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Book Review: 1001 Interviews You Must Read Before You Die by Andrew Denton

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Reading an interview transcript feels slightly voyeuristic. Perhaps it’s because the interview was meant to be listened to, rather than read, and the words come across as almost too candid without the accompanying body language and interactive dynamics. Or perhaps it’s because I now get to imagine that body language and dynamic in my own head, and scrutinise the words with more time, and in a quieter, more introspective place than they would have received when broadcast.

I didn’t watch the interviews at issue when they were aired, but reading them gives me such a sense of both the interviewer — Australian comedian Andrew Denton — and interviewee, that it was better than watching. The transcripts chosen for this book were hand-picked by Denton from his popular ABC show Enough Rope. The title is tongue-in-cheek, since there aren’t 1001 interviews in this book – there are actually 33.

In his introduction to the book, Michael Parkinson, who is also interviewed, calls Denton a well-researched, attentive listener. He is indeed, and it’s the extensive research that makes these interviews work well, but it is also the fact that Denton pulls no punches. He isn’t afraid to go for the jugular, ask the hard, searching 1001 Interviewsquestions, or pick a sore place with his guests. He doesn’t deliberately try to be provocative, but he also allows his natural feelings and curiosity through, and brings his well developed sense of culture, current affairs and entertainment into the show.

Some of the more exciting guests include Cate Blanchett, Bono, Mark Latham, Jane Goodal, Richard E. Grant, Steve Irwin, Rolf Harris, and Tim Winton, to name a few. There are also a few not-so-famous, but equally interesting people, such as three homeless folk, members of the living library, and three cab drivers. The homeless interview was one of the most interesting in the book, as much for the surprise articulate openness of the interviewees as for the glimpse at a side of life most of us don’t see. There are plenty of epiphanies. Author Lee Stringer is particularly lucid talking about addiction:

I think that people who end up getting addicted are acutely aware of being spiritually empty, and it matters to them. There are people on this earth who think that just keeping busy all the way to the grave is enough. Then there are people for whom that’s never enough, but they don’t know what’s missing. And even religion doesn’t seem to find its way to talking to us in a way that connects, so we reach out and grab a substance – for some people it’s sex, for some people it’s gambling, for some people it’s money. (244)

I’m probably biased towards the authors, or maybe it’s just that they’re naturally good with words, but Tim Winton is also a fascinating interviewee – open, honest, and inspiring as he talks about the difficulties he had with his last novel Dirt Music:

And I got up at 2am and thought, ‘No, I’ve got to start again.’ I worked for about 20 hours. I rode down to the office in the dark, I sharpened up 20 or 40… I forget how many pencils… and I just started again from scratch, and rewrote it in 44 days and nights. (435)

Other highlights include Jane McGrath, wife to cricketer Glenn McGrath. Jane’s brave and enthusiastic way of dealing with her spreading Cancer was inspiring, as was the interview with now deceased mesothelioma sufferer Bernie Bation. Steve Irwin is just as expected, and Denton can’t crack the public persona, but he does manage to get Steve to admit to his panic on his wedding day. Vertically challenged actor Karuna Stamell is one of the funniest guests (though Brooks gives her a good run for the money), and her refusal to allow her height to typecast her in the roles she chooses is part of what makes her interview enjoyable.

Mark Latham is probably the most odious guest – showing his bitterness and bile and making his temporary leadership of the Labor Party seem even odder than it did at the time. But Denton doesn’t shirk from the unpleasant. He seems to enjoy showing the sadism in Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the deception in Alan Bond or the inherent sadness in Rene Rivkin almost as much as he enjoys the luminous intelligence of Cate Blanchett, or the out-and-out vaudeville of Mel Brooks.

All in all, this is an enjoyable read which provides real insight into the fragile, and extraordinary nature of humanity. Denton is an exceptional interviewer, and he certainly manages to tease a lot out of his subjects. The balance of guests is good, and the overall selection and presentation well handled. Each interview in 1001 Interviews You Must Read Before You Die is an eye opener shedding light on the people we love to follow, and above all, on ourselves, glimpsed in the words and revelations of these people.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.