The Bookseller Chronicles: Village Books

Between Seattle and the Canadian border, is a small town called Bellingham, a town which wears more than one hat: home of Western Washington University, fishing boats, tourists, and a deep community. In that town is a an old bookstore with rambling aisles and passionate booksellers. Village Books.

Village Books is a cornerstone of the local community, loved by all of its elements. Most people in town have a memory of it, and many have worked there. They put out a quarterly paper with all the latest book news, host reading events, and partner with the local community college to host writing classes.

I recently sat down with cofounder Chuck Robinson to learn more about the store.

[Judy Oldfield] Tell me briefly, your background with the store.

[Chuck Robinson] My wife and I founded the store in 1980. June of 1980. So we just celebrated our 35th anniversary this last year.

[JO] Congratulations.

[CR] Thank you. We’d both been in education . . . back in Illinois. We took what was essentially a one-year leave of absence, with the original intent to go back to our jobs back there, because we both liked what we were doing. But by the time we went through the process of getting ready for being away a year—we bought an older motor home and remodeled it, and sold most of what we owned, it was a real values clarification for us. We started asking ourselves questions like, well, do we really want to live here? We sold a house so we had a chunk of money. We had our retirement from teaching, even though we hadn’t been doing it for that long (we were 10 years in education at that point). So we thought maybe we’d strike out and do something different.

In the course of our travels, we discovered the Northwest. We loved it, and decided that we’d settle somewhere out between Santa Rosa California, I think was the farthest south, and up to the border. We had a list of criteria, and [Bellingham] met most of it. The size of the town, the fact that it had to have a college or university, had to be a place—by the time we decided we were going to have a bookstore (that came pretty early in the process)—a bookstore could be successful. I think we moved here in February of 1980 and opened the store in June. And it’s been a long ride since there.

[JO] Being in a college town, and a bit of a tourist place too, do you see a lot of seasonal changes around the store?

[CR] Well, you know it’s interesting that being in a college town, students at the college have never been a huge part of our business. I think because that’s probably in part because aside from the things that they have to read for class, I don’t think students are buying lots and lots of books. They do hang out at bookstores and we get students, there’s no doubt about it, but we are probably more influenced by the faculty and staff at the university. So the seasonality of that is summers, we probably lose some of those people, but that’s when we pick up the tourists.

[JO] Do you stock differently, based on that? Because university faculty is important.

[CR] The faculty at the university doesn’t seem to be looking here for academic sorts of things as much as they are for things everyone else here in town are. It’s a pretty highly educated town. A number of things have happened here. Back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s this was kind of the bounceback town from the border. There were a lot of people who weren’t happy with the Vietnam War that ended up in Bellingham. The other piece that has happened is that there are a lot of people who came here for school and stayed for whatever reason, and aren’t necessarily doing what they went to school for. A lot of the fishermen who fish in Alaska went to college up here. The first thought many people would have is that fishermen were blue-collar workers so to speak, and I guess it’s a blue-collar job, but they are very highly paid in a good fishing year and they stock up on books before they go to fish. And it’s things everybody else would read.

Our stock in trade, the biggest-selling section of our store, is fiction. I would hesitate to call it literary fiction but I would describe it as good writing. It’s everything from people who are good storytellers to the very best writers in the world. That’s probably the biggest influence the college has had. Who stays. The faculty that’s here.

[JO] Are there certain books you find yourself recommending over and over again?

[CR] Oh sure. I’ve often said that no one should live in the Northwest without having read the book The Good Rain by Timothy Egan. It’s so descriptive of place, for one thing. He goes back and looks at Winthrop’s travels through the Northwest. And Winthrop asks the question in his book, “Will the landscape shape the people or will the people shape the landscape?” So Tim goes back about 100 years later to do sort or the same circuit, trying to answer that question, what happened? Did the landscape shape the people or did the people shape the landscape, and you get some of both. But it’s just a beautifully written book.

I’m a big fan of Ivan Doig. I think This House of Sky was one of the greatest memoirs ever written. So I find myself repeatedly recommending those sorts of things.

[JO] What’s on your to-be-read list?

[CR] Right now I’m reading a book called Persian Fire, which is about Iran and it’s long, long history.

I just recently finished one of Jo Nesbo’s novels that’s not out yet, an Advanced Reading Copy.

[JO] What keeps you coming back to the store every day, after more than three decades?

[CR] The stairway? Oh, I love the interaction with the people. I love the challenge of the business aspect of it. I don’t come from business, but I think I have a real entrepreneurial edge about me. I like some of the challenges of it.

We have a very talented group of people here who are part of our leadership team, who work with the two of us, and who are likely to be—we hope, if everything works out—to be the continuation of the ownership of the business.

[JO] Do you have any crazy stories that you’d like to share?

[CR] Well, let’s see. Tom Robbins has appeared for every book of his since we opened the store. He did do one appearance with backup singers. He wrote about it in a book called My Bookstore. Different authors wrote about their favorite bookstore, and Tom wrote about our store, about the time he came and brought his backup singers. Which was a fun thing.

One of the most surprising things for us has been the authors we’ve met over the years. When we got into the business, we had no notion that we would meet, and in some cases become pretty good friends with people who were famous. Tom Robbins is a friend; Ivan Doig was a friend. . . . And then in my capacity working with the booksellers association, I’ve met four U.S. presidents, Margaret Thatcher, a whole bunch of people. Which has been surprising and exciting.

I remember reading in the paper one time someone asked Tom Hanks, “You know, we always hear the negative side of celebrity. In that you go out to dinner and get bothered by everybody. But there must be a positive side.” And Tom Hanks said, “Yes, I’ve met two presidents.” I read that and I thought, “Wow, I’ve met four presidents and I don’t get bothered by anyone at dinner besides my friends!”

[JO] Bill Clinton was just at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

[CR] Yeah, I saw Tracy’s post that he was in there. The interesting thing is that should either of the leading Democratic nominees be the next president, I’ve met both of them too.

[JO] As a former teacher, are there certain books that you’d recommend for parents whose kid is a reluctant reader?

[CR] If you’re particularly talking about teenage boys, they’ve always been kind of that difficult [age group] in that boys find a lot of distractions. It’s not so cool to read, that sort of thing. There are some books that are often thought of as adult books that I think teen guys could get into. One fairly recent one is The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s book. Because, you know, not only does it have that sort of sports element to it and something that I think grabs you in the eyes. I mean, as you are reading towards the end, you’re going “They’re gonna lose! They’re gonna lose!” and you know damn well they don’t lose, but it’s written in such a way that it pulls you along.

I don’t think that young kids get introduced to some [books] like White Fang, Call of the Wild, that I think they would find pretty enticing.

Some of the Jon Krakauer books, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air—either one—those true adventure [stories] grab the imagination.

There are reluctant teenaged girls who aren’t reading, but that area seems to be covered a whole lot better.


Know a favorite independent bookstore you want us to feature? Let us know in the comments or tweet us at @librofm

Audiophile Files: Beth Fish Reads

Book bloggers are the core base of online book communities. They’re often the first to tweet book news, the brains behind book memes, and of course, the first to review new releases. I called up Candace of Beth Fish Reads, a blog covering both books and audiobooks to talk about blogging and her favorite types of books.

[Judy T. Oldfield] What got you into book-blogging?

[Beth Fish Reads] Most obviously, a love of books. I am a freelance book editor by trade, and I was interested in freelance reviewing. I felt like I should have a platform to practice on first. I had no idea when I started that there was a whole book-blogging community and that I would make friends.

[JO] How did you land on “Beth Fish Reads”?

[BFR] Well, first of all because I’m an editor, and my clients are all publishing companies, I wanted to be able to review books and have a reliable voice. I asked my editing friends about how they handle freelance reviews when they’re also an editor. A lot of them said they use a pen name. Even though I know that I would never review a book I worked on, and I know as a freelancer that whatever I say about a book (even if that publishing company is a client) has no effect on my own income or career, I wanted to create some kind of barrier between me as an editor and me as a reviewer. Because I didn’t want anyone to question the integrity of my reviews.

So that’s why I picked a different name to begin with. But Beth is my middle name and the fish comes from the fact that my editing business is called The Word Angler. So I just carried the fish theme along.

[JO] And because you are a professional editor do you think that you have a more critical eye than the average reader?

[BFR] I probably have a more critical eye to the language. Maybe plot, structure, and things like that. But I’m not that experienced in lit crit, so I don’t feel like I have a more in-depth insight than someone who has studied literature for a living. I do sometimes review books based on some things that bother me in terms of editing, which is probably unfair to the authors, but I can only bring my own experience to my reviews.

[JO] You explore theme a lot in your book reviews.

[BFR] I do like to explore theme when I read. I think of books in terms of theme. Like, oh, that’s a Paris book, or that’s an Africa book, that’s a book that’s a family saga, that’s a book about friendship.

I like books that explore how a person’s life can change in a moment. You know, you think you’re living your life one way and then through an accident or something maybe totally out of your control your life completely changes. And I like that theme for some reason. People, characters, forced into new situations. Maybe that’s also why I like dystopian fiction. How would you cope when the world suddenly changes?

[JO] Yeah.

[BFR] Those are things that I like a lot. I don’t read a lot of women’s fiction, which are about relationships and friendships, although I do enjoy them. I like a little more down-to-earth conflict.

[JO] And character development!

[BFR] Yes, I’m very much a character-driven reader. Although, also, as I said, I’m very attracted by setting. I’ll read a book just because it’s set in Africa, or Scotland, or a place I used to live.

But it’s interesting. A lot of people will separate their bookshelves by fiction or nonfiction or publication date but I have mine separated by theme.

[JO] You review a lot of audiobooks on your site, which must be very different because you spend so much time editing words on the page. Must be a little bit of a relief to listen to audiobooks. What do you look for in an audiobook?

[BFR] I’ve been listening to audiobooks since the 80s. I’m a big audiobook fan for just those reasons that you mentioned. I look for the very same things I look for in a print book in terms of picking a book. So you know, if I’m in the mood for a mystery or dystopian or a biography. So that’s my first step in an audiobook. The story itself. And then I listen, if they’re available . . . I listen to samples to make sure that the narrator, in my mind, fits the story or my own taste. Not every performer has a voice I would like to listen to for eight hours or thirty hours. So it’s a two-step process. I go story first, and then narrator second.

[JO] Do you ever reread or relisten to books?

[BFR] Yes, but not very many. I read and/or listen to the entire Hobbit and Lord of the Rings about every five years. And I have both read and listened to the Outlander series more than once. But generally no, I’m not a huge rereader. Not as a habit. I don’t reread or relisten.

[JO] How, besides just blogging, do you participate in the book blogger community?

[BFR] Well, I have been involved over the years in various things. You know, the book-blogging community has many things. For instance, there’s an audiobook week in June, which is audiobooks month. I’ve participated in some of those activities. There’s the readathons [where people read for 24 hours], in which I have participated in the past. There are on-going memes, weekly events, and I’m an active participator in some of those. There are other social media, like Twitter and Instagram, and I’m active on both of those.

I’ve been blogging since 2008 and I think that participation comes in waves, where you have more time and enthusiasm—and I see this in other people as well—and then you take a step back and have more private time. So, I think, currently, I’m in a more pulling-away stage than I have been in the past. But I still talk about books. I can’t stop talking about books, whether it’s on Twitter or on my blog.

[JO] When I emailed you I said we wanted to interview you because we wanted to interview bloggers. We’ve interviewed some writers, and some narrators, some booksellers, and an educator, and we really wanted some people who are book enthusiasts, book reviewers, bloggers to join our conversation. So if you could pick someone for us to interview next, who would you suggest?

[BFR] So, anybody who’s involved in the audiobook world in some way?

[JO] Yup.

[BFR] Hmm, that’s a good question. You know what, have you interviewed someone who is a producer?

[JO] No, we’ve not interviewed a producer!

[BFR] That, I think would be fascinating. That is something that I wish I knew more about, is the, how the producer, what they do to prepare the performer, how do they pick a book, I don’t know anything about that aspect of audiobooks at all.

That would be my suggestion.


You can often find Candace tweeting about her latest book haul. Follow her and don’t be shy to shoot her a bookish question.

The Bookseller Chronicles: Third Place Books

There are two Third Place Books locations. The original sits in the middle of a large strip mall in the tiny suburb of Lake Forest Park just outside of Seattle. The second is a part of the Ravenna neighborhood in Seattle proper. Both bookstores strive to bring a unique experience to their customers, acting as a social gathering space as well as bookstores.

Earlier this week I sat down with Erin Ball at the Lake Forest Park location. We found a table in the The Commons, a gathering space attached to the bookstore. Around us people studied, read books, hung out, and drank coffee from the restaurant. The din was minimal, and we were able to have a great conversation among the crowd.

Erin has worked at both stores off and on since 2008, before, during, and after attending law school. She recently became the assistant manager at the Lake Forest Park location. When I asked her if this meant she has decided that bookselling is a better choice than pursuing law, she laughs and says, “at least for now.”

[Judy Oldfield] Could you tell me in your own words the philosophy behind the “Third Place” in Third Place Books?

[Erin Ball] The philosophy is that you need three places in life. You need 1. your home, 2. your work, and 3. your community space. And that’s what Third Place Books tries to do with The Commons and the restaurant. It’s a place for people to gather, to have meetings, to study, that sort of thing. The bookstore is the centerpiece. They tried to replicate that at the Ravenna location, just on a smaller scale.

[JO] What does the Third Place mean for you personally? This is both a place where you work and a community space. Do those lines blur for you?

[EB] It does. Especially when I was at the Ravenna store, because there’s a pub in the Ravenna store. A lot of my friends would come visit there. After work we’d meet, and that would become more of a community space for me. It really does blur the lines. It’s hard to remember that you’re at work sometimes.

[JO] So it blurs it in a good way then.

[EB] In a good way, yeah.

[JO] Do you find there’s a difference between the locations? The Ravenna location is urban, it’s very close to the University of Washington. This one, the Lake Forest Park store, is a little farther out. It’s still very close to Seattle, but it’s more suburban. It’s in a strip mall.

[EB] Yeah, it’s a totally different feeling. This store feels a lot more like a community center, because Lake Forest Park is so small and this is the town center. People gravitate here. It happens during windstorms when the power is out, people come here. When it’s hot, people come here. And Ravenna doesn’t have quite the same feel. We still have a lot of customers who come in multiple times a week. But it’s less of a sit-down gathering place.

[JO] Is the tenor of each store different then? Is the clientele and the books that they’re buying any different?

[EB] It’s strikingly different. Here at Lake Forest Park it’s a little more conservative. Especially politically. In Ravenna there are a lot of young families and a lot more experimental fiction. It’s really interesting to see how how much of one particular title each store will sell. It’s crazy.

[JO] And you do a lot of book events here. You had Jimmy Carter come.

[EB] Yes, we did. That was very exciting. It was one of our biggest events. A thousand people went through the signing line. It was really fun, actually. We closed the store and it was really great.

[JO] What keeps you motivated to come in every day, year in and year out?

[EB] I find bookstores to be incredibly rewarding. Especially independent bookstores. Especially bookstores that the community revolves around. I think they’re experiencing a resurgence, which is great. . . . Books are my passion.

[JO] What books do you find yourself recommending over and over?

[EB] What I recommend most is probably a book called Stoner by John Williams. It’s not what it sounds like. It’s about a man named William Stoner. He’s born into farming in the early 1900’s but he ends up going to college and studying literature. It’s really just a quiet novel about his life. It’s so well done, and so perfectly paced and it’s sad and not sad and just really beautiful. And I feel like it appeals to so many people.

[JO] I find that a lot of booksellers carve out their niche in the bookstore that they work in. Do you have a special part of the bookstore that you’re really proud of?

[EB] Well I run the blog. But what I’ve started more recently is the Grown-Up Storytime that we have at the Ravenna store. I think it’s my favorite thing that I do. It’s the third monday of every month. They meet at seven in the pub in a secret room. We drink and read outloud. It’s mostly me reading. It’s gotten a really nice core following and I really enjoy it.

[JO] So you’re reading short stories—published works, right?

[EB] Yeah, published works. It’s not a writing circle. Usually I’ll do a short story, an article, and maybe a piece from the Internet.

[JO] What else is important to you, as a bookseller?

[EB] Books about women and by women. They should be read more. Especially by men.

When I started here a lot of the guys just didn’t read women and that was startling. Like some guys had never read Jane Austen.

[JO] And that’s crazy! People don’t realize that Jane Austen is satire. So it’s not the happy story of a marriage or anything like that. Yeah, they have a happy ending, but I almost feel like those are just tacked on.

[EB] To keep your interest, I guess.

[JO] Yeah. I’ve reviewed Bad Feminist and Everything I Never Told You, and I interviewed Dolen Perkins-Valdez for Libro’s blog. Because those were the books I was excited about and wanted other people to be excited about them.

[EB] There’s a website I get a lot of my reading lists from, FlavorWire. And they do pretty good lists. But there was another one I was looking at about the 50 coolest authors and there were two women on there. Two.

[JO] BookRiot’s pretty good.

[EB]. Yeah.

[JO] What’s on your TBR list?

[EB] Gosh. There’s a Claire Vaye Watkins book (she wrote a book of short stories called Battleborn a couple years ago). She has a new novel coming out called Gold Fame Citrus, which I’m really excited about.

[JO] Yeah, I want to read that too.

[EB] Yeah, I have the advanced review copy, I just haven’t gotten to it. The new Patti Smith book, because Just Kids was amazing.

[JO] I saw her at Seattle Arts & Lectures when she was promoting that one. And it was fantastic.

[EB] She’s coming again. And I’d love to go. She’s great.


What’s your favorite indie bookstore? Let us know!

Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Genres, Complex Characters, and Healing Our Wounds

Dolen Perkins-Valdez follows the rabbit hole of historical footnotes, adds robust, nuanced characters,  rhythmic dialogue, and intricate subtexts, and produces some of the best historical fiction around.

The inspiration for her first book, Wench, came one day when she discovered a reference to Tawawa House, in Ohio, where white slave-owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses in the 1850s.

Her second book, Balm, takes place in Chicago shortly after the end of the Civil War, and follows the stories Hemp, who has just been freed from slavery, Madge, a black woman who grew up free and has the gift of healing, Sadie, a War Widow who’s creating a new life for herself as a medium, and Michael, a German-American doctor mourning the loss of his brother.

Dolen took the time to speak to me about both books over the phone, while she was visiting her home state of Tennessee.


[Judy Oldfield]: There’s tons of people writing historical fiction, but you seem to focus on details that other people might brush over. What draws you to your topics?

[Dolen Perkins-Valdez]: It’s a case-by-case thing. The thing that drew me to Wench is different than what drew me to Balm. With Wench I was really drawn to this place in Ohio that no one was really talking about and not just that place, but not talking about those kinds of places, and they weren’t having those kinds of conversations, which had to do with the psychological trauma of slavery and the physical abuse of women.  So I was really drawn to figuring out for myself what it was like for those women who were staying in that place.

For Balm, I was much more attracted to a broader conversation about how people were putting their lives together after the Civil War. I was also very intrigued by the continued, imagined hold of the Civil War over Americans and what that war continues to mean for us as a country.

[JO]: Despite taking place in the past, your themes are extremely relevant today. Do you intentionally put in a lot of parallels or do they naturally come about when you’re writing about race or gender in the past?

[DPV]: I think they naturally come about. I think any historian or aficionado of history or historical fiction writer believes there are clear connections between the past and the present and that’s why we’re captivated by the past. When I’m writing, I’m really trying to stay in that particular moment. I’m not trying to draw contemporary parallels because the characters wouldn’t have been able to draw those. And I think that my initial attraction in the first place is that these are questions that are still important now.

My hope is that by reading Balm we can reflect upon that moment and its connection to current day controversy, such as the continued presence of the Confederate flag on state ground. The flag continues to be present on dozens of state capitals and not just Charleston, South Carolina. There are monuments to Confederate generals all over the country. I think the country needs to think about this history and continue to contemplate what it means for us as a nation. I hope that this book is kind of a healing space for people as we think these things through.

[JO]: There’s so much nuance and complexity in your characters. There are times when the audience loves, hates, and forgives a character. How do you strike that balance between lovable and very flawed people?

[DPV]: The very first thing any author has to do is to love their characters. I love all my characters. I have a particular fondness for them even with those characters that I struggle to understand. In Wench, the character that I most struggled to understand was Drayle [a white slave-owner] and even though I had a difficult time understanding him, I tried to paint him with a compassionate brush stroke. Valerie Martin, the author of the book Property among others, wrote a blurb for Balm that said I “look to the past with a compassionate eye”. I think that’s what I try to do with my characters, to have compassion for them even when they’re really wrong. That’s the key for people who are writing about unlikeable characters.

[JO]: The New York Times recently took some heat for using the term “slave mistresses” but the description for Wench uses basically the same term, “enslaved mistresses”. How do you feel about using that term or is there a different term that you’d like your characters in Wench and the people that this really happened to described as?

[DPV]: The word “slave” is a very inadequate word to describe people, so scholars tend to prefer the term “enslaved people.” The word “slave” defines a person whereas “enslaved” defines a condition.

But the importance of The New York Times’s acknowledgement of that problematic phrase was that the history of rape of black women has largely gone unrecognized in this country. What makes these terms even more difficult is the lack of acknowledgement. If we had more direct, truthful acknowledgement of what happened (which is a very terrible history but it is our history as a country) I think there would be less anxiety around how we term it.

But it’s very difficult and my editor and I struggled with how we would phrase it when I published Wench. I think there are some people who maybe read the front jacket and thought well they weren’t mistresses they were raped. I understood that sentiment but I think after they read the book and understood that the title of the book, Wench, actually is a good connotation of the kind of sexualization that black women underwent at the time.

[JO]: Let’s talk about some of the mechanics of writing. I love your dialogue. You don’t use a lot of apostrophes, you’re not dropping the ‘g’ at the end of an ‘ing’ word, but you focus really on the rhythm of speech and it’s one of the things that translates so well into audiobooks. How were you able to capture historical dialects so well?

[DPV]: If I were to try to capture the dialect in its absolute authenticity, it would probably be unreadable for the contemporary reader. I try to paint a sound. But I did just try and capture the flow, the rhythm, the sound of how maybe my grandparents talked. My grandfather was born in 1904 and my grandmother in 1909 and I remember how they sounded. I tried to use that as my guide.

There’s a phrase in Balm when Madge asks her mother about using a Hoodoo trick on the soldiers that violate her house. Madge says, “I thought you didn’t cast those kinds of tricks on people.” Her mother answers, “don’t ain’t can’t.” Once you get into a rhythm you can hear what your characters are saying. But it is a contemporary representation of the speech. It’s my own interpretation and isn’t an authentic characterization.

[JO]: In Balm, there’s all this talk about Hoodoo, root medicine, root doctors, and mediums. There’s a bit of the fantastic about it. It’s a little magical, gothic, yet it’s classified as historical fiction. Where do you stand on genre classification?

[DPV]: I have a lot of MFA students who are huge fans of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. They’re really torn because they’re in these MFA programs and they want to write what they believe is literary fiction but their hearts are with these genre writers. I think those classifications are beginning to fail us because the genre writers are so good. That line between literary and genre is blurring and I’m glad. I grew up in the 70s and 80s watching I Dream of Genie and Bewitched and reading Stephen King, so I am not really concerned about classification.

I do think there are still some readers out there that might come to Balm and want it to be one thing or the other. But I’m not interested in that divide. I just try to write where my heart is.

I researched every plant that’s mentioned in Balm and everything that they do is actually in the realm of the real; those are things that people actually did, those are actual healing properties of those plants.

But then it came to me that Madge had an extra gift and that drew her to Sadie. Early on someone was talking about the mediums who were very popular during and after the Civil War (these were women who said they communicated with the dead) and said, “Well you know those mediums are false right?” And I said, “Well how do you know they were false?” Maybe some were and maybe some weren’t but it was just really important for the book to take a stand on that and not be ambiguous. I decided that Sadie would be a genuine medium. If I was thinking of those divides I would have been creatively hampered.


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Amanda Palmer on Recording Her Audiobook, the Weird Places She Writes, and Fear

If you already follow Amanda Palmer, author of The Art of Asking, on Twitter, then you probably know that lately she’s been busy grieving, battling Lyme Disease, recording with her father, and preparing to have her first baby with her husband Neil Gaiman. So we were incredibly pleased that she took time out from her nonstop, go-go-go life, to answer a few questions for us via email.


[Judy Oldfield] My understanding of the way audiobooks are made is that narrators—even when it’s the author narrating their own work—are given a script that they can’t stray from. It’s hard for many authors. Was it hard for you?

[AP] No, it wasn’t hard. It was actually really helpful to be in the recording studio at that exact moment. I was in New York for three straight days of recording and the book itself was in final editing stages, which meant that I was sitting there with a pencil, changing lines, scratching out repetitive words, saying things like, “Wait . . . that doesn’t actually makes sense, does it?” And I’d stop and ask the audio engineers, “Does that makes sense?” And they acted as editors along with me.

So in a sense, I was still finishing up the script, and lucky for me. Because reading aloud brings new problems into light that silent reading just doesn’t highlight. And it also really solidified my own personal relationship with the book, to just sit there for three days and read the whole thing, in front of an audience, even if the audience was just audio engineers and a rep from the publisher. It was like doing a live performance and seeing how the emotional arcs actually hit me, and hit the people listening. Truth be told, there were two or three times I looked out the studio into the control room and made sure they were crying . . . or at least close to crying. I choked up at least three times.

[JO] In The Art of Asking, you wrote about needing a lot of privacy in order to create. What’s the most unusual place you’ve written something (be it blog posts, your book, or music)?

[AP] Ha. Well—I’ve written in a lot of strange places, especially since getting a phone and being able to leave myself notes and voice memos anytime. Bathrooms everywhere. Friends’ homes. Subways. Closets at parties. One of my favorite birth-spots for a full song was in a keg room of a nightclub in Portland, OR, where I wrote “Astronaut”. I held a gun to my head that night because the guy I was writing it about was in the audience for one night and one night only. And so I just did it. An immediate audience has often been my mother of invention.

[JO] People have very strong opinions on you and your work. I have a friend who says that listening to your former band The Dresden Dolls got her through her divorce. But I’ve also read critics who’ve dismissed you for anything from your appearance to your mistakes (real or perceived). Any idea why you provoke such strong responses from people?

[AP] Sure. I think people with strong emotions elicit strong emotions. It used to bother me more, but I’ve come to realize that it’s just part of the game of life. It’s especially true when you’re a woman, and the more of the world I see, the more I see people being fearful of women who live out loud, mistakes or no. And I figure my job is just to get on with it, and not to cower, and not to try to please people.

[JO] Your TED Talk has 7 million views. Your book, The Art of Asking, is a bestseller. What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you because of the talk or the book?

[AP] The most surprising? Honestly the most surprising thing is when I’m walking down the street in New York and a super bad-ass looking hoodlum-esque teenager passes me on the street, takes his headphones off, and says, “Wait, are you that TED girl? I just saw your TED talk and I loved it. That asking shit is dope.” That’s happened multiple times. And I’m always astoundingly happy.

[JO] You’ve recently gone back to crowdfunding, though in a newer, more sustainable way. How has Patreon helped you as an artist?

It’s liberated me. There’s 5,500 people currently entrusting me with their credit cards basically saying, “Go ahead and make art, and charge as needed, forever,” which feels like a massive relief and responsibility at the same time. It’s like I got access, suddenly, to a magic highway spur that bypasses the entirety of the mass media, the music industry, and the entire establishment.

But there are moments when it just feels surreal to be so far off the grid, with absolutely nobody in the “real world” paying attention to the madness that is going on outside the city.

But then again, that’s the modern world. There’s always so much going on nowadays that you don’t know about. Sometimes it feels like me and my fans live in a cave, and I worry that we need more air.

[JO] Libro.fm is a new company. We’re the independent bookstore for digital audiobooks. As a writer, an entrepreneur, and an advocate of independent bookstores, what advice do you have for us?

[AP] Don’t let Amazon and Audible get you down.

[JO] What challenges or fears are you facing right now? What are you doing to overcome them?

Oh dear lord . . . nice timing. I’m eight months pregnant. I have NO IDEA what is about to happen to me, I feel like I’m about to fall of an existential cliff, and I’m just bracing myself for an unknown reality over which I will have little control. And what am I doing to overcome them? Nothing, really, except trying to put every piece of zen wisdom I’ve ever lean red into practice. There is only now, now and now. And now. Whatever happens: birth, death, change, catastrophe . . . it will still be now, and it will still be fine. There is never ever any space for regret or fear. It’s poison.


The Art of Asking is our Book of the Month. Use the code WeLoveAmanda at check out to get 25%.

Jess Walter on Podcasts, Audiobooks, and Beautiful Ruins

Earlier this month I was passing through Spokane, WA, the home of Beautiful Ruins author Jess Walter. Walter and I sat down and talked about his podcast with his friend and fellow author Sherman Alexie, Beautiful Ruins, and how he’d feel if someone made him into a character in their novel.

[Judy Oldfield]: Let’s talk about your podcast with Sherman Alexie, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. How did you decide to get into this new medium?

[Jess Walter]: The people asking for guests on Minnesota Public Radio asked Sherman if he’d be interested and he said, “I’d do it with my friend Jess”. It’s really haphazard and could fall apart at any time. We both like the tentative nature of it. One bad mood and either of us could kill it but we have so much fun. The thing we like the most is the live shows. We can feed off the energy of the crowd.

[JO]: Your friendship with Sherman goes back a really long way and that’s probably why the podcast feels so natural.

[JW]: We’ve known each other for 27-28 years and have developed a really close friendship over basketball and parenthood and writing and being from the place we’re from, where there aren’t a whole lot of writers. We can compare notes on things. It’s been great to have that friendship and then be able to share it with people. Because we do have a great time together, sometimes we laugh so hard we would think, “It’s a shame nobody gets to see this”.

[JO]: Do you feel like you’ve influenced each other’s writing?

[JW]: I can’t answer for him, but he’s definitely influenced mine. I think certainly in subtle ways. We both have very strong ideas about voice and form. Everything you read influences you. With friends sometimes its more, “I hope so and so likes this story” or “I hope Jess likes this novel”. So I think we influence each other more as friends than as literary influences.

[JO]: You’ve both spoken on your podcasts about what respect and love you have for each other as writers, which is sort of unique in the world of writing where you’re always looking at people a little sideways.

[JW]: One of the things I dislike about publishing now is that everyone has this idea that it’s a careerist thing. The, “I‘ve got to have this many followers and do this many things”. And it doesn’t take long before some writers begin to believe that someone else’s success affects them in some way. I have very little patience for that. If you’ve written a great book, you’ve written a great book. For me the entire enterprise ends there. It doesn’t matter how you promote it, it doesn’t matter if it was a bestseller, or won awards, the thing that you’ve created is what you get excited about and that’s what I’ve always loved about my conversations with Sherman. We talk about the thing itself. We don’t usually talk about the noise around it.

[JO]: Art is about more than your Twitter followers.

[JW]: Oh yeah, and there’s something about the way we measure everything, how we quantify everything that is, by nature, bad for art. And I think with books especially.

[JO]: How about audiobooks? That’s a new format.

[JW]: Or is it the oldest format? I mean when you think of The Iliad and The Odyssey writing comes from this oral form. I love to read my work aloud. I love to have readings. So to have a great audiobook come out of a piece of work, to me, is the most traditional form in some ways.

[JO]: Right. You get this great experience, but it’s not off the cuff—it’s still edited and finalized. I just saw this study that said that writing and speaking come from different parts of the brain, which makes sense to me, because I’m a far better writer than I am a speaker.

[JW]: But I think they’re linked in some way. A writer is always trying to find his voice, her voice. And my writing process is so tied into reading aloud; at the end of every day I read aloud what I’ve written. A lot of times I’ll find hitches in things. They’re different, certainly, and some books are better on the page. But I think those links are really interesting and that’s one of the things Sherman and I really like is reading our work and that process of hearing it out loud.

[JO]: You’ve said Beautiful Ruins is one of your only audiobooks that you can listen to comfortably.

[JW]: Yeah, it was always hard because actors would do a terrific job and other people would tell me how great they did, but when other actors would read my books it would always stop me cold. It would be simply phrasing something in a way I hadn’t heard it or reading dialogue in a way I hadn’t imagined it. A slight mispronunciation or something. Those things would always catch me and I would have to stop listening.

The analogy I use is it was like watching a video of someone making out with my wife. No matter how well they did it, it wasn’t going to seem right to me. But the minute I heard Eduardo’s spot on pronunciations and the subtleties he brings to the characters (not to mention Richard Burton, Joe the Irish music guy, and all the characters) . . . he seems to just embody them and it’s great when you hear a version of your book that adds to your own sense of it. And that’s what I think Eduardo did.

[JO]: Beautiful Ruins just has so many details in it. One of my very favorite moments is when the production assistant takes the “digital hit” of her phone. It resonated with me—not particularly in a good way—because I totally do that. You write a lot about technology and the interplay between technology and the modern world in Beautiful Ruins, and in The Financial Lives of the Poets. Is that something that creeps into your writing or something that you think about a lot?

[JW]: I do think about it a lot. I mean it is the profound change of our time. In the same way that the automobile, the Industrial Revolution, spears, and every technological advance [shifted culture] ours is this interpersonal communication. These devices we have come up with that begin as a way to enhance your life end up changing it. All of our lives are altered by the technology we carry around.

[JO]: You also write a lot about failure. Why is that? You’ve been nominated for a National Book Award, you’ve written six novels, you’ve been a New York Times Bestseller. Why is that something that still interests you?

[JW]: I remember watching The Smurfs, and a typical plot would be they decide to have a party and everyone shows up to the party and they all have a good time, which is great for a Smurfs episode but not so great for fiction. In general, fiction arises out of conflict and difficulty.

Every writer sees themselves as wanting and lacking. I don’t feel like I’ve produced the great book that I’ve set out to write. That’s what keeps me going as a writer. That fuel is the failure to have outdone this outlandish thing that you’ve set out to do. So I don’t think you have to scratch too far, for most writers, to find this idea of failure.

[JO]: In Beautiful Ruins, there are some things you’ve made up. Porto Vergogna is fictional but then there are also some real people and events like Cleopatra and obviously the Burton character. How do you decide which things to just create and which things to use from real life?

[JW]: It’s more inspiration than decision-making. If you think about novels, there’s a huge amount of the real world in them. People climb in cars; they don’t climb in bubble rolling machines that propel them down the street on their own thoughts.

[JO]: Not in literary fiction.

[JW]: Exactly! The place, the setting, tends to be real. We’re constantly bringing fiction to bear in the real world. Historical fiction uses real characters all the time. Abraham Lincoln wanders around in historical fiction all the time, and sometimes he kills vampires. You never quite know what your historical figures are going to do. So to me the process was not too much different than that.

I started with this woman arriving in Italy—at first I didn’t know who she was . . . then I decided she’s this beautiful actress. Then I had to find out what would an actress be doing in Italy and I stumbled upon Cleopatra being shot in Rome at that time. The story was so compelling and wild and I really committed to it when it touched something thematic (theme is what I often return to in my work). Thematically it really seemed as if this movie had invented a certain kind of fame that we live in this moment. I began imagining a studio hack who had invented fame, essentially. That seemed like such a worthy topic . . . I kind of fell in love with Richard Burton . . . Burton hovered over the novel like a talisman, as a character who had a choice between his talent and some outward kind of fame, some clearly easier, cheaper more seductive kind of thing that in the end, as Americans, we’ve all chosen. It can feel bold and audacious to be a character like Burton so I was thrilled to try and write those scenes and then I was afraid that he would never leave my book.

[JO]: Say 50 years from now there’s a novelist writing about the Pacific Northwest and you show up as a character. How would you feel?

[JW]: I worked pretty hard researching Burton and then honestly I threw that research away. You invent a fictional version of that character. I would be flattered if a novelist chose me. I mean, I’m a writer; we have such boring lives. Hopefully he would come up with something more interesting for me to do. Maybe some out-of-wedlock drama or blackout drunk event, that I don’t know about, to make the book interesting.


Beautiful Ruins is our Book of the Month, and on sale until the end of July. Get it now!

Narrator Edoardo Ballerini on Genres, Beautiful Ruins, and Hollywood

Edoardo Ballerini has had a varied career. He’s had recurring roles in  hit television series such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, and will be in Quarry next year. He’s worked as a stage actor and film producer. He’s also narrated numerous audiobooks, including books by James Patterson, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Cherie Priest.

Ballerini’s father is Italian, and he grew up both in America and Italy, which is part of why he was such a natural fit to narrate Beautiful Ruins. I called him up to talk about Beautiful Ruins, the differences between acting and narrating, and his dream audiobook gig.

[Judy Oldfield]: You’ve narrated several audiobooks of all different sorts, including thrillers and mysteries, like James Patterson’s NYPD series, books about mindfulness, and more literary books like Beautiful Ruins. Do you approach reading for different genres differently?

[Edoardo Ballerini]: Absolutely. I have always said that the narrator’s job is to follow the author, to be as faithful to the text in representing it as possible. So the difference between narrating James Patterson and the Dalai Lama as you can imagine is pretty broad.

I really feel like my job is to be James Patterson as much as I can be when I am narrating James Patterson and to be the Dalai Lama—which is a tall order—when I’m narrating the Dalai Lama. It’s an interesting acting exercise. I feel like the narrator is meant to be as faithful to what is presented as possible, as opposed to let’s say theater, where you can be more interpretive, take your instinct, and do something new and different. I feel like the narrator’s job is not that. And so I do approach the different genres very differently.

[JO]: So then it really does differ from your work as a TV or a movie or a stage actor. Was it hard for you to make that switch when you started narrating audiobooks?

[EB]: No, my background is actually literary. Both my parents were academics and I went to school with the intention of being an academic myself—an English major. And so the world of books—the world of literature—was very natural to me, and it’s something that I had wanted to do for a very long time. It felt like a very comfortable fit for me, and I am so pleased that it worked out the way it has. I’ve met so many wonderful people, and I feel very at home in the world of audiobooks.

[JO]: How were you selected to narrate Beautiful Ruins?

[EB]: That’s an interesting question. A woman named Paula Parker was in charge of producing it in concert with HarperAudio and she knew me from some other work we’d done. She knew I spoke Italian, that I have an Italian background, and that I move between acting genres (meaning I do some in television and some in Hollywood). And along came a title which somehow blended Italy and Hollywood, and so she thought of me.

Beautiful Ruins and I, I feel like, were a match made in heaven. I really feel like if there was ever a book I was meant to narrate, that was it. To me—I’m almost embarrassed to say this—but it was easy. It was an easy book to narrate because it just felt so natural. It just felt like these worlds that were being written, these characters—I knew them all. I didn’t have to do that much outside of myself, and so I remember when I first read it I thought, “Wow, this is going to be special.” And I think the longevity of the success of the audiobook has proven that there was this kind of perfect match of narrator and text.

[JO]: Yeah, I heard Jess Walter talking about audiobooks on his podcast and he said that of his books that have been made into audiobooks, this was definitely his favorite and the only one he can really listen to comfortably.

[EB]: Yeah he said that to me as well. . . . We actually did an event together here in New York where I read a piece of the book and we discussed it in front of the audience and he said to me the same thing, privately, that it’s the only book of his that’s on audio that he can really listen to. So, it was the right pairing. I think casting, be it in audiobooks or be it in film, television, stage, whatever it is, is so important and this was just one of those moments where it all came together in the right way.

[JO]: You talked about having a bit of insider information. How did you feel about his depictions of Italy or Italians?

[EB]: I thought the main character, Pasquale, is a very beautiful character. That was in the sixties portion of the book as readers and listeners might be familiar with. My father is of that generation and so I’ve certainly met a lot of these people, and been to a lot of these smaller towns up the coast. It felt very honest to me. It felt very pure. It felt like this guy really could have existed and I could see him very easily. I thought it was a very honest, fair depiction of an Italian man of that time and that place in a small town, falling in love, and trying to expand his world and trying to break out.

[JO]: And what about Hollywood?

[EB]: The Hollywood characters also felt equally honest. You know, the Michael Dean producer, the young development assistant who is trying to make her way, and her slacker boyfriend. I feel like I’ve met these people a hundred times over.

I think, the success of the book, both in print and in audio, speaks to these chords that it struck in people, that these were real characters, that they lived authentic lives.

[JO]: Do you have a favorite moment in the story?

[EB]: It’s very easily the Richard Burton parts. I mean I know it’s an easy thing to point to, but it was so delicious, these scenes. And believe me, I’m never going to get to play Richard Burton ever again in my life. Just the chance to embody this legendary actor was just so absurd. From what I was told about Burton, it seems that too was an honest depiction of what the man was like. And just the chance to be in his voice and his head—it contrasted with Pasquale who is this beautiful young innocent. Those scenes were so great, they were so great.

[JO]: I know you said that this was almost like the ultimate audiobook for you, but if you had the chance to record any audiobook, what would it be?

[EB]: That’s a tough one. There are so many. You know one that I would love to do, is Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again—which is Thomas Wolfe, not Tom Wolfe. I’m not a Southerner so I probably shouldn’t be asked to do it, but it was a book that had such an impact on me as a young man in college that I would love to do that.

There’s another actually, now that I think about it: Jack London’s Martin Eden. It’s essentially London’s semi-autobiographical story of how he was this sort of brutish sailor who ended up in this wealthy man’s library and was introduced to the world of books and then launched into being a writer. It’s such a beautiful story, I’d love to do Martin Eden. So if anybody’s ever producing Martin Eden please give me a call.


Edoardo Ballerini shows great range as a narrator. Check out some of the many books he’s narrated.

The Bookseller Chronicles: Green Apple Books

At Libro, we are proud members of the American Booksellers’ Association, and fierce advocates of independent bookstores. We turn to indie booksellers all the time for advice on everything from marketing to what to read. So when I was in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I popped in at Green Apple Books, to chat with co-owner Kevin Hunsanger.

It turned out that Kevin was just as interested in how things were going at Libro as I was about Green Apple. So, starting out, he flipped the script on me, asking me a couple of questions. We chatted back and forth about bookselling, National Bookstore Day, and what Green Apple does with the profits from certain political books.

[Kevin Hunsanger]: Audio is a rapidly changing area in the marketplace. How are things going at Libro?

[Judy Oldfield]: It’s going well. We’re doing some really cool stuff. We have a book of the month where we choose one book to really focus on. Since we’re in Seattle, June’s was Where’d You Go Bernadette. Our first month we did Mindset by Carol Dweck, which is a psychology book. And then we chose What If. We are just going all over the place and seeing what sticks.

[KH]: Now is this chosen by personal interest?

[JO]: Yeah. Mark Pearson (our co-founder) chose Mindset because he runs Pear Press, which publishes Brain Rules and Zero to Five (a parenting book). Tracy Cutchlow, who wrote Zero to Five, wrote a HuffPost article about Mindset and it went viral. So that’s what gave Mark the idea to check Mindset out. And it’s a really cool book for the team to have read as this fledgling company. It’s all about how hard work and things will pay off eventually.

[KH]: We deal with a lot of that in the used book market, or bookstores in general. You know it’s a labor of love. I think most booksellers could work anywhere else, but we just choose not to. It’s so rewarding in so many different ways but then if you get a little financial reward too or at least a little successful you can live on what you love and that’s great—a real blessing.

[JO]: And you get to share your passion with people every day. Tell me about your history with the store.

[KH]: The store itself was started in 1967. It was owned and operated by one man named Rich Savoy for about 30 years. He was my mentor in the used- and rare book-world. And then Kevin Ryan and Pete Mulvihill came and we also worked together. We had about 40 years combined experience here when Rich approached us and said, “I’d like to sell the store and I think the three of you would make the right team.”

[JO]: When was that?

[KH]: Oh about 15-16 years ago. Right about 2000 I guess, maybe a little earlier. It was a gradual buyout over ten years because we split equity and dispersed profits.

[JO]: That must have been really scary towards the end of those ten years with the economy looking grim.

[KH]: We couldn’t have done it at a worse time. It was the best time for Rich. Independent bookselling in ’99 was probably at a high water mark. Now it’s higher because it’s come back around. But in 1999 there was no real threat from Amazon; the Internet was just something you did with email. But as soon as we signed on the dotted line . . . we were just getting punched all over the place.

[JO]: But like you said it is coming back now. Why do you think that is?

[KH]: I’d like to think that people are finally realizing that if you don’t support and shop in your neighborhood, these places are going to go away and we’re not going to have neighborhoods left. We are very fortunate that San Francisco is very neighborhood-centric so areas in San Francisco have an independent feel, have a neighborhood feel, and people really live and work and shop and play and eat and love in their neighborhood.

You hear the horror stories. My mom lives on the big island of Hawaii and Borders came in there, knocked off all the little bookstores, and then they themselves went out of business. Now there’s not a bookstore on the island. The only thing they can do is shop at some online retailers and unfortunately most people assume that the only one is Amazon. You’re losing these things that build community, losing communities, and creating what is essentially a monopoly.

[JO]: What is something that Green Apple has done that you are especially proud of?

[KH]: Our ties to the community. The high volume of used booksellers that come through here is a really unique aspect of the store. I’d say that 65% of our stock is used books. So it’s a place that’s actually being built by our customers every day. It keeps people coming back on a regular basis. Our shelves just change so fast. So I think our greatest accomplishment is keeping up with the flow of books coming in and adjusting to customer and community needs.

Also, we’re very involved in local politics. There’s a ballot on the measure now for legacy designation for buildings. The city is going to try to establish, say, a number of 30-year-old, or 50-year-old locations in neighborhoods and work with the landlords of these areas. We don’t own either of the buildings that we’re in. If things change with the landlords that might just erase any of the margin that we need to survive. Pete is very active in small business associations and regularly meets with the mayor to discuss these kinds of issues.

And we won Bookstore of the Year last year which is just an extraordinary accomplishment.

[JO]: And you started Independent Bookstore Day.

[KH]: Pete also got that notion after seeing the success of Record Store Day and wanted one for us too. He really championed it the first year as California Bookstore Day only, and now it has crossed over into the national market. It was a great success for everyone and we really look forward to continuing it. There again are stronger ties to the community.

[JO]: You talked about how booksellers are definitely in it because they’re passionate about books, so what keeps you going? What keeps you in the store day to day?

[KH]: The fact that honestly from day to day I have no idea what’s going to cross my path. In a buy yesterday I got a Nightmare Before Christmas board game. It was in no great shape and while I like playing board games periodically, I’d never seen it before. And all of the sudden there it is. Or I could get a signed first edition of some historical context. Again just having no idea who I’m going to talk to, what books I’m going to see, what fun stuff happens here. It changes all the time. I’ve been here 24 years in September and seriously every day is different. That’s what I love—the variety.

[JO]: Do you ever get into situations where somebody’s buying books and you’re saying to yourself, “Please don’t ask me my opinion on this book”? Or you’re selling a book that you don’t personally care for?

[KH]: We’re booksellers, not censors. We sell books of all types to all people as long as our customer base buys them. We’ve not profited on things we personally object to. The most recent example was Sarah Palin’s book Going Rogue. We donated any proceeds from that to the Alaskan Wildlife Foundation. For Michael Savage (the ultra-right wing radio guy) we did the same thing. We donated the proceeds to Freedom of Expression. So we’ll sell the books because we want our customers to buy the books from us, but we won’t profit from them. It’s an interesting way of doing that.

And I’m happy to give my personal opinion about books; if I don’t like something and someone asks my opinion, you know, it’s my opinion. That’s not to say that you’re not going to like it, but I’ll happily tell someone how I feel about something. I don’t just blow smoke to make a sale. That’s not sustainable and that customer won’t come back again. You have to have that level of trust with your bookseller and I think customers expect honesty. So I do sell books that I don’t like or I don’t agree with. That’s ok.


What’s your go-to brick-and-mortar independent bookstore? Let us know in the comments.

Narrator Kathleen Wilhoite on the Best and Worst Parts of Making an Audiobook

It’s strange to call someone on the phone—someone you’ve never met—after listening to them speak for ten hours. It’s even stranger when that person turns out to be as wry as the main character in the book they narrated.

I spoke with Kathleen Wilhoite, a singer and actress who played Liz on Gilmore Girls and Chloe on ER among other roles, about narrating Where’d You Go, Bernadette, how she met Maria Semple, and whether or not she’ll narrate any more audiobooks.

[Judy Oldfield]: What’s it like to record an audiobook? Can you tell us about the process?

[Kathleen Wilhoite]: I’ll tell you about a regular day. I have an elliptical trainer in my bedroom. So I would wake up, go on the elliptical, and read what I was going to read that day, to get an idea of the characters that I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. And get an overall spec of the arc of each chapter—study it a little bit. Then I’d finish my workout, shower, and drive to work with traffic, which I never do, because I’m an actress. I rarely drive with the flow of regular working-people traffic. So that was jarring. I can’t believe people drive in that kind of traffic every single day. That was weird.

I’d show up to work at nine o’clock and we’d start. I’d get a cup of coffee and start reading until lunchtime. Time flew because I was so focused. So much of my brain—the left side and the right side—was engaged. Maria is a great writer, and her book is great and engaging. Thank God it wasn’t dry or boring.

All of the sudden I had hunger pains in my stomach and BOOM it’s lunch. The time just flew. We’d have an hour of lunch and they always had delicious food.

The people I worked with were all young too, pipsqueaks, probably younger than thirty which was alarming, and they were really smart and great. And super talented, the engineer was talented, the director was talented, fantastic. The atmosphere had great vibes, and was super creative.

Then after lunch we would tackle the next half of the day. It was the same type of thing. Focused. I couldn’t boggle the sentence; I had to be crystal clear. We had to create, like I said, the arcs, the characters, and the scenes. It was really great fun, engaging work.

Then, I would get in my car and drive with the flow of traffic—working-people, bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way home. I cannot believe people work like this! That they drive in traffic like this, day in and day out. It was so bizarre to be a part of the regular world. I’m an actress and a writer. I’m rarely with regular, working-people traffic. I will avoid that traffic at all costs, even auditions. If they want an audition at nine o’clock, I’m like, “Yeah . . . can’t do it, I’ll be there at eleven.”

So then when I’d get home, I would make dinner for my kids because they’d say, “We’re hungry!” I’d been working all day and my brain is fried but you’ve got to feed your kids! It gave me tremendous respect for working people because that is a lot. And then by the time my husband got home (he’s a producer for television), he’d say “Hey Baby,” and I’d say “Goodnight!” I was out. And I did that for two and a half weeks.

[JO] Wow, two-and-a-half weeks.

[KW] But what was so cool about that process is how much my brain was engaged. I just don’t utilize my brain like that—that consistently—for that long of a period of time. Just think of how you focus when you read, right? How engaged you are. So if you’re reading out loud it’s absolutely not boring, but is totally exhausting.

[JO]: And you have to do so many different character voices, and get the nuances for each character right.

[KW]: I’ve been reading stories to my kids for years and that’s fun for me. I know it doesn’t feel like there’s a difference between acting and reading material but there’s a real subtle difference and I think it’s important to make a distinction. Because Maria Semple wrote her book to be read. It’s more like reading stories to your kids.

[JO]: Was it ever hard not to laugh?

[KW]: Oh we cracked up. We cracked up with tears in our eyes laughing when I had to do a New Zealand accent. My New Zealand accent is so bad, it was hilarious. The closest thing I can get is Australia, eh? And every time I would miss a line, I’d look in the booth and the kids were like, “Ahhhahahaha!” I was like, “You’re laughing at me because I’m sucking so hard!” We had a lot of fun.

[JO]: When it came time to sing, did you have to stop and warm up your voice before you sang the few lines of “Holy Night”?

[KW]: “No, I’m a singer and performer. I’ve made a couple records, and I sing at a nightclub. I felt like that part of the book had a lot of momentum. And I just blasted right through there. There was no stopping in that section.

It was about being in the moment. I told the production team before we did it, “You guys know that I actually sing? I made a couple records. So when I get to this point, I’m just going to freakin’ sing.”

At that point I felt like we were in a really special flow place. It just felt natural and then the singing came in. The pacing in Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really good. Maria Semple comes from television and her stuff is very easy to visualize. The rhythm of the words and the cadence of the sentences she chose fit nicely with me. That’s why I think she wanted me to read it. It was a good fit.

[JO]: So she asked you personally to narrate the audiobook?

[KW]: Yeah, I’ve never narrated a book before. In fact, if you hear of anything let me know, because I think I was pretty darn good at it.

[JO]: I keep seeing bloggers say that this is a book that is even better on audio. I was really surprised to see that this was your first and only audiobook. Do you think you’ll do any more?

[KW]: Yeah, in fact I’m debating—you know I’ve written a couple books myself.

I’m debating whether or not I should do an audiobook for my own novels. I have two of them. Well, I’m working on them. That’s where I met Maria—in writing class.

The answer is, if you hear of anything, I could use the dough. And I thought I was sufficient at it, and this makes me feel fantastic that you’re saying this about people enjoying my reading. I appreciate that very much.

[JO]: Yes, I’ve heard so many people say that. One last question: what’s your favorite moment in the book?

[KW]: When Bee finally sees her mom. It’s so beautiful. It’s such a relief. When I was reading it out loud I was crying. I thought that was beautiful.

I really like the characters. And I love my friend Maria, so it was nice to read her stuff. It was a very good experience for me. All together very positive, so I’m very grateful to her for choosing me.

To find out more about Kathleen Wilhoite, visit kathleenwilhoite.com


It sounds like Kathleen is up for more work in audiobooks. What book do you think would be a perfect fit for her?