back to the book. And the world just kept getting bigger and bigger.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop feels like an inevitability — this unlikely book that absolutely had to happen — and that it had to come from exactly you.

I knew a long time ago — many years into my writing career, and after my first novel, that I would have to write this book. Perhaps fifteen years before I actually sat down to write it. There were, I knew, a lot of books about the antique book trade, but nothing, really, that was a general appreciation of the new bookstore. I suppose I needed to write it, too, because, as I said earlier, the bookstore had given me so much. So much pleasure.

Easy, Lewis. Get back in the chair.

Not the ta —


Man, I love that crackly sound! You should have seen your face, Lewis, the way your eyes bulged out! Hysterical. Now please continue . . .

Um, okay. Just let me get the feeling back in my arms and legs. I think I waited to write the book until my bookselling career — as both a bookseller and sales rep — had come to an end. I needed that distance. I never wanted to write a critique or an expose. It had to be an appreciation.

I can identify with that, because I knew I’d always have to write a baseball book of some kind or another. Baseball had seeped into every aspect of my life, as a boy, as a father, in my relationships with people, these powerful associations with my own mother, my sense of competition and play. It had to spill over into my writing.

There is a tired old maxim, write what you know. It’s often misinterpreted, of course. I think it has to be this: write what you love. Even if you’re arguing with it, or hating it at the moment, write what you love. Yes, I know bookstores, but thousands of other people know much more than I do about the business. No one, though, has quite loved the bookstore as much as I do. I’ve stared at it for decades, and always with love.

Yes, write what you feel. We can learn about all sorts of things, do research, find out, know. But unless the heart attaches to it, well, I don’t know how you can go to work each day.

I once had a student who offered up a great piece of advice — write about what you are most ashamed of. An interesting tack, that. It immediately calls you to powerful emotions.

Obviously, you analyzed the marketplace and decided: What the world needs now (besides love, sweet love) is a book that’s part memoir, part history of bookstores. Instant bestseller! Why James Patterson didn’t do it already is beyond me.

Well, that would have required Patterson to write much longer paragraphs. So, that answers that. But a psychotic murderer in the bookstore — hey, let me  write that down.

Actually, I did know the book would do well — it did quite well, thanks. Because I’ve spoken with too many people over the years who feel as deeply about the bookstore as I do. And I knew they would want to the words to express that feeling, words to help them see it new.

I love that observation, Lewis. Writers can provide that, I think; so can good public speakers. Many people don’t seem to have the language to articulate those feelings. We see it at weddings, funerals, toasts at family events. I’m always so grateful to those people who can kind of, I don’t know, say it for us.

Of course, I am thinking of all those copywriters at Hallmark.

My mother is possibly the greatest supporter of Hallmark cards in the country, by the way. I get Thanksgiving cards from her! Thanksgiving cards? Amazing. And very specific ones — Thanksgiving cards that extol the virtues of a “very special son.”

I’m not dissing this, by the way, I’m glad people have that outlet. Otherwise, whoo, what a world.

There were so many moments in the book that I enjoyed — and not just that it came in at the optimal length of 225 pages — but sentences I had to underline, paragraphs where I’d put exclamation points in the margins. There’s a line you wrote, “to remember a book is to remember the child who read that book.”

It’s sort of a crib from Proust actually. I had the idea, of course, for a long time, but in his wonderful essay, “On Reading,” he helped me put words to it. When I remember a favorite book, I’m remembering, too, who I was at the time I read it. I just re-read Ray Carver’s first book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and as well as being reminded of his genius and moved by the stories, I also remembered being a freshman in college who did nothing during spring finals week but read Carver instead. It was not a good semester grade-wise.

I guess that’s where the memoir aspect of this book became inevitable for you. You couldn’t talk about books without memories flooding back — it was impossible to separate the reading life from your actual life.

I knew that the memoir of a bookseller was bound to be pretty dull stuff. It’s not an amazing life, in that way. My father was a deep-sea diver for the Navy; now that’s a life worth writing about. I included the memoir bits kind of strategically. I wanted to put in enough of my own experience — but not too much — so that the reader would be able to relate to the memories, and yet still have enough space to put in their own memories. My memoir, as if were, is really only there as a touchstone.

But it’s true. I am a reader — and I would guess you are, too. In fact, anyone reading this, well, it goes without saying. But I’ve always been suspicious of people who want to separate the “reading” from the “life.” For many of us, reading is an integral part of life, not a vacation from it. And not in a self-help way, either. It’s just a part of what I do, and it influences how I go into the world, how I engage with it. I’ve always considered reading an active undertaking, not passive.

Wow, Lewis. Word.


End of Part One. Please come back on Wednesday for Part Two (or click here right now!) of “The Never-Ending Lewis Buzbee Interview” — he’ll be here all week! We’ll talk about the Kindle, Star Trek, Facebook, Katharine Ross, the “death of the novel,” the twitterverse, and raise a glass to idiots everywhere!

Next week my co-hosts will be: Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme!