In Conversation With: @ChatelaineBooks Editor, Laurie Grassi
Julie Wilson: Prior to joining Chatelaine, you were editor of special issues at Canadian House & Home and the executive editor of Style at Home magazine. What elements of these past roles have you carried forward into your current role as Chatelaine's books editor?
Laurie Grassi: Content management and the packaging of that content. Whatever magazine you work for, whatever the subject matter, deciding what content you’re going to include and pulling that together in an interesting way for your readers is key.
Having an interest in the subject helps, obviously, and I’ve always been passionate about books. I have a degree in English literature from the University of Toronto and have been a life-long reader. I think that comes partially from my mother: she loves to read and we always had lots of books in the house when I was growing up. Even as a kid, I couldn’t get enough from her or the school library and was thrilled when the Bookmobile pulled into the school parking lot—the more books I could access, the better. I still think that one of my best teachers was my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. Bramanis, because he used to read to us—a lot of science fiction, in particular, which I hadn’t really been exposed to at that point. He introduced me to Ray Bradbury; one of my most treasured possessions today is a letter Bradbury sent me thanking me for an article I’d written about him when I was working for TV Guide.
JW: Would you say a book isn't a *book* until it's been read?
LG: Salman Rushdie apparently has said that a book isn’t completed until it’s read, and I rather like that thought—that a book isn’t done until there’s an interplay with the reader, an interpretation of the text by someone other than its creator. It implies a conversation and an amplification, an elaboration, of the original, since each reader brings their own understanding and therefore additions to the text.
JW: How do you see your role at Chatelaine in terms of how you might assist in gathering more conversations around the culture of reading?
LG: That’s a significant goal, particularly with the monthly Chatelaine Book Club Pick: to engage readers in conversation and encourage conversation about books—not only the ones we choose but readers' own recommendations. It’s what we love to encourage with our online content, and we’re looking at ways to develop that now that we have the Book Club Pick up and running. I think people long to discuss books they’ve read, particularly if they don’t belong to a book club of their own.
JW: With a readership of almost 4 million, it stands to reason that Chatelaine could become an influencer on par with a "Heather's Pick". Do you plan to work with publishers of all sizes, large and small?
LG: It doesn’t matter how large the press or print run is. My criteria when choosing the Chatelaine Book Club Pick—or any book for inclusion in the magazine for that matter—is that it be compelling and well-written, and that it provoke discussion. I’d also like the range of books chosen to represent the wide diversity of interests of our readers. I picked small press books before and even a self-published book for inclusion in the magazine—it all comes down to merit (and, of course, timing! It's impossible to cover books if I don't have review copies in hand in time given that we work at generally four months in advance of our issue dates). I hope the choices are ones that intrigue people and get them reading and talking about books.
JW: Do you belong to an offline book club?
LG: I belonged to a book club for over 14 years. I only knew two members of the club before I joined—a friend from my university days and her husband. He was the connection to the book club; he'd done some volunteer work with a couple of the members at a charity. Most of the members knew each other from Queens, where they'd studied English, but there was quite a diverse group in that there were men and women, which doesn't often happen, a physics teacher, a couple of people who worked at the CBC, one who worked in publishing, a couple of IT guys, and we read everything: fiction, non-fiction, we had a poetry dinner one night at which we read our favourite poems, and one meeting even read a Shaw play—and I mean, actually read it out loud. Such great people, who became good friends, and such fun. The book club only ended just over a year or so ago —people moving away, etc — but I still keep in touch with them, and talk books, of course, among other things. What I loved most about our club was reading books I might not otherwise have read or even heard about, discovering books I love, getting recommendations for similar books and the discussions, which were sometimes heated, sometimes not, but always provocative That’s what I hope happens with the Chatelaine Book Club.
JW: How do you connect with readers now in your day-to-day life?
LG: Mainly through social media, on Twitter (@ChatelaineBooks) and my own Facebook and Twitter handles—sharing what I’m reading, have read about, and think about reading with others. And just talking to people. I’ve always loved discussing books with people—it’s how I got recommended for this job—and every conversation I have invariably ends up at least touching on books.
JW: You have a strong interest in design. Are there any books you've read of late that you consider beautiful or intriguing items?
LG: I really enjoy it when a publisher puts the effort into making a book look beautiful—I don't just buy books to read them, I savour them in their entirety. I’m the sort of person who takes the jacket off a hardcover book to see what the binding looks like, I always check to see what font is used (if it’s listed—and I wish it always would be), and I love deckled edges when it suits the book. Perhaps it’s a result of working in the area of magazines and special and custom issues for so long where everything is about fonts and packaging and visuals. Plus, books live on my shelves, where they're on display and are a large part of my decor.
I thought the packaging of The Night Circus (Random House) by Erin Morgenstern, which is our January 2012 Book Club Pick, is lovely, with a beautifully designed cover image and silver scrollwork on the binding. And from what I’ve seen of the UK edition, it’s even more special, with red binding and a red ribbon, black edges, and a beautiful black, red and white bowler-and-top-hat motif on the end papers. That sort of special effort is so appreciated by book lovers, I think.
I absolutely think covers draw you in to a book and make you pick it up, and as such are so important, which is why it’s interesting that so many books look the same (cue the woman in the historical dress and no head!).
In stores right now, there's a book that caught my eye just the other day: Wildwood (HarperCollins) by Colin Meloy with illustrations by Carson Ellis. It's considered a children's book (it's for ages 9 and up), but I can't wait to read it, at least partially because of the packaging: it has a fantastic illustrated cover and inside there are black-and-white illustrations, as well as colour plates. It reminds me of books I had as a kid with beautiful illustrations.
Graphically, I thought The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press) by Patrick deWitt had a fabulous cover as did M.J. McGrath’s White Heat; Penguin often does interesting design series, such as their recent Threads series designed by Jillian Tamaki.
In terms of actual design content brilliantly packaged, one of the best books I’ve come across is Terence Conran’s Inspiration by Terence Conran and Stafford Cliff. It consists almost entirely of images and what images they are: a mix of photographs of Conran’s house, Barton Court, in England, along with his design sketches, catalogue shots of his work and shops, and art and vintage photography. Together, they all combine to form a stunning statement about Conran’s design ethos—the juxtaposition of the images is superb.
If I had the money it would be amazing to run a small press with some art director friends of mine and produce custom versions of books—go all out with the design, paper, and so on, and make them truly spectacular and uniquely suited to the content of the book. Just a little dream of mine . . .
JW: You're a self-described medical book geek. How did you come to that, and what are some of your recommended reads?
LG: I’ve thought for a long time that if I wasn’t doing what I am, a great alternative career would be something in medicine, perhaps epidemiology (although I’d never survive the medical training—I like to sleep too much—not to mention the whole statistics end of things!). But really, I think my fascination with books about medicine comes down to the mystery and sense of discovery behind the science: the idea of exploration, study and putting the pieces of a puzzle together. When that all gets put in a well-told narrative, it’s a winning combination as far as I’m concerned.
Two great examples are The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell and The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Cities, Science and the Modern World by Steven Johnson documenting how two men traced an 1854 outbreak of cholera to its source. I also just finally got around to reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown) by Rebecca Skloot, which is about the often-forgotten human story behind scientific development and progress. And I’m looking forward to reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Simon & Schuster) by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which has just won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction; I read a few pages here and there in a bookstore the other day and it looks fascinating.