12 January 2012

Interview with Diane Prokop, Book Reviewer - Part II

Here it is, maties! Second half of my interview with Diane Prokop. Enjoy!
Max and Jazz with their human
Tell me about Wordstock. My readers would like to see you in action.

Michael Ondaatje at Wordstock
Wordstock Literary Fest is crazy for me. I have back-to-back readings and interviews for two days. This year I interviewed Anne Enright and Anna Solomon and did event coverage for Michael Ondaatje, Isabel Wilkerson, Barry Lopez, Steve Almond, Peter Mountford, Charles Yu, and others I can’t recall at the moment. Plus, I wanted to get all my first editions signed, so I would do the interview, record the reading, take pics and then rush to the signing area. It was during a signing that I met Jennifer Egan. When she saw my press pass she asked me - with a smile on her face - why I hadn’t asked to interview her. I told her that I didn’t think she would have time. She laughed and gave me her email address and said to contact her, which I will definitely do. Lovely lady! I still haven’t posted all the Wordstock coverage to my site yet.

What was the funniest encounter with an author?

A lot of what gets said in an interview is “off the record.” In other words, until those authors die, I’ll have to keep it to myself. I stand by the journalists code of ethics for the most part. However, it’s amazing to me what an author will share with me “on the record” and later I will listen to it and make a decision not to write about it. I guess I’m trying to protect them from themselves. Some of it is extremely funny, but if they’re trashing their publisher or their readers, that’s something that’s better left off the page. Maybe they’re having a bad day or are letting off some steam. Hopefully, when their next book comes around, they’ll remember my discretion and agree to another interview. Sometimes I think I’m missing an opportunity to make a big splash with a little dirt on a famous author, but in the end, it’s not worth it to me.

What was the most horrifying?

Nothing horrifying has ever happened to me, but I did embarrass myself big time with Richard Price. I am a huge fan of his and have read everything he’s written. When he visited Powell’s, I wasn’t doing my blog yet and was just there as a fan. He seemed very nervous while he was reading. His knuckles were white where they grasped the lectern. He wasn’t happy with some of the audience questions about his books being made into movies either. I should have picked up on all this, but unfortunately I was too excited about meeting him to notice, except in retrospect. When I got to the signing table, he asked me a question, which I thought for some insane reason was, “Are you a writer?” I was like, Wow! He wants to talk about life and the world of writing, so I started rambling. At one point I even said, “I’m a writer and I’m working on a novel but it’s not going very well.” When I finally checked back into reality, I realized he was looking at me with what can only be described as supreme pity and then he said rather curtly, “Could you please just tell me what you want me to write in your book.” All he had wanted was my name so he could inscribe my book. He wrote something and I ran. Later, I saw he had written, “To Diane, You will find a writing job.” If I ever have the chance to meet him again, I
promise to be on my best behavior! Later I read that he was going through a divorce so that would have explained his less than happy mood. It also taught me a lesson as a fan and certainly as a reviewer and that is, “It’s not about me.” When I meet with an author, I try to keep my mouth shut and just listen.

Another time I was at a reading of Joseph O’Neill who wrote Netherland. Sometimes people are too shy to be the first to ask a question so I’ll ask one of the standards to get things going. There were about 150 people in the room, but no one spoke up when he opened it up to questions. He had just been interviewed on stage, so I didn’t have any questions about his book that hadn’t already been asked. Without thinking, I asked him what he was working on and when did he expect it to be published. The on-stage interviewer chimed in and said that he was wondering the same thing. Well, that turned out to be the wrong question because apparently he had been dealing with a severe case of writer’s block for quite some time. I forget exactly what he said in response, but it was something along the lines of “I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THAT!” I remember wanting to crawl under my chair. I’ve since learned never to ask an author when his new book is coming out unless I already know the answer.

What author do you most want to meet? Why?

The author I was most excited about meeting this year was Anne Enright. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since she wrote The Gathering and then fell in love all over again this year with The Forgotten Waltz. She has her finger on the pulse of the times we’re living in and she’s very funny. She’s a completely fearless writer. I approached her publicist about interviewing her and when they said yes, I immediately started to sweat. I listened to every audio clip I could find of her being interviewed and grew more and more nervous. Talk about not suffering fools gladly! I heard her dress down plenty of interviewers on those clips. I was 20 minutes early to the interview and was having heart palpitations by the time she breezed into the room. I could feel her presence before she opened her mouth. Her book is about a woman who cheats on her husband and is totally self-absorbed. The first thing I said to her was, “So this is obviously an autobiography?” For a moment she froze and then she burst out laughing, and it was all good from there. It was an amazing hour that I’ll never forget. I’ll be posting that interview the first part of January.

What advice can you give authors for giving a good reading?

Lidia Yuknavitch
Josh Ritter
Author events are unnatural. Authors need training and advice to make that important connection with the audience. I always say, “Be humble and self-deprecating. Talk a little bit about the genesis of your book. Read from your book for five minutes - ten, if you must. Take questions for 30 minutes and play the guitar, if possible.” I’m kidding about the guitar, sort of. One of the best readings I went to was for Josh Ritter’s book, Bright’s Passage. Because of the bubble I live in, I was the only one in a room of 300 that didn’t know he was a famous musician. He stood a couple feet from me and between reading passages from his book, he played his guitar and sang. It was fantastic! Afterwards, he talked to me, gave me a hug and told me to let him know when my review was up. Sure, I thought. I contacted him via Twitter when I put up my post, and he gave me the ultimate nod when he re-tweeted that info to seventeen thousand of his fans. He also gave me permission to post my bootleg audio clips of the songs he played. Needless to say, I had a lot of hits for that stuff and still do. Powell’s sold every copy of his book that night. Patti Smith and Rosanne Cash were the same format, but at a paid author event, and it worked really well, but I didn’t get to meet them because I hadn’t started my blog yet. The Chronology of Water author, Lidia Yuknavitch, gave a riveting reading in which she stripped down to a Speedo swimsuit and pretty much cried throughout the entire thing. The audience adored her. So I would say be creative, be your most authentic self, and always expect the unexpected.

Charles Frazier
For instance, it’s raining and this is your debut novel. Three people show up. Treat them like royalty. Instead of standing at the front of the room, sit down with them and chat. At a reading not too long ago, a fan had a seizure and the author had to ask if there was a doctor in the audience - there was. Several readings have brought out some interesting fans. Turn of Mind, the mystery by Alice LaPlante about a doctor with Alzheimer’s, had several people with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s in the audience - great questions! At another reading, someone blurted out a question while the author was in the middle of his opening. When he asked her, in the nicest way possible, to hang on for a bit and he would get back to her, the fan got up and walked out. Several times in the signing line, I’ve been manhandled by impatient fans. The last time was at Charles Frazier’s reading, and I barely missed being thrown to the floor by someone who said that since she had been the first one to the store that day, she should be the first in line. One night a woman in the back of a room crowded with hundreds of people asked if her son could get his book signed first because it was past his bedtime. It was 8:30 and the “boy” turned out to be 14 years old, but everyone was gracious and let him go first. He was humiliated and just kept saying, “I hate my mother.” People will ask you anything that pops into their heads, so be prepared to say no to some questions. Sometimes the audience has no questions at all, so have a story or two on hand to tell. Finally, most people do not go out on a work night in the driving rain to give you a hard time. They are there because they like your work. Be kind and generous.

What about readers? Some online reviewers are actually paid by the author or publisher to write reviews for them.

I personally don’t know any reviewers who are paid by the author or publisher. I know that some publications do sponsor book reviews, which means they pay a reviewer to read it. That’s not something I would ever do.

What did you read as a teenager?

I remember my life changing in high school when I read James Baldwin and Jack Kerouac. It shifted again in college, when I took workshops with beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. I was very much a child of the sixties even though I actually graduated high school in the 70s. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Rights In Conflict, Soul on Ice - well, you get the picture. My junior year in high school I read the dictionary from cover to cover. Can’t remember why. Maybe because I heard that every book ever written was contained in there.

Can you describe your taste in novels?

I like reading about the human condition, so I would say literary fiction, memoir, essays, travel and humor. Once in awhile I’ll break from those genres as I did recently for Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which I loved.

What is your quirkiest attribute as a reviewer?

My quirkiest attribute would have to be how much work I put into promoting an author I like. I’ve even picked them up at their hotels and driven them to their readings. Like I said, it’s personal with me.

If you were transported into the body of one fictional character, who would it be?

Even though I don’t read much sci-fi, I’ve always been fascinated with time travel. So any character who travels through time. That’s probably a result of being a two-time cancer survivor. Who wouldn’t want to travel back before you realized you were mortal.

What question have you never been asked that you’ve always wanted to be asked? And what’s the answer?

No one ever asks me anything about why I do what I do, so Val, I want to thank you for being the first and one and only. If there were just one question I always thought should be asked, it would be this: Is every book reviewer a frustrated novelist?

The answer is, of course, a resounding yes! I’ve been hard at work on my novel, “Nod,” for a few years now.
(FYI: Diane reviews primarily lit fiction, memoir, travel, and some humor. She doesn't read YA, romance, vampire, and rarely science fiction. You can get a flavor of her reading tastes by going to her site.)

To follow Diane, click on any of these links:
Diane's Book Blog
Diane on Twitter 
Diane on Facebook 
Diane on Goodreads 
Thank you, Diane, for such a forthright and informative interview! And to thank you, readers and fellow pirates, I will select five questions from you to present to Diane and will post her answers in a future blog. Here's your opportunity to ask those burning questions (or the ones I forgot to ask!) and hear what she has to say. So send your questions to me ValinParis (at) earthlink (dot) net and I'll post them with the answers. Until then ...

Stay dry and keep readin'! It's our only defense against ignorance.
Your Captain, Author and Book Lover,
Captain Val 

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