Stephanie: I would like to introduce Sarah Johnson. As a fellow book blogger, I met Sarah through the Historical Novel Society online and it has been a pleasure getting to know her. I would also like to say that Sarah is a fountain of information in the book industry. Especially in the Historical Fiction world.
Thank you for chatting with me today, Sarah. First off, please tell me about your occupation and how has it impacted your life.
Sarah: Thanks for inviting me, Stephanie!
For my full-time job, I work as a reference & electronic resources librarian at Eastern Illinois University. This means I spend my days doing a variety of things: answering reference questions; giving tours; teaching classes how to search for information; tracking electronic journals and working with database vendors; selecting new books in economics, math, and computer science; writing handouts; and a lot more. As for how it’s impacted my life… library school and on-the-job training taught me the best ways to search for information in many different fields. For example, yesterday I taught a class of education graduate students, many of whom were teachers, about researching issues affecting middle schoolers. Today I may work with students researching biology, dietetics, or poetry, and as I help them, I get to learn more about these subjects. In addition, because of my responsibilities, I’ve gotten very comfortable with speaking in front of groups – a useful skill to have (especially for an introvert!). Also, to take my current job, my husband and I moved halfway across the country from suburban New England to rural Illinois. We live in a large house in the country surrounded by woods and cornfields. Although the area does lack some amenities (the nearest bookstore is 50 miles away), I like the quieter atmosphere and the lack of traffic.
Stephanie: Whenever I walk into a library, for me it is like a child walking into a toy store every time. Actually, it is more than that….because there are millions and millions of words to be read, stories wanting to be told, worlds to be discovered and even the voices of the characters or people that once lived wanting to be heard. The reasons are endless. What are some of the emotions you experience?
Sarah: What a great way of putting it! I’m glad to hear of your positive thoughts about and experiences with libraries. I think libraries are more valuable than ever in these tough economic times, and they need people’s support. Walking into a library, and seeing all of the shelves full of books, impresses me with the wide range of knowledge the materials can impart to readers. I also see libraries as places where people can come together, learn, and discover, whether they’re picking out new novels to read, searching for information in databases or on the web, or looking for a comfortable place to study or read.
Stephanie: Let’s talk about your website (Reading the Past). I absolutely love whenever you post a book lists. When I click on the link it is so thrilling to see all those new beautiful book covers. What are some of the titles you have listed that are your favorites?
Sarah: Thanks for your comments on my book lists! They take a lot of time to put together, but I enjoy doing it and am happy you like seeing them. When I post the covers of upcoming books, I won’t necessarily have read them yet, but for the most recent lists, some I can personally recommend are Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, a novel of unnerving surprises and social conformity in 1680s Amsterdam; Beatriz Williams’ The Secret Life of Violet Grant, a dual period novel whose ‘60s-era narrator has an irresistible voice; and Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice, which tells a little-known, fact-based story about the origins of the Gutenberg Bible; it also captures the social and religious atmosphere of late medieval Germany.
Stephanie: Please list and share five book covers you love.
Sarah: I love talking about book covers, so choosing five to share has been fun. Cover designs tend to follow trends (the “headless woman” being a prominent one) and although I have favorites within them, the ones I love the most not only strike me with their individuality but also their effectiveness in representing the book’s storyline and atmosphere. I’m including links to my reviews where I have them.
Clare Clark’s Beautiful Lies focuses on a bohemian Victorian society wife who’s pulled off a major deception. I love the deep turquoise background, the original illustration, and how the design conveys both the era and the heroine’s sultriness.
This one’s an older title. It uses the complex art of papercutting design (“Scherenschnitte”) to depict many scenes and people from this quirky, wonderful saga set over a large span of time in Templeton, New York. So clever and original!
This is a recent literary novel surrounding the strange abandonment of the American ship Mary Celeste in the open Atlantic in 1872. The cover conveys the eerie undercurrents of the novel, the maritime setting, and its lingering mysteries – the ship’s disappearance remains unsolved to this day.
Unlike the other four, I haven’t read this novel, which isn’t out until October – but the cover is a very strong enticement to buy it. (It’s about Dorothy Richardson, an early 20th-century writer who was part of the Bloomsbury Set.) I love the balance of light and shadow and its vivid sense of place, and it makes me want to know why this woman is standing with her bicycle alone at sunrise in central London.
I reviewed this book a few weeks ago; it’s the 4th title in the author’s mystery series featuring Scottish novelist Josephine Tey. The illustration gives a good sense of the subject and setting (the glamorous film industry in the ‘30s, the two main characters) and that, combined with the enigmatic title, make me curious about what’s inside.
Stephanie: What are some of the memorable reviews you have written and why?
Sarah: I remember many of them well, for different reasons, and for me, writing reviews serves as a memory-aid to the book much later on. I read so many books that the finer details of the plot and characters may not stick in my mind for long, but I’m likely to remember a novel more if I’ve reviewed it.
My review of Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow (about the Bronte sisters) may be my favorite, and not only because the book itself is fabulous. It’s a complex novel, and the review took me a week to write, but I finally managed to capture everything that made the novel stand out for me.
I covered Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon , a saga of social change in southern India, for Booklist in 2008 (the review’s on the novel’s Amazon page). It took a long time to encompass the scope, characters, and themes of this excellent 600-page novel into a 175-word review, and I was so pleased when the author found me online and sent me a lovely thank-you note. The Historical Tapestry blog had an A-Z Alphabet Challenge back in 2010 – participating bloggers focused on books or authors starting with different letters – so for the letter “F,” I chose James Long’s romantic and creepy time-slip novel, Ferney. One of the privileges of being a reviewer is having the ability to shine increased attention on deserving books, even if they’re older (like this one). And having other readers choose (and enjoy) books based on your recommendations is pretty cool.
Stephanie: Who are some of the authors you have interviewed?
Sarah: I have an index to past interviews at the top of my blog page if you or other readers are curious to see them all. Just a few authors I’ve spoken with for my blog have been Tony Hays, whose interview took the form of a fun conversation about Arthurian figures and the realities of post-Roman Britain; Kate Forsyth, whose fairy tale-inspired Bitter Greens will be out in the US this fall at last; Ann Chamberlin, who gave me a detailed interview about The Woman at the Well, set in 7th-century Arabia; and Deanna Raybourn, who told me about her first novel Silent in the Grave — she’s written many Lady Julia novels since!
Stephanie: Wonderful authors you have interviewed.
For those who are first time book bloggers or who want to start a blog, how would you recommend they do so?
Sarah: There’s always room for more book bloggers and online conversations about books. For newcomers, I’d suggest they familiarize themselves with other blogs in their genre and leave comments on others sites’ now and again. Forming a network like this is an easy way to build interest and support in a new blog. Looking at other sites can help them develop their own focus – do they want to do reviews, interviews, spotlights, or something less formal? One other suggestion I’d make is for them to let their personalities shine through in their writing style, because readers will respond to it.
Stephanie: I have to agree with you, forming a network is a wonderful way to have support and you meet so many fellow avid readers through this experience.
When did you get started blogging and what do you enjoy most about it? Were there any mishaps along the way?
Sarah: My Reading the Past blog turned eight in March. I enjoy the ongoing challenges of reviewing, which includes finding original things to say about each book I come across. By now I’ve reviewed quite a large number of books, so I try not to repeat the same familiar phrases or devolve into “reviewese” (though I think everyone must, now and again). Another big highlight is just talking with other readers about historical novels. I can’t think of any major mishaps, though I sometimes receive requests to post what’s essentially free advertising (which I don’t do).
Stephanie: Please tell me about your involvement with HNS and how long you have been a member?
Sarah: I first became a member of the Historical Novel Society (HNS) in 1998, quite a while ago. It was wholly a UK venture at that point, but when I saw Richard Lee’s call for US editors on a Usenet discussion group the following year, I signed on and have continued as book review editor since then — a job that’s expanded greatly over time. I oversee the book review content for Historical Novels Review magazine, which is published quarterly in print as well as online, and work with about a dozen other editors in the US and UK, each of whom solicits review copies from different publishers.
Stephanie: What are some of the ways the HNS has impacted the historical fiction genre?
Sarah: The Historical Novels Review is in its 17th year of publication, and by now many publishers, authors, and readers see it as a quality source for historical fiction reviews. In addition, HNR Indie, overseen by managing editor Helen Hollick, has been getting out the word about worthy indie-published historical novels. Among the most popular pages on the HNS website are those dealing with how historical fiction is defined, and our definitions have been cited and widely discussed (and debated!), so we’ve had a strong impact on the genre in that respect. Librarians and readers regularly consult our guides to forthcoming titles, and the HNS’s annual conferences are great places to meet authors and network with other enthusiasts of the genre. These are just a few examples.
Stephanie: How can readers, bloggers and authors get plugged in with HNS?
Sarah: Everyone’s welcome to browse the HNS website, which has all of our reviews and many features and guides online for free. To receive the Historical Novels Review magazine in print and be listed in our directory, there’s an annual membership fee, and anyone interested can see the Join HNS page for details. We also have an active Facebook group that’s coming up on 5000 members – pretty crazy when you think about it! Readers, bloggers, and authors can ask to join, and once they’re in, they can contribute to the discussions there. The HNS is a volunteer organization, and people can be as involved as they’d like to be – for example, reviewing for our publications, writing feature articles, attending and organizing our conferences and chapter meetings, even initiating new projects. There are plenty of opportunities to work with the HNS to spread the word about historical novels.
Stephanie: I’ve been meaning to go to BEA one year and hope to soon. Tell me about your experience with it this year? Who are some of the authors you saw and were there new authors you discovered?
Sarah: I’ve attended nearly every year for the past dozen years. The show has great energy, and to be in the same place as so many people enthusiastic about books and reading is a wonderful experience. I attend not just to discuss and get copies of the books being promoted in the fall but to meet up with other people in the industry – publishers, librarians, bloggers, and other readers. This BEA was different than most for me because I didn’t go to many author signings. There was so much going on that I ran into conflicts, plus I’m getting too old to enjoy standing in hour-long lines. I did get a signed copy of Ann Hood’s upcoming An Italian Wife, a literary historical saga dealing with the immigrant experience, and I also went to the Mystery Writers of America booth, where I met Nancy Bilyeau, Annamaria Alfieri, James Benn, and John Florio and got copies of their latest books signed. I also met up with Shifra Hochberg, an author in town from Israel, who recently guest blogged on my site about her on-site research at the Vatican catacombs.
I always discover new titles and authors while stopping by publishers’ booths. Here are pics with some of the galleys I acquired – most of these are meant for HNR, but I managed to snag some for myself, too.
Stephanie: Now, about what you have been reading this year. How many books have you read so far and what are a few of the titles?
Sarah: I track my reads on Goodreads, and the system has been telling me I’m behind for the year, which I’m not real pleased about. Maybe I was overambitious in setting my goal? I’ve read 48 so far in 2014. At the moment I’m reading Kader Abdolah’s The King, about struggles between tradition and modernity in 19th-centuryPersia. Before that I finished P.S. Duffy’s The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, a wide-ranging Canadian portrait of World War I, as seen from a soldier at the front and his son at home; and Tim Hernandez’ Mañana Means Heaven, an amazing novel about the real-life “Mexican Girl,” Bea Franco, from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – you don’t have to have read (I hadn’t) or even heard of Kerouac to appreciate the book, which is set in ‘40s California.
Stephanie: What stories interest you and how do you select them to read? Does the overall layout have a part in your selections?
Sarah: Mostly I stick to historical fiction but aim to read widely within it. I don’t like sticking with the same settings all the time. A good chunk of what I read is Booklist assignments, which, for the most part, are selected for me by my editor. So I never know what I’ll be getting, but I’ve made some wonderful finds that way. If you mean the physical layout of a book, hmm, only occasionally. Too-small print, for example, is an impediment to reading for me, and a less-than-professional layout job makes me wonder whether the book lacks quality writing or editing.
Stephanie: Which do you prefer? E-book or print? And when do you read during the day? Is there a particular food or beverage you like to enjoy while reading?
Sarah: I slightly prefer print books, especially when reviewing, since I find it’s easier for me to take notes that way. But I’ve been reading an increasing number of e-galleys as well as e-books on my Kindle. During the week, my only reading time is in the evening, and I usually stay away from food and drink while I’m reading since that can get messy and because I often have a cat on my lap at the time!
Stephanie: Are there any other genres besides Historical fiction you like to read?
Sarah: I read some contemporary fiction – Karen White’s Tradd Street series is a favorite (they’re Southern mysteries with architecture and ghosts) as well as some fantasy novels and classics, when I have time. I also enjoy modern Gothics like those written by Wendy Webb.
Stephanie: I LOVE Karen White’s Tradd Street series! I have all of them and have read a couple of them twice.
Sarah, it was an absolute pleasure chatting with you and there is so much more I would like to discuss with you another time. Thank you so much for being here today and please come back soon.
Sarah: Thanks again for the opportunity, Stephanie!