We’ve lost a great man. John Seigenthaler is a Nashville legend, one of the classiest, smartest, most interesting men I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. When I heard the news today, the inevitable news, because he’s been fighting cancer, and was clearly getting frail, I cried. I haven’t seen him lately, despite our planning to have a lunch date to discuss a story I want to do on the Fugitive Poets, and we didn’t do our annual interview, which told me the end was near. As is always the case, I’ve been meaning to reach out these past few weeks, and of course hadn’t, and that’s a terrible shame, something I’ll always regret.
There are a lot of great stories out there about his incredible life, and I encourage you to read them. My own will be more personal.
You see, John was a catalyst for me. He was my first big interview when my debut novel came out in 2007. My publicist at the time was friends with him, and got me slated for the show. A WORD ON WORDS has been a Nashville Sunday morning institution for years. I was scared to death, and thrilled that I was about to enters the annals of the shows history, get to sit down with the John Seigenthaler.
Most authors will tell you, many interviewers don’t read the books. They have talking points and synopses sent by publicists, and they rely on a few well-placed questions to guide the discussion. That wasn’t John Seigenthaler. He read the book. He read all the books. When we sat down, before the cameras rolled, he opened the back cover and I saw three pages of notes. He refreshed his memory whilst I panicked, then the cameras rolled and we began.
Saying he’d read the book is a misnomer. He’d dissected it. Had gone so in-depth, as a matter of fact, that he asked me questions I had no answers for, in ways I’d never thought of, about parts I didn’t even realize were there. He drew every exquisite inch out of that interview, peppering me with interrogatories and asides about his own life as a crime reporter (there’s a crime reporter in the book) diving into relationships between the police and the feds, the poems, the killer, the whys behind the story, my process.
It’s funny, you can hear the abject terror in my voice when we started. By the end, I wanted to keep on talking with him for days. If he’d offered me a spot living in his pocket, I would have gladly accepted.
Our meetings became more personal. I'd always wear my pearls in his honor, he'd always wear a tie. When he told me about the cancer, I wanted to weep, but he kept a brave face on, and so did I. Every time we parted, he gave me a hug and a kiss, because “it might be the last time.” He was hyper-aware of his own mortality, telling me his age with a sly sense of pride. After one interview, he plainly stated he was wondering about his legacy, and that he feared this would be our last interview. He wasn’t kidding, and I gave him the only answer I could.
“John, you are unforgettable.”
And he is.
When I heard the news this morning, I wanted to hear his voice again, so I went to the Nashville Public Television website, lit a candle, and starting listening to the podcasts of our many interviews for A WORD ON WORDS. It’s like stepping through a time warp, watching my career unfold. And having been able to share it with this incredible man is something I will treasure, always.
John taught me how to do an interview. He taught me how to think about my novels, about my work, about the interconnectivity of the characters and the story. His interviews were my favorite part of every tour, because I knew he’d find something so challenging for me to think about, to chew on. There were lines I’d throw in just to see if he’d catch the reference, and he always, always did.
And it wasn’t only the intellectual challenge he provided. The kindness this man showed to all of us was legendary. His gift was his ability to make every author, every person who met him feel like the most important person he’d ever been with. He made it clear that you mattered.
You mattered to me, John. I will miss you terribly. And if you have a chance to send me a dream, please do.
There's a big book event tonight at Parnassus, our major local indie bookstore. I know John will be toasted all over town tonight, and can't help but think that raising our glasses to him in the midst of words and friends is the best tribute of all.
Here are links to our interviews. I hope you listen to one or two, simply to get an idea of how amazing John was.
Rest in peace, my friend.
2007 - ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS
2008 - 14
2009 - JUDAS KISS
2010 - THE COLD ROOM
2011 - SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH
2012 - A DEEPER DARKNESS