Algonquin Talks: Deirdre Donahue

We talked with USA TODAY book reviewer Deirdre Donahue about reading, writing, authors, books, 50 Shades of Grey, ABBA and so much more…

1. How long have you been working at USA TODAY?

26 years – I joined the paper in 1986.

2: Wow, that long? Have you ever wanted to work anywhere else?

Well, I have worked other places. I’ll skip over the typesetting gig with Johannes Gutenberg in the Electorate of Mainz back in 1439.  As a freshly-minted Harvard English major in 1980, I landed two part-time jobs: One at the Library of Congress’s publishing office and one as a news aide at The Washington Post’s “Book World” where I published my first review (Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook). I then moved to New York to work at People magazine but returned to DC in 1986 for USA TODAY.

Have you ever wanted to work somewhere else? Not really. I’ve loved seeing USA TODAY grow, and I’m proud of its book coverage. I’ve interviewed authors ranging from Toni Morrison to Stephen Hawking to Kathryn Stockett to George R.R. Martin to Laura Hillenbrand to Amanda Hocking to the marvelously quotable Jackie Collins. It’s been an honor and a privilege to write about books for the readers of USA TODAY.

Whatever the future holds for journalism, I hope I can continue to help readers discover good books on any and all platforms.

3. You’ve interviewed a range of authors over the years, recently Anne Tyler and newcomer Wiley Cash, along with some of our favorite author crushes (ahem, Colson Whitehead and Jennifer Egan). Do you remember your very first author interview?

My very first author interview for USA TODAY was with novelist Reynolds Price in North Carolina. It was fun telling his student Anne Tyler about it 26 years later when I interviewed her in Baltimore this spring.

4. Who has been the most interesting?

“Interesting” as in the Chinese curse about living in interesting times? I save certain “interesting” memories for off-the-record conversations: “An ego the size of the Pyramids!” “Monosyllabic and supercilious!” “Didn’t even offer me a glass of water!”

Joking aside, authors make strong interview subjects because they’re highly intelligent. The downside: their lifestyle – sitting and writing – is pretty dull. The upside: I don’t have to ask probing questions about that DWI arrest TMZ just reported.

There have been authors I’ve liked as people. A genius in my opinion, Edward P. Jones was, nonetheless, a down-to-earth nice guy. Both romance writer Eloisa James and Elizabeth Gilbert were unusually kind. Laura Hillenbrand is lovely. Touring Gettysburg with historian James McPherson was a career highlight.

The most fun interview: Judith Krantz. She showed around her mansion on the 17th hole of the Bel-Air Country Club and gave the best author quote of all time:  “If I could write like Flaubert, I would!”

Writing bad reviews about authors I’ve interviewed is difficult. But my first responsibility is to USA TODAY’s 1.8 million readers

5. The one thing on everyone’s mind lately is Fifty Shades of Grey, which just hit the 10 million mark. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of this – do you think every woman over 35 in America wants to be dominated?! Have you read it?

I have read every single word in all three books. Here’s my story: “10 reasons we’re shackled to Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Despite the bondage stuff, the trilogy is actually an old fashioned boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back romance about the redemptive power of love.

Do I think the novels are well written? No.

As a former Sunday-school-teaching, E.R.A.-marching, ardent feminist, do I wish millions of women were not quite so besotted with a fantasy about being swept away by an older alpha male billionaire hottie? Yes.

Do I think women of any age want to be dominated? No.  But until you read all three books, you don’t realize the appeal is how the heroine dominates the hero emotionally by the end.

It does, however, frost my last nerve when people trash the trilogy and its fans without reading it.

Erotic romance doesn’t float my boat but there are plenty of romance novels that do. I pay hard cold cash for writers Kristan Higgins, Rachel Gibson, Jennifer Crusie, Toni Blake and Susan Elizabeth Phillips whose novels I read for pleasure.

6. What’s a typical day like for you in the office? How do you and the rest of the book department choose what authors to review? Bribery? Level of attractiveness?

I work from home in part because my wonderful boss, USA TODAY’s book editor Jocelyn McClurg, is based in our Manhattan bureau. We staffers make suggestions but Jocelyn has the final say on reviews and interviews.

A typical day: I wake up at 5:00 am and start reading. I keep reading with pit stops to walk the dog, conduct phone interviews, procrastinate, return email, write stories and nag my younger son. I check Twitter, read PW, Galleycat, Publishing Perspectives and Shelf Awareness. I look at authors’ FB pages and websites. I don’t read other reviews before I’ve written my own. I log off from the computer at 6:00 pm.

I try to read the first paragraph of every book I open. I still remember the morning I opened up Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here. I didn’t put the book down until 4:00 pm. That’s the “pixie dust” moment when the hair rises on the back of your neck and you realize you’re not holding a book, you’re holding an enemy of productivity that must be finished.

Those magic moments are the very best thing about my job.

7. In an interview for Galleycat you commented: “To me, the issue is how publishing can erect original, competitive platforms in order to launch new writers based on their own merits (i.e., books). Instead we all fixate on how many celebs from other, more powerful platforms (TV, music, radio, journalism, porn, web, whatever) simply use books to expand their brand…Book publishing should do a better job of growing and promoting its own stars.” This interview was from 2007, but let’s be honest – book publishing doesn’t move that fast. Do you still believe this today?

Actually I think e-books have caused a cataclysmic change in book publishing to rival what I witnessed back there in 1439 with Johannes Gutenberg. The web crushes hierarchies. Word of mouth has gone digital.  Peer-to-peer social media – Facebook, GoodReads, customer forums, special interest blogs – drive sales today more than traditional media. While interest in celebrities remains an evergreen among publishers, I think they are also looking for fresh voices in new areas like self-publishing.

I have enormous admiration for how nimbly the folks in publishing are trying to adapt to this technological revolution. A really smart publisher used the phrase “it’s not the cup, it’s the coffee.” I think humans have a hunger for stories embedded in their DNA code. It also lifts the spirits to witness the explosive sales of children’s books. It started with Harry Potter and continues today.

8. And then you went on to say that “book media has a real responsibility to readers to showcase new talent.” Is that what drives you each day in your job? 

As my family and coworkers know, I am happiest when I’m braying on about some new book. Over the years, faves have included Bridget Jones’s Diary, Seabiscuit, Angela’s Ashes, The White Tiger, Wolf Hall, The Known World.

Right now I can’t stop talking about British writer Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always. I’m reading it for the third time just to revel in its lean, elegant language, the merciless insights about media and publishing, and the ethical questions it raises. Adored it.

9. In our last Algonquin Talks, we interviewed Allan Fallow from AARP, The Magazine, and he sent us videos of himself doing this interview while riding his bicycle. Can you top that? Maybe a unicycle?

Alas, no. But a video of my life could be posted on YouTube as a holistic substitute for Ambien.

10. Print book or e-book: your preference?

Both. I read Wolf Hall twice on my iPhone after I gave away the hardcover. But if I hate a book while reading a digital edition, I try to read the print edition to see if it improves. I did that with Julian Barnes’ Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending, but my response remained the same on all formats: “ish!”

11.  What book – or books – changed your life?

•The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts made me stop me feeling bad about being a mother who held a paying job.

•Nothing but Trouble by Rachel Gibson introduced me to the joys of reading romance novels.

•Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was a mule kick to the head. It made me think about race in America for the first time.

12. You’re going to be stranded on a desert island—you can only take 3 books, 3 albums, and 3 “B” list celebrities with you. What/who are they?

Books: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.

Albums: I’m not that old! I do own an iPod! ABBA’s complete hits.

Since the Swedish mood brighteners are enough, I’ll substitute two audio books: Jonathan Cecil reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, Alexander Scourby reading the complete King James Bible.

Three “B” list celebs? Having interviewed celebrities while working at People magazine, I’d prefer to be alone.

Seriously.

But if I could bring three imaginary characters: Chief Miles O’Brien from Star Trek to fix things; Marge Simpson from The Simpsons because she’s my doppelganger; Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister just to hear him talk.

3 Comments On This Post:

July 25, 2012
6:37 pm
Laura says...

Thanks for such a great interview with so many references to works that are worth looking up and even reading. I love the use of hyperlinks.

July 27, 2012
4:19 pm
Kate Flaherty says...

I love that the Preppy Handbook was your first review. . . what an auspicious beginning! I also like your comments re: Fifty Shades of Grey. I was in a bookstore last week and overheard the owner telling a patron, “Oh, I carry that book because people will buy it. I’d never read anything that lowbrow.” As an egalitarian reader myself, I just thought it was kind of mean-spirited and snobby. Thanks!

April 16, 2014
12:58 am
Timothy A. Donohue says...

Diedre,
The magic of an old man with an IPad in his hands has brought this comment to add to two others posted two years ago. Anyone who gets trapped by great writing is a person I know. Or should. Thanks for your work. That’s it. Just, thank you.
Tim

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