Pico Iyer | Credit: Derek Shapton

It might be said that the seeds for the popular Speaking with Pico series first sprouted in a class at UCSB. Religious Studies professor Nandini Iyer (Pico Iyer’s late mother) had former Arts & Lectures (A&L) Associate Director Roman Baratiak as a student in the 1970s. Baratiak became a very good friend of the family and brought Pico into the program in the 1990s.

“It’s a real blessing for me to be part of that,” Iyer shared via a Zoom interview from his home in Japan. “Partly because I get to speak to people I would never speak to otherwise. … I never meet my inspirations or heroes, except when I come to Campbell Hall.” 

This season’s interviewees include Pulitzer Prize winners Jennifer Egan (November 6) and Tracy Kidder (March 14, 2023), and actor, filmmaker, and animal behaviorist Isabella Rossellini (April 27, 2023). Past interviewees have included Philip Glass, Elizabeth Strout, George Saunders, Susan Orlean, Zadie Smith, and Salman Rushdie. 

How does such an eclectic slate come to be? “I have my wish list. Often the writers I most idolized whom I would never meet otherwise, like George Sanders, Zadie Smith, or Elizabeth Strout,” says Iyer. “It’s a true collaboration with A&L.” 

He estimates it’s about 50-50 between their suggestions and his own. “Last year, I’ll confess that Arts & Lectures suggested Vijay Gupta, and I knew nothing about him. A violinist, philanthropist, and brilliant speaker, he turned out to be one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. And we’re now good friends.”

While he doesn’t generally speak to his subjects before the interviews, Iyer does immerse himself in their work. “I spend about six or seven months in intensive preparation, and that itself is really interesting. I learn more about my favorite authors in a way that I never would otherwise,” he shares.

“Jennifer Egan is a perfect example, because I had read her work before, but I never read seven of her books in quick succession. These last few months have really allowed me to appreciate what risks she takes and how she is constantly challenging herself after every successful book to go in a radically different direction,” he says. “I think of it as a great luxury, really, to concentrate all one’s attention on the writer for a long time. And it becomes the richest and most intimate conversation.”

A prolific writer himself, Iyer says, “I think one of the curiosities of the form that I’ve come to know, partly by virtue of being interviewed, is that many of us will say things on a public stage, we would never say in private, and that we wouldn’t say to our friends.”

He doesn’t come to the stage with any notes or outlines. “It makes me think about things in a way I never would, in the normal run of conversation. So when I’m asking the questions, my hope is that our guests will be grateful, suddenly, to be asked something quite piercing.”

The format is 75 minutes of uninterrupted conversation. “The idea is that it will allow somebody to really settle into a talk and forget that she is on stage,” says Pico. “I think there’s a particular excitement in the tightrope walk of conducting a conversation on stage.” Adding, “I think the heart of interviewing is listening, and learning to be quiet, and following the conversation rather than trying to lead it.”

See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

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