The Conversation

Joe Skelly's cable-access book show argues that the page is mightier than the screen

The camera starts rolling just before author Mark Salzman leaps to the podium of the Open Book's brick meeting room. Although Salzman has made his name through a handful of contemplative novels and nonfiction titles--Iron and Silk, The Soloist, and his latest, Lying Awake--the way he storms the stage recalls the frenetic manner of a standup comedian, who will work his audience with a relentless display of good humor. Amid the crowd of amateur novelists, book-club members, and fawning women who gather to survey Salzman's tour de force of literary anecdotes is Joe Skelly, host of the Bloomington public-access interview program Author-Author. Skelly, who looks more like an Intel executive than an English-lit buff, invited Salzman to the Open Book to interview him for an episode of the program. Yet from the exaggerated way that Salzman performs for the camera--wide-eyed, writhing, vigorously ready to entertain--one can quickly gather that Skelly won't succeed in derailing this freight train of a monologue with mere questions.

"My wife's getting worried...I'm starting to hear voices," Salzman says. As the ensuing story goes, Salzman could hear imaginary people speaking as he worked on his latest, spiritual novel in a secluded room. So he went into the bathroom and wrapped towels around his head until the noise subsided into a Zen-like emptiness. But the family cat found his fuzzy head arousing, prompting Salzman to construct tinfoil skirts to keep the creature away. One day, with his silver dress crinkled around his hips, his towel bonnet fluffed up, and the cat hissing in the background, Salzman thought he had formed the perfect solitary space. Then the gas-meter man suddenly strolled past his window, peered inside, and got the shock of his year: the onetime Pulitzer finalist was actually a cross-dressing psychopath. Salzman's audience laughs overanxiously every time they anticipate a forthcoming punch line, whooping and snorting and clapping their hands like a junior high classroom at a screening of a Farrelly Brothers movie. On the outskirts of the general roar, Skelly sits politely by the camera, smiles, and chuckles cordially in time with the jokes, until Salzman's blaze of garrulous glory dims and he can stop recording.

Tell me about your book: Joe Skelly
Teddy Maki
Tell me about your book: Joe Skelly

The next day, when Skelly returns to the small, one-story BPTV studio to run the Salzman tape on Author-Author, he confesses that this energetic moment inspired a measure of misgiving. "I love Mark Salzman," admits Skelly. "My wife loves Mark Salzman. But she was disappointed. We invited him to have dinner with us before the reading and he told all sorts of stories. Then later at the reading he told the exact same stories over again."

This doesn't seem to bother Skelly as much as it does his wife. "Writers are not just writers anymore; they're marketing people," he says. "In some ways, I think, that's good."

Like Salzman's recorded anecdote, Author-Author's broadcast history often marks the uneasy boundary between the private, introspective field of literature and the increasing public exposure of the author. Some library skulkers believe that TV, radio, and the extensive circuit of book-publicity activities dilute the mystique of the literati. But after almost four years of hosting Author-Author, Skelly still counts himself among the college professors and couch potatoes alike who cannot help but monitor the Barnes & Noble book tours, the public workshops, and, of course, the Oprah Book Club.

Since Author-Author first debuted 20 years ago under the name Insight, it has distinguished itself from these other book forums by conducting in-depth, half-hour interviews with literary authors rather than devoting the usual five-minute talk-show segment to a popular Danielle Steel type. When Insight premiered, then-host Russ Christensen used connections from his Harvard education to schedule award-winning authors on his show. Skelly never met Christensen, yet from his initial internship at BPTV in 1996 to his current position as producer and host, he has shared Christensen's extraordinary infatuation with books. In a whirlwind of bibliophilia, Skelly reads every book he discusses, writes his own interview questions, and pays for monthly operating expenses primarily out of his own pocket. On top of everything else, he conducts every program with the encyclopedic knowledge and fervor of an evangelical English teacher.

"You've definitely got to have a certain amount of ego in the television business," he explains as he walks through the entrance to the BPTV studio, his button-down shirt billowing in the wind until he appears to be in transition between Clark Kent and Superman. "But I know that people don't watch the show for me. They want to see the authors."

To date, audiences have tuned in to watch upward of 330 interviews, 100 of these featuring Minnesota-based writers and more than 75 of them with first-time authors. (The program screens at 9:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, on the Metro Cable Network.) This last group, literary newcomers hungry to make a name for themselves, are probably the easiest to book on the show. More established writers often come to cable access only after succumbing to Skelly's shrewd and often exhaustive campaigning. Sometimes simple coaxing does not work, yet he is so determined that when he couldn't get bibliophile Elmer Andersen to come to the studio, Skelly followed the governor into his home for an interview.

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