The Conversation

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

"We would like to get out to other locations more in the future," says Skelly. Upon entering the studio, one is inclined to understand why: BPTV's facilities lend Author-Author a lot less grandeur than do Skelly's Herculean ambitions. Two chairs, a table with two glasses of water, and a room divider that doubles as a wall are the only props supporting the program. Facing the sterile room is a claustrophobic area stacked with makeshift towers of televisions and editing equipment. Author-Author's director Jeffry Willis--whose overgrown hair, goatee, and dry sarcasm suggest a midtwenties layabout--follows Skelly's hard-working lead by single-handedly performing the labors of four people in the control room.

Today Skelly and Willis are combining forces to prepare for an interview with Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. As Willis checks the equipment and bribes the volunteer camera crew with stale brown cookies, Skelly flips frantically through Soueif's The Map of Love. "I am always working up until the very last minute before we start," he says, rushing to pencil in some changes to his questions about the differences between Eastern and Western literature. Although Skelly strives to generate a high level of discourse, this mood is punctuated by moments of unadulterated entertainment.

Some of Author-Author's most memorable moments occurred in 1998 when Skelly first began hosting regularly. In June of that year, Lassie's trainer Ace Collins insinuated that the TV pet-hero wrote his own memoir. A month later, author and columnist Jim Northrup got carried away during a discussion and shouted, "Hey, it's John Fucking Wayne!" while recalling celebrity visits during his military tour in Vietnam. Irish novelist Malachy McCourt unexpectedly bellowed a mighty rendition of "Whisky, You're the Devil," in fall of that year.

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

Skelly welcomes such droll interludes. "There are loyal book lovers who want to learn about their favorite books so much that they don't care if it's on TV, Skelly explains. "Then there are people flipping through the channels and they see Lassie and it catches their attention."

Even after watching Rita Dove, Russell Banks, and Studs Terkel on the show, Willis mostly falls into the dog-lover category. Recalling his experiences producing the program, Willis keeps coming back to Lassie. "Ace Collins was so Leave It to Beaver, it was perfect. He was like, 'HI!'"--Willis swings his arm in a gee-whiz gesture--"'I'M ACE COLLINS!' He brought Lassie in and then Lassie had his own little pet dog. It didn't move during the whole interview."

Skelly has a more mixed relationship to our television icons, and does not willingly associate himself with the general media milieu. "I get so upset when I see Jerry Springer being interviewed on the Today Show," he admits. "It's this entertainment that contributes to the worst in our culture. Does freedom of the press mean that we have to appeal to [that kind of audience]? Look who gets attention in our culture: the TV people, the musicians, the actors. I would much rather hear an author talk about writing than listen to an actor. There's more substance to writers than other people in our culture."

Though Skelly can come off as a cultural conservative, a walk around the studio suggests that he is not much of an elitist. Books from every literary genre litter his desk in giant piles: self-help manifestoes, football memoirs, spiritual guides, and menopause manuals. As he waits for Soueif to arrive, Skelly stands in the control room watching Willis screen the less scholarly cable-access programs that fill BPTV's airtime.

"It has this great Roger Waters intro," Willis says excitedly of one such program. As the introduction plays, an American flag waves to a glorious anthem of Seventies guitar riffs. Willis positively glows. Skelly, embarrassed, grins awkwardly.

"I guess we've got SPAM in the Smithsonian and Star Wars at the Minneapolis Institute of Art," he says. "There's definitely a blend of highbrow and lowbrow cultures today." Willis and Skelly aspire to draw more popular authors to their show--writers more in the mode of Wally Lamb and Sebastian Junger--in an attempt to bridge the gap between these populations. With increased viewership, Skelly hopes to pick up corporate sponsors, expanding the Author-Author brand to include Internet exposure and radio coverage. (In this plan, Skelly seems to be following the powerful middlebrow partnership of Minnesota Public Radio, the Star Tribune, and the Loft, who have teamed on a heavily promoted public book club called Talking Volumes.) A year ago Skelly enjoyed a 13-month run on KTCI, Twin Cities Public Television's Channel 17, and he seems to covet the opportunity to return to those slightly more glamorous airwaves.

While Skelly and Willis linger alongside the blurry control-room monitors, Soueif finally walks in and takes a seat, adjusting her velour jacket and brooch. She looks a bit flustered from her haphazard travels between book-tour stops. Skelly welcomes her gracefully and eases into a discussion of how writing in English shapes the Egyptian reader's interpretation, and Soueif responds by pontificating eloquently.

As Willis watches the two conversing from the control room, he seems to be seized by memories of Lassie once more. With a smirk, he whispers into a microphone that feeds the headsets of the studio crew: "You know those cookies I gave you? They were dog biscuits."

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