A Phone Call from Paul at Literary Hub is a mashup of the intimate, spontaneous phone conversation with the polished pre-recorded podcast interview. Paul is Paul Holdengräber, the well-read and astute host and director of the interview series LIVE at the New York Public Library. In each A Phone Call from Paul episode, he calls an artist or philosopher, almost always an author—it is, as the opening credits announce, “a literary podcast”—and asks about their day, their latest projects, their reading, and occasionally, the music that inspires them. At his request, they read to us from their own work or their latest or enduring favorite. The immediacy and meandering of these conversations is their beauty—Holdengräber’s willingness to try for connection, for insight, until his questions and patient listening rouse an unexpected gem.
The podcast kicked off last year in September, and the episodes range from 25 to 45 minutes, with longer conversations broken into two parts. Holdengräber harmonizes with his subject’s sensibility and interests, he’s often calling a friend, or someone he’s interviewed in the past. Holdengräber started the series with Neil Gaiman, and he has since called Cheryl Strayed, Adam Phillips, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Margaret Atwood, Ben Lerner, Tracy K. Smith, Andrew Solomon, Cory Doctorow, Claudia Rankine, Laurie Anderson and many more. Other than the two-part conversations, they can be played in any order. Listening in, I felt as if I’ve been invited into his cultural salon, and I’ve wondered if the idea for the podcast arose from his preliminary calls with artists in preparation for their LIVE at the NYPL interviews on stage.
But if that sounds esoteric, consider the call with Karl Ove Knausgaard (April 20, 2016). Knausgaard is in the middle of his day. He’s dropping one child off for play practice (Annie) and driving his youngest home. He takes Paul’s call in the car with his two-year-old in the back seat. His pragmatism about his books—when he finishes writing a book he’s done, he’s not “waiting for something to happen,” he’s onto writing the next one—parallels the practicality of getting his children from here to there. In contrast, Holdengräber and Andrew Solomon (May 4, 2016) discuss free speech, terrorism, empathy, and of course, literature. Solomon finds “moments of extraordinary recognition” in reading, when a “book expresses my inner self better than I can express my inner self.” Collectively, these conversations with Holdengräber traverse the larger and smaller themes as well as the exteriors and interiors of our everyday lives.
The Junot Diaz interview (October 27, 2016) sneaks up on you, its casual tone turns poignant. Diaz refers to his slow writing process as “grinding these slow lenses…giving events, giving history, giving people the time to unfold, the time to mean—to give forth their meaning.” The poet and memoirist Tracy K. Smith (August 24, 2016) identifies her writing self as “the patient, rigorous self that’s willing to be vulnerable, to take risks, to try.” And yet, there’s more to Holdengräber’s calls than talk about writing. Filmmaker Werner Herzog (August 3, 2016) filmed volcanoes in North Korea. We catch his bravado and artistic focus as he describes standing up to North Korean officials when they attempt to confiscate a day’s worth of film. In this way, Holdengräber cultivates a space for telling stories and reflecting on living in our societies during these particular times.
As the podcast title A Phone Call from Paul declares, Holdengräber is the podcast; the conversations would not exist without his personality and interests, his inquisitive persistence. He encourages intimacy, the give and take of conversation, and often refers to his own experiences—as an academic, parent, son whose parents fled Belgium for Haiti during World War II, lax reader of poetry, and avid collector of quotations. The podcast’s throwback to live telephone may also explain away, and mostly excuse, the occasional background noise: a less than ideal phone connection, the low ring of what I assume is Holdengräber’s second office line, very occasional tapping as if typing on a keyboard, the shuffling of papers. These interruptions sound like faults, but they evoke Holdengräber there at the desk, jotting notes for his next question, listening with us.
If you want to look before you listen, Lit Hub promotes A Phone Call from Paul on their site, and they include printed excerpts of questions and answers below the recordings. They do a good job of pulling out the highlights—the gems. However, I recommend reading excerpts after hearing the podcast, to revisit a favorite phone call instead of choosing whether to listen. The ebb and flow of conversation is part of the delight, the resonance: in hearing Neil Gaiman talk beekeeping, the philosopher Alain de Botton explain why we marry the wrong people, Claudia Rankine define hope.
A Phone Call from Paul quietly investigates how people choose to live and pursue their art, and the books they love. I hope Holdengräber calls George Saunders soon as I’d love to hear them talk about kindness as our social compass—and also Zadie Smith, for a conversation about finding connections in the midst of differences. So far, my favorite episode is with Junot Diaz, for their rapport and the slant of their insights. He and Holdengräber go deep on the isolations and joys in our relationships with ourselves and one another, and the possibilities in stories. I feel more human listening to them. You don’t need to be a literary sort to enjoy these calls, just curious. You have reached a phone call from Paul announces a sonic voice at the opening of each episode, I’m in for the eavesdropping.
LIVE at the NYPL: https://www.nypl.org/events/live-nypl
About Paul Holdengräber: https://www.nypl.org/events/live-nypl/about
K.L. Browne’s fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, Ascent, and PANK Magazine. She received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Mill Valley, California