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Question and Answer: Rachel Donadio

Staff Writer for the New York Times Book Review

Michael Orbach

Issue date: 2/8/07 Section: Knight Life
Q: How did you get involved in the New York Times Book Review? (re: Is working for the New York Observer as creepy as it seems?)

A: Sam Tanenhaus asked me to join the Book Review in August 2004, when I was working at the New York Observer, where I covered publishing and New York intellectual life. I loved working at the Observer and wasn't looking to leave, but I knew that a chance to define my own beat at the New York Times Book Review was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as indeed it has proven [to be].

Working at the Observer wasn't creepy, it was fun! Most of the reporters were in their 20s (as was I at the time), and the editor, Peter Kaplan, is a genius. I've always preferred working for small, boutique newspapers where even the most novice reporters can sink their teeth into big stories. The cubicle farms at the big glossies pay better and offer a more professional work environment, but they edit all the life out of your copy and it's extremely hard to rise up the totem pole. At the Observer, my computer ran Windows 95 - nearly a decade after 1995 - but I did some of the best writing of my life there.

Q: What's it like working in the NYTBR?

A: It's great! I love it. My colleagues are terrifically smart and well informed. We have first-rate office banter about books, ideas and world affairs, but also pop culture, New York real estate and sports. In fact, as a total sports ignoramus, I sometimes joke that I've never worked at quite such a sports-obsessed office than at the New York Times Book Review. Our work routine involves editing book reviews - line editing and fact-checking page references - but since I'm a reporter/editor, I also spend a lot of time writing and on the phone reporting. We have our own weekly production cycle and are fairly removed from the Times newsroom.

Q: You just had a great piece on the current state of African literature in the New York Times Magazine. What was Africa like?

A: I'm glad you liked that article. Africa is a vast and incredibly diverse continent, and I wouldn't dare generalize. I spent about two weeks in South Africa, specifically Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, and in the end wrote a very specific story about the generational differences between two black novelists: Zakes Mda, who's in his late 50s and lives most of the time in Ohio, and Niq Mhlongo, who's in his mid 30s and lives near Soweto. South Africa blew my mind. I had never been to a country so complicated, so full of energy and pathos. Until then, Europe had been my cultural reference point. But Europe is over, its intellectual class engaged with the past. In South Africa, the writers and intellectuals I met were deeply invested in charting a future for their country, one that's both politically stable and morally viable. It's not an easy task. I'd go back in a heartbeat.
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mike Hoover

posted 11/22/07 @ 4:39 PM EST

I especially liked the comment "establishment hack" I'm an old dog who loves to hear how the kids of today are up against it with technolgy like my generation who got into it late. (Continued…)

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