‘I remember the first words I read.’ – Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times Book Editor
Book Editor, Tampa Bay Times
Meal: Gouda Grouper
Interview by Michael Kilgore
Your favorite meal?
The Gouda Grouper was fabulous and so were the truffles. But as always at Ulele, the place itself is one of the best parts of the meal – the wonderful re-imagining of the historic building, the great art collection, the Tampa views.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I actually remember the first words I read. I learned to read at about age 3, obsessed with books even then. I clearly remember looking at a page with a photo of two white bears standing on an iceberg, looking at the caption and seeing the words "polar bears" take form before my eyes. Magic.
What books did you read as a child?
My absolute favorite (mine and millions of other girls) was "Little Women." I still have the tattered illustrated copy I got for Christmas when I was 7 or 8. Jo March has a lot to do with my grownup personality, I think. I read all the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys, all of Walter Farley's horse books – I was almost as horse-crazy as I was book-crazy. I started reading books for adults pretty early, though. I was reading Twain and Dickens in grade school, Faulkner and Hemingway at about age 11, and (I probably shouldn't admit this) I first read "Lolita" when I was 12.
Who are your top three favorite or most interesting fictional characters?
Tough to pick. One, certainly, is Raymond Chandler's iconic hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, my favorite flawed hero. Back in another life, I wrote an unfinished dissertation about the seven novels he's featured in. And these days, my dog is named Marlowe. Another favorite is a recurring character in Jim Harrison's fiction, Brown Dog. He's a kind of alter ego for Harrison, who has written five comic novellas about him over a quarter-century. Brown Dog is a middle-aged guy of Chippewa-Finnish heritage who's always broke and almost always cheerful about it, a picaresque character who gets into outlandish situations, mainly because of his big heart. Third, I'd have to pick Molly Bloom. In "Ulysses," Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are all about the mind; Molly is all about the body. Mysterious and endlessly fascinating, she's that eternal "yes.”
Do you consider yourself a reviewer or a critic? What’s the difference?
A reviewer, definitely. I've done critical writing, by which I mean academic criticism that analyzes and interprets a literary work. What I do for the Times is reviewing, which I think of as more descriptive than analytical, and as essentially a consumer service. In a piece of critical writing, you're talking to readers who have already read the book and want to understand it better. In a review, you're mainly helping readers to decide whether they want to buy (or check out) the book and read it in the first place.
Is there one review you’d like to take back in retrospect?
There were some reviews I wrote early in my career that were fairly harsh reviews of not very well known writers. These days I would probably choose not to write them. Now, if I write about an unknown or debut author, it's because I've found his or her work worthy of positive attention. I have no problem with reviewing a successful, well-known author harshly if I think a book isn't up to expectations, though.
With the Internet providing so many opinions on a variety of subjects, including books, has the role of a critic changed? If so, how?
Professional book critics are no longer the cultural gatekeepers we used to be; people have too many other options for finding out about books. But I think professional reviewing still has an important place in the conversation – and I think that the fact that conversation has grown to be so large and robust is exciting. I always love seeing people get passionate about books.
What book do you re-read most often?
In my job, re-reading is just a luxury I dream about. I get about 200 new books in the mail every week. It's like standing in front of a tsunami. I'm always so conscious of the onslaught of new books demanding my attention that I almost never re-read. That's my plan for retirement: re-reading. First on the list: Chandler.
What notable book have you never been able to finish?
Many of Tolstoy's novels. I can read them and admire their quality and technique, but they've just never engaged me emotionally, so I've given up on several of them more than once.
Do you have a favorite first line in literature?
It's the one everybody cites, but it's so damn good: the first paragraph, really, of Nabokov's "Lolita": "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. … " In that one masterful paragraph, he encapsulates the whole book, its seductive style, its narrative strategy.
Your most interesting interview?
Many to choose from — writers tend to be pretty interesting people. One was Jim Harrison, whom I first interviewed back in the 1990s, when I worked for a newspaper in Tucson. He winters in a tiny town called Patagonia, Ariz., and I spent a day with him. He drove me all around, to a neighbor's ranch, up in the mountains, telling stories all the while in that whiskey-filtered-through-gravel voice of his. He's such an enchanting storyteller in person that when he recounted attending a Native American ceremony where he saw a man turn into a bear, in that moment I absolutely believed it. Another was a long interview with Anne Rice in which she told me, among many other things, that as a child she never read novels, never finished one until she was in high school and still doesn't like to read them because they take too long: "I can write them faster than I can read them."
Did you see the recent, admittedly “biased,” Esquire magazine list of the 80 best novels?
I did. It has tons of great books on it, although it is – unsurprisingly, given that it's Esquire – heavy on 20th-21st century white, male authors. I find that best book lists are almost always interesting, and almost always wildly biased in one direction or another. They tend to reveal more about the list maker than they do about the books. I love to read them but do so with a giant grain of salt.