Sundays at Eight

25 Years of Stories from C-SPAN’S Q&A and Booknotes


By Brian Lamb


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For the last 25 years, Sunday nights at 8pm on C-SPAN has been appointment television for many Americans. During that time, host Brian Lamb has invited people to his Capitol Hill studio for hour-long conversations about contemporary society and history. In today’s soundbite culture that hour remains one of television’s last vestiges of in-depth, civil conversation.

First came C-SPAN’s Booknotes in 1989, which by the time it ended in December 2004, was the longest-running author-interview program in American broadcast history. Many of the most notable nonfiction authors of its era were featured over the course of 800 episodes, and the conversations became a defining hour for the network and for nonfiction writers.

In January 2005, C-SPAN embarked on a new chapter with the launch of Q and A. Again one hour of uninterrupted conversation but the focus was expanded to include documentary film makers, entrepreneurs, social workers, political leaders and just about anyone with a story to tell.

To mark this anniversary Lamb and his team at C-SPAN have assembled Sundays at Eight, a collection of the best unpublished interviews and stories from the last 25 years. Featured in this collection are historians like David McCullough, Ron Chernow and Robert Caro, reporters including April Witt, John Burns and Michael Weisskopf, and numerous others, including Christopher Hitchens, Brit Hume and Kenneth Feinberg.

In a March 2001 Booknotes interview 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt described the show’s success this way: “All you have to do is tell me a story.” This collection attests to the success of that principle, which has guided Lamb for decades. And his guests have not disappointed, from the dramatic escape of a lifelong resident of a North Korean prison camp, to the heavy price paid by one successful West Virginia businessman when he won 314 million in the lottery, or the heroic stories of recovery from the most horrific injuries in modern-day warfare. Told in the series’ signature conversational manner, these stories come to life again on the page. Sundays at Eight is not merely a token for fans of C-SPAN’s interview programs, but a collection of significant stories that have helped us understand the world for a quarter-century.


C-SPAN is directing any royalties from the sale of this book to the nonprofit C-SPAN Education Foundation, which creates civics and history teaching materials for middle and high school teachers.


WHAT MAKES FOR A good interview? It’s a question I’ve pondered throughout my journalism career and earlier—ever since I was a teenager hanging out in my Lafayette, Indiana, bedroom listening to talk programs on Chicago radio stations. Many of the lessons learned over the years are demonstrated in this, our latest interview book, Sundays at Eight, which gathers forty-one selections from the last twenty-five years, from Booknotes and Q & A, our two sequential C-SPAN Sunday night series, airing at 8pm ET/PT.

The most essential ingredient of a good interview is, not surprisingly, a guest with an interesting story to tell, who can tell it well. Over twenty-five years, the various producers of our Sunday night interview programs have booked more than 1,360 interviews. Our producers are always on the lookout for people whose expertise complements our network’s public affairs programming: nonfiction authors, documentary producers, historians, public figures, or journalists. And, whether the stories they tell are contemporary or historical, they should be able to compel viewers with their humanity or insight into events. Once a guest is booked, however, it’s really up to the interviewer to get these stories told in an interesting and engaging way. For me, that translates into good preparation that’s followed by asking concise and open questions, and listening carefully to rarely interrupted answers. The hour-long interviews that result then air exactly as recorded. In today’s media world, our long-form, unedited production style is a polar opposite of Twitter’s 140-character universe.

This “focus on the guest” philosophy is why you’ll find this collection of interviews different from the standard TV interviewer’s book of verbatim transcripts. To emphasize our guests’ stories, Sundays at Eight has transformed forty-one interviews into essay-style chapters with all of my interview questions omitted. We’ve used a light touch with our editing, hoping to capture each featured guest’s unique perspective in their own voice. (For a guide to the editing cues we’ve incorporated into the text, be sure to read our “Notes on Style” in the front section of this book.)

Sundays at Eight is our eighth published collection of interviews. Peter Osnos, PublicAffairs’ founder and emeritus publisher, suggested this latest collection when he learned that the spring of 2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of C-SPAN’s Sunday interview series. This book features never-before published interviews from both series assembled into broad themes reflecting the times in which we live: Money and Politics, American History, Media and Society, and Post-9/11 America.

The book’s initial section is titled simply, “Stories,” and has become a favorite of our book team. Be sure to read the tale of Ishmael Beah, a conscripted boy soldier in Sierre Leone’s civil wars, ultimately rescued by international relief groups and adopted by a caring American woman. There’s Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, known more familiarly as “Dr. Q.” His is a quintessential American tale. Today, he’s a world-famous brain surgeon at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, but in an amazing “up from the bootstraps” story, he came to this country as a young immigrant from Mexico with little education, crossing the California border illegally. April Witt is a former Washington Post reporter who recounts a tale of the American Dream gone bad: West Virginian Jack Whittaker, a big-time lottery winner who learned through family tragedy that money is no key to happiness. And then there is the riveting story of Shin Donghyuk, born inside a North Korean labor camp. Journalist Blaine Harden, whose work has taken him all over the world, is a great storyteller who has you on the edge of your seat as he tells of Shin’s perilous escape. Shin, who had no knowledge of the world outside the camp as he left its confines, remains the only person known to escape its horrors.

“American History” is a collection of nationally recognized historians who help provide context to the public affairs content served up daily on the C-SPAN networks. Don Ritchie and Richard Baker are two fine public servants who have devoted their professional lives to curating the history of the United States Senate. Their chapters provide insiders’ expertise on the history of the Senate, capturing its essence. David McCullough, a great friend of this network and the dean of popular historians for his many book and television projects, recounts some of the stories told in his recent book, A Greater Journey. In his chapter, historian Richard Norton Smith, a longtime friend and a consultant for C-SPAN’s history series, shares some of his encyclopedic and entertaining knowledge of presidential history. Isabel Wilkerson’s chapter is based on her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the twentieth century phenomenon of the great northern migration of American blacks through the lives of four such migrants.

It’s often said that “money makes the world go ’round,” but perhaps nowhere is that more evidenced than in Washington’s political culture. Our “Money and Politics” section aims to capture this. Bob Ney is a onetime powerful House committee chairman whose chapter documents his downfall, vividly describing his time spent in a federal prison for corruption connected to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Peter Wallison’s chapter on the housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might make your blood boil. His is one of several chapters related directly to the 2008 financial crisis. My goal with the interviews we did in its aftermath was to help teach the public something about the system and its dysfunction. What has developed in the banking system and financial markets over the last couple of decades is so complicated, with short-selling of stocks and instruments like subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and derivatives, that the journalism of financial reporters like Michael Lewis and Gretchen Morgenson, featured in this section, provides an important service to the public in understanding what went wrong and why.

Just as Vietnam shaped the sixties and seventies, September 11th and its aftermath has shaped this generation. In the section entitled “Post 9-11 America,” we hear how Special Master Kenneth Feinberg approached the impossible task of assigning monetary value to 9-11’s lost or injured lives. Richard Miniter reports on the background of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the convicted 9-11 mastermind now incarcerated in Guantanamo. He explains that KSM had personal knowledge of the society he attacked—he went to college in North Carolina. Michael Weisskopf, a Washington-based journalist well known to C-SPAN, went to Iraq to cover the military effort for TIME, and ended up joining the ranks of the wounded himself after losing his hand to a grenade. David Wood won a Pulitzer for his moving ten-part series on the enormous challenges for patients and their families and for the health care system following the traumatic injuries sustained by our fighting forces in the two post-9-11 wars.

Finally, a section called “Media and Society” acquaints you with some of journalism’s old guard and its vanguard, to longtime colleagues in the Washington political journalism community, and to people whose technology innovations changed the way we communicate. Robert Kahn has had an enormous impact on the world as the lesser known co-creator of the Internet, along with the more frequently cited Vint Cerf. Mr. Kahn details the background of the Internet’s creation, and the public-private partnership that allowed it to take root. Ken Auletta reports on one of the transformational companies made possible by the Internet—Google. Onetime CBS newsman Roger Mudd’s reflections on what he calls the “glory days of television news,” provide a meaningful contrast to internet video journalist Michelle Fields, whose professional aims included “going viral” with one of the opinion videos she produced for the online publication “Daily Caller.”

“Media” has one entry that’s particularly poignant, a chapter with Christopher Hitchens, journalist, intellectual, and social critic. He gave us his final television interview in 2011, just before succumbing to esophageal cancer. Christopher was truly his own, unique character. Intentionally provocative, he forced people to think about what they truly believed. We were not personal friends, but he was a great friend of C-SPAN’s, giving freely of his time and intellect—twenty-five interviews over the years, beginning in 1988 when he was a self-described ex-pat British socialist writing commentary for The Nation. An atheist, Christopher’s coming-to-terms with his impending death makes this chapter a compelling read.

These twenty-five years of Sunday interviews begin in April 1989 with the initial installment of Booknotes. Intended as an antidote to the three-minute author interviews generally offered up on network television, Booknotes’ mission was to pay respect to the years of research, scholarship, and writing that generally goes into the production of a nonfiction book with a full hour of television. We broke most of commercial television’s conventions—there was no editing of the finished product; it aired as it was produced, on a simple set, with only a black curtain for a background; we took no production breaks for summers or holiday seasons, producing fifty-two programs a year, and had rules such as “no return bookings for our guests.” For the next fifteen years, we booked 801 authors, each focusing on one nonfiction book for an hour. Eventually, the demand of continuous reading for the series took its toll. What had been a joy was becoming a challenge, with stacks of unread books waiting at every turn. Calculating the 2.5 years of my life spent reading books for the series made it clear that it was time to transform it into something more manageable. It was then, in 2005, that Booknotes gave up its 8pm Sunday time slot to a successor program called simply, Q & A. Still an hour; still unedited; and frequently featuring nonfiction authors, Q & A permitted us to explore other media such as documentary films and online journalism; to visit historic sites; and sometimes to book people who simply had a good story to tell. By March 2014, Q & A will have logged programs and counting; hopefully, each week we continue to introduce our viewers to interesting people with something useful to say.

Reflecting back on a quarter-century of interviews, we can only be appreciative of the more than 1,360 guests who have given us the benefit of their expertise, the generations of producers and technical staff who have assisted in creating this intellectual feast, and the numerous editors at C-SPAN and PublicAffairs who have helped create collections of books based on these series.

So, what makes for a good interview? Sitting down with genuine experts, people who help us to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of our society, is an incredible opportunity. But another essential ingredient is the interviewer’s curiosity, that itch to understand how things work and why things happen. And that, my friends, is exactly what we have tried to bring to the interview table over this past quarter-century. Thank you for giving us this opportunity with your continuing interest in C-SPAN’s efforts.

Brian Lamb

Washington, DC

November 2013


Escape From North Korea


Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp and knew of no other life outside the camp. Tortured and forced to witness the executions of his brother and mother, Shin made a remarkable and perilous escape at age twenty-three—the only person ever known to have escaped to the West. Journalist Blaine Harden, who spent twenty-eight years covering foreign policy for the Washington Post, tells Shin’s story and details the horror of North Korea’s prison camps during his April 29, 2012 interview with Q & A and recounted in his book, Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

NOBODY HAS SEEN A camp other than North Korean guards and officials, and people who go to them almost never come out. There are now five or six of these camps and they contain between 150,000 and 200,000 prisoners. With the exception of one camp, they are no-exit places where one goes if you are believed or imagined by the North Korean government of having done something wrong, of having been a wrongdoer or a wrong-thinker. You go there without trial. Usually, you’re taken away at night and you stay there for the rest of your life. Very often, you go with your kids and with your parents…. Half of the people now in the camps are believed to be just the relatives of wrongdoers or wrong-thinkers.

Collective guilt is very much a part of this system. The reason the camps exist and have existed for more than forty years is because they’re an instrument of terror of the Kim family dynasty. What they do is they put away those who might cause trouble and they terrorize the twenty-three to twenty-four million people in the country to not even think about causing trouble. To that end, they’ve been pretty darn successful. North Korea has been the longest-lasting totalitarian state in world history.

[SHIN DONG-HYUK] IS A survivor of Camp 14. He was born in the camp and he escaped in 2005. As far as we know he is the only individual born in those camps to get out and tell what it’s like to grow up in the camp. His crime was to be born and his parents were there for reasons that are almost as flimsy. His father was in the camp because his father’s brothers after the Korean War had fled to South Korea. After the authorities heard about that, his father and his father’s many brothers and parents were all rounded up and taken to Camp 14. That’s where Shin was born. He doesn’t know why his mother was there. She never told him and he never asked. They didn’t have the kind of relationship where they would talk.

His parents conceived him because they were chosen by the guards for something called a “reward marriage,” and Shin was bred like a farm animal in the camp and raised by his mother. Physically, his mother gave birth to him, but he was raised with the values and the rules of the guards and was not close to his mother at all. He had to memorize ten rules of the camp, most of which end by saying, “If you don’t do this you will be shot immediately.” The first rule of the camp, the most important rule, is, if you try to escape, you will be shot immediately, and a corollary to that rule is, if you hear about an escape and don’t report it, you will be shot immediately. These were basically his ten commandments, his ethical guideposts as a little guy growing up in that camp.

[PRISONERS] WERE SHOT OFTEN. One of the only forms of entertainment in the camp, where people actually get together to watch something, was an execution. So the rules were taken very seriously, particularly by the kids who saw the results of disobedience very clearly.

[THE FIRST EXECUTION THAT Shin saw] was the one that begins the book when he was four years old. I’ve said, “What’s your first memory?” He said, “I remember going with a crowd of people with my mom and being very excited,” because it was the first time he’d ever been around a crowd of people. The rule of the camp is that you don’t spend time with a lot of people. So that’s what I think triggers his memory, that he’d never been in a crowd of people. He’d never heard this sort of hubbub of people whispering and being close together in a big crowd of many thousands of prisoners.

[Putting rocks in prisoners’ mouths when they’re shot] is a very common practice. I’ve talked to three others who saw this happen. They do it so that people don’t denounce the guards or particularly the leadership of the country. They can’t say anything. Sometimes they put a hood on them, sometimes they don’t.

The real heart of this book and the psychological trauma of the rest of his life comes out of the escape plan of his mother and brother. What happened is when Shin was thirteen, he was living in a boarding school. All kids leave their parents and go to live with other kids in a boarding school in the camp, and this was only a couple of blocks, actually, from where his mom was staying. Shin had been in the boarding school for a while, and on a Friday night, his teacher, a guard, a guy who wore a gun, told him, “You go home and stay with your mom tonight. You can do that.”

Shin didn’t particularly want to because he didn’t particularly like his mom, but he did it because he was told to. So he went home, and when he went home that night his brother was also at the house. This was very unusual because his brother also lived away from home; [he] lived in a concrete factory, which was about a mile and a half inside—the camp was big. His brother was eight years older. Shin hardly knew his brother; he knew who he was but he had no relationship with him. They had supper—the only meal he had ever eaten in his life, which was salt, corn, and cabbage. That’s all. That was breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They put salt and corn in cabbage soup. It’s a kind of gruel and that’s the primary thing other than small animals that they could catch in the camps like mice and rats, but this meal was that classic meal.

He had the meal and he went to sleep. The house that he lived in had a central kitchen and one bedroom. The central kitchen was for three other units besides the room where his mother slept. So he went into this bedroom, fell asleep, and then he was awakened by the conversation of his mother and brother at about midnight. He heard them talking, and he crawled out and looked. He also saw his mother cooking rice for his brother. Rice is something that hardly exists at all in the camp, but it’s grown there so sometimes farm workers can steal it. His mom worked in the farm at the camp so she must have stolen some over time. She had never made rice for him. He was thirteen years old and he was really jealous about that. That piqued his interest and then he heard them talking. Shin understood that his brother was in some kind of trouble in the camp.

He had apparently violated the rule and had left the concrete factory without permission and had gone to see his mother. Guards would soon come for him, take him away, and punish him. Probably not execute him but beat him up, which is the common way of punishing people.

Shin listened even more and then he heard his brother mention the word “escape” and Shin’s heart started to pound. He became very, very, very upset and very afraid because of these rules: “If you don’t report an escape then you’ll be executed.” Then he heard his mother countenancing that conversation about escape. Shin listened for a while, and it was clear that they were talking about trying to escape the camp. The rice she was cooking was food for flight for him to take and to eat after he got out of the camp.

Shin got up, told his mom he had to go to the bathroom, went out and found a guard and reported them. First, he went to a classmate and said, “What should I do?” and that classmate said, “We should report them.”

So they went together, and when he reported this escape he was thinking, “How can I turn this to my advantage?” So he asked the guard if he could have more food as a result of his snitching and if he could also be made class leader, a position that would allow him to do less work, take fewer beatings, and maybe have more food as well.

The guard said sure, no problem, and called his superiors. He told Shin to go to bed. Shin went to bed in the school where he lived. The next morning he was awakened and told that there were guards waiting for him. They put a blindfold on him outside the school, put him in a Jeep, and drove him off to this underground prison inside the camp, which, before that, he did not know existed.

He was taken inside and then he was interrogated. He went in thinking they would see him as a good snitch, so when they started asking him questions about his involvement in the escape, he was frightened and confused, and he did not answer in any coherent way for his first two rounds of interrogation….

HE DIDN’T HAVE GOOD answers; he was very afraid and very confused. At one point in that underground prison, he was taken into a room that looked like a machine shop; he was stripped and with his clothes off, hung upside down from his ankles and his wrists in a kind of U, with his back hanging down. A cart was brought in with a coal fire, bellows were put on the flames, and the flames came up; the cart was rolled underneath his body and he was burned as they asked him questions. He passed out. [His injuries are] still visible. He has terrible burn marks on his lower back and buttocks, [representative] of a most severe burn that you would get from being held over a fire….

IN THE THIRD INTERROGATION, he was too weak to get up because he had been burned so badly. He was lying on the floor in his cell [and] he told them, “I did a good job. I turned in my mother. You can check this out with my classmate that I told.” They did check it out and Shin was allowed to recover in that underground prison. Then he was taken out after seven months. He was taken back to the same officers who had originally interrogated him. He came out and saw that his father was in the camp. His father had also been tortured and looked horrible when he saw him. His father’s leg was all akimbo. It had been broken in the torture, and his father could hardly move, hardly walk. Then they were both taken together in that Jeep with blindfolds on, to the execution grounds.

…Shin had his blindfold taken off and he thought, “Oh, they’re going to kill me now.” He was terrified that he was about to be shot. But they took his father, helped his father up to the front of the row, and they helped Shin up to the front of the row, and then they dragged out his mom and his brother. What’s really interesting about this is that when his mom came out she was put on a makeshift gallows right in front of them. She was not blindfolded, a hood was not put over her face, and she tried to catch Shin’s eye.

He hated her for the horrors he had just gone through in this underground prison and for her reckless talk of escape. He refused to catch her eye. She was hanged in front of him. Then his brother was shot in the head three times by the guards. Then Shin went back into the camp population at fourteen years of age.

His father lost his good job as a lathe operator. He began work as a common laborer, limping around the camp. Shin had a very strange relationship with him after this execution. His father tried to say, “I’m sorry that we were so selfish as to have children in this camp. I’m sorry you had to live through this. I hope somehow you can get out of here.” Shin just said, “No, I don’t care what you say.” And he rarely saw him.

Shin escaped a decade later when he was twenty-three, in 2005. The escape is really a very important part of the book. One thing I want to say about the experience of the execution is that Shin was raised in such a way that he didn’t really love his mother. He did not have feelings of affection or trust towards his father or his brother.

I asked him about those things: “How could you hate your mother? How could you not look her in the eye when she died?” And he said, “These people were competitors with me for food. They did nothing for me that was useful,” as he saw it.

He had never heard of God. This is a concept that he heard about when he got to South Korea. Learning how to trust other people and learning to feel guilty for what he did with his mother is something that he has had to do since he has gotten to South Korea and the United States.

He’s seen other families. He’s seen other mothers and sons together. He has begun to feel terribly guilty about the kind of boy he was and what he did. But back then he wasn’t guilty.

[IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE that somebody born in the camp escaped the camp.]…This camp existed, according to some South Korean authorities, since 1958. Nobody is known to have escaped it until Shin in 2005. So, it’s really damn hard to get out of there.

He did it because he met someone who inspired him to think of the outside world. This was sort of Shin’s birth as a human being. He was in the camp working in the sewing machine factory when he was assigned to work with an older guy who I think was in his early forties. His name was Park. Park had lived in Pyongyang. He had traveled and been educated in the former Soviet Union. He was a worldly and nice guy. Shin’s job was to snitch on him because Shin had proved himself as a snitch over the years. He had done it with his parents and with many other people.


  • “In all, it is a rich stew in bite-sized servings. If you have been a fan of Mr. Lamb's literary feast, as I have, this will be a welcome addition to your shelves.”—Washington Times

    “Edited into the form of cogent essays, these conversations reveal writers' motivations for choosing their subjects, challenges in doing research and their own surprising discoveries…These richly detailed and forthright interviews offer unique perspectives on the inspirations and creativity of writers." —Kirkus reviews

On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
496 pages

Brian Lamb

About the Author

Brian Lamb is C-SPAN’s founding CEO and chairman and longtime on-camera interviewer.

Learn more about this author


About the Author

Brian Lamb is C-SPAN’s founding CEO and chairman and longtime on-camera interviewer. Lamb lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Susan Swain is President & co-Chief Operating Officer of C-SPAN. For more than twenty-five years, she has been an on-air interviewer for the program. A regular moderator of Washington Journal, she’s interviewed hundreds of members of Congress, policy experts, journalists and several presidents. She lives in Northern Virginia.

Mark Farkas has been involved in C-SPAN feature productions for a quarter-century. In addition to his projects on the U.S. Capitol and the White House, Farkas was executive producer for C-SPAN’s 1999-2000 Peabody Award-winning series “American Presidents: Life Portraits;” the 1998 “Alexis deTocqueville Tour,” and 1994’s “Lincoln-Douglas Debates.”

Learn more about this author