Steve Scher is a native Chicagoan who headed west to attend the University of Oregon, and discovered he wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest. He worked as an actor, a waiter, and earned a Masters degree in filmmaking before Marcie Sillman hired him at KUOW-FM. After 28 years on radio, many of them hosting the popular “Weekday” show, Scher quit the station last June to finish a novel.
What have you been up to since you left KUOW?
The novel is done. Now it needs a good editor and more readers. But it is done. I spent an incredible three months as Scholar in Residence with Town Hall, interviewing speakers on stage and for a podcast, "In Residence: Conversations from Town Hall." I taught interviewing in the evening degree program at the UW fall quarter. And I’ve done a few interviews with guests lecturers at the UW for a new podcast called "At Length," supported by the UW Alumni Association and the Graduate School. Nancy Pearl and I meet up at The Bryant Corner Cafe most Tuesday mornings to record a podcast called "That Stack of Books." So, I am keeping busy. But writing shapes the day.
What’s the gist of your completed book?
"Pratfalls" is a comic novel (I hope): Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. There is a Morning Zoo radio show, an independent film shoot, gold-flecked wine and hearty stews for the nouveau-riche, high-paying jobs for the writers of video game dialogue, Chihuahua rescue clubs and angry monkeys. Seattle in the 21st Century. Things don't go as planned. Hilarity and explosions ensue.
You interviewed a great many authors on “Weekday.” Did any of them influence your writing?
Ann Patchett told me something that helped me do the work. All my unfinished characters were hollering at me from my desk drawers, from boxes stuffed with scraps of stories. I meant to write, but I was stymied by all my false starts. Patchett told me to take the promise seriously, to see it as a contract I had made with myself. That notion allowed me to turn off the critical editor. Whatever the quality, even if it ended up in my drawer, I should fulfill the personal contract. I would honor the promise I made to myself.
What books are open on your nightstand right now?
I am finishing up a book about how the spice trade shaped Lisbon, Amsterdam and Venice,” The Taste of Conquest.” I love histories that focus on the mundane objects and events that reshape the world. I have “Sibley’s Birds” by the bed because I am bound and determined to learn the Latin names of our feathered friends and understand their familial relationships. And I am re-reading “Thurber’s Carnival,” because James Thurber was a comic genius, a writer and a cartoonist. I am feebly floundering in his mammoth footprints.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
I recommend a lot of books. Truly great? I am not very good at judging that. I truly enjoyed John Cleese’s memoir, “So Anyway.” Shane Harris’ “@War” was a chilling look inside the black box of our cyber wars. John Lanchester’s “How To Speak Money” is a must read for anyone trying to understand this economy. Matt Bai’s book on media, “All The Truth Is Out,” was sad but true and Diane Ackerman’s new book on human cultural evolution is fascinating. I really enjoyed Eric Liu’s “A Chinaman’s Chance,” and Alex Tizon’s “Big Little Man.” These are two friends of mine writing about their particular American experience. If I were still doing a talk show, I’d have them on together. Maybe I will do that anyway.
Do you read more fiction or non-fiction? Any favorite genres?
I read both. Now that I am reading mostly for myself after years of reading for work, I’m enjoying mysteries. I go for cold war era stories, spy stuff, Phillip Kerr, Len Deighton, John Le Carre. I have been reading Chandler and Hammett lately and Ross Thomas. Also I like light-hearted stories by Carl Hiassen, Dave Barry and similar writers.
Any hands-down favorite authors?
John Steinbeck. “East of Eden.” Most of his books, really. Old school, I know, but his combination of character, social comment, the pain and the poetry speak to me.
As host of “Weekday,” you interviewed so many authors. Do any stand out in your memory?
I got to meet so many of my cultural heroes. I had a few stinkers, but let’s leave that. I know a few listeners heard the painful ones. But I got to sit down with most of the great writers of our time. It was a Master’s class in contemporary thought and culture. Kesey, Terkel, Patchett, Sontag, Wolfe (Tom and Naomi), Doig, Alexie, Ford, Rushdie, Merwin. My head spins at the good fortune I had — poet laureates, Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners. Wow.
What did you read to stay current all those years on the air?
I read the local papers, in print and online. I read the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal. I read the New Yorker, Time, Atlantic, Harpers. I tried to look at the popular websites to at least get a handle on trends. NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera. I’d wander around the political spectrum and try to look at other countries' media.
I think it is a good idea to pick up newly released non-fiction and read them as they come out. It’s the second draft of history in a sense.
Any well-reviewed or popular books lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?
See, I just don’t have that critical a mindset. That may be my failing. I do find there are a number of hyped up books I have never read. Maybe it is the hype, maybe I am just not intrigued.
How does it feel now to read what you like, rather than read to prepare for an interview? Has changing jobs changed your reading habits?
I am grateful to be reading what I like. I enjoy wandering the library stacks and picking up interesting looking books. I am letting my whimsy lead me. I am still doing interviews with authors from time to time. It’s nice to still pick up a few books and read them with the intent of engaging the author in a conversation. I am grateful I can still scratch that itch.
What were your most cherished childhood books?
I read Thurber as a kid. He influenced me. As an even younger reader, Freddy the Pig series by Walter Brooks. That Freddy. He got to fly to Mars! Otherwise, there are too many to mention. The classics — Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time, Superman and Batman comic books, Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein. Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller too. I could be jotting down authors for days.
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?
Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard.” Basho. I am always picking and poking around Shakespeare and I flip open the bible from time to time. I bet I read David Sedaris and “Santaland Diaries” again, because it is hilarious.
What do you plan to read next?
Nancy Pearl has nicely tasked me with a few to read, including the new novel “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” by Portland writer David Shafer and novels by Australian mystery writer Peter Temple. Also Pete Dexter’s “Spooner.” Those are high on the next stack. Up next is also John Marzluff’s “Welcome to Subirdia,” M.F.K Fishers “The Art of Eating,” and a book I snatched up a while back, David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey,” about Americans in Paris. Mark Twain has been calling me too. Yeesh, I better get busy.
What Val’s Reading This Week: I’ve always been fascinated by what Margaret Mead left out of her autobiography “Blackberry Winter.” How did she manage to go up the river with one husband and come back down with another? Author Lily King imagines Mead’s New Guinean love triangle in her new novel “Euphoria.” It’s beautifully written, with fascinating detail about the tribal children and women Mead studied, but don’t expect it to explain the reality of what happened. King takes liberties with Mead’s life, to great effect.