Mary Ann Gwinn is the book editor for The Seattle Times, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and a lifelong book addict. She was born and raised in a hot and humid small town in Arkansas where there was nothing to do but read. And read she did — three books a week (the maximum allowable checkout from the public library) until she became a teenager, when she abandoned reading for cheerleading. At 21, she picked up books again and has been reading ever since.
What book(s) are open on your nightstand right now?
Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday,” which comes out in January. And Louise Erdrich’s wonderful novel, “The Round House,” which just won the National Book Award for fiction.
Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
Diamond’s new book — he’s an amazing synthesizer of knowledge from different fields. He’s a professor of geography at UCLA and a MacArthur Fellow who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse.” This new book, subtitled “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” looks at the whole of human development, how human beings have changed, and what we have to learn from “primitive” societies that largely live the way people did thousands of years ago.
Have you read a truly great book lately?
Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” are truly great books. The stoy of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand man, they are like nothing I’ve ever read – they’re novels, but you really feel like you are inside the head of Cromwell and seeing the 16th century through his eyes. Both of these books won the Man Booker Prize – for good reason.
I thought “The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin, set in eastern Washington, was an amazing debut novel. It showed such maturity and insight into the human condition. She’s only 31 years old! I wish I could get more people to read “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” by Jonathan Evison – it has a tough premise, but it’s a funny, big-hearted book.
How did you land the job of book editor at the Seattle Times?
I’d been a reporter at the newspaper for 15 years when the previous book editor retired. I applied and got the job fourteen years ago. Now I feel like I am never not thinking about books!
What is your favorite part of the job?
Reading and talking to authors. Looking at books. I just wish I had time to give them all the attention they deserve.
Have you met an author or two that you got a big kick out of?
I got to interview John le Carre a few years ago, when he came through Seattle. He is a completely charming man. We sat in the hotel bar of the Alexis — he pulled out the review I’d written of his book, and went over it point by point. I thought I was going to pass out.
I interviewed David McCullough, and was so energized by the sheer enthusiasm he has for his occupation. He seemed completely astonished that readers loved "John Adams" so much.
What do you read for your own personal enjoyment?
Preferably British, Scottish or Irish mysteries. I’m reading a Scottish author now, A.D. Scott. Her mysteries are set in the late 1950s at a small-town newspaper — the first is called “A Small Death in the Great Glen.” P.D. James, of course, and Ruth Rendell. Ian Rankin is very funny — I love his Rebus character.
What were your most cherished books when you were a child?
I lived in a very small town and the offerings at the public library were limited. I adored the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. My sister is ten years older than me — we were reminiscing recently, and we could both remember exactly where those books were shelved. The first book that made me really think was Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” I can still remember the cover. I thought it was going to blow up in my hands.
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