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Alabama People: Don Noble

Talking about books

Don Noble, longtime professor emeritus of English at the University of Alabama, has been hosting the Emmy-nominated “Bookmark” show for 30 years on Alabama Public Television. His weekly book reviews have been broadcast on Alabama Public Radio since 2002. He is a widely published writer and editor who has served on many statewide boards, including the Alabama Humanities Foundation, Alabama Writers’ Forum and the Alabama School for the Fine Arts. He is the recipient of several prestigious literary and academic awards. We caught up with him between books to get more acquainted with this busy man. – Lenore Vickrey

You’re not a native of Alabama, but you’ve lived here 50 years.  Have any of your preconceptions about the South been changed or reinforced in the 50 years you’ve lived here?

I had been a New Yorker (state) for my first 23 years and went to Chapel Hill on purpose to study Southern lit. As I was finishing there, I was offered a job here (UA) and thought, wrongly, that I had been living in the South and Alabama would be more or less like Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill was NOT the South. It was and is an oasis. I had all the preconceptions you might imagine. I watched Alabama on television in the ’60s just like everyone else in America. But more importantly, I wanted to be a part of something that was changing, getting better.  In this respect, I was correct. Alabama, Tuscaloosa and the University are better than ever. There was always a rich literary tradition, which I admired, but race relations, the economy, restaurants, and culture in all its forms are better and keep improving (with some dramatic setbacks from time to time).

You’ve been doing “Bookmark” for 30 years on APTV and interviewed more than 400 authors. How do you choose which authors to interview?

As with my radio book reviews, I try to give a little attention to Alabama writers. On the more practical level, we rarely have the funds to go to where a writer is living. William Styron was the great exception. We interviewed him in his living room in Connecticut. The producers and I keep a sharp eye out for writers on tour or who are appearing at the Monroeville conference or the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery. We used to get lots of writers at the Birmingham-Southern Writing Today Conference, but it closed. Big catches such as Toni Morrison or Ray Bradbury were writers who had come to Alabama for one reason or another.

Who were your most memorable interviews?

Although I have interviewed many writers with the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, only Toni Morrison had the Nobel. So she is the most important and memorable. In many cases, the interview led to friendships. Eugene Walter and I met regularly for dinner and drinks until his death, and writers such as Rick Bragg, Daniel Wallace, Michelle Richmond, Sena Jeter Naslund and many others are friends I am happy to be connected to. Daniel and I did a little show in Tuscumbia at the library last Friday night.

Who was the most difficult to interview?

Some writers are difficult. Some may be having a bad day, or are just not very nice people, ever. As has been written many times, it is not always a good thing to meet your heroes. More than one writer has insisted on correcting any little error I might make. However, the old and savvy writers, Richard Wilbur and James Dickey, to name two, know how to steer the interview so that everybody looks good. In each case, when my question was weak or faulty, the poet said, “Yes, let me rephrase that a little” or “Good question. I understood you to mean…” and they rephrased my awkward question so it was more elegant and they looked kind and I looked bright.

Who would you like to talk to again?

I have interviewed many, many writers several times. If it were possible, I would like to talk to Toni Morrison again, and of course, the deceased, but that is not likely!

And how do you find/make the time to read all the books you want to read?

I do NOT read faster than other people. But one must be relentless. It is important to read every day. If you read 50 pages a day for six days, you have done a 300-page book. No magic there.

Which medium do you prefer – print, Kindle, e-book, audio?

I much prefer a book in hand, a hard copy. I read on a device only in an emergency.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

My nightstand is for books I am not reviewing. I just read a biography of Lawrence Durrell. I read a lot of biography for relaxation. I also just read David Sedaris’ Calypso, and I love the essays of Adam Gopnik.