Sunday, January 29, 2012

Certified Bibliophile Spills Her Sassy Guts (1/2)

   Perhaps you remember me prattling on from time to time about my very happy acquaintance with Julia Callahan. She is a close friend of my sister Guinevere and has become my friend too. Julia is a literary publicist out in Los Angeles. She has been overly generous with her time and expertise this past year, guiding our famous little  book club through some voracious adventures, sharing ideas, listening, and encouraging us to flex our eyeballs more. Now this sweet derby girl has foolishly agreed to suffer an interview with yours truly.

   You guys, Julia was even more forthcoming and interesting than I knew she would be. I have divided this beefy endeavor into two parts for safer, slower consumption. I dare you to read both parts and NOT find something to discuss with a good bookish friend. Enjoy!

You must know that I want your job in the worst way, as do many of my friends. Please dispel the romantic images I have of being paid to read books and communicate with people. Please tell us a typical day in the life and what your job is really like.

   Haha. Well, it is a pretty awesome job, and I do get paid to read books, but really, reading books is just part of what I do. In fact, I get paid to do everything else, I just have to read books if I'm going to promote them. I know it sounds hard. Basically, the thing that's great about my job is it's different every day. Some days I'm editing all day, some days I'm emailing people all day (usually media contacts), some days I'm just answering emails, and some days I'm booking author tours. Usually it's a combination of all of those things. I'm lucky to have a flexible job so I come in between 8 and 11 and I go home between 6 and 9 pm. Depending on the day, I might have to go to an event in the evening, or maybe not. It's different all the time. You can continue being jealous. It's a pretty great job.

How did you prepare for this career, both academically and personally?
   I’m a reader.  I always have been (except for a brief period between sixth and ninth grade).  I had a wonderful eighth grade history teacher named Mr. Sullivan who, among other things, taught me that history wasn't just boring names and dates, that Elvis and The Beatles were history, that To Kill a Mockingbird was history, that James Dean was history.  I came to the realization that what I loved most was the intersection between history and literature.  I loved that when I read Dickens I got a picture of Victorian England, but also the fact that Dickens and the serial novels changed the way Victorian England looked; it changed the way people thought and acted.  That intersection of life and art in the context of history was and still is just endlessly fascinating to me.  So, when I went to UC Santa Cruz, I majored in history and literature. 
   After college I aimlessly worked in places that had nothing to do with anything I studied until I needed a second job and ended up working at a bookstore in West Hollywood called Book Soup on weekends.  I was part time for a year or so and then the events coordinator, Tyson Cornell, took me on as his assistant.  I was his assistant for four years.  He left and started his own company called Rare Bird Lit and then hired me soon after. 

   I’m good with people and I’m an enthusiastic reader.  The rest I learned on the fly.  But luckily that came quickly. 

You are exposed to a large number and a wide variety of people all the time. Can you identify an innate personal quality that tends to distinguish the published authors among the world’s numerous writers? Is there something they “have” that gets them printed?
   I don’t know if there’s a certain personality trait.  I find that the best authors are the best readers.  I don’t believe someone can write without reading.  I also think that the best authors are the hardest on themselves.  If you’re a reader you know what good writing is and thus, you know when you have or have not achieved it. 

You keep numerous and long lists of books for different audiences and purposes. Thank you for sharing those with me, by the way! Now. Let’s pretend Earth is planning to colonize another planet and you are in charge of filling a time capsule with literature. What ten books would you include?

Oh man! How long is this blog post? Okay, in no particular order, and excluding A LOT: 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Shakespeare
  • Catch-22
  • On The Road
  • Infinite Jest
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Vanity Fair
  • Jane Eyre
  • East of Eden
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • The Sun Also Rises
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • The God of Small Thing
  • Maus.  
   Also, like 1 million others, but this is off the top of my head and I figured you didn't want a list of 250 books.

What different authors would you like to represent and why?
   Michael Chabon is my favorite living author (his book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is my all-time favorite book), so working with him would be amazing.  Every literary nerd’s wet dream is Thomas Pynchon.  As far as more realistic, and this is kind of a cop out answer, but I’m a big fan of working with promising first time authors.  It’s challenging for me as the publicist, but also very rewarding.  When a first time author gets recognition for a great book and I've worked on it, it’s a source of immense pride, and I love to see what they go onto next. 

Do your authors keep other jobs, too?
   Some do, some don’t.  It depends on how long they've been around and what job they had before they started writing.  It’s extraordinarily hard to make a living as a writer, especially a novelist, so many of them have other things going on.  A lot of them teach writing. 

Do you write as well as read? We’d love to hear about that.
   Yes and no.  I used to write a lot, but I've realized that I really love editing more than writing.  I like shaping narratives and giving feedback about what a piece of writing needs to make it soar.  That being said, I do write a little bit.  Mostly I write a blog-like email that goes to my family.   It makes them feel like I see them more than I actually do.  I write a lot of press releases, too. 

In the scheme of things, what deficiency do you see in modern literature? What do we need more of, probably vampire romances?
   There is such a dearth of vampire romances!  We need more!  I actually think that modern literature is in a really exciting time.  There’s kind of a changing of the guard happening right now.  The older male-dominated regime is fading out (people like Mailer, Vonnegut, Vidal, Roth, Updike, etc.).  Roth and DeLillo are really the only guys left from that class.  Now we’re getting this new class coming in, who were influenced by these great writers.  People like Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen are doing such exciting stuff.  And the women!  Zadie Smith, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom….I could go on.  I just can’t wait to see where this all goes.
   As for deficiency, because I’m so good at answering the questions being asked, I think that more people need to discover these great authors.  The biggest deficiency I see is book coverage in media.  How can people know how wonderful White Teeth by Zadie Smith is when only a few media outlets are reviewing books?  Books are covering such a wide variety of cultures and times and places that the only deficiency is there’s not enough time in the day. 

You were so great to connect me with two brilliant authors, first Aimee Bender and now Adrienne Sharp. When I am rich and famous because of your talented publicizing, will you make me do unpaid interviews with dorky bloggers?
   Yes.  Absolutely. 

   In all seriousness, I believe that the more an author connects with their audience the better.  Those are two wonderful and amazing women that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with, but they also both are people who appreciate and understand how important their audience and their fans are.  And that makes them the smartest kind of author. 

That begs a question, actually. Your firm is called “Rare Bird Lit.” Do you seek out unusual material; does it find you or what? And what makes a book “rare” by your standards?

    Interesting question.  Also, you’re reminding me that I need to ask my boss where that name comes from. 

   We like material that challenges us professionally.  We’re independent booksellers at heart and we’re pretty snobby when it comes to literature, so it’s nice when we’re working with authors and books out of that wheelhouse.  It presents challenges and we have to figure out who to connect with and how best to market those books to the right people. 

   Also, we like doing things that other people are scared to do.  We throw crazy parties, we find interesting and original ways of marketing, and we’ll take on books that other people turn down, if we like the book and believe in it.  So yeah, we’re a bit rare in that way.  We’re also just kind of weird people.  It makes life more fun. 

   As for what makes a book rare, I guess all books are rare in a way, but I like a book that surprises me.  I like a book that doesn’t follow a trajectory that I can see coming from a mile away.  It’s rare that a book catches me entirely off guard. Actually, lately, when I was reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, I was just thinking that there was no way he was going to end the book that I would like.  And somehow, he pulled it off. The ending was perfect and caught me off guard.  I love that.

"That intersection of life and art 
in the context of history was and still is 
just endlessly fascinating to me."
~Julia Callahan

      Whew! Is your mind racing a bit with questions and answers of your own? Please leave comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Julia's answers or your own answers to some of these questions. Lots of my friends are bookish, so spill it ladies. Spill it messy. And remember to come back tomorrow for part two. 

Thank you for indulging us Julia!!
People are the Interesting.
Books are Necessary.


  1. Julia is the reason behind most of my Goodreads picks. And now I'm adding more. This is so fun to read; I can't wait for tomorrow!

  2. I am completely fascinated by this and can't wait to read part 2. I also have a few books to add to my reading list. Thank you for this wonderful piece! I'm so very excited I might squeal.

  3. Thanks for doing this! This was lot of fun! And I've bookmarked this page to come back to later when I can really pour over it. Can't wait to see part two.

  4. That is a lovely interview. And filled with so much information. I envy her job BUT at the same time, I am currently looking to get rid of my 9 to 5 so I am not going to envy it too much. Flexible or no, I want to get rid of systems.

    I am SO looking into her listings of authors as well. Sounds like she is a walking recommendation.


Hey thanks for commenting! I love hearing from people. It's the best. I have recently added word verification, a necessary annoyance. Have a wonderful day!


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