An interview with Ellen Heltzel, co-author with Margo Hammond of Between the Covers: The Book Babes’ Guide to a Woman’s Reading Pleasures, which was just published by Da Capo.
PW: Both you and Margo have had significant experience as journalists and, as the Book Babes, have made many media appearance. What led to your writing this book?
EH: I think the reason we wanted to do it was that Margo and I are writers and we felt that books were something we knew about. We’ve done so many columns, but there’s such a permanence about books. Even if no one ever bought it, I would still have it on my shelf; I could say we did this. We also recalled that when we started working for Good Housekeeping magazine we started focusing more on the woman reader, and we started doing some of these lists—10 to Make You Feel Regal, etc.—and we thought, that’s kind of a neat device, what if we turned it into a book that looked more broadly at the arc of a woman’s life. I don’t think we could have done it on day one, when we first started writing columns, but so much water has gone under the bridge with our relationship together that it just didn’t seem that hard—like a natural next step.
PW: What were your criteria for the selection of your books?
EH: We decided to look at books the way the typical woman reader would, rather than say we’re going to write about only fiction, or mysteries, or segregate them in some way. We asked ourselves what are the concerns of a woman’s life—the topics a thoughtful, educated woman in our culture would think about. So that’s how we came up with our lists; it was a lifestyle orientation that we started with. We looked at contemporary writing about contemporary living—highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow, we didn’t care. So our approach was contemporary reading for the contemporary woman based on her concerns and her interests—starting with herself, then moving toward family, relationships, the larger world. In the “Home, Work & Taking Care” chapter, for example, we have lists like “10 for the Grieving Heart, “10 That Celebrate Your Brilliant Career,” etc. Not looking for the definitive book on X, whatever the topic was but saying how do we put together a braided list—let’s say your topic is “making peace with mom.” You’d approach that from fiction, nonfiction, memoir—we’d come at it from various themes.
PW: Among the topics mentioned in your book’s press release is the current state of book review coverage. What’s your take on that topic?
EH: The situation is getting so dire that it has absolutely nothing to do with books but it has everything to do with book review space. I was a book review editor so I understand what’s happening and why the book review coverage is so dispensable—it’s not the most read thing, and the kind of surveys they take don’t register intensity, they only register numbers, so it’s the sports sections, and maybe the business sections, that are going to endure, and even that at a very stripped-down rate. But I think we really can’t afford to look backward at what print used to be doing, or could be doing, because it is not possible for newspapers to continue to carry the load. What we have to do is find out the inventive ways that we can make the Internet work for us and other media, whether its radio or TV, to not let books get marginalized.
PW: Why do you think the Book Babes concept has worked so well?
EH: I think if there’s anything that helps our image, it’s that we talk to everybody like, What are you reading, What are you thinking about? In this world where nobody respects authority any more there’s sort of this democratization across the Internet where you look on Amazon and everybody’s a critic. So rather than fight the mountain Margo and I feel that we want to be an intelligent and informed voice in that conversation but that we don’t want to control it—we want to be part of the conversation and try to be funny. I think in our presentations people want us to be fun to listen to, not somber and serious. That’s really the way we feel we’ve built our audience. We want to make books like eating dessert, not eating your vegetables. That’s sort of our theme song; our other theme song is Books Are Better Than Botox. And also we’re trying in our book to affirm that women have a lot of power—emotional, mental and intellectual power, and books help stir that up.
PW: Have you and Margo encountered any objections to the use of the word Babes?
EH: One of our favorite stories concerns receiving a note from a female New York Times reporter who asked us why we were using such a demeaning name. I sent her back a note that said that I certainly think when I was younger I would have felt that that was a condescending thing to be called, but I am now too old to be worried about being called a babe—in fact I welcome anybody calling me that! When you get to a certain age I think there are certain privileges. We were introduced the other night by a gentleman at a local store who said, I say this word with trepidation, because I don’t know if I can call woman babes any more! Our feeling is that, quite apart from any sexist aspect, it was a way of once again taking the stuffiness out of books.