It's January 1988 and I'm about to interview Garrison Keillor for Meridian Books on the BBC World Service about Leaving Home, his latest collection of Lake Wobegon Stories.
As we're waiting for the green light to go and he suddenly says in that measured, melancholic voice for which he is justly celebrated: "You know, I don't understand why you're interviewing me!"
I point out that he has just published a new book.
"I know," he says, "but you should be interviewing all those really great writers..."
"Like who?" I ask.
"Oh, you know..." he hesitates a second and then rattles off a litany of names, "Charles Dickens –– Lewis Carroll –– James Joyce –– Charlotte Bronte –– Anthony Trollope –– Herman Melville –– Mark Twain..."
"But," I, not unreasonably, object, "they're all dead!"
"Yes, that's true," he admits, "but there are plenty of living writers who are passionate about dead writers, so you could interview the living ones in the persona of those dead greats from the past."
"That's quite an idea," I agree, my mind already starting to formulate a programme proposal to pitch to the BBC.
"I'll make you a gift of it," says Keillor, "on one condition –– that you promise to interview me in the guise of Mark Twain following the publication of Tom Sawyer!"
Deal done! Interview begins...
The chat goes really well and I get I pleasant inscription in my copy of Leaving Home...
At every following author-interview, I mention the idea, receive instant enthusiasm and start building a list of potential contributors to a series I am now, provisionally, entitling Author, Author!
Some rules of the game get established: the 'authors' can only be asked questions about their most recently published book along with references to their previously published works but the interviewer is absolutely not allowed any knowledge of their subsequent life or writings.
In addition to Mark Twain (a.k.a. Garrison Keillor) my growing list of contributors includes Fay Weldon who wants to be Jane Austen talking about Pride and Prejudice, Ray Bradbury who'll be Melville discussing Moby Dick and Terry Pratchett who's considering taking on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. Unsurprisingly, there are several writers competing to be Dickens, while – maybe a little off-piste – Roy Hattersley is pitching to be interviewed as John Wisden the nineteenth-century English cricketer who, in 1864, founded Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack!
The BBC deliberates for best part of a year before turning the project down. Such is life... but perhaps now, since all the possible contributors (except Keillor) have passed on, along with most of the BBC panjandrums who rejected the proposal and since the original authors are also still dead – maybe it's time to re-float the idea...
I'll keep you posted, Garrison...