Algonquin Talks with Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star-Tribune Book Review Editor

For our latest installment in the Algonquin Talks series, we hear from Laurie Hertzel, book editor for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and author of News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.

Minneapolis is consistently voted as the most literary city in the country. What is it about that area that makes it so magically bookish? It’s the snow, isn’t it?

It has to be; there has to be some good in the fact that nobody can leave their house between mid-November and mid-April without mukluks and an ice axe.

Like North Carolina, Minnesota seems to breed writers. I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and Wanda Gag and Maud Hart Lovelace, and when I got older it was Tim O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Robert Bly, Garrison Keillor,  J.F. Powers, Jon Hassler, Charles Baxter—Minnesotans all.

We have great publishers here—Graywolf, Coffee House, Milkweed—and the Loft Literary Center is a pretty amazing place, with classes and readings and outreach, always figuring out new ways to get people involved with books. (They did a big Skype linkup last year with a Somalian writer.)

And me, I am the daughter of an English professor who wrote a lot of nonfiction prose, and a librarian. I have nine siblings, and in our house if you were reading a book, you got passed over for chores and someone else had to go do your work.  That made great readers out of all of us, believe me.

 

How did you get started in your career as a book reviewer? You were a reporter first, right?

And I’m a reporter still.  In a job like this, you have to be section editor / assigning editor / beat reporter / and book critic.

I started out as a clerk and clawed my way up to reporting and editing. At my first paper, I used to select and edit the book reviews that ran in the Sunday paper, because nobody else cared to do it.  When I moved to Minnesota Monthly magazine, I did reviews and author profiles and worked with publishers on excerpts.

When I moved over to the Strib, I had my eye on the books job and it only took me 12 years to get it. Our last books editor left in 2008 and suddenly, there it was, open, available, glittering before me.

And I panicked.

I didn’t apply, because it suddenly seemed like it would be too hard, I’m not smart enough, it should go to someone more worthy. The executive editor took me out to lunch and said, “Have you ever thought about being books editor?”  (She paid for lunch, too.)

 

What’s a typical day at work like for you? How do you choose which books to review?

Oh, this is where I get to wow you with the glittery details of my fabulous job, yes? Martini lunches with Jennifer Egan, nights on the town with Jonathan Safran Foer?

My typical work day involves sitting in a cubicle in the middle of the newsroom, answering the 600 e-mails that came in overnight, and then going down to the bowels of the Strib and sorting through the 100 books that arrived that morning. (Truly: I get about 1,000 books a month.)  I have a little locked room in the basement where I keep all the review books, and where I spend an hour or two each afternoon.

In between, I try to write my ON BOOKS blog, do a little tweeting, post something on Facebook, edit some reviews, maybe write a review, interview an author, write a story or two, and answer some more e-mail. (Because, of course, during the time I was in the basement, 600 more e-mails have arrived.)

At the end of the day, I schlep home a big bag of books and spend my evenings, when I should be having drinks with Jonathan Safran Foer, reading the first 10-20 pages of each one to determine whether it should be reviewed, and who should review it. Then I schlep them back to work the next day and mail them out to reviewers.

My goal is a great, happy mix—some nonfiction, some fiction, maybe a mystery, maybe a collection of poetry, something local, something from a smallish press that will probably get overlooked by the big newspapers, a graphic novel.

I do write about the big books—we reviewed Goon Squad, and Skippy Dies and Room, and most of the other big ones last year. But unlike the Washington Post and the New York Times, I am not obligated to cover every big title that comes along. That frees me up for the stuff I really love–the regional books, the local presses, the emerging writers. I love to tell readers about books they’ve not heard of elsewhere.

 

Can you explain the concept of “Minnesota nice” to us? Does this mean all the reviews you run are positive and include smiley emoticons?

Minnesota nice is not a compliment! It means that I will smile at you and the minute you turn your back I will tell whoever is standing next to me that you have soup on your tie and toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. But I will never tell you that myself! People who do that are suspected of being From New York. (Also not a compliment.)

Nice or not, I do run a lot of positive reviews.  I have limited space—two pages on Sundays, one review on Wednesdays, and two on Mondays—and so I try to focus on recommendations, books that my reviewers believe have merit. That’s not always the case—certainly we run critical reviews, or mixed reviews–but for the most part I can’t see spending valuable space on ripping something to shreds.  If it’s no good, and the author is someone nobody’s ever heard of, why give it ink?

 

You’re the author of News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, winner of a Minnesota Book Award. Tell us about the book. 

It’s a memoir of how I fell into journalism, and it’s also the story of how newspapers have changed over the last 25 years, from the days of paper dummies and paste pots and typewriters and men in suspenders, smoking cigars, to the days of the internet and digital cameras and cell phones and, shockingly, women reporters. I like to say it’s the world’s longest coming-of-age story; instead of coming of age over one seminal summer, like the Catcher in the Rye, it took me 20 years.

One blogger said that I’m as funny as Mark Twain and James Thurber. I wish I could tell you that it was Bookslut who said that, or the BookMaven, or some other blog that people actually read, but sadly I think I am the only person who ever saw that particular entry. I think I clicked on it a thousand times and his hits for the week skyrocketed.

 

I saw you read from News to Me at a Midwest Booksellers Association event where Walter Mondale also read. Is he thinking of running for office again? If not, can you talk him into it? What was it like meeting and reading alongside him? 

Oh, my gosh that was so stressful—sandwiched between Jonathan Evison, Antonya Nelson and Walter Mondale! And it was a breakfast event, so my hair was still wet and dripping down my back.

But Mondale was great. He signed a book for my mother, and he asked me to sign a book for him.  He’s such a gentleman, such a wise and calm person, has such a sensible outlook on politics and the world. A true elder statesman. I was happy that the folks at that breakfast gave him a standing ovation.

Sadly, the last time he ran for office was a terrible, terrible time—he stepped in after Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash (on my birthday!). He only had two weeks to campaign before Election Day, and he lost a very close race.

 

Has your experience as an author given you an idea of what it’s like from the other side? 

Yes, I think so. I cringe now when I think of some of the craven reviews I wrote early in my career—when I thought that a review was supposed to show how smart the reviewer is, instead of reveal the qualities of the book.

Knowing how hard it is just to write a book—let alone a good book—makes me probably overly empathetic to all of the writers who e-mail me, looking for some kind of mention in the paper. The self-published writers just kill me. I feel terrible for them. But we don’t have the room or the time to consider self-pub—that would easily triple the number of books I get.  I think Ron Charles put it best when he said, gently, that he appreciates the curating that commercial publishers do for him. That’s no small thing.

 

I heard you recently received a $10 bill in the mail. Are you accepting bribes now?

That was such a magical letter to receive, and not because of the money! It was part of a deeply anonymous and mysterious art project called “narrative urge,” which stresses the interconnectedness of everyone’s stories.

I still have the $10, though I won’t keep it. My plan is to find a quirky and underfunded artist and make a donation.  Sadly, it would be unethical to accept bribes, even chocolate bribes, even bribes made out of alcohol.

So when I get stuff in the mail I always give it away, or sell it at our biannual book sale and give the money to charity.

Once, a self-published author packaged a box of See’s Candies with his book. I gave the candy to the night copy desk and forgot all about it until a week later, when my phone rang and this gruff, accusatory voice said, with no preamble, “Did you enjoy the candy, Laurie?” It was like that moment in crime movies when the room goes dark, the music swells, and the protagonist gasps.

I am always amused by what publicists think of to tuck inside envelopes. One envelope exploded when I opened it and covered me in glitter and little gold stars. That one was not a good idea.

 

What are your favorite books of 2011 so far? And what books are you most looking forward to reading the rest of this year?

In this job, I tend to read the first 10 pages of about 500 books, and finish only a few.

Still, here are some that I loved: Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home, which prompted me to track down her first book, Gasoline WarsIn Zanesville, by JoAnn Beard, which felt like she was looking over my shoulder—no, inhabiting my skin—during those awful awkward wonderful years of junior high.

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, which was actually a YA novel, but a wonderful, moving story of the Soviet invasion of Lithuania.


Merit Badges, by Minnesotan Kevin Fenton  was so great it made me long to write fiction again, which I have not done in years. Mr. Chartwell,  by Rebecca Hunt, was fun—the black dog of depression come to life. West of Here, by Jonathan Evison, and I’m not just saying that because he looks so cute in his grandfather’s porkpie hat.

The Long-Shining Waters by Danielle Sosin, about my favorite place, Lake Superior; The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure, who also seemed to be looking over my shoulder when she wrote her book; Erik Larson’s great book about clueless Americans in Nazi Germany, In the Garden of Beasts.

And right now I’m reading Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell—I’m a little late to that party, but man it’s a great party.

As far as books I’m looking forward to, oh my! So many! The new Michael Lewis (Boomerang)—I read his essay on Ireland, and I’m interested in reading the others. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz; his book Confederates in the Attic is one of my favorites. Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean; nobody can take the ordinary and make it fascinating better than she can.

Of course, the question remains whether or not I will ever actually read all of these or just read the first 10 pages of each one.  Either way, I’m looking forward to them.

4 Comments On This Post:

September 7, 2011
9:18 am
Meganne says...

What a great interview, I love envisioning the “locked room” of books.

September 7, 2011
10:57 am
Kim Randall Cox says...

I am not the blogger Laurie refers to here, but upon reading her memoir, I remember thinking that, like Mark Twain, Laurie always chooses the best possible word, not its second cousin.

Laurie is a delight. Your interview captures her beautifully.

September 7, 2011
1:03 pm
Mary Bisbee-Beek says...

This is a great interview. I think that Laurie does have a dream job but I know the pressure is great, to do the right thing, and perhaps to make someone’s day a little better….including my own as a publicist. I’d trade with her for a week or a month or a year….but she’s doing a great job. I did not however take pity to the point of not sending her books to consider!

September 7, 2011
3:14 pm
Laurie hertzel says...

I think we need to compliment the interviewer, whose witty questions set the tone and made me laugh.

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