To Tell the Truth: A Conversation with David Shields

Do you still think that, very briefly, in the early-to-mid-1980s, David Letterman was actually quite interesting?

— David Shields, The Very Last Interview

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CALL ME a night owl, call me an insomniac, but I have loved late-night television my whole adult life. I am thinking now of the Ed Sullivan Theater and its notoriously chilly stage, once the home of such game shows as Password, What’s My Line?, and To Tell the Truthbut for the last few decades the set for several late-night talk shows.

Twenty years ago, when I was in grad school, I watched The Late Show with David Letterman every night. Time had mellowed his famously acerbic wit somewhat, but I still thought he was terrific. Now it’s Stephen Colbert for me, a fellow South Carolinian. What can I say? His writers are the best, and he’s found his footing during the pandemic and the concurrent near meltdown of American democracy.

His Colbert Questionert, a semi-regular feature, manages to accomplish what the best interviews do: it’s disarming, and it reveals the interviewee. I think it’s the mix of light questions (best sandwich?) and deeper questions (what do you think happens when we die?) that makes the Questionert work.

It’s unusual, too, in that the questions in the Questionert draw attention to themselves. As I watch the pros interview their guests, I realize that most of the time, the questions melt away. The interviewer — stable, known, the viewer’s steady date — fades, and the interviewee is the one who shines.

But in this latest book by David Shields, The Very Last Interview, it’s just the opposite. The book is built of questions, only questions. As I read and reread it, I found myself straining to imagine the answers Shields might give. The result is something like an autobiography traced out in negative space. The outline of the figure is clear, but the body is blank. As a reader, you project your ideas onto that vacuum.

I first read Shields — Dead Languages (1989), His first novel, built of delicious sentences — during those insomniac years in Houston. More recently I’ve taught from Reality Hunger (2010), a book (collage, mosaic, fusillade) that sparked a million arguments about what nonfiction is and can do. His other books investigate such subjects as film, sports, death, celebrity, politics, truth, and “truth.”

But the challenge of interviewing a writer about a book of questions jigsawed together from 2,700 interviews conducted over the past 40 or so years is, well, a worthy one. Part of what I’m interested in here is revision. In some ways, The Very Last Interview strikes me as being about that. Shields gives himself a do-over with things he’s said, or maybe wanted to say, years ago.

I’m also interested in the idea of ​​interview as genre. What does a good interview do? For me, it gives the reader a way into a new project. It also carries eavesdropping’s inherent appeal.

In order to interview Shields, I decided to use his mention of Letterman as the hub around which my questions would spin. Since The Very Last Interview is made up of questions from different interviewers, I thought I’d borrow others’ questions, too. I began by watching old clips of The Late Show on YouTube, tracking down Letterman’s interviews with some of the celebrities Shields mentions: Hunter S. Thompson, John Malkovich, Julia Roberts.

Let’s just say late night has gotten more polished and produced over the years. Here’s Hunter S. Thompson, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Carly Simon on a loveseat in a Times Square hotel in 1987, windows open, sheers blowing in and out in gusts of nighttime wind. Dave asks Thompson placeholder questions to try and keep him in more or less the same world with the viewer: “How are you? What have you been up to?” Thompson hands Dave a cigar box filled with what look like explosives, and nobody seems to know if it’s a gag. Dave: “You’re not gonna be setting these off in here, are you?” They talk of the Freak Power ticket, and of the 1988 presidential race.

An interview bears the fingerprints of its time. Paul Shaffer asks a very young Julia Roberts about the swag bag of goodies all the guests received: “Debbie Gibson cologne. Have you tried it yet, by the way? Would you like to?” Dave, later: “It’s a magic night here on Dave’s Broadway Cavalcade.”

Magic indeed. Things were coming into focus. My method: I revised my list into a series of questions, some of them mine, but most of them repurposed from The Late Show clips. Other questions I borrowed from the Colbert Questionert. Since both the Letterman and Colbert shows take place in the Ed Sullivan Theater, I figured they were both fair game. And since Shields mentions Cormac McCarthy, I used material from Oprah’s interview with McCarthy. I’m linking to the original source for each question.

My goal is to talk about collage, nonfiction, and humor by actually enacting them on the page, as Shields does in Reality Hunger and The Very Last Interview.

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JONI TEVIS: How do you feel about Rice Krispies?

DAVID SHIELDS: Not a fan anymore. Used to like them as a kid. Had a period when I loved Rice Krispies Treats — teenagerdom, early adulthood. No longer. Am I finally outgrowing a sweet tooth? Sort of. Sort of not.

What is the scariest animal?

Rattlesnake. Is that an animal? Not really. But I’m gonna go with it.

Is there special significance to the pig for you?

There really isn’t. In Jewish tradition, pork is “treif,” but I’m as secular as it gets.

Let’s talk about your new book a little bit. Take me through this. Where did? This apocalyptic dream come from?

You mean this book as an apocalyptic dream? Years ago, I had the rather whimsical idea to look up every interview I ever did. Then I realized I needed to delete all my answers. Then I got divorced. Then I had a very intense romantic relationship that ended. The book got, I think, deeper and deeper, sadder and sadder, apocalypticer and apocalypticer.

Level with me: are all of these questions really from other people, or did you make some of them up yourself?

The book began with, I think, around 2,700 “real” questions. I rewrote, reimagined, reinvented all of them. They started as real questions and became something else — self-inquisition?

How does this distinguish itself from other pinball machines?

Hmm. Have never in my entire life played pinball, so I’m not sure. I like the endless pinball moment in Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (which I’m writing about in my new book about doc-film; 2 or 3 Things isn’t really a doc-film, but I’m gonna cheat and pretend parts of it are). A big thing for me is undertow, aka OMFG. This book, I hope, has one. I’m pulling something through — something quite serious, I hope (about suicidal ideation and its relationship to love and art). I’m not interested in collage as refuge for the compositionally disabled; I’m interested in collage as evolution beyond narrative, which means it has to work not through elaboration of plot but exfoliation of “meaning.”

Tell me a little bit about how this book fits in with your previous work.

Hmm, not sure how. It’s both representative of all my previous books and something of an outlier. It’s like them in that it’s in conversation with “appropriation,” repurposing, remix. It’s also narratively “stillborn” — nothing exactly happens, but to me something does, quite substantially. It’s also sort of conceptual art or abstract art. It began with an idea, and it carries that idea out. It’s also seemingly “about me,” but it isn’t at all. It’s about you (the reader). All those things seem related to previous books. How does it feel different? Feels older, sadder, closer to memento mori, scarier. Feels somewhat more fictional than previous books. Was thinking of calling it a novel for a while, since it exaggerates some of my emotions. It’s not overtly discursive in the way that, say, Other People: Takes & Mistakes [2007] is. In a way, one could say that the book finally addresses the horror vacui at the center all previous 22 books?

And what is your relationship like now with Fox?

Fox News? Hmm. In my Trump book [Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention (2018)]I had a mole who fed me overheard confabs of pre- and post-interview hemming and hawing.

In theory, I’d watch Fox News now to study something or other; In reality, I have barely turned on TV since the beginning of COVID. All I do is read books and try to write them and work on films and now a new book about films.

Were there feelings?

You lost me here, Joni. In a good way, it’s like therapy. I can say whatever I want, and even if I’m misreading everything, even that is revealing. Sciences at Fox? Sensations to get through pandemic? Seances with my ex-sweetie? Re the latter: close.

What do you think happens when we die?

Alas, nothing. I’m completely rationalistic, secular, Dawkins/Darwin/Hitchens in this realm. The thing about life is that one day you (and I) will be dead. We are nothing but animals, more evolved than other animals in a few ways, less evolved in ways that count.

You get one song to listen to for the rest of your life. What is it?

“Nessun dorma,” Puccini.

In five words, what do you want people to remember about you?

Stomped mightily on the terra.

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In closing, a little context for “Nessun Dorma,” the best-known aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandotposthumously completed by Franco Alfano in 1926.

One English translation of the title is “Let no one sleep.” In soaring phrases, Calaf, our hero, responds to three riddles posed by his would-be everything beloved, and defies — night, dawn, fear, mortality — that sets itself against him. Sings Calaf, Vanish, o night.

Letterman, Colbert, friends of the sleepless. Their routines were what I responded to, craved: Top Ten. Meanwhile. I modeled my teacher-self on their shtick, mimicking their comfort behind the desk: the space they claimed.

And part of what I read an interview for is companionship, listening to a conversation in order to feel less alone. The questions and their answers, even when imaginary, show us what we share.

In The Very Last Interview, itself a riddle, Shields explodes nonfiction, narrative, and the interview, repurposing their parts to make a new thing. Reading this book, I hear many voices together, claiming a space on the stage. We’re awake in these small hours together. Sings Calaf, Vanish, o night. Set stars. Set stars. I’ll win at dawn. I will win. I will win.

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Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Orion, Oxford American, Poets & Writers, and others. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette Geer Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music and destruction.

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