06 January 2012

Interview with Diane Prokop, Book Reviewer - Part I

Years ago, Diane Prokop and I met while working in similar positions at a community college, but lost track of each other until just recently, when books brought us back together. 

We vowed to have coffee or lunch at the 2011 Wordstock Festival in Portland, but we had to settle for two minutes in between author readings and signings. Our love of writing and reading clearly dictates that we will  have a nice long leisurely catch-up lunch soon, but until then, I was too curious about her new passion—book reviewing. As a great follower of Maureen Corrigan and her crisply enunciated NPR reviews, I was eager to find someone other than the highbrow NYT Michiko Kakutani print reviews to follow. I appreciate Maureen’s combination of heart and critical analysis of craft and wanted to find someone similar to read, and now I have.

On her review site, Diane revels in her love of reading and her admiration for writers. I’m reading three books she’s recommended and am now a fan. After doing the following interview, I’m even a bigger fan. She has heart, she doesn’t box herself in, she’s honest, and she’s funny. So without further ado, here’s the first part of the interview with part two coming next week. Enjoy, maties!

Tell us a little about yourself.

Born and raised in Chicagoland - it will always be home. Won my first writing contest in grade school for a poem called “The Lighthouse.” Freelance writer for magazines. Public relations specialist at community college. Life-long student with degree in anthropology. Have taken years and years of art classes but am still just average. Certified computer programmer. Certified cabinetmaker. Earned First Aid card. Best memories - two years spent backpacking though Europe. Still friends with people I knew in grade school and high school. Am curious about everything. Always on the lookout for new authors and budding musicians. Love my dogs. Live in Portland, Oregon - home of Powell’s Books, food carts and rain.
Diane with Max and Jazz

What made you decide to become a book reviewer? How did you get started?

I started keeping bibliodiaries many years ago when I got tired of saying, “Oh yeah, I loved that book or I hated that book,” but couldn’t remember why. Also, I wanted a record of all the books I’d read to see where it was leading me, if anywhere. The journals also contain notes about interesting books I want to read someday and music that I want to check out. One day I decided it would be fun to put it online. At first, I thought only my friends and family would read it. It turns out, though, that my friends and family aren’t big readers, so they check it once every few months just to see if I’ve mentioned them or embarrassed myself. On the other hand, I’ve become really good friends with some of the people who follow my blog. I call them my imaginary friends and would like to meet them someday.

In addition to my blog, last summer I began writing occasionally for the Portland Book Review. It’s where most of my author interviews are posted because I can reach a wider audience. Publishers are more apt to approach me when they see me at multiple sites because it translates into more readers. I hope that eventually my reputation will allow me to write solely for my blog, but in the meantime, it’s working out really well.

You worked in public relations at a community college before moving to Portland, Oregon. How did that help?

Diane at her desk
That job really honed my writing skills. Besides writing press releases, editing copy, writing speeches and talking to TV, radio and print media, I had to produce a daily newsletter that was read by hundreds of academia. Some days it felt like their sole purpose in life was to find my punctuation and spelling errors, or worse. It was humbling. I also developed interviewing skills because of the profiles I did for educational journals, etc. I found that I really enjoyed listening to people tell me their stories. I got excited about what they were excited about. When I started interviewing authors, all those skills kicked in.

Why did you decide to make your book blog a “snark-free” zone as you call it, and why do you only review five-star books?

I have three, four and five-star books on my site, although you can’t see the actual star rating unless you visit me atGoodreads.com. There are several reasons for keeping it snark free, but the main one is that I do this out of love. To me, the most significant action I can take when I don’t like a book is to ignore it. When I get together with other book people, I do trash-talk books. In fact, I can get as emotional about books that disappoint me as I do about books that transcend my expectations. But since I rarely finish a book I don’t like, there’s really no way I can review it. One recent exception was The Help. I kept reading it in spite of the fact that with every page I read, I detested it more and more. Since I had heard so many great things about it, I expected to have an epiphany at some point. I never did. I still don’t know what all the fuss was about.

What’s the difference between you and other reviewers online? What makes you different?

I make it personal. When I read a book, I develop a relationship with the story and, in a way, with the author. Reviewing the book is an analysis of that relationship as opposed to literary criticism. As in life, when I fall in love with a book, I’m head over heels. My readers can see how much I love the book. I don’t hold back at all. In fact, I gush. I become a huge advocate for the author. I tweet them, FaceBook them, and cheerlead them so that they’ll garner a wider fan base. That’s where my PR experience comes in handy. It’s also why, in spite of the fact that social media is not my favorite thing, I am on Twitter and Facebook. I want to spread the word and that is how it’s spread these days.

Tell me about your process in selecting the books you review or feature. You don’t have a review policy on your blog, so I’m guessing you don’t take unsolicited books for review. Do you receive books from publishers? How else do you find them?

I don’t have a review policy, as such, because I never got around to it. I find books by reading Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness, Poets & Writers, the NYT and subscribing to e-newsletters from small presses that let me know when new books are coming out. Twitter and FB help me pick up on buzz, too. I don’t like to receive “unsolicited” books from authors and publishers, but I get them from time to time. I do ask for and receive a lot of books from publishers and a few from authors. Some weeks, a dozen books will arrive by mail, UPS and FedEx. I buy a lot of books, of course. I’m a huge first edition addict and belong to a couple of first edition book clubs.

I picture you with stacks of books everywhere in your house, and you have to read each one or at least read the beginning to see if you’re interested. How do you manage that?

Diane's First Editions
Every room in my house is a shrine to books. I have a first edition room, art book room, advance reader copy room, music, photo and film book room, books I will never read but were given to me by a well-intentioned friend room, and then several stacks by my bedside. Since I moved twice in the last ten years, I had to divest myself of a lot of books which was very painful. I’m trying to make up for that now. I need lots of books around me. I usually give each book the 40-page test and then make a decision on whether to continue. If I don’t like it, but I think some other reviewer might, I pass it along.

Can you give us a “picture” of what it’s like to do what you do, say, for a day or week when you’re working on your blog entry? I know you attend Powell’s Bookstore events (and for clarification, I know you do not work for them). How do you rustle up authors?

On average, I spend about four to five hours a day reading, reviewing, researching, posting, tweeting, FBing, and emailing. The spring and fall are my busiest times because that is when most books are released. Book events are scheduled every day of the week during those months. A typical week will have one or two author events that I’m interested in, usually at Powell’s, but at other venues, too. If I am interviewing the author, I read their book twice and prepare a list of questions. I spend at least one-half hour to an hour with the author. I also record their reading and Q&A and take pics. I like to synthesize the event into a few paragraphs for my blog to give my readers a sense of who the author is and what the event was like. If they tell a funny story or say something really interesting, I’ll make a short audio clip for my site and for YouTube. (My YouTube account is called buksr4u). If I interview the author, I get my books autographed at that time. If not, I stand in line to get them signed at the end of the event. The next day, I transcribe the interviews and readings and then write my posts. As far as rustling up authors, usually a publicist will ask me to interview their author. Once in awhile, I’ll reach out to the publicist. A few authors have contacted me and asked to be interviewed. If it’s someone I want to meet, I say yes.

How are the authors, especially the “famous” authors, to work with?

Diane with Sebastian Barry, Irish playwright, novelist and poet
It’s amazing to me how gracious most of the authors are. Alexandra Fuller, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Anne Enright, Andre Dubus III, Richard Russo, for instance, have all been very, very nice. A few others were a little peculiar, but not nasty. Some of the debut authors seemed dazed and confused, and I feel a little sorry for them. Quite a few authors live in a bubble so they don’t understand what bloggers do. I’m fairly certain there was one author who thought I was a stalker. Another author questioned me at length as to why I had an ARC. I don’t know if she thought I stole it or what exactly the problem was, but she was not happy. I think publishers need to explain to authors that, because book reviewers have been let go from print publications, bloggers are filling a much-needed gap in the publicity package. If a blogger has your ARC, that means your publisher thought they should have it. I’ve also had a couple of authors refuse to sign an ARC. Both relented when they saw I had first editions of their books, as well, but that was uncomfortable.

Some authors pick up their pen and don’t look up from the signing table until the last person has left the room. They have no desire to interact with their fans. It’s a little disappointing from the fan’s point of view, but for these authors the tour is one hundred times harder than writing the book. I’ve had authors confide in me that they spent the hour before the reading throwing up in the bathroom. I feel for them - that would be me.

(To be continued! More stories next week about Diane and her adventures with famous authors, her funniest moment, her most horrifying moment, and what advice she has for author readings and readers attending readings.)

Anne Enright
To follow Diane, click on any of these links:
Diane's Book Blog
Diane on Twitter 
Diane on Facebook 
Diane on Goodreads 

Diane's interview with Anne Enright is now up on her blog. Read it here!

Until then, keep reading and writing!
Your Shipmate in Life’s Adventures,
Captain Val


MariNaomi said... [Reply to comment]

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who gets nervous at readings. Looking forward to reading part two!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@MariNaomi Thanks for commenting. Yes, it's good see Diane's perspective on both sides of the podium!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Diane is a master/mistress at what she does. She is a passionate advocate for books and authors. Thank you so much for profiling her, Val!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Great post, Valerie. Fascinating interview. I feel like I know Diane personally, there're so many similarities between us in our reading habbits and attitudes. For example, I'm reading The Help now and I don't like it, like Diane, but I can't stop reading either, as if the book compels me to finish it. What is her review site?

Barbara Ehrentreu said... [Reply to comment]

Diane, I loved your interview, because it gives me an insight into the life of a book reviewer. Being an author with a small publishing house it is difficult to get my book in front of reviewers. Mostly other authors and readers have been reviewing it. I have sent it to reviewers, but there is a long waiting list. Do you have any suggestions on how I can get my book noticed by someone like you? Right now it is #1 on the Preditors and Editors Poll for Young Adult Book and it was picked as one reviewer's Top 5 of the Year. Thank you in advance. By the way, I was supposed to interview Jennifer Egan, but it fell through. She and I met at a book reading/signing and she was one of the most gracious people.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@olgagodim Thanks, Olga! Diane made the interview easy and I love her honesty and humor, didn't you? I agree, too, about The Help. I started it, but never finished, even though I tried many times. I put an active link at the end of the interview, but on Part II, I'll make it more visible. Here it is:

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@lionmother Hi, Lea! This isn't Diane's site, but I'll make sure she sees your comment and she can reply via your lionmother handle. Thanks for commenting! I agree. Jennifer Egan is one of the most gracious authors I've communicated with.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@thebookbully You are so welcome! Was my pleasure. Part II is even better.

Meg Mitchell Moore said... [Reply to comment]

Wonderful interview, Valerie, thank you. My debut novel came out last year, my second is coming out this May, and Diane has been so kind to me. She's right--I think a lot of authors don't understand the scope of influence that good and responsible book bloggers have now. And I love that her blog is a snark free zone. There is already enough snark out there. Thanks to you both, and looking forward to part II.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Meg Mitchell Moore Thanks, Meg! How wonderful to hear about your novels. Yes, authors do need to understand that book bloggers have taken over for so many of the other review venues we've lost. No snark! Thanks again for commenting.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Fascinating to read how a book reviewer works. Diane sounds like she works as hard as we writers do writing the books. We appreciate reviewers like her who don't "snark."

Jack said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks Valerie. This nails the role of the web in the current realignment of the book-universe: "because book reviewers have been let go from print publications, bloggers are filling a much-needed gap in the publicity package. If a blogger has your ARC, that means your publisher thought they should have it." Looking forward to more of this wisdom.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Velda Brotherton I so agree, Velda! I'm tired of snark, especially snark for snark's sake. This is a full-time job for Diane. She puts everything into it. That's passion, just like ours. Thanks so much for commenting.

Jack said... [Reply to comment]
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Very interesting interview and insight into the process, I review books for fun, so will enjoy browsing a professional blog. Thank you for sharing.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@Jack That pretty much covers it, Jack. Diane should get a literary award for what she does.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@clairemca You're very welcome, Claire! And thank you for reviewing books, too. We need you out there!

Barbara Ehrentreu said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Valerie. When I left my comment as lionmother you mistook me for Lea Schizas, who is my publisher. I am an author with her and my name is Barbara Ehrentreu. When you talk with Jennifer Egan that is who she will remember. She never met my publisher.:)

Diane, I was wondering how long after a book is published, do you review it? Would you review a book that has been out for more than 3 months?

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@lionmother Hi Barbara! I'm so sorry for the mix up. Of course! I should have recognized your photo from SheWrites. Glad you corrected me.

Diane will be answering questions on a future post, after Part II, when I compile them for her and then post her answers. Your questions will be at the top. Thanks for asking!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I've gotten to know Diane through Twitter. She's as good as they come as a person and "bookie". Thrilled to see your interview bring that out. I also love your mad skills, so I'm a fan of two now!

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

Valerie, I enjoyed this tight, well-written interview. It gives us a wonderful glimpse into the life of a passionate reviewer. Not only do I appreciate her approach, but how you presented it to us. Bravo.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@readheavily.com Funny-"bookie." Yes, she is as good as they come and that's why I wanted to interview her, give her a little "glow" as she does the books she reviews. And thanks for the "mad skills" compliment! In a mad, mad world it's my only defense. Thanks for commenting!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

@animprobablelife.com Thank you so much, Becky! That made my day. So often, book reviewers hear nothing but complaints, but Diane, I've heard nothing but compliments. She deserves even more than the little bit of space I can give her. Us writers depend on her! Thanks for commenting.