The Conversation

Tell me about your book: Joe Skelly
Teddy Maki

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.

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.  

"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.

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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