Dead Interviews edited by Dan Crowe
The idea of talking with the dead as a form of literary conceit has been with us for centuries. Dan Crowe proffers Dialogues of the Dead by Lucian of Samosata (c.125–80) as the first evidence of this kind of writing. We all talk with the dead, Crowe suggests, seeking solace, answers and revelations.
Many of the stories in this collection of fictionalised interviews with deceased writers and other icons have been published previously in Crowe’s literary quarterly, Zembla, while others were commissioned exclusively for this book. The title ‘Zembla’ was lifted from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, described here as ‘a perfect fusion of tradition, reflection, literary playfulness and distortion’, and the stories in Dead Interviews are certainly rife with these last two.
Cynthia Ozick asks Henry James intrusive questions he’s not prepared to answer, especially not to a feminist. David Mitchell interviews both Samuel Johnson and Johnson’s biographer James Boswell, while William Blake makes a cheeky cameo appearance. Andy Warhol appears as dithering in death as in life in Douglas Coupland’s entry.
It’s revealing to see how each writer has worked with the concept, and some stories will charm more than others. John Burnside’s interview with Rachel Carson was particularly moving; her ideas still resonate, given our continued environmental destruction and political framework, and I’ve now added Carson’s Silent Spring to my reading list. Z.Z. Packer’s enlightening interview with the ‘black Mozart’ and inspiration for d’Artagnan, Monsieur de Saint-George, had me reaching for the history books and revisiting Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.
Joyce Carol Oates refreshingly broke the Q&A formation favoured by all other contributors and elevated this collection with her inspired piece on Robert Frost, whom we meet seemingly dozing with a ‘scribble of saliva on his mouth’. In some respects this is an odd idea for a collection, and at times it’s a little patchy, but it’s a wild plunge among the dead, into a curious world where history has been inventively revisited by some of our finest writers.
Deborah Crabtree is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.