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WHY  DIDN'T  I  THINK  OF  THAT?
Interviews with People who have Unusual, Unique, Novel, Unordinary, Uncommon, Off The Beaten Track Writing Careers   

A  DISCUSSION  WITH  
Author and Book Reviewer Thomas J. Craughwell

Interview by RoseEtta  Stone


Need the perfect holiday gift for the bibliophiles on your shopping list who have everything?  Buy them all BOOK LOVER'S CALENDARS.  And don't forget to pick one up for yourself too.   

Thomas J. Craughwell, the author of the annual BOOK LOVER'S CALENDAR:  365 Days of Good Authors, Good Books & Good Reading, has also written approximately a dozen books on subjects as diverse as urban legends, cow parades, murder mysteries, saints, prayers, and Popes.

He also reviews books for the Book Of The Month Club.  "The manuscripts that I critique for the Club," says Craughwell, "help the editors decide whether or not they should offer a particular book to club members."  And writes book reviews for the catalogs of their "sister club," the History Book Club. 

"When you find something that you love and get paid for doing it, you want to keep on doing it."

I have to ask when and how you manage to find the time to read all the books you review.  And, how it's humanly possible, since most of your calendar's pages recommend more than one book a day, to read more than 365 books each year?

I don't read everything all the way through.  I do read a large chunk of every book to review it.  If a book hasn't caught me by page twenty, it doesn't go on the calendar.  But even though many books don't appeal to me personally, I know they'll appeal to others, so I include them in the calendar too.

And how do you manage, unless you eat, sleep, and live book reviews, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to write an entire year's worth of reviews each and every year, year after year?

I started writing reviews more than twelve years ago for Book Of The Month Club.  I get a lot of manuscripts from them to review.  And I'm surrounded by book people and book lovers.  People are forever handing me books.  Friends, co-workers, relatives, Book Lover's Calendar readers - everyone is always recommending books to me.  Sources seem to come to me.  I begin work on my own, but sources come to me during a work day.  In terms of writing the reviews, I've always been a fast writer when it comes to cranking the stuff out.  And every year, around January, I finish the calendar for the coming year.  I'm now just about finished with the calendar for the year 2004.

About the manuscripts you review for the BOMC and  History Book Club - can unpublished writers send you their manuscripts to review for the clubs' sale catalogs?  

Publishers send manuscripts of upcoming books to BOMC.  If the editors at the club think a book has possibilities, they forward it to one of their readers.  The club only accepts books that have already found a publisher.

"Mystery readers are extremely passionate."

Do you write each and every review yourself, or work with a staff of reviewers? 

It's all me.

What is really impressive about your calendars, and makes them so unique, is the brevity of your book reviews.  How or where have you cultivated the discipline or mastered the art of reviewing books so succinctly?

I had a wonderful teacher in college named Muriel Becker for a critical writing class.  She was extremely tough.  She'd actually physically cut the copy we wrote apart with scissors and take out all the extraneous parts, then tape the rest back together, and say to us, "I think this needs some work.  Go back and rewrite."  It was such a dramatic way to teach.  But it worked.  She taught me how to say what I want to say, what needed to be said, in just a few sentences - to cut copy down to its bare essence and leave out everything else.

Does she know how well you learned the lessons she taught, and how successfully you've used them?

Yes, Mrs. Becker and I have stayed in touch.  She is a loyal user of the Book Lover's Calendar.

Is it more difficult to write shorter or lengthier reviews?

The shorter ones are harder to write, especially if you have a book that you have an emotional connection to, or if the story is complicated.  For example, there was a book I loved called The Reckoning, which argues that Christopher Marlowe did not die in a barroom brawl, but was murdered.  With a book like that it's very difficult to narrow a review down to just 450 characters or so.  If I didn't learn to be such a disciplined writer, I would tend to ramble on quite a bit more.

Then there's the diverse range and scope of your reviews, which include books for readers of all ages, in every conceivable and inconceivable genre, nature, field, and subject.  Please comment on this aspect of your work.

I keep sort of a mental checklist in so far as what sort of books should be on the calendar and aim for a balance of topics.  I have no systematic approach in covering a variety of fields.  I just wander around the library sometimes and if I see books on sports, for instance, I'll think, "Oh, my God, no sports books - I didn't review any books on sports!"  And then I'll be sure to include them.  The books I personally enjoy most are history books and biographies, so they'll automatically be on the calendar, but I'm always forgetting about business books, and at the last minute remember to also include them.

What would you say is or has been the most common response from colleagues or the general reading public to your selection of books and/or reviews?

I get more responses from the public.  I can't believe people write to me, but they do - some flatteringly and complimentary, and some asking, "Where did you get this fact?"  And I'll look it up, and if I was right I'll send them a copy of the proof - the source I used.  And if I was wrong and they were right, I let them know that too.  Mystery readers are extremely passionate.  I have to be careful if I say, "This mystery is the best," or people write back to me saying, "No, this (another) book is the best of that author's work."  I answer all letters.

"Book reviewers can't write books" is a good put-down."

According to conventional wisdom, book reviewers either don't or can't write books.  Or are frustrated or failed authors who salvage their bruised egos by publicly critiquing the work of their literary betters to death.  Yet prolific contemporary writers - John Updike, for example, pens a seemingly endless succession of critically acclaimed, commercially successful novels.  And, not only also reviews books, but wrote a book of essays which teach the art of book reviewing.  You too, by virtue of the number and quality of the books you've written, negate that unjustifiable accusation.

"Book reviewers can't write books" is a good put-down, but it's not a very accurate assessment of who writes reviews.  Open the Sunday New York Times Book Review and you'll find that most if not all of the reviewers are authors.    

Going back to the beginning - what led to your writing Book Lover's Calendars?

Well, I had been a freelance writer for seven years when I started reviewing and writing catalog copy book reviews for the Book Of The Month Club.  The Book Lover's Calendar sort of landed in my lap.  They had asked a friend of mine to write the reviews for the calendar, but he was too busy and didn't have the time, so he recommended me for the job.

We all should have such friends and that kind of luck.  But since so few of us do, what advice, if any, would you give to someone who doesn't necessarily want to follow in your footsteps, but does want to become a book reviewer?

One of the best ways to become a book reviewer is to just keep writing reviews for practice.  When you're satisfied with how they're coming out, write three or four dummy reviews of books you like, and send them out to different publications.  Say to them, "Here's a sample of my work.  I'd like to do this for you."  If nothing else, they'll admire your initiative.

Segueing to another issue entirely - as both an author and book reviewer, does the rising cost of books concern you?

Well yes, but what are you going to do?   The price of production keeps going up.  I don't know enough about book production to know if they're gouging us.  But it bothers me to have to spend $30 for a novel.

Publishers don't send reviewers copies of their authors' latest books?

Not usually.  Usually they just send manuscripts.

And my final question:  Do you see yourself still writing and reviewing books ten years from now?

Oh yeah.  I'll be buying, reading, and telling people about books, and writing about them.  When you find something that you love and get paid for doing it, you want to keep on doing it.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER THE CALENDAR.

*******

Do you have an unusual writing job?  RoseEtta Stone would like to interview you for her new column for Absolute Write, "WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT? Interviews with People who have Unusual, Unique, Novel, Unordinary, Uncommon, Off The Beaten Track Writing Careers."  There is no pay for interviews, but we're happy to run your bio, photo, and links.  If you're interested, e-mail RoseEtta at JRoseEttaStone@aol.com.

RoseEtta Stone is the Editor/Publisher of (the) X - RATED CHILDREN'S BOOKS NEWSLETTER:  Book Reviews and Interviews with Banned, Censored, Challenged Authors of Banned, Censored, Challenged and Burned Childrens' Books.  Visit by clicking here: X-RatedChildrensBooks.


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