Two people chat amid a makeshift book nook with a round table and bookshelves on a soundstage at the University of North Carolina Center for Public Television in Research Triangle Park, across from the darkened, lumber-piled set of Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Shop. The set is artificial, but the enthusiasm is real as host D.G. Martin interviews UNC-Wilmington associate professor Rebecca Lee for the latest installment of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which Martin has hosted since 1999.
Unfolding in real time over one take, the program isn't flashy. It's just a simple half-hour of Martin talking to Lee about her 2013 fiction collection Bobcat and Other Stories over two large cups of coffee, with nothing more technical than camera operators occasionally flashing a card that lets Martin know how much time he has left.
Even in the visually oriented world of television, the otherwise static quality of two people sitting at a table, talking about a book, becomes strangely engaging. Martin explains that he came up with two different meanings behind one of Lee's stories after reading it twice. She responds with an anecdote explaining the thought process behind the story and the personal experiences that inspired it. Everything is driven by Martin's curiosity about how Lee wrote her stories, and Lee discussing how her life and work affect each other. (The episode will air in early spring.) It's like sitting in on a good book club.
Martin estimates he's done nearly 300 episodes of Bookwatch, which he calls "this fun thing that I do." The "fun thing" has proven to be one of the longest-running parts of the Davidson native and Yale graduate's extensive career, which includes a stint as a Green Beret, jobs at UNC-Pembroke and N.C. Central University, work as a lawyer and political columnist, and a Democratic primary campaign against John Edwards for the Senate in 1998.
Martin's careers occasionally bump up against each other—the GOP called for his removal from the show in 2013 after he compared Republican support of ousted Egyptian leaders to support of the Nazis in one of his columns—but otherwise, Martin's work on Bookwatch is apolitical, based solely on talking to authors about their books.
He recognizes that he's lucky: "Getting to read a book and then spend 30 minutes with the author by yourself ... some people would pay a lot of money for that." He also recognizes that people aren't tuning in to hear him talk. "In almost every case, an author who's written a book or is writing a book has a good story to tell. If I just shut up and let them tell that story, we have a good program," Martin says. "The goal is for it to be the author's words, and not mine."
Martin joined Bookwatch in its third season and quickly made his reputation interviewing then-Tar Heels coach Dean Smith about his autobiography A Coach's Life. "They maybe said, 'He can get Dean Smith, we should keep him around,'" Martin quips. "It was not only a fun interview, but something that established our reputation at the television station."
Since then, he's settled into a comfortable groove with the program, with the only problems he recalls being a few times they had to record a few extra minutes of interview footage to make it possible to edit out long pauses. The series has helped him try some North Carolina authors he hadn't before, such as Jill McCorkle and
Martin says his biggest challenge is making the case for interviewing authors who might seem less North Carolina-related, but he understands the need for local relevance: "That's the business we're in. We're UNC-TV. We can get great national-related book programs on C-SPAN or other networks, but no one but us is bringing N.C.-related topics to a North Carolina audience."
Upcoming episodes include such Carolina literati as Pat Conroy, Allan Gurganus and Jason Mott, a personal favorite of Martin's. "Maybe the most fun is someone who's hit the big time by surprise, like Jason—he just got me fired up," says Martin of The Returned's author. "First-generation college graduate in his family, grew up in one of the most historically racist sections of the state—his story just captivated me."
Bookwatch has enormous promotional potential for authors who appear. "The local bookstores do an excellent job of promoting North Carolina authors, but sometimes you'll go to a signing and you'll have 20 people," Martin says. "We deliver 15 to 20 thousand people in one strike. Even if people don't buy the book, they still know who that author is, and it helps spread the word. It's not magic, but it's helpful to the author."
Martin admits that Bookwatch is a "year-to-year thing" at UNC-TV, and he's never sure if financial issues or his own needs will lead to the program's demise. "We talk about it at the end of the year every year," Martin says. "I've retired several times, and every time, I've come back."
He intends to continue hosting the program, and would love to get some of the authors he's never been able to get in the past, such as David Sedaris, Jan Karon and Patricia Daniels. Martin also hopes that older viewers or book clubs check out reruns of older episodes on UNC-MX, which are posted online.
However you view it, Martin plans to keep doing things the way he's been doing them—two people at a table, talking about a book, his real excitement shining through as it's filmed. "I'm a slave to the old way of doing things," he says. Sort of like sitting down with a good book.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Type set"