Since taking over the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul has revamped the venerable weekly, and brought it some much-needed life. Among her improvements, a weekly interview with a writer (usually) about his or her reading habits and predilections. Want to know what Michael Chabon has on his newsstand? Paul’s new compilation of columns, By the Book (with an introduction by Scott Turow) will tell you. We at Omni can tell you some of the same kind of stuff, too, of course, but we work on the principle that there’s plenty of info to go around, and whatever, whoever connects readers with writers is fine with us. And so, we turned interviewer of the interviewer, just to find out how she does it.
Is By the Book “edited”--i.e. do you cut answers, or rewrite questions or run answers together when appropriate?
By the Book is edited in the sense that the editor (me) chooses who to include in the column each week, which questions to ask each person (the questions vary and rotate), and which answers will appear in print, where space is more limited. That said, we never edit within a given an answer--if we're going to include a question and answer, we run it in its entirety. We also edit for Times style, which has its own idiosyncrasies, and for accuracy. This is not a gotcha column in which we want to highlight someone accidentally referring to Isabella Archer. [p.s. - We didn’t edit Paul’s answers here either.]
Do you print every answer to every question, or do you pick and choose? What’s the difference between the By the Book that’s in the print paper and the one on the Web?
We do not have the space to include every question in the print edition, but we do run it in its entirety online--and in this book, which reprints the full Q and A. These are really portraits of a person through their life with books, and rather than abbreviate a long answer about someone's favorite novelist, that we should run it in full.
Why do you think the feature is so popular?
As the editor of The New York Times Book Review, I like to think that book reviews are of paramount importance, but it would be foolish not to recognize the persuasive power of word-of-mouth. We all like to hear book recommendations from our smartest colleagues, best-read friends, spouses or just people we think are culturally tuned in or expert on a given subject. The idea of By the Book is to provide that word of mouth from the writers we most admire or whose work we most enjoy. Or whose opinion, on say, history books or music biographies we'd be especially keen on knowing. What By the Book does is marry word-of-mouth with informed opinion from our most popular and/or (not always the same) critically acclaimed writers.
Do you do the interviews by phone, by email or in person?
As a reporter, I only conduct interviews by phone or in person--no exceptions. I'm actually vehemently opposed to email interviews, which I think have become too prevalent in journalism. A written answer is necessarily premeditated, edited, packaged. And it doesn't allow for probing, questioning, follow-up. So it feels odd to insist that this particular feature be done only by email (even when the rare person asks to do it by phone or in person, which has happened). But I think that this is an instance in which you want to get a deeply thought out answer, not an off-the-cuff response to a question like, "What book made you the person you are today?" It doesn't make for a better column if the person gives an answer and later realizes, "How could I have possibly said "Narnia" and forgotten about "Madame Bovary?" or whatever the specifics might be. Readers want to genuinely know what an astrophysicist thinks is THE best book about cosmology, not the first book that comes to mind.
Who has been your favorite By the Book respondent?
Very hard to say, I have many favorites. I think the journalist in me most appreciates the big "gets"--Malala Yousafsai, Hillary Clinton, Donna Tartt, Edward St. Aubyn. I was also incredibly pleased that the first two people I asked when I had nothing on paper to show and had just started the column--David Sedaris and Lena Dunham--both said yes right away.
Who would you most like to get but haven’t yet gotten for By the Book?
Happily, not a lot of people have said no. But I would love to get people who are not necessarily authors but are writers in other formats, or great readers. I'd love to have Mick Jagger or Paul Simon. Or both.
Are BtB respondents always authors?
No. The actor and comedian Bill Hader did one this past summer that I thought was brilliant and unexpected. He's an autodidact, a voracious reader, and he's got excellent taste.
Must you have read the work of the author(s) you choose for BtB?
No, but it helps. At the very least it helps to have a sense of their work, their lives, their experiences. Because the interviews are tailored to each person and you want a mix of both expected an unexpected answers. I really like the question "What's your favorite love story?" which I don't ask all the time, but I do like to ask both of the expected (a romance writer) and the unexpected (a military historian). Same thing goes with asking about self-help. Who knew Hilary Mantel would be such a fan of the genre?
Who chooses the authors and who does the interviews?
What happens if a BtB respondent has a new book that’s not positively reviewed in your pages?
In a way, By the Book is a nice way to balance our review coverage, and to offer readers another perspective on the author or her work. A reader may find herself disagreeing with the reviewer who pans a book, and very much liking what the author has to say for himself, or find they have literary tastes in common.
What’s the best answer you ever got from a BtB respondent?
I think the best answers, honestly, are the ones that connect different authors. I realize its sappy, but what I love most is when writers find out they admire each other's work from afar. It was a delight when Donna Tartt said, for example, that she was eagerly awaiting the next Stephen King novel--before she saw Stephen King's rave of The Goldfinch on our cover.
What are you reading right now--and why?
I am reading all (or nearly all) of Dave Eggers's books in anticipation of an event I'm doing with him in San Francisco on October 29th. I had only read What is the What, so I'm going back and reading through his earlier books. I started with The Circle, then went to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and now I'm reading Hologram for a King, which I plan to follow with Zeitoun. He's been incredibly prolific in a relatively short period of time so I have my work cut out for me.
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