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Donna Seaman
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Donna Seaman

Interview conducted by Stephanie Velasco

Donna Seaman is a self-proclaimed "lifelong book addict." When she's not fulfilling her duties as associate editor of Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, she's reviewing books for the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. And when she's not reading or reviewing books, she's talking to the people who write them. Donna's book Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books is a collection of author interviews she conducted on the radio program Open Books. Donna is also a frequent contributor to Chicago Public Radio.

Publishing Lab: You've interviewed a number of authors over the run of the radio show. Have you noticed any trends in what they say about their process or about reading, in general?

Donna Seaman: I've noticed that they're all people of the book. Most of the writers I've talked to share my own experience of being very captivated, first by picture books, then as soon as they're able to read, being quite voracious about it. Out of reading comes the impulse to write. I remember several, mostly women writers, telling me that they would "pretend write" when they were kids. I did that. I remember having a big cheap notebook and I would pretend scrawl.

PL: It's very apparent in the introduction to Writers on the Air your passion for books. So when did this love affair with literature begin?

Seaman: Oh, very early. I just loved books even as a little girl. I vividly remember sitting with my mother and she'd be opening a book to read to me.

PL: Did you have any favorite books as a child?

Seaman: I remember certain picture books-fairy tale books I really loved. But when I was actually reading, a classic favorite was Little Women. That comes up with so many women writers: bell hooks writes like that, Francine Prose, Margaret Atwood. There's just some compelling kinship among many writers and this book.

PL: You're constantly interviewing authors and reading the newest books. You seem to have your finger right on the pulse of the literary world. What would you say the role of the author is in publishing?

Oh, poor authors. I'm afraid the role of authors is really to suffer. The writers that are getting published have worked really, really hard. That's pretty obvious to me. It's tough to get an agent interested in your work. So when people are actually getting published, you're seeing people that have gone through a really intense effort and process. There's luck involved, good connections, and, of course, talent. Even the books I think are poor, I know that a lot of work went into them.

I think that we are now at a time where connections really matter, so going to school really helps. Certain writers really look out for new writers and kind of help them along. You see that in the advanced readers' copies that we get. There'll be little blurbs from recognizable people.

So the writer's role is really to work their butts off and to try really hard not to sacrifice their artistry. I can see that struggle in books. I can feel where the agent or editor has interfered and said, "You know, this is getting kind of depressing. Do you think we could maybe spice this up?" Those are the novels that fail. You can feel the writer giving in, saying, "Oh, alright. I won't take this all the way. I'll bail. I'll bail for you." A mistake. Always a mistake.

You don't see that so much in short story collections because nobody expects short story collections to make money. Ever. The fact that they get published gives me great hope and joy, because it proves to me that people in publishing are the same as me, and love good writing, and are willing to go out on a limb. Same with essay collections, same with poetry. It's rare that these books ever make any money. And they publish them in the hundreds. So there's still that very positive, creative side of publishing where editors can't resist the beautifully written and the deeply felt book no matter what the marketing department has to say about it.

PL: Here at the Publishing Lab, we encourage students to write book reviews, because they're a great way for emerging writers to start building clips and adding to their resumes. So why are you so passionate about reviewing books?

To write about books seems very natural to me. When I was a girl I kept little notebooks and I wrote about the books I was reading. It was as much a part of my life as writing about friends or boyfriends or whatever was going on.

Also, if you're reviewing books then you're reading really actively, attentively, and critically. So I think reviewing books is really important intellectually and stylistically. Many great writers were avid book critics and book reviewers: Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker. As for living writers, there's Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, John Updike.

Pragmatically speaking, it's one of the only ways you can write and get paid without being a news journalist. So it is a way to get published. It's also a way to get books to read and to keep track of the newest work.

PL: Does your book reviewer mindset change the way you read books for pleasure?

Well, I don't think you lose it. I think you adapt it. Part of your mind is always lingering back a step and going, "Hmm, that was a great line," or "How awkward is this?" I don't think that's a bad thing. I still get tremendous pleasure out of reading. I'll try to read, especially in the beginning, just like a regular person to see if I get hooked. Then I'll slow down and start questioning it a little more. If you're not getting hooked, there's a problem and sometimes it's you. It's not always the book.

PL: You write reviews for a number of publications-Booklist, Chicago Tribune, LA Times. What kind of review do you find the most difficult to write?

Seaman: They're all pretty difficult. The short, short reviews, such as we do for Booklist, are extremely difficult to do well because you're so limited. You can't develop an argument. If you only have 200 words, there's not a whole lot you can say. They're not quick to write, to distill an entire book like that. Inevitably I write a full review and then cut it down. It's a difficult process and one that I often find frustrating and reductive. But certainly concise reviews are fun to read, and they do serve an important purpose. Booklist reviews come out in advance of the book's publication, and so help pave the way.

PL: Looking at the literary publishing scenes in the U.S., what is the difference between Chicago and New York?

Seaman: Well, New York remains the capital, but there's far more publishing going on in the Midwest than there ever used to be. Chicago is definitely growing. We have something like 70 publishers in this city now. It's a much larger community that it was even ten years ago.

So New York is being challenged. And that's a very good thing. The more commercial and corporate the big publishing houses have gotten, the more small presses have sprung up. Well-run small presses are staying in business and attracting excellent writers. The National Book Award finalists this year had several small press titles, including one from Graywolf in Minneapolis.

There's great diversity and, it seems, an unending need to write. The blossoming of the MFA writing program has, in some ways, perhaps tamed literature. But it's also given channels for really brilliant writers to find publishers, to find a way to get their work out. So the publishing world can be a cruel business. The margins are awful. The numbers are just ridiculous. But the mission, the zeal, is there and it's strong.

PL: What you're saying is a little surprising, considering we're always hearing that fiction is dying and people aren't reading anymore.

Seaman: Well, that's a different subject. That's part of the paradox of this business. Books get published and they disappear. I have this running list in my head of books, particularly fiction, that I read a couple months before they come out and I'm like, "Oh, these are fabulous. These are great books." And then [when they come out in the mainstream], silence. So while there's this support of literature and things are getting published, the problem is that books are not supported after they're released.

The other tremendous problem is there's less and less space for book reviews. I know there's a lot of stuff online, but that's a very different way to find out about books. You have to already want to know about it. You have to know where to go, you have to make the effort, you have to remember to go back to it. It's very different than the old print world-the book section on Sunday that you held on to, threw in your bag, and looked at on the El. And this was part of the culture-that books were talked about. It was more a part of the public discourse. And that has been shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.

There are all these reports of this giant decline in reading, which I have no choice but to believe. Although I wonder, then, why we have so many people writing. Because you don't write without reading. Although maybe people are now writing without reading. What worries me about that is that it's a break in the conversation. If you don't want to read other people, then who's going to read you? You can't be part of this conversation about books if you're not really part of this world. Reading is an act of great concentration, and that may be becoming a lost art. I hope not, because I think it's good for us. Reading deepens things for people. If I didn't believe that, I don't think I'd be so dedicated to it.

PL: On the Open Books Web site, you say, "Books compete with machine media - television, movies, video games, the Internet - for our time and attention." How can we, as writers, compete with things like video games and the Internet?

Seaman: Well, the way you don't compete is to pretend that literature is a game. Whenever I see people try to do this interactive stuff, I think, "That's not literature. That's something else." I think what writers need to do, and I guess what book reviewers are failing to do, is to interest and entice and excite people. Writers need to write really well, need to be really passionate and enthusiastic about literature. Go to libraries, go to bookstores. There are so many public readings. The literary calendar in Chicago has become really full and exciting. Talk about what you're reading, blog about what you're reading. Participate. Be part of it.

You always have to fight for what's endangered. And increasingly in our lives, that's what it's going to come down to. We have to protect biodiversity, we also have to fight for and protect cultural diversity. You can't give up literature. It's too intrinsic to our very nature and our very being.

I hate that intellectuals are now the enemy. It's become an insult to that someone is well-educated. I think that is so perverse. It's just backwards. People should be proud of being curious and smart and literate. Don't act dumber than you are. Be proud. Be smart.

What are your thoughts on Amazon's Kindle?

Seaman: I think eventually a lot, if not all, textbooks and date-sensitive materials will be on some kind of electronic reader that will be better than the Kindle. It'll be good for students so they don't have to lug around textbooks. It'll save resources in some way. I'm for it on that level. And if they finally make it comfortable and easy enough to read for pleasure on a little device like that, I'll be doing it too. Although I do always kid whenever our computers crash and I can pick up a book, I'm very smug about it: a book is off the grid! No batteries necessary!

I really love book design. I love beautiful fonts. I love beautiful paper. What I love about our species is how perverse we are. We're always going in two directions at once. Now here's Kindle, which is an ugly, little, nasty machine, and then here's a new book like your own Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring with illustrations and made the old-fashioned way-red cloth, embossed, beautiful end papers, yummy creamy paper. As always, we want it both ways. And maybe we can have it both ways sometimes.

PL: You mentioned that one way we could fight for literature is by going to bookstores. Do you have any favorite bookstores in the city?

I think that we really only have a few bookstores left. I love the Book Cellar. Great people run that place. And Seminary books. As for used bookstores, there's Powell's on Lincoln, but there are not nearly enough. Bookstores should be all over the place. Where I live on the northwest side, there's nothing. Nothing. I mean, there's not even a chance for a kid to accidentally stumble upon a good book.

But, of course, this is all part of the online thing. Most people just go to Amazon. And I, in fact, go to Amazon because I can't find things in bookstores. I definitely have an account on there, I admit to it. But it's a different kind of browsing. It's not quite as serendipitous.

PL: As a book addict, do you have any book recommendations?

Oh gosh, when people ask me that I always just start laughing. Where to begin? There's a lot of good fiction. I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass is a really sneakily profound book about two sisters. Glass has sort of slipped into this popular mode, but she's a seriously smart writer. I like that she can be that popular, but still also writing on a really deep level.

I've read some fantastic first novels that will be coming out this winter. Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun is a really powerful first novel published by Riverhead. It's about the daughter of Korean immigrants in New York set in the 1980s. I also recently read a really funny, imaginative book by Rodes Fishburne called Going to See the Elephant. It's a completely different sort of book, kind of fantastic, almost comic-booky, but also very smart.

So do you have any final words on what we, as writers, can do to bring back reading and this conversation about literature?

Well, certainly one can write to the editors of newspapers and magazines and ask why more books aren't being covered. Write reviews, post them where you can, share them. You know, I think we're going to have to invent kind of a new book review venue. I've been writing for the Tribune forever and it's pretty much over now. I'm sort of heartsick about that. And so are a lot of people. So there's a void now that needs to be filled. We can't just slink off like book reviewing is over. It isn't. You need to fight back; you need to speak up.

We're facing times where money will be really tight. But literature doesn't take that much money. I mean, remember zines? That can be done. Form your own book groups. Ask libraries if you can have events there. They always say yes. So more of that kind of stuff. And really, some of us are going to have to start sitting down together and saying, "What can we do? What can we start?" It's time for the revolution. It's always time for the revolution.