Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Ron Charles

Ron Charles
The Washington Post
I have so much fun doing interviews. I get to know and learn about authors, agents, editors, publishers and reviewers. If you ask a few of my guests, you may hear stories of my wild ideas for marketing their work or ideas on everything from the author’s place in the e-book world to home remodeling. Genuine friendship has come from many an interview, for which I’m trulythankful.
Today you’ll read about an idea that popped into my head after an exchange of e-mails with Ron Charles. He is one of the most influential book reviewers in this country, and his video reviews have become one of my favorite stops on the internet.

Ron is a truly nice person. Like many authors, I wondered what it would be like to meet a book reviewer with the power to inspire readers to choose a book based on his views. When he accepted an invitation to be my guest on The Novel Road, he gave me a choice on how to be interviewed: in person or over the phone. Why I didn’t choose the phone I have no idea.  I live in New Mexico, so a quick trip to meet this thoroughly interesting man at The Washington Post would have been an adventure. Instead, a name popped into my head and a plan formed. Get Norb to do it!

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image courtesy of
So I sent off an e-mail to my friend Norb: “The restraining order doesn’t say I can’t send you an opportunity to speak to someone other than me. So would you mind driving to Washington D.C., meeting Ron Charles and interviewing him for me?” 
Not a day went by before I received two e-mails. The first was from Norb saying he’d love to meet with Ron. The second was from a very nice judge explaining what contact meant. I deleted the second and marked it as spam. Then I sent off a list of questions for Norb to pose to Ron over coffee on March 17, St Patrick’s Day. What follows is the result of their meeting over coffee and one cookie.

First a bit about my guest courtesy of Wikipedia

“Ron Charles (born 1962 in St. Louis, Missouri) is deputy editor and a weekly fiction critic of The Washington Post "Book World", the book review section of the Post. Before joining Book World in 2005, Ron Charles was the book review editor and staff critic for seven years at The Christian Science Monitor.”

“Charles won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award Nona Balakian Citation, for book reviews.

“Around August 2010, with his review of Franzen's Freedom, Charles began a series of video book reviews for the The Washington Post titled "The Totally Hip Video Book Review". In the series Charles hams it up with sight gags and intentionally bad jokes. It is a satirical look at current books in the news and the art of book reviewing.”

The following was written by bestselling author Norb Vonnegut:

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          Norb Vonnegut

“The last two St. Patrick’s Days have been something else. In 2010 I spent the day wandering through Amsterdam, trying to understand why there were so many cats with antennae tails prancing through the restaurants. That’s another story, but you can find my travel advisory and all the disturbing details here.

“This year, after a big lunch of corned beef and cabbage with no cats present in the District of Columbia, I had the good fortune to act as an Ambassador from the Novel Road and to interview Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Ron is a great guy and, I think, a really big thinker as you will see from his answers to the questions below.”
“Before going any further, I would like to thank Doug Morrison for putting us together. Ron and I spent 90 fascinating minutes together, and as a relatively new author I learned a great deal about publishing—specifically, the review part of the business.”
“Let me set the scene. We met in the Lobby of The Washington Post and walked down to a coffee shop on the corner. I bought a large coffee and offered to pay for Ron’s chocolate chip cookie, which the café heated for him and which looked pretty damn good. I offered to pay for the cookie, but Ron said, “No,” citing company policy.”
“I don’t expect you to find “who paid” to be especially interesting. But this detail is necessary to understand a few of Ron’s answers below. In addition, the following interview is not a transcript—Ron said, I said, Ron said, and so on. Rather, I’ve quoted some of his sound bites and described my reactions, both then and now.”
“Sometimes, the conversation sounds more clipped than it actually was because my notes focus on Ron’s big picture conclusions as opposed to our give and take. I hope you don’t mind...”
Ron Charles
Image courtesy of
The Washington Post
Norb: “How do you choose books to review?”
Ron: “You have to understand, we get 150 new books a day.”

Product Details
plugging of a
friend's book due out
Apri 28th, 2011
Norb: “Yikes!” That’s 54,750 books a year. If you stacked all the books on top of each other, they would tower 4,563 feet—almost a mile high. I’m using The Gods of Greenwich, about an inch thick, as my proxy for the size of each submission.
Ron: “It’s tough. The weight, the work, the labor of organizing it all.” He explained there are two major cuts. By the time Ron assigns books for his fellow critics to review, there are only about 80 left from the 4,500 that arrive every month. “Each Wednesday we come to a meeting and agree on four to five books to review.”

Norb Note: On St. Pat’s day, I was kicking myself for not bringing a calculator. Today, I can safely report The Washington Post reviews a stack of books every year less than twenty-two feet high. That’s a far cry from the earlier number, the 4,563 feet of books that show up in the mailroom.
Norb: “Is it uncomfortable for you to know your review can decide the fate of an author?”
Ron: “You don’t think about it. You can’t. All these people [authors] are really good. I try to attend to my constituencies, the readers. And in the case of fiction, most of them are women.”

Norb Note: I’m looking at Ron’s chocolate chip and wishing I had ordered one, too. The next question, I fear, was far from a golden moment in the history of investigative interviews.  
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Norb: “How’s the cookie?”
Ron: “As good as it looks.”

Norb: “Is there a book you’ve reviewed that’s left a mark on you?”
Ron:Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout. It’s gorgeous, about a minister who’s wife has died. It shook me.” After a short pause Ron added, “It’s emotionally exhausting to review books, to be hurtled around week after week. It can be stressful. Not that every book is a downer. You rollercoaster from one emotion to another—depending on where the author takes you.”

Product DetailsNorb Note: Okay, I took one for the team and read this question to Ron, exactly as Doug wrote it.
   Norb: “You are one of the rock stars among book critics in this country. Can Norb be one of your groupies? He paid me $1.83 in unmarked bills to do this interview. ”
   Ron: “No. I wouldn’t even let you buy my cookie. Company policy.”

Norb: “What’s the publishing industry look like five years from now? If I’m a publisher, what am I thinking?”
Ron: “I’d be worried.”

Norb Note: Apologies here. My notes are a little unclear, which at that point in the day had nothing to do with the St. Patrick’s festivities. We talked about the impact of e-books, Apple versus Amazon, and the fact that e-books have removed many barriers to getting published.

Norb: “How do new authors break out given the ever increasing supply?”
Ron: “I admit the increase in e-books feels like winner take all, more and more. Many of the same names are on the bestseller list, year in, year out. But at some point over the last twelve months, I read seven debut novels in a row that were terrific. It makes me optimistic that good things happen to good writers still.”
Product Details
Norb: “Give me the name of an author, living or dead, with whom you’d like to eat lunch. Dutch treat.”
Ron: “Mark Twain. Interesting that his autobiography is so hot today. He’s irresistible still.”
Norb: “I answered Dorothy Parker to that question. Sort of a similar answer.”
Ron: “There’s nothing better than quick wit.”

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Ann Hornaday
courtesy of
The Washington Post
Norb Note: I read the following question from Doug verbatim.

Norb: Unlike movies and their reviewers, readers pay closer attention to a book reviewer’s thoughts when choosing a book. Is this a valid statement and if so why?”

Ron: “No. When Ann Hornaday [movie critic for The Washington Post] reviews a movie, her readers learn what she thinks on a Friday morning. That night they’re all out at the movies. My readers may not pick up the books I review for eighteen months, not until the book comes out in paperback. It changes the experience with readers. I feel the panic that comes from fighting for their attention with breakfast, jobs, and television.”

Norb Note: It’s a eureka moment.
Product Details
Norb: “It seems to me that novelists are waging a similar battle.”
Ron: “Right, they’re battling for time, for share of mind.”
Norb: “Which authors do you want to release a new book as soon as possible?”
Ron: “Glen Duncan. He wrote The Last Werewolf. I confess that I have a real weakness for   highbrow gothic fiction.” Ron explained that Duncan had written great literary fiction before moving into the vampire genre.
  Norb: “What are your top ten favorite books of all time?
  Ron: “Let me think about that and send you an email.”
  Norb Note: Doug, that sounds like a future post all its own. What do you think?

   Norb: “How do you review self-help or dieting books.”
   Ron: “We don’t.”

Norb: “You must deal with a great number of book publicists. What will they do to get your attention for their clients?”
Ron: “Remember the cookie. I’m not plied or bribed very often.”
Norb: “Come on, though. Somebody’s got to try.” At this point, I regaled Ron with a few stories about the lengths stockbrokers go to get clients. Some skeevy stories from the world of finance.
   Ron: “Wow, nothing like that. West of Here is a book set in the fish canning industry. I received the novel in a crate, sort of like canned sardines. I’ll probably get tons of books in crates, but the truth is we’d review any big novel from Algonquin.”
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This is big enough
for me and my book...
image coutesy of

Norb Note: That was it. We wrapped up and said our goodbyes. Ron returned to his office and I headed out onto the streets of D.C., thinking there’s just nothing better than an interesting conversation.

Doug Note: I'd like to thank Ron Charles for doing this interview and Norb Vonnegut for driving like a mad man across New England to the Washington Post building for the interview. Now everyone should send Ron and Norb cookies... In a crate... C.O.D.