Frances Halpern


An Exclusive Interview With the Author/Journalist/Talk Show Host of "CONNECTIONS"


Carol Givner

WORDSMITH posed the following questions to talk-show guru, Frances Halpern. We asked:

1. Your name is well-known and respected by writers, editors, publishers, and readers from coast to coast in your varied literary enterprises. You've won the loyalty of your listeners and the admiration of your colleagues. What influenced you to embark on such an illustrious career?

2. Have there been any turning points, any pivotal moments or events that shaped the direction of your work? What were you writing when you were 15? 21? When you first moved to California?

3. Was the concept of your radio show, "Connections," an idea of your own? How did the show come about?

4. What pleases you the most about your media work?

5. What have been the inherent "little annoyances" about a talk-show, either expected or unforeseen?

6. How have you coped with the unpredictability of your guests?

7. What has been the funniest "unscheduled" moment on your show?

8. What prompted you to contribute your chapter to Stephen Blake Mettee's The Portable Writer's Conference? How did "So, You Want to Be a Columnist?" come to be written?

9. Why did you want to be a columnist? What intrigued you?

10. What topics did you cover in your L.A. Times column, "Words and Images?" What was your favorite column at the time you wrote it? Your most influential? Which do you like to reread most often?

11. How does the media influence your style? How do you move so comfortably around print journalism, radio broadcasting, writing and publishing? What advice would you give to writers who want to vary and expand their audience?

12. Who is the most fascinating person you've ever interviewed? Which person, writer or otherwise, would you like to ask to be a guest on your show? Who would be the most surprised by your invitation?

13. If talent is not only a gift, can good writers be taught to invent, explore and express artistic ideas? If so, how?

14. How would you define good writing?

15. Is inadequate writing merely underdeveloped? Or something more irreparable?

16. What is the most unforgivable mistake a writer can make?

17. Do you think it is possible to separate the dancer from the dance? The writer from the dream? Who is your favorite author?

18. What advice would you give to both new and established authors?

19. Any new ventures? What is breaking on the horizon for you? What are you writing?

20. If I handed you a sharp pencil and a slip of paper with room for exactly eleven words (coincidentally the letter count for "Connections") what would you say to your readers and listeners?

Be alert to, skeptical of, fascinated by, everything in the world.

Your questions have made me think long and hard about my career as journalist, author, talk show host. There are some "what ifs" about the past and a great deal of pondering about the future. The driving force has always been a need to communicate. I told stories and acted out made up dramas with friends from the time I was a little kid. And I studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts hoping to find my way to Hollywood and the movies. Marriage and family was not my goal. So, it is a real irony that I married at a very young age and sublimated the inner drive to become the traditional housewife with three kids and a house in the suburbs. No dog. I balked at that.

However, during those years of domestic engineering, I also created a life outside the home as a volunteer. I taught myself how to write and edit newsletters for the PTA, a homeowners association and a political group. After the family was bedded down for the night, I spent hours writing, and measuring with a ruler (didn't know about word counts) until all the articles fit into the space allotted for each newsletter.

When we moved to California from New York, I discovered the LA County Museum of History. Volunteered as docent and trained for a year learning how to do historical research. And then I was turned loose in the museum to lecture to school children about everything from Indians to the creatures of the La Brea Tar Pits.

I also worked with Friends of the Library and edited their statewide newsletter, and walked precincts in behalf of political candidates. This lifestyle still included my responsibilities as wife and momma.

And then I discovered the local newspaper. They published columns about local events and I knew I had to do that. After nagging my way into an editor's office, I convinced him to give me a shot at writing a column. Oh, by-the-way, the pay was 15 cents a column inch. I generally earned between $4 and $5 a week. And so, the professional writing career began. I was then hired onto the paper as staff writer and spent five happy years as general assignment and political reporter.

The newspaper credits helped me move into a broader market. I began to submit articles and opinion pieces to other newspapers and magazines. And along with my passion for politics, I developed a deep interest in the publishing process. I focused more and more on that area. And after hearing people insist there was very little publishing activity in the west, came up with the idea of doing a book to prove them wrong. Interested a literary agent in the concept and my "Writer's Guide to Publishing in the West" was released in 1982. Based on my author credentials my column about publishing ran in the Herald Examiner. I then moved on to the Daily News of Los Angeles and from 1982 to 1996 I wrote the "Words & Images" column for the Los Angeles Times Ventura Calendar section.

1 love the column format. Instant gratification. Get something off one's chest. Provide information on a regular basis and then get feedback from readers. If constant deadlines don't scare you, and you can live with editors occasionally messing around with your precious words, writing a column is really a joy. And when publisher Stephen Mettee put out the word that he was looking for chapters for his "Portable Writer's Conference" guide, I jumped at the chance to do the chapter on writing and marketing a column. I had already written chapters on agents and marketing manuscripts for other publishers' guide books.

The passionate need to communicate continued to churn my brain. Putting words on paper was not enough. So, I began monitoring the local commercial radio stations in Santa Barbara and talked one of them into letting me do a show called Literary Lunch. I had been interviewed numerous times on radio and had lectured extensively about publishing all over the country, I figured hosting a show would be a breeze. Uh uh! I choked on my first broadcast. Lost my voice and the board operator had to go to a long commercial break until I pulled myself together, 1 learned the hard way that talk show hosting is a special skill.

This is one of the "what ifs" I mentioned up front. I wish 1 had jumped into the talk radio world years ago. However, no sense whining. Here I am broadcasting every week at KCLU-FM, a wonderful National Public Radio station. It began when a KCLU host, Jon O'Brien, asked me to guest on his Wednesday night show in 1995. He kept asking me back and finally we cooked up a show to air on Sunday morning called "Beyond Words" and convinced KCLU to put us on as cohosts. Our partnership ended in May 1998.

I host the show re-named "Connections" at 10 a.m. every Sunday. And since it is live, I am generally flying on nervous energy every week. Will I screw up? Will the guest be a bomb? Will the guest show up? I've been lucky so far. Most of the authors, agents, publishers, poets, editors have been articulate and interesting, I did interview a major screenwriter who made me work hard to drag information out of him, and I was a nervous wreck about interviewing actor, Carroll O'Connor because he had a reputation for being prickly. But I discovered we came from the same Bronx, New York neighborhood and he was absolutely wonderful.

I've interviewed over 300 people since 1996 and there have been evocative moments which stand out. One was when Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame insisted that he was not really a writer or an artist. I actually cried on air. And reminded him that he has been a positive influence on millions of people all over the world. I couldn't accept his strange evaluation of his own talent. It made me sad.

Some of the sticky moments include the phone guest whose line was busy all night - ergo - no interview; the Australian author who didn't compute the time difference and at 3 a.m. (his time of course) yawned through the whole interview; the celebrity who called from her limo and simply wouldn't hang up; the movie-star author who breezed in 20 minutes after the broadcast began when we were doing a bookstore remote. "Traffic darling," she explained waving long red fingernails. And then, there was my embarrassing goof when I thought my guest had self-published her book. She hadn't and was properly miffed at my mistake.

Another stress inducing moment occurred when we were scheduled to broadcast from a Borders bookstore. KCLU engineers had installed very impressive equipment and William Peter Blatty, author of the "Exorcist," was our guest. The station had been on the air for hours but within seconds of introducing Blatty we were blown off the air! We stared at Blatty. His authorship of that book and scary movie gives him a strange aura. The natural explanation: the ground had slipped under our broadcast antenna following heavy rains. Well, only the audience in Borders heard the show that day.

You asked who would be the most surprised to be invited on "Connections." Sometimes I read an intriguing piece in a newspaper and invite the reporter to guest on the show. They are often surprised. Now, who would be the ultimate interview? The coup. Why President Clinton and/or Hillary. We would talk about reading and writing and literary stuff. I would also like to talk to Jeff Greenfield, the television political analyst, who recently spent some months in Carpenteria writing a novel. What would journalist Greenfield say about writing fiction?

I am convinced that the ability to tell a good story is a special talent. The craft, putting parameters around the tale, is a learned art. Good writers know how to organize and edit their own work. Bad or inexperienced writers generally over-write and too often bore us to death. But it all revolves around that innate story-telling talent. Many commercially successful authors are often mediocre writers - but boy, can they tell a whopping good story.

And the writer who had communication skills and the ability to market the work also has a better chance to achieve success in the publishing maze. You've heard it ad nauseum. Know the market. Interact with people in the publishing industry. Make the contacts. Understand the world you want to enter. Many of my writing assignments and on-air jobs resulted in my studying and targeting editors and program directors. And hanging out. I support authors by attending their signings at bookstores. And I am a member of a number of writing and broadcast organizations.

Remember, I have to read (at least portions of) my radio guests' work and so when I give myself permission to read books for pure pleasure, they tend to be brain busters. I prefer history, archaeology, and fiction which focus on events rather than personal relationships. Some of the novelists I've read recently are Mark Helprin, Mordecai Richler, George Garrett, Mary Doria Russell, Susan Sontaq, Ursula Hegi and non-fiction authors Richard Ben Cramer, Ted Berkman and F. Scott Berg. I often re-read a Dickens or Jane Austen after watching on. of the British dramas on television.

My present plans are to focus on getting "Connections" syndicated to other NPR stations. It's a big undertaking.

And dear literary toilers, just as we are admonished to know what our fictional characters want and decide how they achieve their goals. We should apply that same advice to our own careers. What do we want and decide how do we focus on attaining that dream? A wonderful writing teacher told me that I would have to be ruthless or at least very selfish to achieve major success. She may be right. I leave that idea blowing in the wind. What say you?

Frances Halpern can be heard at 10 a.m. Sunday on KCLU-FM at 88.3 in Ventura County and 102.3 in Carpenteria and Santa Barbara. She also moderates a panel every year for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and conducts the Marketing workshop at the week-long Santa Barbara Writers Conference.