Today we have a Q&A with Paul Goat Allen, who writes Barnes & Noble’s Explorations blog, and moderates B&N’s Sci Fi/Fantasy and Paranormal/Urban Fantasy book forums. He has reviewed thousands of books for Barnes & Noble, the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly and many other publications. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Paul on B&N’s book club forums for several years – I’m very excited for you all to meet him!
Romance University: Welcome to Romance University, Paul! Please tell us a little about yourself.
Paul Goat Allen: Well, Becke, as you know I’ve been a full-time book reviewer for almost 20 years and it’s been an unbelievable ride. I’ve made a career out of reading and reviewing genre fiction and I’ve had the opportunity to interview hundreds of authors for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, etc.
When I tell someone what I do, the response is frequently “Oh! That’s my dream job – I would love to do that!” but the reality is that I have to read and review between four and six books per week and a sizable percentage of those books are, shall we say, less than stellar. Try trudging through three or four downright terrible novels in a row and then let me know how great you think my job is!
But that’s why I absolutely love my job with BarnesandNoble.com, which I’ve been doing since the 1990’s. It’s essentially to seek out and find the “good stuff,” the crème de la crème in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It’s a wonderful feeling to discover an extraordinary read that has been overlooked by everyone else and then share it with the world.
RU: How did you become a book reviewer? Did you seek out this career intentionally, or did you stumble on it accidentally?
PGA: I know quite a few professional book reviewers and to my knowledge none of them started off with this specific career path in mind. It was the same for me – when I got out of college with degrees in English Lit and Creative Writing, I seriously thought that I was going to make it as a poet. Talk about delusional!
My hair was almost down to my waist and I had a crazy “homeless guy living under the bridge” kind of beard. I became a performance poet and read my work everywhere that I could – schools, bookstores, libraries, arts and craft fairs, community centers… I even hired an electric guitar player and we opened up for heavy metal bands in area bars! Those were INSANE experiences.
I began compiling a book of poetry that I hoped to publish but I needed a “real job” to quote my father so, somewhat surprisingly, I hooked up as a long-term substitute English teacher at my old high school – but after a few months of hormonally insane teenagers and frustrating administrative politics I knew teaching wasn’t for me. With not very many options available, I went the retail route and interviewed at a Coles bookstore located in a nearby mall and almost instantly fell in love with the bookstore vibe.
It was a dream job – I soon became a manager and saved up enough money to self-publish two collections of poetry, which I (conveniently) sold in the store. During the eight years that I managed bookstores, I also published a novel entitled Burning Sticks through a small press. My life was going pretty well – I was known locally as a writer and poet and I had a stable job that I liked. But then Borders bought all of the Waldenbooks and Coles bookstores and that cool bookstore vibe disappeared almost instantly. I knew my days were numbered but I had no idea what I was going to do.
But then Fate intervened. A friend of mine who worked at the Waldenbooks home office in Stamford, Connecticut, had recently gotten a job as a book buyer at Barnes & Noble’s headquarters in Manhattan. She called me to let me know that the company was looking for an editor for their Explorations newsletter, a bimonthly SF/fantasy book review that was available for free in all of the B&N and B Dalton stores. I interviewed for the job knowing full well that I would never get it – but I did get it and almost two decades later, I’m still doing Explorations for BN.com.
My job with B&N eventually paved the way for more freelancing gigs – PW, BookPage, Kirkus, the Chicago Tribune, BookPage, etc.
But I still dream about making it as a poet some day…
RU: I understand you’ve written well over 6,000 reviews. Do you remember the first review you ever wrote? Did you choose the book yourself or was it assigned to you?
PGA: I don’t remember my first book review but I do remember one of my very first interviews. Anne McCaffrey. I was so nervous – she was a living legend, a literary icon, and I grew up reading her Pern novels – but she turned out to be so incredibly down-to-earth and kind. I remember she went off on this tangent about trying to figure out how some race of aliens could have sex. She was 72 at the time and I just remember thinking, “wow, can I be this cool when I’m 72?”
RU: You are a published author as well as a reviewer. Are you still writing poetry or fiction?
PGA: I have one mainstream fiction novel essentially finished except for the ending (which sucks) and a bunch of miscellaneous poems. But I recently decided to try my hand at science fiction/fantasy – I’ve been reading it nonstop for 20 years and I’ve run across a lot of formulaic, derivative storylines. I’m just finishing up a highly unconventional – and potentially unreadable – short story that will hopefully see the light of day somewhere soon.
RU: What are some of the most memorable books you’ve reviewed?
PGA: Well, like I just said, science fiction and fantasy can be very formulaic and uninspired. I remember books that have a profound personal impact on me – like Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, etc. – and I also remember the reads that were singularly unique, wildly original and visionary, like Jon Armstrong’s Grey and Stephan Chapman’s The Troika, to name a few off the top of my head.
RU: Do you use a checklist while you’re reading a book, taking notes to use in your review? What sort of things do you look for?
PGA: Well, many companies that I review for need citations (for character names, plotlines, quotes, etc.) so when I read a book, I take a lot of notes. I also like to keep track of particularly good lines and/or elements as well as bad ones. It makes writing the reviews much easier.
RU: What books influenced you when you were growing up?
PGA: I was a big reader when I was a kid and I read whatever I could get my hands on. As a kid in elementary school, fantasy was powerful for me – Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Brooks’ Shannara, McCaffrey’s Pern, but as I became a teenager, science fiction had a huge impact. Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions anthologies blew my mind – as did Thea Alexander’s 2150 A.D., Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and pretty much anything Arthur C. Clarke wrote.
RU: What are some of the books on your keeper shelves?
PGA: You’ll have to stop over for a cup of coffee and see for yourself – there are bookshelves everywhere. It’s like a museum.
RU: I’m almost afraid to ask, but how many books are in your waiting-to-be-read pile?
PGA: I have an entire room downstairs filled with ARCs and review copies. Seriously. I’d guess a few hundred easy…
RU: What books have excited you lately?
PGA: I’m loving this current Golden Age of apocalyptic fiction, particularly the female writers and female protagonists. There are some extraordinary end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels being released now: Sophie Littlefield’s Aftertime trilogy, Mira Grant’s Newsflesh saga, Rhiannon Frater’s As the World Dies trilogy, Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh, Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy, Jessica Meigs’ Becoming saga, etc. I love a good apocalypse…
RU: Finally, I’d love to hear a little-known fact about you – something that might surprise us!
PGA: Okay. Let’s see if this surprises you: I’m obsessed with the number 13. All of my book titles have 13 letters (Warlock Dreams, Old Winding Way, and Burning Sticks), my daughters’ names are 13 letters long, and my wife’s maiden name was 13 letters long. (Thank God or else I would’ve never dated her!)
RU: Thanks for letting us pick your brain today, Paul!
PGA: Anything for you, Becke! Hope it wasn’t too boring.
RU: You? Boring? Never!
Have you ever bought a book based on one of Paul’s reviews? Do you participate in his book forums? We’d love to meet some of Paul’s fans!
On Friday, VIRGINIA KANTRA returns with Part Two of her series on The Basics of POV. Read Part One here.
Paul Goat Allen is a book critic specializing in genre fiction – more than 6,000 reviews and counting – whose work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Huffington Post, etc. but he is probably most well known as being the longtime editor of BarnesandNoble.com’s science fiction and fantasy blog Explorations as well as the moderator for BN.com’s Paranormal & Urban Fantasy and Fantasy & Science Fiction book forums. He has also published a novel and self-published two collections of poetry.