Simon Schama

A conversation with James Mustich

I was on my way to Simon Schama’s office in Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University when I saw the historian studying the nascent blooms of a star magnolia. I introduced myself. ‘Give me just a minute,’ he requested, and snapped a picture of the blossom with his iPhone. ‘Must send that to a friend who loves these trees,’ he said. Heading to the basement cafeteria, where we picked up cups of coffee, we chatted amiably about the arrival of spring, and soon were off on a rollicking conversation — he leading, me following — that was in full flower before we arrived at his office and I could turn my tape recorder on (as you’ll see from the in medias res beginning of the interview below). Schama’s office is a large, high-ceilinged, messily bookish room with enormous windows on two sides. A portrait of Napoleon leaned against one of the sills, its frame undone but hanging loosely over it. Handsome posters of several of his book jackets adorned the walls that were not fronted by boisterously overflowing bookshelves.

Donnish in an elegant but rumpled suit and loosely laced, purple canvas sneakers, the professor proved to be a riveting talker, generating a steady stream of idea, fact, anecdote, and commentary with animation and good cheer. While we touched on several of his earlier works, including Citizens and Landscape and Memory, our discussion focused largely on his most recent volume, The American Future: A History. The new book is a characteristically compelling narrative that interweaves Schama’s reportage from the 2008 presidential campaign trail with rich historical research and reflection on dominant motives in our national story: war, religion, race, immigration and identity, natural and economic abundance. Composed in conjunction with a superb set of television films commissioned by the BBC, the book came out in Britain last October in the run-up to the election and is being issued in the U.S. now with a new epilogue that meditates on the results of the voting. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
James Mustich

Simon Schama: Occasionally I do a sampler of conservative radio, and it’s amazing to hear history invoked over what they take to be Obama’s prostration before Islam, his insistence that America is not a Christian nation, nor a Jewish one. They’re ignorant, of course, of the Treaty of Tripoli, 1796, made with the Bey of Tripoli  in which  article 11 expressly states that “since the United States is in no sense a Christian nation.” it could have no religious conflict per se with the “Mussulmen” powers of the Barbary Coast. President John Adams, a pillar of piety in his way, signed off on this very explicit repudiation of characterizing independent America as expressly Christian. So an attentive reading of history proves exactly the opposite of what Rush Limbaugh and company are saying. It’s extraordinary to hear the Founding Fathers invoked as figures who would defend the notion that America had been founded on something called “Judeo-Christian principles.” They were believing Christians — (or in Jefferson’s case a deist who thought Jesus was a great moral teacher but not the son of God) who also believed in a secular republic. They wouldn’t have understood what that phrase, “Judeo-Christian” meant, I think — especially the “Judeo” bit.

James Mustich: They seemed to so purposefully believe in a secular republic. . . .

SS: Yes, exactly. Even when they were passionate Christians, like Washington. Absolutely.

JM: From the American past, then, to The American Future, your new book, which will be published here in a few weeks. But it came out in England last October, didn’t it?

SS: It had to come out there the week of the election — actually, before the election. It’ll be out here in May. I am hoping that it will be seen as a reflection on the campaign married to meditations on American exceptionalism and particular strains in American history. But post-election publication wouldn’t have worked in Britain, because the project was a marriage of television and writing, and the television series was commissioned in light of the huge amount of interest in the American election, whoever the nominees were. There was no way the book would have worked in Britain if it had come out now, or even in January, once the excitement of the electoral drama had passed.

The deadlines thrown at me were very tough. I wrote the book on the road, and serially, as well as home in my study. The British publishers were fantastic — I think the publisher got the last bits of manuscript six weeks before the book was scheduled to be published, and they still managed to release it on time. We were proofing it while we were still on the road, too. But I tried to turn necessity into a virtue, and conceived the book so it would include a sense of the rush of immediate writing, allied to more tranquil, reflective, longer passages of history. So it falls into a very odd genre in some ways, I realize that.

JM: Would you describe the marriage between the television and the book sides of the project?

SS: I’ve been doing this a lot now — more than 40 films, I think. I’ve learned that they involve kindred but different types of writing. In some instances in the past I’ve written what I call a mega-script or a mega-text. I did this with The Power of Art, and also certainly with pieces in History of Britain. In other words, you do all of the research as one seamless garment. No doubt you will have to refresh the research when you come to compose the book, but it’s a deliberately super-rich text, and it has embedded in it all your scholarly sources — the places you might have to go back to. Then, for the television scripts, you have to do a great deal of pruning and sharpening. Basically, most hour-long documentaries can’t tolerate more than 6,000 or 7,000 words, at the absolute maximum, and my chapters, while they vary, will characteristically be a lot longer than that. But you don’t just deliver a whittled-down version to the director; it becomes a different object on its own. It’s much more epigrammatic. You don’t do any atmospheric description because that’s there for you — the camera will be doing that. It’s a different kind of writing craft, really.

So two things are born from the same single cell of research and conception and ideas and debate. They’re like Siamese twins, and there’s some point when the knife separates the two objects.

JM: The films are quite stunning visually.

SS: Oh, thank you. I wasn’t sure if you’d seen them. I do write some of the shots, but in this case, we were working so fast, and they were only a few of the locations I knew very well, like Monticello. I knew West Point, too, because I live near there; I’ve given talks at West Point and I love the place. Oddly enough, I hadn’t been to Gettysburg. Washington I know very well; Savannah I knew a little bit. But essentially, we relied in this series on very good researchers and assistant producers who would feed us back still images, and in some cases video material as well — they literally go out with a camcorder and send back footage. Then I would restructure the script based on this visual input.

JM: There’s some wonderful film and picture research. I remember vividly, for some reason, archival footage of massive pumps with a dramatic voice over — it sounds like it’s George Raft — celebrating their constant operation. You had researchers looking for this kind of material for you?

SS: Yes. That’s another subdivision about labor: an archival researcher, who you really need. Ours was Declan Smith — an incredibly good archival researcher. He would have found that. In a television project that was this fast — we had a very limited number of weeks to edit each film, five at a maximum, when you’d usually have at least three times that. So if the book was going to be done, and if it was going to be not simply a script between hard covers but its own object, I had to let those other people get on with what they’re doing. Then we’d stitch it all together very fast in the cutting room.

JM: You were in the cutting room?

SS: Yes. Not all of the time, but some of the time. When I started doing television, I knew I wanted to learn the basic elements of how a film is put together, not just be a writer-presenter.

JM: In the real-time chapters of the book, those focused on the presidential campaign, you are clearly describing things as they’re happening, and, consequently, writing to tight deadlines. What was that experience like? Was it terrifying? Exhilarating? A mixture of both?

SS: Both. Absolutely both.

JM: Had you ever worked like that before?

SS: No. I summoned my inner journalist, I guess. [LAUGHS] When I think back on it, it was really a high-wire act, but not entirely unprecedented for me. When I stopped being an undergraduate in 1966, I worked part-time for Harry Evans — not literally for him, but on the Sunday Times. A friend of mine called Robert Lacey, a very good writer and historian, had won an essay competition; the prize was getting a job on the Times‘ color supplement, as it was then called. He would in turn farm out little bits of reportage to some of his friends, including me. That sort of got me through the doors. I had edited both a university magazine and a newspaper called New Cambridge, so a bit of the romance of journalism was pulsing around inside me. I was dealing at that point with the question of whether I wanted to become an academic and a scholar, or did I want to be a journalist. So I used to moonlight for Bob, while teaching and doing graduate research. But I was spending a couple of days a week at least in London. As things have turned out, a lot of my life has been lived on this indeterminate borderline between a certain kind of nonfiction popular writing and more scholarly reflection.

But you’re right to suggest that going with a notebook to Des Moines for the Iowa caucuses was essentially thrilling — actually, more exhilarating than terrifying. Because I had a very strong sense of what was going on during those two days, and that Hillary was going to run into a huge surprise. Her campaign was operating according to principles that we could see elsewhere around town were being remade, were being made redundant by the kids working for Obama.

There was an extraordinary language moment that Obama brought to that campaign. It sort of circumnavigated all the old truisms about how politics were about spin, and about the money you had for television advertising (not that they were short of that). Obama’s notion (or maybe it was David Axelrod’s notion) was that you could on the one hand outflank your opponents on the Web by blogging, summoning what turned out to be millions of kids who canvassed places like Atlanta or Seattle for him; and on the other hand, you could revive the most despised form of political communication, formal rhetoric, using oratory as a campaign tool, something which had just not been heard of since Jack Kennedy, I suppose.

Obama said something which seemed to me absolutely to the point in this regard in his acceptance speech at Denver, when he said, “You can always make a big election small” — by which he meant Lee Atwater-type politics, running an election as takedown character assassination and mutual scandal and spin control — or, you can take a huge chance that this one time things are in such bad shape that the American voting public wants the election to be about something: about the destiny of the country. He took a huge bet, assuming that that sort of seriousness would in fact resonate. I remember what McCain’s advisor Steve Schmidt said at the beginning of the election campaign proper: “This election will not be fought on issues; it will be fought as a referendum on personality.” He was completely wrong, really. Absolutely, totally wrong about that.

JM: In the epilogue to the American edition of the book, you make the point, if I take it correctly, that there are historical moments, and this may be one of them, when idealism is actually very pragmatic.

SS: Yes, precisely that. Idealism turns out to be what’s got to be done. You may be very starry-eyed about healthcare reform, but if you don’t do healthcare reform and grasp that particularly horrible nettle, our grandchildren are going to be paying for an impossible situation in entitlements and all sorts of economic monstrosities down the line. That’s again the next bet Obama has taken. The news about his immigration reform initiative almost beggars the imagination, that he’d attempt something so controversial as the midterms come up; I can’t quite believe he’ll do that.

There’s a sense that, whatever you think of him, starry-eyed or not, he’s someone who only knows the politics of big issues. He is sort of made to fit with that in a peculiar way that past generations might call providential. That doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily succeed; he may be overwhelmed by it all. But there’s no doubt that he’ll succeed or fail while grappling with these enormous dinosaurs.

JM: The results of the election provided the foundation for your epilogue, and that insight. What might the epilogue have been like if . . .

SS:  McCain had won?!

JM: Yes.

SS: [LAUGHS] You know, I haven’t actually paused to think about that. Not that there weren’t moments when I thought it might be possible. As I think I write in the epilogue, at the beginning of the campaign McCain took the advice that Americans just want politics to be a branch of entertainment, and they’re not interested in the debates, really — that this is all high-minded nonsense, and it was what killed Adlai Stevenson, and Al Gore, and Obama would go the same way. Also, because of the statistics of 2004, the Republicans were so terrified of losing the evangelical votes, they said, “Well, we don’t know how this is going to turn out, but if all our conservative evangelicals sit on their hands, we are definitely going to lose, so we need to do something.” So enter Sarah Palin. Everyone thought it was genius at the beginning, and then it very rapidly became a terrible busted flash. What this all meant is that they didn’t allow McCain to be the honestly independently minded person who could have had a much better chance of winning.

To go back to your question, we’ll never know, will we? As my friend Tina Brown said, “Obama is not just the first black president; he’s the first BlackBerry president of the United States.” A very good line. I wish I’d thought of it. And it makes an important point. I don’t mean this as a sort of technical, picky thing, but somewhere out there in the land of the American republic was the sense that actually McCain was a great hero, he was a decent man, he was a strong-minded, independent thinker — but he was so not of the moment that it would be actually dangerous to consign the fate of an economy and a country to him when it seemed to be in a state of free-fall. This became apparent to people during the awful, bizarre moment of McCain’s suspended campaign, the cancelled debate, the odd march on Washington when he stormed into the Oval Office meeting on what to do about bailing out AIG, then sat down and didn’t say anything. That was very disconcerting. There was a sense that this is what you’re going to get from someone who had boasted that he never goes near a computer.

So oddly enough, the kid from Harvard Law School, the community organizer, looked like the more dependable executive in charge of what was left of America, Inc. That was the extraordinary thing. All he had to do was stand there and not go crazy, and people thought — in Indiana, and places where you would not necessarily think they would have — they looked through his color completely and said, “This is someone I would rather hire for this particular job than old uncle McCain,” who was sort of like Uncle Fester on speed!

JM: I’d like to talk about this book in terms of historiography for a little bit. I’ve noticed that critical response to your later books sometimes neglects concerns that reach back throughout your earlier work — perhaps because they’re television productions as well as books.

SS: Yes, ok. Interesting.

JM: Particularly, with regard to the journalistic impulse of The American Future, I recall something you wrote in the afterword to Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations).

SS: Well, it’s a work of fiction, that.

JM: But you said something that informed my understanding of what you were doing in The American Future, alternating between reportage and historical research and rumination. You write, “. . . historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in is completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation. Of course, they make do with other work: the business of formulating problems, of supplying explanations about cause and effect. But the certainty of such answers always remains contingent on their unavoidable remoteness from their subjects. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.” Then you reflect that both of the stories you’ve told in Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) “play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration.”

SS: Mmm.

JM: In the new book, you seem to have thrust yourself, almost picaresquely, right into that gap, in order not be chasing someone “who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

SS: Ah, ok. I understand. There were two issues, one you didn’t raise and the one you have just raised. The point I want to make first in response is that I don’t claim in this book to have nailed anything except the moment; I don’t even think I nailed that completely. The book is essentially historical reflections on last year’s particular moment, but the rider to that premise is that I did initially have a sort of argument going in. I’m pushing against an open door in America, in some sense, but for the Brits, and for Europeans more generally, America is a country which lives with a short sell-by-day, has no real historical memory. That’s the view in Britain; it’s so profoundly wrong. It may be true if you walk into a social studies class, but probably not even there. Just think, after all, the big beach books are often another biography of a Founding Father. [LAUGHS]. There is a sense of the Founding Fathers walking, talking, speaking, moving among us, partly because of what the Supreme Court has to do every day, but also because they seem to be sempiternally with us. I’m not saying there aren’t millions of Americans who may not be aware of Andrew Jackson’s last move, but there is an extraordinary way in which America is saturated with its own history. The country can almost never make a move without meditating on at what point in the story of the United States it is situated.

When I took the bet on this book, I had the sense that Obama was someone who was very preoccupied with history, but I had no idea just how obsessed with Abraham Lincoln he was. I could never have predicted that amazingly mournful inauguration speech of his. It was very moving, really, that he would go so far away from Reagan’s smiley-face, sunny, historically amnesiac — as Gore Vidal would have said — approach, as to make the climax of his inaugural address Washington crossing the Delaware, one of the most miserable, but heroic, ultimately triumphant, exploits in American history. My God! Talk about cold water! Here is someone who not only is engaged with what must be done now — ready to say, “Quick, we don’t have enough time; we need to grow up about our sense of limits and what’s gone wrong” — but also someone who is constantly looking through the mirror of time. In that sense, it seemed to me right to do a report from now that was simultaneously a set of historical reflections.

The second point you made is terribly interesting, because through a lot of my work (the relevant book, really, for me, is Citizens) I consider this relationship between proximity and distance. It’s interesting you brought up Dead Certainties. That was the book after Citizens; often, the next book along for me is a kind of rueful coming-to-terms with what might have been got wrong in the previous one. The suggestion to write a French Revolution book came from a man called Peter Carson, a fantastic editor at Penguin. I’d been all set, after The Embarrassment of Riches, to write a Rembrandt book, which then got delayed (and I’m very glad it did, because I became much more of an art historian before I wrote that one). But Peter, seeing the bicentennial of the Revolution coming up, and knowing I’d given a set of lectures at Cambridge about the French Revolution, and had published a small thing on Victor Hugo and the Revolution, said, “Have you thought of doing a book?” I thought, oh, the French Revolution has become so much about bread prices in 1784!

But — and this I hope will be to your point — what was happening in the early- and mid-1980s was the collapse of a basically Marxist explanation of the French Revolution, and what filled the gap amid the ruin of that explanatory paradigm were what the philosophers called “speech acts.” I remember meeting Lynn Hunt at a colloquium in Charleston, and we were both giving talks on something that would have been unheard of a decade earlier: revolutionary oratory — which was just the opposite of the very-very socially determined view about class struggles and bread prices and so on that had prevailed for so long. We were both working with the idea that speech acts could actually create communities of excitement, violence, euphoria, whatever — the revolutionary moment.

I was so struck by this, and I thought to myself (and this is the relevance or the answer, I hope, to your question), I said to Peter Carson, “Hold on a minute. Give me a few weeks. I’m very tempted by this.” As I explored he idea of doing a book on the French Revolution I realized I didn’t want to read books that had just been published in the last ten years. I decided I was going to go and read books that came out in the Centennial, in 1889. I wanted to get into that sense of dangerous proximity, of people who were just one-and-a-half or two generations on, who remembered Bertrand Barère as an old man being pushed around. It was a sort of pre-Marxist world, then; hence, the slightly affected subtitle of that book, “A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” But I got very close to Michelin and Carlyle, I read even old Guizot, so there was a sense of fraternity in the bewitching nearness — with the danger that the nearness might implode one’s sense of judgment about what actually caused what. But I thought, well, it would be good to try and write something which would actually make people feel the lick of the flame, without it being a pastiche of Michelin or Carlyle.

I’ve often thought about this. It goes back to the beginning; think of Thucydides. He begins the sort of cool, analytical, critical historical approach; but he’s a retired general who fought in the war which he describes. And Herodotus is a kind of claustrophobic gossip, really, about everything. I can’t remember who it was who said that a lot of history is a negotiation between familiarity and remoteness. Rough Crossings, the book before The American Future, was written with a more customary, remote Olympian narrator. So for this one I thought there was a case for reflections made in proximity.

The final point I’d want to make — which isn’t a response, but a sort of counter-response to your question — is that I now recognize that a lot of the work I’ve done, like the French Revolution book, and certainly The Embarrassment of Riches, revisits one compulsive theme: what makes particular communities, especially national communities, cohere or disintegrate. What actually keeps them together at moments of stress? That was true of even the very first book I wrote, about the Dutch during the period of the Revolution, Patriots and Liberators. What is it about bonding together, or failing to bond together in a kind of common purpose, that keeps the national unit turning over? I suppose, as a British Jew, with a funny, oblique relationship to British history, I sort of inherited that preoccupation.

JM: There’s a fine moment in the “American Fervour” chapter, I guess it’s a page, in which you ponder something that has often occurred to me, but I’ve seldom read anyone discuss the kind of cognitive dissonance created for 21st-century secular liberals by the fact that, from the abolitionists through the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, it was evangelical Christians who led the way in the fight for emancipation and equal rights.

SS: Absolutely. Riverside Church, an important landmark in those struggles, is right around the corner.

JM: Yes, exactly. Would you talk about this subject a little bit?

SS: Yes. I don’t mean to avoid the question at all, but let me start by saying that one of the things that I’ve wrestled with in writing about the Dutch Republic, and certainly writing about Rembrandt, is Christianity. I’m a kind of lapsed Jew, but someone who still knows a lot about the Jewish tradition, having grown up as a Hebrew teacher. In trying to find my way into the inside of not only Protestant Christianity, but also, in studying Bernini and Caravaggio, in dealing with the unreformed Catholic church, I’ve taken Christianity very seriously and radically on its own terms. I’ve been very aware that in the worlds of liberal writing and academia, and again, par excellence in Britain and in Europe, religion is supposed to be something captured by the Right, and something that is supposed to be hostile to liberal democracy.

Now, that so wasn’t true for the Dutch. And it seemed to me that the whole of the American bet was that by separating Church and State, you weren’t creating a kind of deist society. Jefferson wasn’t under any illusion. You were actually much more likely to make faith flourish, and not be afraid of faith flourishing. What you’d be afraid of was criminalizing the faith of someone who didn’t agree with you. That is the glory and honor and nobility of the American Experiment. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising for me to accept the fact that religion wasn’t a kind of add-on to the abolitionist movement and civil rights movement; it was absolutely at the heart of that journey towards self-determination. I hadn’t yet read Albert Raboteau and people who work on the pre-Civil War slave church, so it was very heartening to discover how much we know about the African-American slave response to not wanting to take their religion from the plantation missions. The more I thought about that, and studied the wonderful sources now online, like Charles Octavius Boothe’s Cyclopedia of the Colored Baptists of Alabama, the more I began to think about African-American grandiloquence. I re-read The Souls of Black Folk for the first time since university, and was absolutely thunderstruck by how DuBois, who was in many ways a Harvard-East Coast intellectual, an unbelieving African-American, nonetheless takes the kind of poetic force of Christian charisma so seriously.

All that sort of built and built, and then I began to wonder about how white America first came to know about gospel music, and that led me to Thomas Higginson, whom, like most people, I suppose, I only knew as Emily Dickinson’s editor and friend, and that in turn led me to thinking about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and so on. A great river, if you will, that gospel and African-American history describes, and that feeds the tradition you describe.So yes, I followed that through as best I could.

And then, I have to say, I remembered Fannie Lou Hamer, whom, as I write in the book, I encountered at the 1964 Democratic convention. I hadn’t thought about Fannie Lou Hamer again for years and years and years, and then, as I was brooding on this subject, I remembered being thunderstruck by her. I remembered exactly what it was like seeing her sweating in her print dress on the Atlantic City boardwalk, outside the Convention Center singing chorus after chorus of gospel songs. So I was able to write that from memory.

JM: One thing that has struck me, as someone who has lived with your books for a long time, is what marvelous objects your earlier books were: Citizens and Embarrassment of Riches, Landscape and Memory, Rembrandt’s Eyes, the books themselves were wonder cabinets as well as histories. There was a generosity and abundance to them physically, and extraordinary inventiveness and generosity to the way art complemented the text, how it was a part of the imaginative whole. A reader could fall into them, into a kind of privacy that watching a film on a screen doesn’t give you. It evoked for me the magic I found, when I was a kid, in the books by Hendrik Willem Van Loon that my mother collected.

SS: I had those. The Story of Mankind.

JM: And Geography and The Story of Inventions. When I was very small, I would open them up, and just fall into them with a kind of readerly rapture I still feel when I open Landscape and Memory, which remains my personal favorite among your books. Perhaps because so much of your visual sensibility is engaged in producing the films these, your newer books — Rough Crossing, The American Future — lack this extra dimension. I miss it.

SS: What a sobering thought. It’s true. You know, I’d never thought of that, that I have displaced it, really, into the craft of making the documentaries. Wow.

All I can say is that I hope that in our world of straitened resources in print publishing, that doesn’t remain the case forever. I still have on the back burner, and it’s still very much on the back burner, a plan for a book about the imagination of the tropics. It wouldn’t be quite as vast as Landscape and Memory, but it would proceed along the same lines.           

JM: Let me encourage you in that direction!

SS: I am touched by what you say of Landscape and Memory because  — while it’s an egregious and narcissistic thing to speak this way of one’s own books — that was the one that I call my “fender book.” Meaning that if I was posed the question about stepping into Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue, and saw a truck coming at me at such very high speed that there was no place to go except under its fender, what unwritten book might flash through my mind — “Bloody hell, if only I had done that?” Well, Landscape and Memory would be my answer to that one. I knew that it was a crazy book, a crackpot book, strange and eccentric, but I knew all along that if I was crushed by a truck and hadn’t written that book, I would die annoyed.

It’s very moving, what you were saying about falling into the world of the book. I would love to do such a thing again on the printed page. You must phone me up every so often, and remind me of that.

JM: I will. I hear you’re at work on a film about John Donne.

SS: We’ve done it. Yes, we’ve finished it. Again, something completely different. Janice Hadlow, who is controller of BBC-2 now, said, “Do you want to make a film about John Donne?” I’ve loved him since I was made to discover him in school when I was about 13. We had a tiny budget, and we thought, well, you don’t want men with stick-on beards sort throwing swords around, but you do want some sense of atmosphere.

I thought, well, Donne’s a Londoner. When he’s disgraced because of his marriage with a 16-year-old, he’s banished, and he really feels in exile, having to go to Surrey. So why not use London right now, contemporary London in the bitter winter — it was unbelievably cold — and have a sense of the poetry stalking the streets.

Donne was Master of the Revels at Lincoln’s Inn, and I always felt that there was something of the performer in him. So I thought, again, how about actually having a performer sit down and talk about how you voice the poems, unpicking the meaning — that incredibly complicated, intense, conversationally-delivered, philosophical meaning. We went to the cleverest actor we knew, and one of the best poetry-readers and that was Fiona Shaw. The film is a sort of combination of a master class on the poetry and Donne’s own story. John Carey, who has a stunning book on Donne, written in the early ’80s and then forgotten, has a role in it too — and he’s terrific on camera, Carey, as is Fiona. It’s a completely different little genre piece, and it will be broadcast at the end of May in Britain.

JM: One last quick question. There was recently on the BBC a little baseball radio thing that you did.

SS: God, I loved doing that!

JM: It was very enjoyable. Was that a kind of outtake from all your other American researches?

SS: No. As the program reveals, I’ve been crazy about baseball for many, many years. I wrote a piece on the Red Sox for the Guardian, and the man who is the controller of BBC-Radio, Mark Damazer, happens to be a fellow Red Sox fan, suggested it. Someone said to me, “Why don’t you do it on television?” I thought there is no way I’m ever going to explain what a curve ball is, or how to score a double play on television to the Brits. There’s no point in doing this. But I thought, radio, you could make it into a little picaresque history. I had a lot of fun doing it.

-April 10, 2009