Alive, writers are already ghosts, disembodied voices in our heads; during their afterlives, they go on speaking to us from beyond the grave. This odd, immaterial relationship has given Dan Crowe the clever idea of organising colloquies that cross the gap between life and death. "We all talk to the dead," says Crowe. Yes, of course we do: the seance is called reading.
Crowe's contemporary interviewers use various methods to make contact with their defunct interviewees. Rebecca Miller inveigles herself into the Marquis de Sade's prison cell with the aid of a time travel app, and Rick Moody questions a simulated Jimi Hendrix who has been loaded into a chatbot. Cynthia Ozick outsmarts Henry James by concealing a tape recorder in her tote bag: the contrivance makes her an up-to-date version of the "publishing scoundrel" who ransacks the secrets of a dead poet in James's The Aspern Papers. Ian Rankin relies on the older and more occult technology of the ouija board to reach Conan Doyle, who is drifting vacantly through what he calls the "hereafter".
Andy Warhol, interviewed by Douglas Coupland, clearly enjoys his posthumous status. He looked like a night-prowling vampire during his lifetime; now he laments the advances made by medical science since he expired in 1987, and complains to Coupland that "nobody dies any more". It's some consolation that Michael Jackson has turned up on the other side, as has Liz Taylor, but she occupies a cloud of her own and visitors are discouraged. Richard Nixon, a harmless widower in slippers, is still alive when AM Homes waylays him. He first resists America's confessional culture, then blabs a shaming story about his courtship of Pat: before she accepted him, he ingratiated by "driving her on her dates with other fellas". "I was a real sport," says Nixon, making the best of his poodle-like humiliation.
Crowe's game is something novelists are adept at playing: it's their business to invade the brains of strangers, eavesdrop on their thoughts and ventriloquistically dictate the words they utter. In the longest and most brilliantly elaborate interview, Joyce Carol Oates invents a surrogate who goes to meet the octogenarian poet Robert Frost and experiences "a swift, sexual shock" when she finds him asleep, dishevelled and drooling, in his Vermont cabin. Not exactly dead, although his snowy hair looks like the ectoplasm of the spirits photographed by Conan Doyle, Frost is conveniently unconscious, so he cannot prevent the interviewer from slipping into his dozy reverie. When he wakes up, the interview begins, though he does his best to impede it by asking questions of his own. But he is defenceless against the all-seeing eye of Oates, who treats herself to an illicit glimpse of his navel, bared by a shirt that is stretched too tight across his belly, and reports that the "miniature knob of flesh [is] quaint as a mummified snail".
Frost's interviewer is ruthless, exposing the sage as a brute and a bigot. He revenges himself by being smuttily intimate and rhapsodises about her "delightful little bottom" and "white cotton panties". But Oates's ingenuity gives him wily resources not shared by other subjects, three of whom are outed by their interviewers. James huffs and puffs in exasperation when Ozick badgers him about his infatuations with young male acolytes, and Marcel Duchamp evades Michel Faber's equally clumsy efforts to out him as a transvestite; Nietzsche terminates the interview when Geoff Dyer, having heard rumours about his visits to a gay brothel, asks him, "Paxman style", whether he has ever "sucked dick".
In two cases, the interviewees stare down critically at the world they have quit and correct its misapprehensions. De Sade protests about his reduction to an adjective that labels a sexual perversion: he prefers to be remembered as "a man of the theatre" who directed others to act out fantasies that demonstrate human freedom, or as a philosopher whose conceptual orgies made war on God and on morality. Conan Doyle, not quite so cerebral, grumbles to Rankin about the bad films made from his Sherlock Holmes stories, but is pleased to be told that there's a pub named after him in Edinburgh.
A single contribution is a dud. The Scottish poet John Burnside goes to the trouble of resurrecting the conservationist Rachel Carson, then begins by asking her what she describes with a yawn as "the obvious question". Carson raised the alarm about our ecological vandalism in her book Silent Spring by describing the nature we have harmed with a lyrical finesse that testified to its beauty and frailty.
All Burnside does is have her quote an article in the Glasgow Sunday Herald and prose on like a policy wonk about Scotland's "clean, safe and climate-friendly energy future". Far from conducting an interview, Burnside is talking to himself.