WS: Before we get to questions on writing and publishing, first
a question about the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading.
The festival quickly achieved popularity during the first years
and draws more than 20,000 participants each year. How did you decide
to create the festival?
MH -- The Times Festival of Reading is now enjoying
more than a decade of great authors and books. When I started this
project, newspaper didn't sponsor book fairs or festivals. The Washington
Post and the New York Times had author luncheons, and there were newspapers
that were affiliated with festivals, but we were the first to actually
put on our own event. I patterned it after the Miami book fair, a
street fair that draws all economic levels.
WS: What type of individual does it attract--writers,
MH--The festival attracts a high
quality audience -- our core readers. It is
filled with people who are open to ideas and
who are not necessarily would-be writers as much as
they are consummate readers. And they read newspapers. Nationally
recognized authors who participate in this festival say they get a
high caliber of questions from our festival audiences. The festival is
especially popular with NPR (National Public Radio) listeners.
WS: How long had you been editing the book section?
MH--I had joined the St. Petersburg Times in the fall of 1990,
applying for the job of book editor. The ad for a book editor was
in Editor and Publisher and I'd always had a lot of respect for this
WS: What was your position prior to book editor of the
St. Petersburg Times?
MH--I was a travel writer and freelance writer in New York.
I thought I'd be here for a few years to take a break from what I
was doing--traveling. When I told my New York friends I applied for
the job they told me I'd be back. I planned to take the job and stay
for about three years. I've been here since 1990 [Editors note: Margo
Hammond recently retired after more than sixteen years at the St.
Petersburg Times and continues her work with the NBCC and The Book
WS: Is there a book in your future, and if so fiction
MH--Lots of book ideas go through my mind, but the
best reason I have for not writing is in a book written
by Marcel Benabou. The book talks about all the
reasons people procrastinate, and the reasons they
find not to write. Its title is, Why I Have Not Written
Any of My Books.
WS: What are the books that you read (and read over again)
that make you believe that writing is a worthwhile endeavor?
MH--I did not have the time to re-read because with my job,
I finish one book and I'm on to the next. For a column, I did re-read
the entire Rabbit series (WS Ed: John Updike's series on the life
of a character named Rabbit--a series that includes Rabbit Redux and
Rabbit at Rest) and found elements that I had not noticed before.
Updike had planted items in the stories that
continued through out the series. For example, he
wrote about a café that keeps changing hands and in
each book it reflects the tenor of the times. Perhaps
he did this just to amuse himself, but it shows what a
master craftsman he is. He is such a master of detail
that some say that he doesn't have depth, but that is
misguided. He makes it look easy. An interesting
comparison to Updike is Faulkner who never cared
too much about detail and was more interested in the
larger ideas of life. In one manuscript, Faulkner had a
house that by the end had changed colors -- he hadn't
bothered to keep track.
WS: What would you tell beginning writers?
MH--Tell new writers to write. Sometimes people
miss the obvious. One of my friends wanted to write
and she got fixated on where she should write. She
fixed up her writing space, then she joined a writers'
group, and she had to have all these conditions. All
these beliefs about how to write and where to write.
In order to write, just write. Books have been written
on toilet paper in prisons. Just write. Get away from
the trivia around writing.
WS: There are so many how-to books telling people the
way to get published. Is there really one "true road' to getting published?
MH--It is a labyrinth. I do recommend getting an
agent and one who understands your book. And take
the emotions out of it, because once you have written
the book, then the creative part is done and it's a
business. As for the way it works, everybody's story
of how they got published is different. I've never
heard an identical story.
WS: What components of awards (short story, fiction, and
non-fiction) and literary magazines do you believe are most helpful
to beginning writers?
MH--For any new writer, I recommend that they somehow get into
a publication. Even if they give you only one copy as payment for
your story, get published. Then get paid. The reason you write is
to get published. The reason you get published is to get paid. My
mother, who recently passed away, was eighty-eight years old
when she began to publish her work, turned down anyone who
wanted to publish her work but was unwilling to pay her anything.
WS: How helpful are book fairs and festivals for authors?
MH--Festivals have become popular venues for authors to bring their
books, they tell me, because authors like to meet other authors. That
is the ingredient missing from individual book signings. The process
of writing is such an isolating experience. Authors also like the
connection with the audience that a book fair gives them. There is a
bond that is created when the author is on stage and talking with his
or her readers, his or her audience. It also is exciting for the
people to meet the author of a book they have loved.
WS: For beginning writers who want to start out in the
freelance field, what would they expect to get paid for book reviews?
MH--It varies. The St. Petersburg Times typically pays $100.00
per review. Smaller papers pay $30.00 for a book review. The New York
Times pays $250.00 for a book review, but of course, they'll pay more
for someone who is an established and well-recognized author. Magazines
generally pay $1.00 a word and up for longer, assigned feature articles.
WS: Thank you, Margo, and we enjoyed seeing you at our
June 2007 WordSmitten