In 2002 Stephen Usery began working as one of a rotating corps of interviewers on Book Talk, a long running radio show that features local and touring authors. Originally a segment of the Memphis Public Library’s radio reading program, Book Talk, has become a vital part of the Bluff City’s literary life. From Madison Smartt Bell to Mary Higgins Clark, Usery’s calm demeanor and innovative questions have kept a remarkably broad selection of authors on their toes.
As the show’s popularity has increased (programming now includes a podcast and a cable TV show), so has Usery’s role: he’s now Book Talk’s most recognizable presence. In addition to hosting and producing Book Talk interviews, Usery organizes the station’s reading service and hosts a Delta/Memphis Blues broadcast. When not behind the microphone, he can be found managing the newscasts, running wires, playing public-service announcements, or performing any number of tasks responsible for keeping WYPL on the air.
Chapter 16: Did you develop a love of reading early in life?
Usery: My mother was very proactive about getting me into the library. I grew up in a town called Springdale, Arkansas, and as soon as I moved to town I started going to storytime in the afternoons. On my fifth birthday, I went down and got a library card.
Chapter 16: How long has Book Talk been on the air?
Usery: The show started long before I came to the station––I think it began around 1992. It’s had any number of different producers over the years, and for most of its life it’s been volunteer-hosted. But when I took over production in 2007, I started doing the majority of interviews.
Chapter 16: You have such a calm interview style––you remind me of a therapist.
Usery: That’s funny because every once in a while we record the show for television, and they were asking my ideas for sets. I said I want a couch—and a wingback chair.
Chapter 16: Do you ever get flustered during an interview?
Usery: It’s rare but it does happen. Sometimes a guest answers a question in a more concise manner than what I’m hoping, or sometimes either the guest or I are having a bad day and aren’t enjoying each other’s company. You just gut it out. I did have one guest who wrote this huge 700-page biography of a famous person. I prepared twenty questions, and we had gone through eighteen of them in the first twenty minutes.
Chapter 16: How do you get ready for something like that?
Usery: I take a lot of time. It usually takes a couple hours to come up with fifteen to twenty questions and phrase them in a precise and concise way. That process is a form of visualization: How do I expect the interview to go?. And of course it never goes the way I expect because human beings are frustrating in that way. But I do have that visualization, and the questions are sequenced in a way that makes logical sense. So when they answer short, I have to go pick up questions in the middle to help connect the dots.
Chapter 16: You have interviewed a wide range of authors on Book Talk. How do you go about selecting interview subjects?
Usery: I try to keep it pretty even between fiction and nonfiction. In the past we’ve been around two-thirds fiction, and I’ve brought that down closer to fifty-five percent. I’m trying really hard to keep gender balance in there, too, but since we’re limited to in-person interviews, we’re kind of at the mercy of whoever’s in the area.
Chapter 16: Is there an author you’d particularly like to have on the show who’s been unavailable?
Usery: There are people who come to town that we can’t get scheduled, and it’s disappointing. In the nonfiction realm, I would really like to talk to Alain de Botten (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work; How Proust Can Change Your Life). He’s kind of a pop philosopher, and I find his stuff very interesting. Then on the fiction side, I’d really like to speak with Glenn David Gould (Carter Beats the Devil; Sunnyside).
Chapter 16: Is WYPL a full-time job for you?
Usery: The show takes up anywhere from a quarter to a third of my weekly work hours. WYPL is mainly a radio-reading service for the blind, and I’m the person responsible for selecting books, getting them matched up with the volunteers and programming them once they’re finished. On Sunday evenings I record a program that plays delta blues and blues from the Memphis area. Then we do simulcasts of our local NBC affiliate’s newscasts, so I have to babysit the board, and when they go to commercial, I play PSAs and promo spots instead. And then there’s everything else that goes along with running a radio station: climbing under desks and doing wires, and driving out with our engineer to the tower, and installing new computers, everything like that.
Chapter 16: How do you find time to read?
Usery: Every once in a while I might get lucky and maybe get an hour during the week, but mostly it’s off the clock. It’s a challenge––a couple weeks ago I had three interviews in a week.
Chapter 16: Is there a particular genre you prefer for your own reading?
Usery: No, I’ve always been widely read as far as genres go: mystery, literature, science fiction, literary fiction––I’ve even read chick lit. And, of course, tons of nonfiction, too.
Chapter 16: Do you ever find yourself absorbed by something really trashy?
Usery: Oh yeah, constantly. I’m not immune to great plot-heavy books. I read Bridget Jones’s Diary and things along that line. I’m real grumpy and curmudgeonly anyway, so anything I read is okay. There are a few books every year that really catch my attention, but most of them are just good, decent books. They’re not the ones that are going to survive a hundred years; they’re of our time and of our place, and they’re good for what we need them to be. Then every once in a while there are books where I think, Oh my god, this is just awful. At that point it becomes a battle of wills—I will not be defeated by this book.
Chapter 16: Is there a writer everybody loves that you just don’t get?
Usery: Since he’s British and the odds of my ever getting a chance to interview him are extremely low, I’ll say Ian McEwen (Atonement). I just don’t get it.
Chapter 16: Some of your interviews are recorded with a studio audience. Does having a live audience change you interviewing style?
Usery: The overwhelming majority of interviews, no one shows up for. You think of author signings at six o’clock in the evening when nobody shows up; imagine [what it’s like at] two o’clock in the afternoon when most folks are at work. When we don’t have audience, I feel a little freer to joke around, but when we do have one I tend to be a little more serious. Our television interviews are way more stressful, because there’s no editing—everything has to be right; I can’t tell stupid jokes. [Editing] has helped me more than anything. It’s like game film for football players; you’re going back over everything and finding out what makes for a better show.
Chapter 16: What makes for a good question?
Usery: I wish I knew; then they’d all be good questions. It’s like writing fiction; you have to have action that carries a person from one place to another. They’re not necessarily the most interesting, but you have to have those connecting things. And of course you’re delighted when you ask a question that the author hasn’t thought of in a particular way.
Chapter 16: Do you have a book in you?
Usery: I had a short story published recently. I’ve started a couple novels, but I don’t ever get anywhere with them. When I read something that’s truly great it inspires me; then after a couple days it wears off.
Chapter 16: Who has the best Memphis barbeque?
Usery: If I’m in the mood for a pulled pork sandwich, it’s the Barbeque Shop on Madison. If I’m in the mood for ribs or a polish sausage sandwich, then definitely Interstate (S. 3rd St). If I’ve got to have some vinegar or mustard sauce, then it’s Central Barbeque (Central Ave). If I’ve got to have some smoking hot slaw and good overall barbeque, it’s Payne’s on Lamar. Then every once in a while I get fancy and I’ve got to have some lamb ribs––they’ve got those down at the Rendezvous.
Book Talk is broadcast Saturday nights from 6 to 7 p.m. on WYPL FM98.3. Podcasts can be downloaded here.