The not-so-secret life of a Book Reviewer

An interview with Barbara Lloyd McMichael

When I was in my twenties, I lived in the Boston area for a while, and being a big Louisa May Alcott fan, I took the train up to Concord to visit her historic home, which was open for tours.  I’d never completely understood how interconnected the writers of Concord were — that Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the house next door for a time; that Louisa’s father, Bronson, was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived just down the road; that when another local, Henry David Thoreau, tried his experiment living as a “hermit” on Walden Pond, he actually built his hut on Emerson’s woodlot–it was just a short tramp down the road (or through the woods, as Thoreau probably preferred).  So there I was that bright autumn afternoon, scuffing through the leaves and marveling that all of these places were within walking distance of one another.  The Boston/Cambridge area of the 1800s was a great example, too, of writers supporting and inspiring and provoking one another.  Out of all that ferment came a very distinctive and robust school of writers.

Anyway, I wondered if that translated into the present day.  I’d recently earned my Master’s degree in literature and when I returned to my hometown, Seattle, I cooked up this idea that maybe I could keep myself in books, and educate myself more about the Northwest literary scene, and earn a little bit of money too (very little, as it turns out), if I could write a book review column that focused on Northwest books and authors.  I was already doing freelance reviews for The Seattle Times and some other West Coast periodicals, so I had a bit of a track record I could wave around.  My column, The Bookmonger, got picked up first by one paper and then by others. Currently I have a weekly circulation of over 236,000.

My governing criterion is that Northwest element — but I’ve hit almost every genre at one time or another.  In the last month I’ve covered literary fiction, zombie fiction, two nonfiction books on art of the American West, and a young adult mystery.  I’m always hearing from somebody or other that I don’t cover enough… fill in the blank: science fiction, poetry, you name it.  Last week I was chided for not covering steampunk.  I have a bookshelf groaning with books sent in my publishers, authors, and publicists, but with a weekly column, I only have 52 chances a year.  I definitely take a look at all the books I receive, but I can’t cover them all, and I end up passing over some good ones because I want to make sure I cover a variety of genres. Sometimes in one review I’ll pair books if they have similar themes.  I’m always glad to slip in a few extra books that way, but of course it means I don’t give those books the space they probably deserve.

As for identifying a distinctive Northwest “school”? — No, I haven’t found that, really.  Writers today are so connected with the entire world via electronic communication devices that they can pretty much write about whatever they please from wherever they are.  There is one really tight-knit group of women’s fiction writers just outside of Seattle… all of whom are achieving a significant level of success — although some are doing it more quickly than others.  I adore those ladies for their support of one another, even though I don’t much care for the genre most of them are working in (–contemporary romance, if you must know, which whenever I read it always seems to leave me feeling cranky with my poor, unsuspecting husband!)

Sometimes when people learn I’m a book reviewer, they’ll start asking me what I thought of this book or that book.  They’re generally reeling off names that are on the New York Times bestseller list, and while I might get to a few of those, that certainly isn’t my focus.  I really like to mix in coverage of small, local presses and newer authors — it’s gratifying to shine the spotlight on such efforts.  Anyway, after getting interrogated by some of those types who pride themselves on keeping up to date with the bestsellers, I’ll feel guilty and insufficient and go order up a bunch of those titles from my local library.  I confess I’m not the most up-to-the-minute reader, though.

I’m pleased to see that new avenues are opening up for authors along the lines of Kindle, etc., but I myself am not a reader of electronic books.  I spend too much time in front of a computer screen as it is.  I am so happy to hunker down in a chair somewhere and leaf through a good old-fashioned book with real pages.  I am one of those readers, by the way, who thinks it is perfectly OK to read the end first — I do that habitually — and I also do a lot of flipping back and forth as I read.

I read a couple hundred books a year — some for work, and some for pleasure.  It’s always nice when it turns out that I love the book I’m reviewing — and that happens with some frequency.