Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Interview with John McMurtrie, Book Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle

John McMurtrie
has been editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review since October 2008, and in his three-month tenure has seen the world of publishing deteriorate.

With the closure of the book review sections of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Chronicle is one of the few remaining papers with a stand-alone review. While McMurtrie tells Ghost Word that the top editors of the Chronicle are dedicated to keeping the review section intact, the economic pressures facing the publishing industry are intense.

2008 will be remembered as a year of upheaval and consolidation. In the Bay Area, two prominent independent bookstores -- Cody's and Stacey's Books -- closed or announced their imminent closure. A number of publishers, including Random House. Macmillan, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt laid off staff. The latter company also announced that it would put a moratorium on acquiring new books for now. Book sales were lower this holiday season.

Still, McMurtire has high hopes for the Chronicle Review. He has already made some provocative changes, such as asking independent bookstores to recommend interesting books each week. He is making the review more timely as well, by including news about Bay Area book deals, release parties, and author events.

McMurtrie lives in Oakland with his wife and two-year old twins.

GW: Can you tell me a little about your background? How did you come to book reviewing? What is it you like about being a book critic?

JM: I've been a journalist for 20 years. My love of writing and newspapers
and France (my mother was French) led to my first job, at the
International Herald Tribune in Paris. (I was an editorial assistant,
though a more accurate title might have been sports-agate monkey). This
is my 10th year as an editor at the Chronicle. Before becoming the book
editor, I regularly edited book reviews as an editor in the features
section. I also wrote reviews as well as profiles of authors. And I've
done freelance editing for book publishers.

What I love about journalism is the ability it gives you to learn a
little bit about a lot of things - to be a generalist - and to try to
share that knowledge. Being a book editor is an especially satisfying
way to feed that curiosity. I can read up on any number of subjects -
history, politics, film, food, fiction from around the world - and
consider what's of value for readers. I also like the challenge of
finding the right people to review books. Part of the fun is trying new
approaches - as an example, I recently assigned a book about golf in
Ireland to a singer/songwriter who happens to be a golf fanatic.

In the end, if readers of the section come away feeling that they know a
bit more about the world, if it gets them talking about ideas, perhaps
feeling inspired, then I'm happy.

GW: You have made some recent changes to the book review, such as adding recommendations from local bookstores and putting in some book news. What were you trying to do with these changes? Can readers expect other changes in the future?

I want the section to be about more than just reviews. I'll be running
more essays, interviews with authors, and the like. I've included weekly
recommendations from independent bookstores because the people who work
at these stores have such a wealth of knowledge that can benefit us all.
Also, I'm a fan of indie bookstores - they're a vital part of any
community, and I believe in helping them. As for reporting book news, I
thought it was important to help raise awareness of the vibrant literary
scene in the Bay Area. Meantime, there's a lot that's happening in the
publishing world these days (not all of it good, unfortunately) that I
think readers would like to know about.

GW:How do you balance reviewing local writers, particularly emerging writers, with running reviews of nationally-known authors?

No easy answer to that one - I decide on a case-by-case basis. For
example, I recently made "Going to See the Elephant" the lead review in
the section not just because it's by a first-time local author, Rodes
Fishburne, but also because it's set in the city and full of local
color. And it's a fun read.

GW: How do you decide which books will be reviewed?

I strive for a good balance of fiction and nonfiction, a wide range of
subjects, and a variety of voices. Some books are easy assignments (of
course I'm going to assign the latest John Updike), others might not be
as obvious but, on a closer read, are surprisingly good ("Wildwood," to
name just one, by the late nature writer Roger Deakin).

Also, it's a big world out there, and, speaking for myself, I'd like to
read more by authors from beyond our shores.

GW:Many other newspapers have eliminated their stand-alone book review sections. What do you see as the future of the SF Chronicle book review?

JW: It is sad what's happening to book review sections across the country.
My bosses tell me that our section is an important part of the
newspaper, they understand its relevance to readers, so I remain
optimistic about the future. And I intend to do all I can to make the
section valuable, intelligent and engaging.

GW: The Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, the New York Times all have blogs about books. Will the Chronicle book review develop a web format?

JM: We've been discussing that. Watch this space, as they say.

GW: What are some of your favorite books?

JM: In no particular order:

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz


websterbrenda1 said...

I was so glad to read this and hear John's intent to broaden and deepen just when so many are shrinking and giving up. And I'm very grateful for the review of Vienna Triangle I got in this morning's Chronicle. Thank you, John for your creative placing.

James G. Leventhal said...

this is GREAT!! way to OWN the need to bring attention to Book Review sections in printed papers; Independent Book Sellers; etc...

...and, at 1st, I was like, "Who's GW?" Then I realized Ghost Word is GW. You're a BRAND now?....sweet!

nicely done.

Ilana said...

Nice interview! However, I would hold my breath until the spring when the Chron starts using its new printing press and revamps all the feature sections to see what the future holds for book reviews & coverage.

Harriet Scott Chessman said...

Thank you so much for interviewing John McMurtrie, Frances -- wonderful idea. Your questions open up important doors, and I'm so heartened by John's responses, especially his hopefulness about continuing and growing the Book Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Like most writers I know, I've been worried by its diminishment in (literal) size, and the way it's been folded in to the Insights section, yet I do applaud the changes John mentions, such as the adding of picks by local booksellers, who really do constitute the lifeblood of a genuine literary community.

writingbabe said...

I was lucky enough to find your blog today, and am so glad I did. Your coverage of books and writing is substantive and a pleasure to read. I'll be back again and again.

Congratulations on a fantastic site.

Mike said...

Good refreshing reading! Thank you John for your optimism, I love your Book Rewiews.