April 24, 2018

Q&A: The Book Babes

By Anne Garner, NYPL

Ellen Heltzel and Margo Hammond—aka the Book Babes—have made careers out of being the kind of women you dial en route to the library or bookstore to ask, “What should I read next?” It is the uncommon literature lover who offers consistently dependable answers but the even rarer reader who proves adept at finding the right book for the right moment. The Book Babes are just such readers. The proof is in their popular blog and their forthcoming (as in Nov. 10) Between the Covers.

How did Between the Covers evolve?
After several years of writing on the Internet about publishing and books—including a column recommending books for Good Housekeeping magazine online—we realized we didn’t just want to offer book suggestions; we also hoped to demonstrate, especially to women, how books relate to their lives. So we began to create lists of ten (including fiction and nonfiction) that address issues most women care about, from worrying about their looks to engaging with the world. Those lists form the core of the book.

Take the issue of facing middle age. Some of the books we recommend deal with a woman’s fear of losing her sexuality, especially in this era of so much divorce; others show women laughing at their wrinkles and celebrating a sense of newfound freedom. For each issue, we looked for books that come at these subjects from different directions.

In your introduction to Covers, you say your goal is to help women “connect the dots between literature and [their] life.” How does the book do that?
Freud said that everyone needs work and love. We cover both, especially love in all its variations. For many women, even career women, their greatest sense of purpose comes from raising their families and tending to friends and lovers. So our book covers careers and personal growth but really digs deep into the tangle of relationships, from making peace with your parents or your kids to figuring out what to look for in a man.

Both of you are widely read. Can you talk about how as children you decided what to read next? How is that different from how you read for pleasure now?
As a small-town Oregon girl with a hunger for reading, I cruised the library stacks with no mission other than to feed the impulse of the moment. I devoured Nancy Drew, horse books, Taylor Caldwell’s epic novels, Gone with the Wind (I read it four times). Except for happy accidents when I picked up Theodore Dreiser or F. Scott Fitzgerald, my reading was decidedly low-brow. After I became a critic, my choices became more deliberate. But that early experience informs the populist approach Margo and I bring to choosing books: If you pick what appeals to you, you’ll actually read it. This builds the vocabulary and reading level to take on more sophisticated reading. My kids wanted me to read them the Bernstain Bears series, not The Velveteen Rabbit. So I did.

Margo: When I was growing up in Kenosha, WI, we didn’t have any bookstores (there still are none there!). I lived at the Roosevelt Library near my house. Every summer, the library would have a gimmick to get kids to read. I remember getting stickers for every book I checked out and then read (we were on the honor system). I filled out pages of presidents’ faces and States of the Union. So back then, I was more interested in quantity, scooping up the whole Nancy Drew and Black Stallion series. Now, quality matters, but thanks to all that childhood reading, I find it in all sorts of books, from mysteries to biographies. Reading is a pleasure to me, because I formed the habit early.

In the book, you include lists geared toward different stages of life. Can you both name a book that helped you in a particular period of your life?
To name one that figures in the book: Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, in the early 1970s. I came out of college just as the women’s movement was gaining steam. Although it may seem self-evident now that women should do more than earn their “Mrs.” degree, it wasn’t so obvious then. In Surfacing, the main character’s circuitous route to self-discovery seemed to mirror my own. Atwood’s novels of that era didn’t describe the events of my life as much as they mirrored my self-doubt and the need to find work that mattered to me.

Margo: I’ll also cite a title included in our book: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, which we included in our list “10 To Save the Planet.” It’s easy to grow cynical about politics as we grow older, but Solnit’s book reminded me how important it is to continue to work for a better world no matter how dark the future appears. We never know what effect our efforts will have—even after we are gone.

Many of your lists feature books that may ease life problems or offer enlightenment. A few books on these lists are non-narrative nonfiction, but many are fiction or memoir. What can readers get from stories that they can’t get from straight nonfiction?
What do readers get from fiction and memoir? In a phrase, emotional resonance. (See Ellen’s response to question four.) Nonfiction can contain this, as well. Consider, for example, “There Is No Me Without You,” Melissa Fay Greene’s story of one woman’s struggle to help AIDS orphans in Africa, which interestingly enough has a first-person component that brings you closer to the author than the mind-boggling statistics and “big picture” element of her book. (In other words, she has appropriated elements of memoir.)

Fiction in particular lets the writer manipulate the truth in search of larger truths so that you can see more intimately how A led to B led to C. The Greeks were the pioneers, creating characters like Elektra and Oedipus who give dramatic resonance to human flaws that are more subtle in real life. That’s why the best novelists are so revered—they turn the ordinary dross of life into real gold. And, yes, women especially seem to respond to well-drawn fictional characters, whether it’s Jane Austen’s spirited heroines or modern-day ones like Alexander McCall Smith’s spunky detective Precious Ramotswe.

A recent article in New York magazine mourned the death of literary publishing. Your volume suggests that contemporary writing is very much alive and relevant to women’s lives. What do you see as the future of publishing?
It all depends on how you define literary publishing. And remember, it has long been thus: Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom came out the same year as Gone with the Wind, and guess which one had the bigger audience? But, sure, we have to keep a varied tradition alive. In our book, both literary and popular reading sit side by side. This is one way to reinforce reading proficiency, which in turn helps create an audience for the books that incorporate more sophisticated language, symbolism, and the like. Here’s what America needs: the literary equivalent of the slow-food movement, a campaign that says, yes, reading takes time, but it’s essential to your emotional and intellectual health. Lay off the taco chips!

In your preface, you encourage readers to “seek out the writers who teach or provoke or comfort [them], and ask [themselves] why they do.” Who are the writers who do this for you?
Some contemporary writers who have never let me down are Alice Munro, William Trevor, Marilynne Robinson, Wallace Stegner, and Jayne Anne Phillips. But let’s hear one for the Dead White Males: Right now my nighttime ritual is reading portions of Robert Alter’s new translation of the Psalms.

Margo: For me, every book is another chance to find a friend, someone to teach, provoke, or comfort me. Authors as diverse as Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth, and Fannie Flagg have done all three. They also have on occasion disappointed me. But isn’t that just like a friend?