Thursday, February 7, 2008

So Long, Frank

It'll be hard to top what John Freeman, president of the National Book Critic Circle, said about Frank Wilson in a beautifully written “enjoy retirement” piece he posted on the NBCC blog (which you can read here). But I might as well take a shot because I'd like to think, at least, that I'm one of those "young reviewers" John references -- I was only 25 when I started reviewing books for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In high school, I told everyone I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to study fish or coral or something like that -- who knows where my microscope would have landed if I hadn't joined the college student newspaper. But I also thought that if science didn't work out, I could always review books for The New York Times Book Review (HA!)

So when I graduated college and decided to give this writer thing a whirl, I pitched book reviews to the Philadelphia Inquirer. I'd been reading the book review section since seventh grade and thought my college newspaper reviews would be enough.

I'm not surprised that Frank Wilson never got back to me. I wouldn't have hired me either, some kid who was all talk and no clips. But I kept trying, and as I gained more experience writing about books and authors for more high profile magazines, I kept sending samples Frank's way. First I'd try email, then mail, then email again.

Finally, I got a reply, and an assignment: Curtis Sittenfeld's The Man of My Dreams: A Novel, a book that Frank picked out for me to review. Finally -- FINALLY persistence had paid off. And it was a book by an author whose first novel, Prep: A Novel, I adored.

I ripped open the galley package when it came in, and hunkered down on my couch with a pen and a highlighter, ready to offer my insights into the second work of this promising author, ready to tell the world what I thought. It took me hours to write that review. I knew that if I did well, this could be my onramp into book reviewing. I was petrified to turn it in (the fact that I didn't like the book, and said so loud and clear in the review, didn't help). But Frank accepted it, with a few changes. The day it ran, I laid that page out on my kitchen table and left it there all day. It's one of my proudest moments as a writer.

Frank kept giving me assignments -- Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, Calling Out, Please, Mr. Einstein(which was, by the way, the most difficult review I've ever written). He let me pick these wacky books that other reviewers might not have even noticed, and let me have my say.

I should have known something was up in the middle of last month when Frank kept giving my name and information to other editors for assignments. I thought maybe he was finally fed up with the cut backs at the paper, and he was. Retirement, I think, will suit him well. So thanks, Frank, for giving me that big break, which has lead me to so many other wonderful things. As John said, enjoy “beating back weeds, not budget cuts.”

And if you’d like to see Frank ‘bloviate,’ as he calls it, he’ll be on the NBCC “Good Reads” panel with me on February 27.

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barb michelen said...
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