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:: Welcome to WordSmitten ::

Margo Hammond

An exclusive interview with a former book editor of
the St. Petersburg Times and co-founder of The Book Babes blog

WS: Before we get to questions on writing and publishing, first a question about the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading. The festival quickly achieved popularity during the first years and draws more than 20,000 participants each year. How did you decide to create the festival?
MH -- The Times Festival of Reading is now enjoying more than a decade of great authors and books. When I started this project, newspaper didn't sponsor book fairs or festivals. The Washington Post and the New York Times had author luncheons, and there were newspapers that were affiliated with festivals, but we were the first to actually put on our own event. I patterned it after the Miami book fair, a street fair that draws all economic levels.

WS: What type of individual does it attract--writers, students, readers?
MH--The festival attracts a high quality audience -- our core readers. It is filled with people who are open to ideas and who are not necessarily would-be writers as much as they are consummate readers. And they read newspapers. Nationally recognized authors who participate in this festival say they get a high caliber of questions from our festival audiences. The festival is especially popular with NPR (National Public Radio) listeners.

WS: How long had you been editing the book section?
MH--I had joined the St. Petersburg Times in the fall of 1990, applying for the job of book editor. The ad for a book editor was in Editor and Publisher and I'd always had a lot of respect for this paper.

WS: What was your position prior to book editor of the St. Petersburg Times?
MH--I was a travel writer and freelance writer in New York. I thought I'd be here for a few years to take a break from what I was doing--traveling. When I told my New York friends I applied for the job they told me I'd be back. I planned to take the job and stay for about three years. I've been here since 1990 [Editors note: Margo Hammond recently retired after more than sixteen years at the St. Petersburg Times and continues her work with the NBCC and The Book Babes.]

WS: Is there a book in your future, and if so fiction or non-fiction?
MH--Lots of book ideas go through my mind, but the best reason I have for not writing is in a book written by Marcel Benabou. The book talks about all the reasons people procrastinate, and the reasons they find not to write. Its title is, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.

WS: What are the books that you read (and read over again) that make you believe that writing is a worthwhile endeavor?
MH--I did not have the time to re-read because with my job, I finish one book and I'm on to the next. For a column, I did re-read the entire Rabbit series (WS Ed: John Updike's series on the life of a character named Rabbit--a series that includes Rabbit Redux and Rabbit at Rest) and found elements that I had not noticed before.

Updike had planted items in the stories that continued through out the series. For example, he wrote about a café that keeps changing hands and in each book it reflects the tenor of the times. Perhaps he did this just to amuse himself, but it shows what a master craftsman he is. He is such a master of detail that some say that he doesn't have depth, but that is misguided. He makes it look easy. An interesting comparison to Updike is Faulkner who never cared too much about detail and was more interested in the larger ideas of life. In one manuscript, Faulkner had a house that by the end had changed colors -- he hadn't bothered to keep track.

WS: What would you tell beginning writers?
MH--Tell new writers to write. Sometimes people miss the obvious. One of my friends wanted to write and she got fixated on where she should write. She fixed up her writing space, then she joined a writers' group, and she had to have all these conditions. All these beliefs about how to write and where to write. In order to write, just write. Books have been written on toilet paper in prisons. Just write. Get away from the trivia around writing.

WS: There are so many how-to books telling people the way to get published. Is there really one "true road' to getting published?
MH--It is a labyrinth. I do recommend getting an agent and one who understands your book. And take the emotions out of it, because once you have written the book, then the creative part is done and it's a business. As for the way it works, everybody's story of how they got published is different. I've never heard an identical story.

WS: What components of awards (short story, fiction, and non-fiction) and literary magazines do you believe are most helpful to beginning writers?
MH--For any new writer, I recommend that they somehow get into a publication. Even if they give you only one copy as payment for your story, get published. Then get paid. The reason you write is to get published. The reason you get published is to get paid. My mother, who recently passed away, was eighty-eight years old when she began to publish her work, turned down anyone who wanted to publish her work but was unwilling to pay her anything.

WS: How helpful are book fairs and festivals for authors?
MH--Festivals have become popular venues for authors to bring their books, they tell me, because authors like to meet other authors. That is the ingredient missing from individual book signings. The process of writing is such an isolating experience. Authors also like the connection with the audience that a book fair gives them. There is a bond that is created when the author is on stage and talking with his or her readers, his or her audience. It also is exciting for the people to meet the author of a book they have loved.

WS: For beginning writers who want to start out in the freelance field, what would they expect to get paid for book reviews?
MH--It varies. The St. Petersburg Times typically pays $100.00 per review. Smaller papers pay $30.00 for a book review. The New York Times pays $250.00 for a book review, but of course, they'll pay more for someone who is an established and well-recognized author. Magazines generally pay $1.00 a word and up for longer, assigned feature articles.

WS: Thank you, Margo, and we enjoyed seeing you at our June 2007 WordSmitten Writers Workshop.




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