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Interview: Debra Hamel, Founder of Buy A Friend A Book Week (1 Viewer)


This week is Buy A Friend A Book Week, a very cool book event that encourages people to buy a friend a book for no other reason than to just do it. As a book lover myself (I spend way too much time and money at B&N, BAM and Amazon.com) I was instantly drawn into BAFAB Week! This is my second time doing it and this time around I wanted to be more involved and by chance I happen to land a quick interview with BAFAB Week found Debra Hamel.

Q. First, tell us a little bit about yourself, an introduction if you will.

It's interesting how different periods of your life will find you in very different circumstances. Ten years ago I would have explained that I was finishing up graduate school (in classics) and would have identified myself primarily as an ancient historian in the making. But since typing the last of my dissertation (subsequently published: Athenian Generals) my life has changed considerably. I'm now the mother of two little girls (currently 10 and 4 years old), a blogger, and a self-proclaimed book reviewer. In 2003 I published my second book, Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece, but I wrote that back when I was only the mother of one. I haven't undertaken any major projects since because, or so I keep telling myself, it's too difficult amidst the chaos to order my thoughts. Instead I've busied myself with more manageable but still creative tasks--primarily creating and maintaining my various web sites and writing book reviews.

Q. Obviously books play a huge part in your life. When did you get started reading and who are some of your biggest influences? Who and how did you get interested in reading?

I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in reading, actually. But things definitely took off for me, reading-wise, once I finished school, in that I had more time for and felt less guilty about pleasure reading. I started keeping a list of books read in 1997--something I'd hesitated about doing previously because I wondered if quantifying the reading experience was somehow silly or belittling.

Simply listing the books gave way to listing them and rating them with a rudimentary star system. Finally, in 2003 I took the plunge that has really defined my life to a large extent since, and certainly eaten up a good deal of my time. At the time, in 2003 and earlier, I was undecided about how to respond to books. That is, I was reading a lot, jotting down what I'd read, and forgetting most of what I'd read within months. I didn't like that so much of the experience was lost, yet I didn't want to, say, just write down my thoughts about a book for my own personal satisfaction--as a more-noble-than-I friend was doing--because, well, because it didn't have the thrill of an audience, I guess. At the same time I was beginning to hear a little about blogging. The idea appealed to me, though I didn't know what I could possibly say in a blog, and finally I put these two threads together and created book-blog.com, my book review site. I've posted over 200 reviews at the site since, all of them written by me.

As for my biggest influences, that's hard. Maybe not answerable. Certainly there are a great many authors I admire for various reasons. It was probably because I thought Richard Russo's Straight Man was so very good, for example, that I actually sat down to write my first review for book-blog.com. But I truthfully don't know how much I've been influenced by authors.

Q. Have you met any authors if so, who? If not, who would you love to meet?

Not in meatspace, as they say, but in reviewing and being part of the literary blogosphere I've met a number of authors virtually (including Alan Alda, who was, in his note to me in response to my review of his autobiography, as gracious and pleasant as you might expect). To tell you the truth, it hasn't occurred to me to want to meet authors in real life. The internet was made for the likes of me, someone who's perfectly happy when largely withdrawn from the hubbub of social intercourse.

Q. Tell us about this extremely cool project you've got going, the Buy a Friend a Book Week Project. On your site you said you "mapped out the basic idea for the site while lying awake one night after an emergency diaper change". I know we've all had those kinds of idea moments. How did this all come together? Was it as simple as having the idea and then getting a page up? What kind of challenges did you face?

Unfortunately those idea moments in my life don't come around very often. On the other hand, I tend to act on them when they do with a sort of monomaniacal fervor, worried that if I don't act quickly enough I'll lose interest. The genesis of BAFAB was pretty much as you describe it. (Here's a fuller account of the diaper story.) I went to bed having come up with the idea, then I mapped it out more fully in the middle of the night and started making the web site for BAFAB the next day. It was pretty hurried because this happened in mid- to late-June of 2005, and as I'd planned it I wanted July 1-7 to be a BAFAB week. So I wanted the thing ready to go by July 1st, and it was. I asked Damian McNicholl, the author of A Son Called Gabriel, to be the first guest reviewer, and he responded speedily enough for me to get the page up and running in time.

Apart from the usual concerns with the tweaking of html, the challenge I faced and continue to face with BAFAB is one of promotion. Basically, I started a grass-roots campaign to spread the word about what I think is a good idea, simply because it's a good idea. What I need is for people to tell their friends about it. This is happening in the blogosphere, but it needs to spread also to the real world. The idea needs to reach a tipping point so that my being run over by a bus won't be detrimental to its survival. I'm not sure whether that's happened yet.

Spreading the word about BAFAB is made difficult because it's a quarterly event. My success in spreading the word this time around doesn't necessarily mean that people will remember to celebrate BAFAB again in three months' time unless they're reminded.

Q. How long has BAFAB been going on? Has the project been a success so far? What is your proudest moment as the founder of BAFAB Week?

July of 2005 was the first week of BAFAB. I'd say the project is successful because it's been well received both by authors--many of whom have come forward asking to take part in the site as guest reviewers--and by literary bloggers. I've been feeling pretty proud this time around especially because it seems to me--this isn't particularly scientific, but it's my sense of things, from technorati search results and my stats--that the idea is spreading much farther afield than it has in the past. I keep running into references to BAFAB on blogs that I've never heard of before. In other words, initially the project was just discussed by myself and by people I contacted and asked to spread the word. We're on to a second or third or fourth generation now of people mentioning BAFAB on their sites because they encountered the idea somewhere, but not from me. I also like the fact that people refer to Buy a Friend a Book Week as if it's a done deal, like it's more than an idea I conjured up in my bedroom in the middle of the night. It's taken on a life of its own.

Q. For someone who wants to Buy a Friend A Book, other than rushing out to get the book, are there any tips for someone new to the project?

It's a pretty simple idea, requiring only that you buy someone a book. I've heard of some variations on the theme, the occasional contest being offered in conjunction with BAFAB by lit bloggers (book giveaways), and one woman planned to give books to all the members of her reading group. I would ask only that when you give a book for BAFAB you let the person know about the holiday, either by word of mouth or by printing out an explanation from the web site and sticking it in the book. I also had BAFAB cards made up at Zazzle for anyone interested in going whole hog. They turned out nicely.

Q. Personally, I'm always partial to buying books for my nieces and nephews. Getting children hooked on books young, like I was, has been a real joy for me. Creating readers for the next generation is very important to me. I've used BAFAB to try and help some of my adult friends rekindle their interest in books, but I find getting adults to read is a far bigger challenge. What are your thoughts on introducing more people to books and reading, or do you concentrate on sharing great books with people you know already love reading?

So far I've only done the latter, getting books to regular readers. I don't know how one might go about rekindling an interest in reading.... Certainly, some people--my own husband included--simply aren't readers, and nothing's going to get them to read a book for pleasure. This isn't a terrible thing, just a matter of taste, provided that they're not excluded from the reading world by virtue of illiteracy or inadequate access to reading materials. Perhaps, in such a case, instead of Buying a Friend a Book you might cheat and get them a subscription to a magazine (BAFAM?) that's particularly matched to their interests.

Q. How can people get involved and help?

Spread the word! If you know anyone who runs a brick-and-mortar bookstore, try to get them interested in the idea. To me it seems a natural that bookstores would want to spread the word about a holiday that celebrates the gifting of books.

Q. What's next for BAFAB Week?

I've got guest reviewers for BAFAB lined up into 2007. Next up, for the July 2006 BAFAB Week, the guest reviewer will be Chris Steib, the editor of Void Magazine. In October of 2005 I held a contest at buyafriendabook.com, a book giveaway, and I should get my act together and host another one of those soon.