The Write Question

The Write Question is a radio program that explores the world of writing and publishing in the Western United States. Produced in Missoula by Chérie Newman (Executive Producer: Michael Marsolek), TWQ has been on the air since mid-2007, and in November 2009 expanded its format from twelve to thirty minutes. It can be heard on Montana Public Radio each Thursday evening at 7:30pm.

Humanities Montana recently caught up with Chérie Newman to discuss the new directions of the show.

HM: How do you prepare for an interview with a writer? Do you have a routine or methodology for familiarizing yourself with the writer's work?

CN: I prepare for interviews in two ways. The first way is methodical. The second, not so much. My process depends on how much time I have.

The methodical process happens when I have at least a couple of weeks before the interview. In that case, I'll read as much of the author's work as possible—at least one book, maybe two, and as many online pieces as I can find. Then, I'll read reviews of the author's work. And, finally, I'll research the author, which involves reading bios and listening to or reading interviews they've done with other media people. This is my process for most of the authors I talk with.

However, once in a while I get a call or an e-mail message on, say, a Tuesday with big news!: So-and-so-über-famous-author will be in town this Thursday (only). In that case, I’ll rush over to the library or Fact & Fiction to get the author’s latest book and read as much of it as I can before Thursday. Also in that case, I’ll blitz through the Web looking for any mention of the author. When I’m lucky, the author has a Web site and there’s a coherent bio posted there. When I’m unlucky, the author has a day job at a University. Then, I’m forced to use Wikipedia and pray that it’s been updated within the last year.

HM: How much interviewing do you do with a writer in order to have enough content for an episode?

CN: If the writer tracks well (doesn’t stray too far from the question while answering), we’ll talk for about 35 minutes. If the writer is prone to verbal forays, I’ll end up with more than an hour of audio that requires considerable editing.

HM: Has your interviewing process or technique changed since you expanded the program from 12 to 30 minutes?

CN: Yes. A lot. I used to be an interview “guide.” I’d guide the conversation while we talked for about 15 minutes. Then, when putting the program together, I’d edit myself out (to give listeners more time with the guest). No brilliance required. No pressure.

Now that I’m present in the program as an interviewer, I must be articulate and clever, no matter how much sleep I didn’t have. I must ask probing questions and make insightful commentary. I must be energetic and intelligent. Big pressure.

HM: What was the motivation for extending the show from 12 to 30 minutes?

CN: When Michael Marsolek (Program Director for Montana Public Radio) and I first talked about my idea for a radio program featuring writers, he decided to add it to the Sunday morning eleven o’clock hour—because the producer of another short-form program had retired. The time available during that hour was about twelve minutes. And I was grateful for those minutes and for the opportunity to produce a writing program.

However, from the beginning, we were always trying to do too much with those twelve minutes. We wanted to feature the author talking, give listeners information about new books, and offer information about the authors and their work. That was way too much to cram into such a short program. The comment we heard most often from listeners was that they wanted more, a longer program. And we listened.

HM: What are the challenges and benefits of that longer format? Did it require you to rethink any of the fundamental qualities or objectives of the program?

CN: As I mentioned before, my biggest challenge with this change was transitioning from producer/editor to my three-part role as producer, editor, and interviewer. Other than that, putting the program together has actually been easier and more satisfying. That’s because we, the writers and I, have more time to explore complex ideas and tell bigger stories, which makes the editing less complicated.

My original objective for The Write Question was to create opportunities for us to listen to intelligent, interesting, and passionate people talk about writing. So, no, the longer format did not change that objective.

HM: You always have interesting music in the program. What part does music play in terms of the overall quality and feeling of The Write Question? Where do you find the music?

CN: I think using interesting music is probably a natural extension of my desire to create interesting content. Also, I’m a musician—a singer/songwriter who plays guitar, keyboards, and percussion—and a writer, so I put the program together in somewhat the same way I would write a song or an essay. I want a beginning, middle, and end. I want to tell a story. I want the listener’s mind to expand, or formulate new questions. Music creates emotion, transition, and/or space and I use it for all those purposes.

All the music in the program is written and performed by Montana musicians. Springhill is a jazz quartet with three members living in Bozeman and one from Billings. Aaron Minnick is a music composition student at UM, Missoula. Michael Blessing is a composer/musician in Bozeman. And the recording/performing duo of Michael Marsolek and Lawrence Duncan, from Missoula, are members of Drum Brothers.

HM: Do you see interesting trends in any of the specific genres—fiction (historical or otherwise), non-fiction, poetry...?

CN: There may, or may not, be a trend here, but lately I’ve noticed a surfeit of newly-published story collections. I read six or seven last summer and fall. Maybe the short story is making a come back? And maybe that’s because our attention spans are shrinking?

HM: What do you think are the best qualities of Montana's regional writing?

CN: In my opinion, Montana writers are exceptionally talented at creating emotional connections between landscape and people. Some also have a keen insight into animal behavior as it connects to landscape and people. In the same way I enjoy watching a sunrise, a diving hawk, or the slow progress of a grazing antelope toward a creek, I enjoy watching a Montana writer’s prose flow a landscape across my imagination. But, I also want something to happen there and Montana writers are great storytellers.

Chérie Newman hangs around the studios of Montana Public Radio where she produces programs and sometimes reads weather forecasts on the air. Producing "The Write Question" combines her love of books, music, writing, and listening to clever people talk.

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