The Seven Stages of My Reading Life So Far
Part 4: Reviewer & Other Odd Jobs
The day after I walked away from my eleven-year stint as a bookseller in November 1994, I sat down to write my first novel. I’d always imagined that when I finally did write something, it would be the Great American Novel. But what I’d imagined and what actually happened, as often is the case in real life, turned out to be two very separate things.
My first book was a comedic mystery, the usual wish-fulfillment sort of first novel, about an underachieving bookseller who’s convinced the world would be a better place if only she were in charge of everything. Mini Monroe gets her big chance when her boss is murdered, leaving her to run the store while trying to solve the crime.
I completed it on January 15, 1995, during a snowstorm, in a blizzard of five-fingered typing.
A publishing acquaintance gave it to her sister to read, her sister being the publisher of a boutique mystery house. The sister called me on the phone laughing hysterically, saying the book was the funniest thing she’d ever read, that she was bringing it to sales conference with her where she’d make everyone read it, and that she’d call me when she returned. I asked my acquaintance what all this meant, not daring to believe it meant what I thought it did. My acquaintance said, “It means she wants to buy your book.” But that’s not what happened. Instead when the sister called for the second time, she said, “Sorry. No.” No one else bought that book either, although I did acquire and lose my first agent along the way.
I kept writing but I’d also quickly realized that while waiting for fame and fortune to find me, not to mention the Nobel committee, I’d need to find a way to bring in some dollars so the mortgage would continue to get paid.
Back in my bookseller days, Publishers Weekly had been our bible, so now I thought, “Hmm . . . maybe I could be a reviewer.” Even though I’d never professionally reviewed a book in my life, I wrote PW fiction editor Sybil Steinberg a letter about why she should give me a shot. I told her that I was making it easy on her by enclosing a small card in a self-addressed stamped envelope that had two boxes she could choose among to check: “Sure!” and “Sorry, Scout, no can do.” Then I wrote, “Go on, Sybil, look in the envelope to see if it really says that. You know you want to . . .” Sybil called me on the phone laughing hysterically—do you see a trend here? People often call me on the phone laughing hysterically—to say, “I’m sure I’ll hate myself in the morning for this, but I’m sending you a book as a tryout. Let’s see what you can do.”
I remember that first book was a Bridgewater Press book, but I can’t tell you the title or author. Still, I must have done an okay enough job because Sybil kept sending me books, sometimes two a week, and I kept writing reviews for Sybil and later on for her successor. By the time I laid down my reviewing pen years later I’d reviewed 292 books for them.
The two most memorable reviews?
One, I don’t remember the title of, but it was truly one of the most overblown pieces of garbage I’d ever read. So I wrote my review and turned it in. Sybil called me on the phone. “‘Stop me before I hyperbolate!’” She quoted from my review. “I can’t print that, Lauren! We’re a conservative publication.” Then she chuckled. “‘Stop me before I hyperbolate!’—that is funny.”
The other memorable book was Margaret George’s Memoirs of Cleopatra, a true doorstopper at 976 pages with tiny print to boot. Did they really expect me to read and review this in a week? PW had a strict turnaround time but it just didn’t seem possible, particularly since a publisher had sent me a 750-page nonfiction book to write a reader’s companion for. [Note: I’d also talked my way into getting several publishers to hire me to do reader’s companions, this being back when publishers actually farmed such work out and paid handsomely for it.] Did I mention that it was July, we were in the middle of a heat wave and I had a raging fever? I called PW, panicked, and was reassured I could have a generous two weeks.
But it turned out I didn’t need it. In a fever dream of love and admiration and awe, I devoured that book in four days. W.H. Auden once said of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that no book in the past five years had given him so much pleasure. Well, I felt I could top that, since no historical novel in the previous ten years had given me so much pleasure and I went on to write a review that reflected that sentiment. When the book was published, I saw a display for it in a local bookstore, with some of the words from my review prominently printed on the riser. PW reviews ran unattributed, so no one would ever know I wrote those words, but still I felt proud. That was a curious thing about the PW gig. Back then, when the pre-pub trades mattered so much more than they do today, I felt a real part of shaping public opinion and there was real pride when I discovered a debut author with great gifts, or as with the Memoirs of Cleopatra, an already great writer at the top of her powers.
But not all my PW reading experiences were that enjoyable. Far from it! I sensed they sent me books I’d be likely to dislike with far greater frequency than they sent me books with any merit, because I was more coherent in writing about those books I hated than those I loved. As a result, I soon picked up a bad habit. I know it’s heretical to admit this, but I learned the fine art of judicious skimming. I only did this on rare occasions and I did it as much for the author’s sake as for my own. If I began to read a book and saw fairly quickly that the writing was excruciatingly bad—and believe me, you can see almost right away if a book will truly suck—I’d skim, reading the opening sentences of paragraphs plus all dialogue. As I say, this was done as much for the author’s sake as for my own. Trust me, I’m going to eviscerate you a lot more gently if I don’t have to read every single stinking bad word. And I’d already been told I couldn’t say stuff like, “Stop me before I hyperbolate!”
If someone were a debut author, if the book was awful, I’d conscientiously write a review that would signal to book buyers, “Stay away!” But I’d also make an effort to throw in a line the author could hold onto in the cold night, something like, “Great use of totem poles!”
Still, you have to be careful of every word you put in a review because some publishers can be unethical in how they crop reviews for their purposes. So while seeing Margaret George’s book in a store with my words attached was a moment of pride, it was a shock and revelation to see a book for which I’d written one of my more scathing reviews published with the blurb, “‘. . . best book of the year . . .!’ ~ PW.” Huh? I didn’t remember writing that! No. That’s right. What I’d written had been something more along the lines of, “This is so far from being the best book of the year, it’s not even funny!”
All this time, I kept writing and trying to sell my own books.
A mortgage does not get paid by being a PW reviewer alone, however, so somewhere along the way I’d talked my way into a job as a freelance editor for a subsidy publisher. Do you see a trend here? Me talking my way into jobs for which I had no previous experience? I would wind up editing nearly 100 books before finishing that job. The two best moments? When one of the books I worked on was a finalist for a small press book award—I don’t remember the title but my boss did show me the plaque—and the day I talked Good Morning America into sending a crew down to Florida for two days to interview the septuagenarian and octogenarian authors of Thirteen by Eighteen, a collectively written mystery penned by residents in a nursing home.
A mortgage does not get paid by being a PW reviewer and freelance editor alone, however, so I also talked Bethel Public Library into giving me a job as a sort-of librarian. This job entailed working behind the circulation desk for a few hours a week but mostly my duties were to lead monthly book discussions, arrange for author visits and, later on, lead a twice-a-month writing workshop. The book discussions were the most fun. We read Memoirs of Cleopatra and another historical favorite, Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, the latter teaching me that lots of folks take great exception to cannibalism. We did a series on international mysteries. We did Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel; I love Arturo Perez-Reverte’s books. We did a series of short stories from the annual best-of anthology, this one edited by John Updike.
Compared to the book discussions, the author visits could be frustrating. People often just didn’t show up in great numbers. The first author I hosted was Darin Strauss, whose literary novel Chang and Eng had been published to great acclaim. The visit had been arranged prior to my hiring but I dutifully sat in the library kitchen and talked to Mr. Strauss, who’d come all the way from Brooklyn, while he ate the grinder the library had been thoughtful enough to provide. Then I led him downstairs to the meeting room, expecting a crowd, only to find my friend Rob there. That’s it. Just Rob. It was the first perfect Sunday of the year and there was no way anyone but Rob was going to spend it indoors with an author no matter who the author! So Mr. Strauss spoke graciously about writing to Rob and me for an hour or so before heading back to Brooklyn.
A mortgage does not get paid by being a PW reviewer, a freelance editor and a sort-of librarian alone, however, so during these years I was also a window washer. This job I did not have to talk my way into since my husband owns his own window-washing business. That business is why I can legitimately claim to be the only woman who’s ever hosted a signing party for and washed the windows of the late Robert Ludlum.
Many of our customers recognized me from my Klein’s days and it was not uncommon for my husband and his crew to look inside the windows—they worked the outside with me always on the inside—to see me talking books with the lady of the house who wanted to pump me on what was good to read. “You’re her!” those women would cry upon seeing me, as though I were someone truly famous instead of someone with a roll of paper towels and a bucket. “The girl who knows all about the books!” One time we were doing the actor Mason Adams’ house. The guys were up on the roof, cleaning skylights, only to look down to see me seated at the kitchen table, talking books with Mrs. Adams. But the guys never minded me sitting down on the job. I’d been dubbed “The Golden Squeegee” for my brisk two-handed technique and frequently finished the inside before they finished the outside, even with housewife breaks, leaving me with time to sit in the truck and read.
Window washing is a good job for a writer to have. When I’d been a bookseller, my mind belonged to the store fifty-five hours a week with little time or energy left over for coming up with plots. But a window-washer’s mind is her own. I thought of more than one fantastical plot while in my Golden Squeegee groove.
Those were busy days for me. I’d typically rise between two-thirty and four-thirty in the morning to write before the rest of the world got up. Then I’d read my PW book of the week while power walking. In the van on the way to the first cleaning job, I’d do some editing. During breaks, I’d do more reading and editing. And so it went.
I did have a baby in 2000 but that’s another story.
All this time, through all my various part-time jobs, I kept on writing book after book until I’d written seven novels.
The first week of May 2002, nearly eight years after I’d left Klein’s to take a chance on myself as a writer, the editorial director of Red Dress Ink called me on the phone to say she wanted to buy the sixth book I’d written, The Thin Pink Line.
But that’s another story too.
Win a free copy of Lauren’s upcoming young adult novel, Crazy Beautiful! With each of Lauren's essays you will have a chance to win since we will be giving away a copy of this story—a contemporary re-visioning of Beauty & the Beast, told in he-said/she-said fashion, about a boy with hooks for hands and a gorgeous girl who meet on their first day at a new school—with each of Lauren’s seven essays. Send us an e-mail with your name each time this announcement is made (every other week). That’s it. For this fourth drawing, all names received on or before Friday, September 4, will be entered, and the winner’s name will be drawn that evening. We will notify the winner over the weekend, but the books cannot be mailed out until they become available in September. Only one entry per person, please. There is no obligation, and your name and address will not be saved by BiblioBuffet or used for any purpose other than mailing the books.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold 20 books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Angel’s Choice for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. Her next published book will be the YA novel Crazy Beautiful, due out in September. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren's life and work at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.