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03.19.09

Exit the Critic

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s erstwhile book critic recalls his years covering our most literate city—including the question he dared ask Martin Amis and the Nobel winner who loved The Simpsons.

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Up the hotel elevator I would head, then down the long hallway until I found the right room. Finally, I would knock on the door, then wait a few moments until it was opened by John Updike. Or Joan Didion. Or Stephen King. Or Caroline Kennedy. Or Terry McMillan. Or Greg Louganis. Or Katharine Graham. Or Ian McEwan. And then, once pleasantries had been exchanged, it would begin – the strangely intimate song-and-dance known as the author interview, usually lasting an hour, just the two of us in a hotel room, my questions, the author’s responses.

Alice Sebold signed her book at the close of the interview and then added a nifty caricature of a big dog along with an enthusiastic “WOOF!”

No more. My job as a newspaper book critic came to an abrupt end this week when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Washington’s oldest newspaper, established 1863) ceased publication on Tuesday, the latest casualty in the national newspaper implosion that also claimed the Rocky Mountain News just 19 days before. The P-I became the first major American metro paper to revert to an online-only presence, but seattlepi.com will operate with only a skeleton crew of 20 people, mostly younger staffers, plus a few star columnists turned freelance contributors, but no feature writers, no arts critics. We joined 150 fellow P-I journalists whose last interviews had the tables turned – exit interviews conducted by Hearst Corporation human resources personnel, some from as far away as Houston, discussing our severance packages, unemployment claims and other important facets of our newly jobless lives.

For more than a decade, I held the coveted book beat in a town that trades places every year or so with Minneapolis for the crown as “America’s most literate city.” This confirmed book lover, ever since the childhood discovery of the Hardy Boys, was in lit heaven, not only writing weekly book reviews but also interviewing and profiling countless authors. If a writer’s national book tour included the West Coast, it always included Seattle, since this great gray city of passionate readers not only boasts one of the country’s longest running big-name author series (Seattle Arts & Lectures) but also three flourishing independent bookstores with crowded calendars of nightly author events (University Bookstore, Third Place Books, and the legendary Elliott Bay Book Co., widely considered the national pioneer in author readings).

I was a direct beneficiary of Seattle’s literary largesse, offered the opportunity to interview, at one time or another, just about any author who succumbed to a publisher’s request to hit the road, plus many notables who live in the Seattle area, including such prominent authors as Tom Robbins, Sherman Alexie, Jayne Ann Krentz, Timothy Egan, Terry Brooks, Tess Gallagher, Erik Larson and David Guterson. The P-I did not have the once-traditional Sunday book pages – the Seattle Times produced almost all of the Sunday edition. But the P-I gave copious coverage to books and authors during the rest of the week, including a book page in the Friday entertainment tabloid magazine that spotlighted three authors with events in Seattle during the coming week. Deciding who would get those three spots was often a very tough call for me. P-I stories were also distributed across the country by the New York Times Wire Service, giving added clout to a Seattle paper that always played the role of feisty underdog, proudly wearing the cloak of “the writer’s paper” in this city.

The grave concern out here now is that one of America’s only two-newspaper towns could become one of America’s only no-newspaper towns, since the Seattle Times has already had rounds of massive layoffs and is widely rumored to be teetering toward bankruptcy, or worse. One of the saddest moments of this intensely sad week came late Monday afternoon when compatriots from the Seattle Times gathered with P-I staffers on the plaza outside our building at a rally and show of respect. The last time there were that many of us competitors together was during our 38-day strike against both papers in 2000, another disheartening experience. Monday’s hastily organized gathering of 100 journalists and one faulty bullhorn took place during intermittent rain showers and a chill wind off Elliott Bay, eerily appropriate weather for what newspaper journalists are feeling all across America these days.

The death of a newspaper is a great civic loss, but also intensely personal for those who have wrestled stories into print amid immediate concerns like daily deadlines and with precious little thought given to ultimate survival of the trade, at least until recently. It can seem to happen so suddenly – the transformation from writing yet another feature to writing the last feature for the P-I in my 26-year career there. Many memories of my decade as a book critic flooded forth as I scribbled a list of highlights and lowlights one recent evening at my dining room table, a surprisingly lengthy compilation fueled by a glass or two of wine.

Of course, actually meeting writers whose work I had long admired was one of the great benefits of what never seemed a “job” to me. Sometimes there were even repeat interviews over the years, resulting in something approaching a relationship with such generous and articulate writers as Richard Ford, Anna Quindlen, Tim O’Brien, Jon Krakauer, Terry Tempest Williams, Gay Talese, Marie Brenner and the late great David Halberstam. Also sweet, especially in retrospect, were interviews with writers with brand new books before the deluge of fame altered their lives immeasurably. That memorable group included Charles Frazier with Cold Mountain, Elizabeth Gilbert with Eat, Pray, Love and Alice Sebold with The Lovely Bones, who signed her book at the close of the interview and then added a nifty caricature of a big dog along with an enthusiastic “WOOF!”

Authors on tour usually exhibited what seemed best behavior in Seattle, perhaps a result of the city’s enthusiastic embrace of writers or maybe just relief to be at such great distance from New York City’s publishing epicenter. Even those authors with fearsome reputations seldom lived up to advance billing, including John Irving, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Anne Rice and Martin Amis, who, to my utter surprise, described our interview in a New Yorker essay on his American book tour, including one of my rare agent provocateur questions (“Are you an asshole?”). What was probably one of the most amazing discoveries for me was that those writers with the loftiest literary reputations were often the most genial and unpretentious interview subjects, including John Updike, Robertson Davies, Amos Oz, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate who confessed to a particular fondness for The Simpsons. There were rare exceptions to author best behavior, certainly – Margaret Atwood must have prepped for our interview by eating nails for breakfast, while Philip Roth had consented to a short interview before Seattle Arts & Lectures but that did not mean he was going to answer any old question, thank you, nor would he enjoy the experience.

Getting paid to read and critique books always prompted a certain amount of jealousy among colleagues and acquaintances, even when I tried to explain it was more like reading books for a term paper than reading books in a hammock on vacation. They would never know what it was like to have to finish a 500-page book that prompted genuine dislike almost from the outset, how slowly the pages would turn, how little progress the bookmark would display after many dreary hours.

The fondest times of all for this newspaper book critic were opening the pages of a book by an unfamiliar or little-known author and discovering an absolute gem that I could then offer some enthusiastic praise in a review. That may not have happened as often as I would have liked, but it did happen, a little lightning strike of literary magic. Among the memorable books that sparked that were: Anthony Doerr’s About Grace, Karen Fisher’s A Sudden Country, Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise, John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, and Willy Vlautin’s Northline.

There are many things that I will miss about being the book guy at the Seattle P-I and one of the most sorely missed will be the chance to give a boost to a book and an author who truly deserved it. During these difficult days for the printed word, they need all the help they can get.

John Douglas Marshall is the author of several non-fiction books. His award-winning memoir, “Reconciliation Road,” examines his strained Vietnam War relationship with his grandfather, Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, author of “Pork Chop Hill.” John Marshall is co-author of “Volcano: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens,” a New York Times’ bestseller, as well as author of “Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of Seattle Public Library.” Marshall was an English major at the University of Virginia and has a master’s from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He can be reached at: jdmwriter@yahoo.com.