May 7, 2012

Bookstore book blogs: Where the smart author profile has gone


The big chair at the Tattered Cover

I’ve long complained about the mainstream’s lessening books coverage — you tell me, does it make sense to you that increasingly desperate newspapers no longer cater to people who like to, you know, read? — but I have to say that some of the places on the web that have taken on the job are maybe even more suited to it.

I’m thinking here of the many booksellers who have great book blogs. In particular, I’ve noticed several featuring not just reviews and smart chatter about new books, but something that it’s become even harder to find anymore in newspapers and in magazines: interviews with, and profiles of, writers — especially, writers who are not mega-bestselling schlock meisters. You know, thoughtful articles treating writers like people in our arts and political culture who still matter.

One of the best at it is the Between the Covers blog of the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver (not so coincidentally one of the country’s best indies). The interviews there are smart, longer than newspapers or magazines would allow, and they don’t edit the author’s answers to one- or two-sentence marvels of precision. In other words, they sound more like a human conversation, and are more interesting as a result.

Their recent interview with indie favorite Emily St. John Mandel is a case in point. It does a nice job of getting to the thing you always want to know about writers: How, exactly, do you do what you do?

Joe: All of your novels have a definite sense of place, and often of more than one place. And you’ve lived in multiple cities. How do you translate the world you see into a world we can see as well?

Emily: I’m flattered to think I’ve succeeded in translating some of those places into a world you can see. Thank you. As a reader, I find that if descriptions of place go on too long, I’ll start skimming. It’s a weird paradox, but I feel like the key to creating a believable place is to just give a few relevant details, and otherwise not tell the reader too much about it; you don’t want anyone either skimming over the prose in search of action or straining to visualize an endless list of details. So I try to keep descriptions of place to a minimum, on the theory that keeping it minimal forces readers to engage their imaginations and thus hopefully draws them in further. Hopefully.

It also nicely finds ways to report on the scene being neglected by the mainstream:

Joe: Do you think books will continue to have an influential role in our culture, and if so, how?

Emily: I think books will always have an influential role in our culture. As a species, we’ve always been fascinated by stories, and books have a relatively low barrier for entry as a story-telling medium, by which I mean that they don’t require special equipment in the way that movies or audio recordings do. I spend a lot of time on the New York City subway going to and from my day job, and everyone on my subway line reads. You’ll see a line of people sitting or standing there on the train, reading books either in print or on ereaders, or reading newspapers or The New Yorker. It’s a heartening sight.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.