After spending 32 years as the Post & Courier's book review editor, and 41 years total in the newspaper business, you'd think Bill Thompson would be enjoying the sort of retirement that involves lots of golfing and trips to the Caribbean — or at least, the sort that doesn't involve many deadlines.
But once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman. Instead of throwing out the calendar and smashing the clock, Thompson got down to business putting together his first book, Art & Craft: Thirty Years on the Literary Beat, not long after he retired from the P&C in 2012. The book, which was published last month by the University of South Carolina (USC) Press, is a collection of interview pieces and book reviews that Thompson completed over his three decades at the paper (during that same time, he was also the P&C's arts editor and film critic, while also largely running the travel section).
"I always thought at some point I'd do a book," Thompson says. "But what I'd mainly envisioned was one on film, maybe one on travel." It was the USC Press director Jonathan Haupt who encouraged Thompson to start with his book-related work. "In the months after I retired, [Haupt] invited me to submit a book proposal. I'd originally suggested something offhand, a kind of omnibus of things I'd done for the P&C," Thompson says. "But their being an academic press, they were most interested in the literary."
So Thompson started sorting through his hundreds of book-related features, pulling the ones that he felt were the most interesting and enduring. The group that made the cut — there are just under 100 of them, of varying length — include interviews with some of the country's most famous writers as well as many, equally excellent, who toil in relative obscurity. The first section of Art & Craft, titled "Leading Lights, or the Test of Renown," features pieces on Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Edward Albee, Michael Cunningham, and Pat Conroy, among others.
Of course, any journalist — especially one who's been on the job as long as Thompson was — will tell you that a subject's fame or renown has little to do with the quality of the interview. "It's important to note that even though it was interesting to interview those people, within five or so minutes it hits you that these are people with the same insecurities, the same needs, as anyone else. Some of the most interesting conversations I had were with people who weren't remotely famous," Thompson says.
It's hard to find an author who truly fits that description in Art & Craft, but there are plenty of interesting conversations, many with writers who are not household names (at least, not for the general public). There's the piece on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz' Confederates in the Attic, a marvelous work of nonfiction that mashes up history, travel, and memoir. Thompson and Horwitz talked Civil War reenactments, among other topics. "'That's why I find re-enacting, which I initially viewed as just very strange, as actually a very fascinating and revealing activity in terms of what it says about the culture,'" Horwitz says in the piece. "'It's not just cultists doing this.'"
Then there's the talk he had with the Charleston-born Jack Hitt, about Hitt's memoir of doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. "'All the classic weirdos and uptight people and airheads are there,'" Hitt says, talking about the trek. "'They're on hand for my delectation, and I'm there to some extent for theirs. Maybe they saw me as a glorious eccentric. But you never knew anybody's name; names were meaningless on the road. Our identities changed; we became pilgrims.'"
These, and so many other quotes you'll find throughout Art & Craft, make you wish you could have heard the rest of Thompson's conversation with the authors. You don't get quotes like that unless you have, and can convey, a sincere interest in what the other person has to tell you. And of course, you have to have done your homework.
This, in a nutshell, is why Thompson gave Post & Courier readers such excellent book (and film, and travel) coverage for so many years. He's got an intellectual curiosity that can be ignited as easily by the author of a biography on Grace Kelly as by the newest work of fiction by someone like Tom Wolfe. "For me, the most rewarding aspect of conducting these interviews is in the first place, just meeting such a diverse, articulate group of people with whom you get the right of talking about books, about ideas. Understanding their approach to their work, how their style evolved or developed — all that is most engaging," says Thompson.
Oddly enough, Thompson didn't always think talking about books — or reading them, for that matter — was that exciting. He claims to have been a terrible student as a child, always wanting to be outdoors playing instead of indoors studying. When he got to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, things began to shift. "College is when reading became less of a chore," he says. "It was kind of a gradual accrual. Part of it was the influence of great college professors, and before that, great parents — they always encouraged reading, and thought it was very important."
Over time, Thompson's at first reluctant interest in books blossomed into true biblophilia. Throughout his years at the P&C, he managed a book section, and later, as cuts began to be made, a book page, that held not just himself, but the writers he managed and the readers they wrote for to a higher standard than one usually finds at a newspaper.
Now, he's doing the same thing as a freelance book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews — although now, he can focus solely on the books themselves. "I'm finding that in terms of volume, I'm reading more books than I did as the book review editor. Because then, the emphasis was on 'editor,' he says. "Now I review mostly nonfiction and you have a choice of such wonderful books, truly wonderful books. It's fun, and edifying too. I'm reading only what I want to read."
Editor's note: Elizabeth Pandolfi wrote her first published piece of work, a book review, for Bill Thompson in 2006.