Thursday 28 October 2010

Dancing With Myself: JEN FORBUS interviews JEN FORBUS

Welcome to the newest installment of “Dancing with Myself” I’m here today with Jen Forbus…wait, who? [Note to self: must ask Nigel if he needs some assistance in recruiting real talent for this gig.] I guess we should start off with who ARE you and why are you qualified to be included in this high-power project?

Well, I’m Jen Forbus and I blog at Jen’s Book Thoughts. I’m not really sure what qualifies me to be included among the likes of Emma Donaghue, Kelli Stanley and R.J. Ellory, but I’ll try to be worthy of the invite. My completely uncreative blog name should let you know right away that I am not a writer myself – aside from my blog posts. I’m a huge crime fiction fan, though. Obsessive, I guess you could say. And I try to be creative in how I approach crime fiction on the blog. The nice folks at Crimespree sometimes let me contribute to their magazine as well.

How did you get started reading crime fiction?

The very first mystery I can remember reading was THE WESTING GAME. I read it when I was 8 and it was a tad advanced for me at the time. I remember not understanding and getting frustrated, which is a huge motivator for me. I hate not understanding, and I will not let something defeat me because I’m always convinced I CAN understand it if I try harder. I also enjoyed THE BOXCAR CHILDREN about that same time.

I was pretty eclectic in my reading and then when I started teaching high school English, my reading amounted to the books I was teaching and the papers I was grading. But some of the all-time great crime fiction is taught in English classrooms. When I left teaching, I was pretty clueless about what was popular in fiction. I happened to read a Linda Fairstein book jacket in Sam’s Club one day. It was for ENTOMBED and the connection to Poe fascinated me, so I started looking into it more and found out the book was part of a series. Around the same time I got an email from Borders about Robert Crais’ THE WATCHMAN. Those two series pulled me firmly into crime fiction hook, line and sinker. Then the obsession just snowballed.

So, you like to read crime fiction, but why blog about it?

I’ve always loved to talk about books. People who only know me through the book world are surprised when I say I’m usually a very quiet, non-verbal person. They’re surprised because I can yammer on endlessly about books and authors and events and…well, you get the picture. Anyway, my excitement happens without my permission. I start talking about books and before I know it I’m smiling and I can’t sit still and I get louder and more animated. It’s the most bizarre phenomenon.

When I was teaching, I would be able to talk to my students every day about books and they would laugh at me when I got excited about something we were covering. When I left the classroom I was still reading but didn’t really have anyone to talk to about the books. I went to an author event for Michael Koryta and walked away from it simply elated, bursting to tell someone about it and discuss what happened. But there really was no one immediately there. I went home and wrote a blog post on the personal blog I was keeping at the time and felt this kind of release; an avenue to let the energy and exhilaration flow. It didn’t take long for me to start a blog that was strictly book related.

And then I started finding all of these great authors whose books weren’t at places like Walmart, Sams Club or the local drugstore. The blog gave me a chance to tell a lot of people about authors like Craig Johnson, Craig McDonald, Louise Penny, Thomas Holland, Hilary Davidson, and most recently R.J. Ellory.

So when you started that blog, you couldn’t have had many followers. What motivated you to keep blogging?

Most of the time I still don’t feel like I have a ton of followers. I know there are quite a few lurkers, but when I listen to other bloggers talk, I feel like I have a small following. But boy are they awesome!

Part of the stamina came from just feeling like I was releasing the energy from my excitement. But I had a few friends from a Crais discussion board who would stop by and leave me encouraging comments. I met Lesa Holstine and Trish Collins who have become wonderful friends, but in the beginning they were a huge source of motivation for me; they still are, really.

They are often my sounding board when I’m trying to hash out ideas that aren’t fully formed. And then there was the crime fiction community. They were so, so welcoming and willing. When I approached Alafair Burke and Michael Koryta about the very first interviews for the blog, they were so wonderful to say yes, even though my interview questions then were really rather bad. They were great sports. It still shocks me when I contact an author I admire about doing an interview and they say, “yes.”

These days I’m inundated with motivations. I love the doors that the blog has opened for me. Without the blog I never would have met the Jordans, probably wouldn’t have met Kaye Barley and Judy Bobalik. I consider these people my family now, and what a great gift that is. I’m extremely motivated by positive responses to projects I work on. I’ve done a couple of projects working directly with authors and it’s an amazing gift they bestow when they agree to participate. Equally wonderful was the “theme week” I coordinated and other bloggers participated. Their motivation fueled me and I’m excited to try that again in 2011. I walk on Cloud 9 every time I have someone ask for book recommendations. I just love the feeling of turning folks on to wonderful, new books. And of course more people comment now, so I have more friends to talk to about books. And I’m always looking for new book friends!

Is there anything you wish you would have known before you started blogging?

Well, I’m sure if I put thought into it, I could come up with some things it would have been nice to know, but the whole process I’ve evolved through has been a wonderful ride. And the best part is, it’s not even close to over. I love growing and discovering; finding what works and what doesn’t. There are so many elements and fads and whatnot that change on an almost daily basis. As a hobby blogger, it’s hard to keep up with it all, so I don’t kill myself trying. I just do what makes me happy.

Oh, o.k., I’ve thought of something I wish I would have known before…or maybe it’s actually something I wish I would have put more thought into. I wish I would have come up with a snappier name for my blog.

So you really cover primarily, almost exclusively, crime fiction. Don’t you want to be an eclectic reader?

I didn’t develop my obsession with popular crime fiction until a handful of years ago, so I’ve experienced a lot of different kinds of books and genres and whatnot. What we look at as classic literature is some of the greatest crime fiction ever: Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Twain, Shakespeare, Dickens, Homer, Sophocles, Faulkner, etc. So, I think it was a natural gravitation for me. Through my reading experiences, I’ve found that I’m not a big fan of the romance genre. I think I’m too cynical and I find a lot of it starts to sound like a soap opera. Even in crime fiction, if authors start getting too sappy with the love interests in their plots I find myself rolling my eyes. My cynicism also prevents me from getting much enjoyment from science fiction or paranormal books. And while there are exceptions to this generalization, as a whole, memoirs make me want to run screaming.

I will read Pat Conroy every chance I get because I love his work. I read authors like Toni Morrison, Ken Kesey, Garth Stein. I enjoy some poetry and select non-fiction. But reading is my hobby. I do it for enjoyment and therefore I choose the types of books I’m most likely to enjoy. That’s crime fiction most of the time. And there are more than enough great crime fiction books to keep me busy for years to come. Add in the fact that I didn’t start reading them until fairly recently; that provides a huge back list of authors and titles I’d like to someday read as well.

But, you read so much. Haven’t you read everything?

Ha! Not even close. I guess I read more than the average American, but I don’t think that says much. Our society is pretty disappointing when it comes to reading activity as a whole. In the population of “avid readers” I don’t read a lot at all. The biggest part of that comes from the fact that I’m a slow reader. I’ve always been a slow reader. A book that takes the average person 8 hours to read will take me closer to 12. I’ve never been a scanner; never managed to master that art. And if I’m in a good book, I don’t even want to scan. I want to devour each and every word. I want to luxuriate in the book’s wonderfulness. I’m also easily distracted by activity or noises around me…or sometimes day dreaming. That slows me down as well.

I manage to read as many as I do with the help of audiobooks, through reading during my lunch breaks at work, spending time each evening reading, and simply opting to read as a pleasurable activity. I don’t watch TV. My TV has been on the fritz for the last 3 years. Sometimes I feel out of the loop, but for the most part I don’t even really miss it.

You seem to have acquired a reputation of being a very nice person. Is this why you give everyone positive reviews? Do you have a dark side?

Anyone who thinks I’m nice should spend an hour with my sister. She’ll be happy to tell you what an evil person I am! No, in all honesty, I do try to make an effort to treat others the way I would want to be treated. Plus I have that disease that Meg Ryan had in YOU’VE GOT MAIL. You know? How she felt awful anytime she said something mean to someone. I have that problem, too. Catholic guilt maybe? I can be very catty and nasty, but I try to refrain from being public about it because it’s often my issue, not the person or situation I’m aiming my nastiness at.

As far as my reviews go, I wouldn’t say I give everyone positive reviews. I choose to post positive reviews over negative reviews. I don’t write about books that were so bad I couldn’t find redeeming qualities in them. If I was being paid to review everything I read, then I’d have to write negative reviews. But I’m not, this is my hobby. I want to spend my time with books that I enjoy. And not all the reviews I write are glowingly great. I think people who read my reviews on a regular basis notice when I’m not so thrilled with a book. But I choose not to be outright snarky about what I perceive to be weaknesses in the book. I mention them, but not with an effort at being mean. I think that’s the big difference. It seems like when people write reviews recognized as “negative” they are actually rather mean reviews. And they focus on the negative. I focus on the positives I found and mention the negatives. The other thing I try to be very cognizant of is the fact that I have personal biases. I mentioned the one about sappiness above. That turns me off completely. Other people love that. So I make it clear what led me to perceive something as negative.

I once heard a writer say I should post negative reviews because he would learn from them. My response to that is simply this: “I’m not your editor. If you’d like to pay me to be your editor, I’ll be glad to give you all kinds of constructive criticism. I have done that for people. My blog is my hobby; therefore the only person I’m obligated to oblige is me.”

In the end, though, I have my blog because I want to talk about books I love and encourage others to read great crime fiction. To reach beyond the safe or the familiar. I find it exciting when I find someone new to me that I think is phenomenally talented. I want others to enjoy that experience, too. I have the luxury of being able to recommend books without the bias of working for a publisher, without the need to sell a certain level of stock. I can simply recommend what I love. I’ve never had someone come up to me and ask, “What book shouldn’t I read?” I answer the question people do ask me, “What have you read lately that you love?”

How has blogging changed you, do you think?

Oh, that’s an easy one. I’ve really come out of my shell. All my life I was a shy, reserved person. I did what was safe and I stayed in my comfort zone. Lately I look in the mirror and see an obnoxious, over-bearing, loud-mouth who’s going to visit the moon. O.k., it isn’t that dramatic a difference, but the fact that I drove to Indianapolis by myself last year, introduced myself and talked with people I’d never met before. Those were huge undertakings for me. I conducted a live interview with Alafair Burke in February and am moderating a panel at this year’s Bouchercon. And isn’t it ironic, that a solitary act like typing on a computer is what made me a more social creature?

I smile a lot more now, too.

We probably ought to wrap this up here. It’s gotten a little out of hand. So why don’t we end with a fun question? Now that you have all this experience with crimes, if you could use one weapon to fend off an intruder, what would it be?

Oy. Even though I read a lot of crime novels, I’m not a violent person. I’m actually an advocate for stricter gun control laws in the U.S. so it definitely wouldn’t be a gun. I can’t even manage to keep a cell phone with me on a regular basis, so it’d really have to be a weapon that was part of me or a weapon of convenience – I’d forget to pack a knife or a star or brass knuckles. So, I’m going to say either my teeth or my feet. Given the right scenario, I can give a whopper of a kick and I’m not afraid to bite if I need to. But even more so, I’d use my noodle. While I would forget it if it weren’t permanently attached to my shoulders, it’s pretty reliable.

Thanks Jen! [*Aside*: can you believe how much she had to say? Like she was somebody or something!]


  1. No negative reviews because you're not the editor? Ha. That's great.

    Nice interview. Good stuff

  2. Jen has just one thing in common with my dad: Other than him, she's the only person I really trust for book recommendations. Because she's brilliant and stuff.

  3. Great interview, Jen! Erin, I agree with you! If Jen recommends a book, I trust that recommendation. She's never steered me wrong!

  4. I've seen your nasty side (not directed at me, thank goodness) and liked it. But I like the nice one, too.

    Nice interview, Jen. As usual.

  5. What Jon said! My rather healthy TBR stack of books is due in large part to Ms. Jen.

    Enjoyed the interview!

  6. Someone with this much enthusiasm about books is a pleasure to read. Ellen Raskin, my kids adored her. I remember them reading her while all around them, things were happening. Quite a fabulous writer. They wrote her a fan letter and she answered it!

  7. Jen, I'm devastated -- no six-word memoir from YOU???

  8. Great interview. Love the enthusiasm!

  9. Thanks for the nice comments everyone. You're making me blush.

    Naomi, I did a memoir on Kaye Barley's blog earlier this year. I'll look it up for you.

  10. Count on another follower. I'm in. Cool interview with a cool lady.

  11. Jen's constructive criticism is so thoughtful and fair, she'd make a wonderful editor. Even negative comments are given out of kindness. And her saying she isn't a writer...well, she isn't faking talent. Who else gives such an eloquent endorsement of the genre?