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.

Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli, award winning Australian author of Death in Malta and three collections of short stories has completed her latest mystery thriller, According to Luke.

When is According to Luke coming out?

I wish I knew – the book is currently in the design department at my publishers, BeWrite Books. I have yet to see a cover, but luckily I have been assigned a designer whose work I have admired in the past. The time from when a manuscript is accepted to when it becomes a book is variable, depending on how busy the publishing house is at the time. I am using the time to plan publicity and promotions. My publishers supply me with promotions materials, and I plan engagements and events, which depend on the time of year.
Define puzzle thriller.

Well – I didn’t come up with the term. It was suggested to me by a member on a discussion group for writers. It is a loose term he uses for the genre that captures books similar to the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, The Splintered Icon by Bill Napier, People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, The Gospel of Judas by Simon Mawer, The Confessor by Daniel Silva, The Last Testament by Sam Bourne, and many others. They are books that pose a puzzle for the reader to solve. They are also books that incorporate a lot of verifiable facts along with the fiction, so that readers can have fun looking all the things up, to determine how much of the book is ‘true’. According to Luke is such a book.
Who influenced you most?

It’s difficult to say because I read rather widely, both inside and outside the genre. I really like the writing style of Arturo Peres-Reverte, for example, who wrote The Flanders Panel, which is another puzzle thriller. And I like the narrative ease of Robert Goddard, who wrote Days Without Number. I have read all Goddard’s books and like the way he puts in art, literature, locations, music and food in his books to make them feel realistic. AS Byatt does it too, but in a more highbrow and refined way. Recognizing these inclusions gives the reader another level of enjoyment apart from the story. I try to do this as far as I can without making the props more important than the story.

How has your writing evolved over time?

I used to write a lot of short stories. I was quite successful at it and won a number of prizes and commendations, and had many published in magazines and journals (both hardcopy and online) and read on the radio. I had so many that I collected the published and awarded ones into three books, which are now out of print. But writing short stories is not the same at all as writing novels – I had to learn how to develop long stories and that took literally years. It was a matter of trial and error, and listening very carefully to those who had any comments about my manuscripts. I can see the difference in the way I write now when I compare my first novel to According to Luke: readers can tell I am on a journey towards perfecting my personal voice as a writer.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Make sure the advice you follow is up-to-date. Get as much information on the whole business and industry that publishing is becoming, not what it was in the past. Advice from ten years ago is far too old: publishing is changing, like everything else, and because it is part of communications, its changes are rapid. Read new writings: it’s all very well to admire Hemingway and Woolf and Platt – but they were published at a time when the industry ran along very different lines.

Another piece of advice is that although you write for yourself, you publish for an audience. The reading public for any piece of writing is different. Researching your audience, and directing what you write to that audience, is quite important. If you write for everybody, you will reach nobody at all.

What is your favorite part of writing?

Certainly not setting down that first draft! Novels are very hard to write. Telling a story in a consistent voice with all the action, narration, dialogue, description and so forth in the right places and with the right tone is incredibly hard work. It’s almost impossible not to correct yourself as you go along, and it’s easy to get side-tracked. Some inspired things you think up are forgotten and are lost forever, and it’s difficult to avoid writing completely useless passages.

What I like is cleaning up the mess! Rewriting, editing, cutting, putting back, chopping and changing: I spend literally years fixing up a manuscript. My books go through several radical changes, especially when they come back from my band of readers. I revise, revise, revise. And then I miss the process when the thing goes off to the publishers after acceptance!
Is there anything new in the works?

Of course. Only, I am avoiding writing it at the moment. I am still too excited to concentrate on a new book when According to Luke has not yet come out. I am writing another ‘puzzle thriller’ using another piece or pieces of art and another controversy, using new protagonists I still need to get to know. And yes – I will have at least one car chase, guns will go off, people will be injured… I cannot decide yet whether anyone will die. And hopefully the guy will get the gal. But it’s all still to be written!