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Seattle Times arts critic Moira Macdonald begins a new chapter

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Sometimes in life, something astonishingly wonderful happens; and yet, that wonderful thing comes with a little side dish of regret — something forever changed that you hadn’t quite anticipated.

That’s what happened to me in the last few weeks. Some readers may remember that I took some time off last year to work on a fiction project: my debut novel — part contemporary comedy of manners, part rom-com — set partly in a Seattle bookstore and titled “Storybook Ending.” After working through several drafts, I had the great good fortune to find a wonderful agent interested. And within a few weeks of my submitting a final draft to her last month, my book sold at auction to a wonderful publisher: Dutton, an imprint of (gulp) Penguin Random House. A number of international deals quickly went through as well, as my head wildly spun and my life suddenly seemed transformed into … well, a novel.

While I remain thrilled and honored and entirely stunned by this turn of events, things seem to be calming down a bit, helped by the fact that the publishing industry moves very slowly. (Tentative publication date for my book: spring 2025.) But there’s an immediate change that affects my work at The Seattle Times: Because of the conflict of interest presented by being under contract to a major publisher, I can no longer write about books for the paper. Other voices will of course do so — and you’ll still find literary coverage in the Sunday paper and on our website — but while I’ll continue to write about the arts for The Times, my time writing about books is done.

And so this brings a bittersweet end to what’s been a dream assignment: writing about books and authors and bookstores, sharing great books with readers, hearing about what you were reading. Though I contributed occasional book stories in my earlier years at The Times, my involvement with the books beat really began in earnest in early 2017, when the great Mary Ann Gwinn retired and it fell to me — quite happily — to become the regular voice of our literary coverage.

Here are just a few favorite moments from a busy six-and-a-half years.

Author interviews: Obviously a highlight of the job was getting to talk to authors whose work I’ve admired, and learning just a bit about how they do what they do. Jamie Ford and I spent a wonderful morning walking around the Chinatown International District and Pioneer Square, visiting the real locations that inspired his novels “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and “Love and Other Consolation Prizes.” Sue Grafton, in a warm interview full of laughter, told me about her own “all-purpose dress,” a garment she shares with her private-eye heroine Kinsey Millhone; her presence, even on the telephone, was so vivid that it came as a devastating shock to learn of her death just a few months later.

Tayari Jones told me about how she wrote her acclaimed bestseller “An American Marriage” — and all of her books — on one of her collection of vintage manual typewriters. (“The typewriter slows me down, and it’s more legible than handwriting,” she said. “And I do feel very satisfied making all that noise.”) George Saunders explained how he created 166 separate voices around the real-life death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son in “Lincoln in the Bardo.” Margaret Atwood told me that rereading “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments” creeped her out quite a lot, because in terms of the world today, “they’re just a little bit too accurate.”

Kazuo Ishiguro, in a friendly phone call from London in early 2021, shared his lockdown projects — which included rereading “War and Peace,” which wasn’t entirely satisfying though “obviously, it’s still pretty good.” And Ann Patchett evangelized her treadmill desk, which she said gave her a wonderful sense of “walking into my book” and which she spoke of with such fervor I briefly considered getting one myself.

Revisiting old favorites: I’m a big believer in the joys of rereading, and over the past few years had the chance to wax rhapsodic about some books close to my heart. Among them: “Little Women,” on the occasion of its 150th anniversary; “Anne of Green Gables”; Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”; and Daphne du Maurier’s forever-young “Rebecca.”

Book clubs: I loved writing a story about Seattle’s longtime book clubs, for which I heard from more than 175 local clubs (including my own) that have been meeting for 30 years or more. And what a treat it was to head up Moira’s Book Club, an online-only gathering (though we did eventually have a couple of in-person events, discussing book-to-movie adaptations) that was a real lifeline for me — and maybe a few of you — during pandemic isolation.

Local stories: Covering the books beat means not just reviews and interviews, but finding the unique stories that make Seattle such a haven for book lovers. I was thrilled to meet Special Collections librarian Sandra Kroupa at the UW, who placed into my hands a book held (and printed) by Virginia Woolf; to learn more about the legacy of Seattle-born author John Okada and “No-No Boy”; to chat with local literary legend Nancy Pearl. I loved exploring our city’s wealth of independent bookstores, both as new shops opened and on the massive book-themed party that is Independent Bookstore Day (for which I am, I’m proud to say, a three-time Bookstore Champion).

And one story stays with me in particular. Several years ago, before the pandemic, I stood in Elliott Bay Book Co. and watched as about a hundred enthusiastic Garfield High School students arrived to buy books with gift cards. It was part of a program created by longtime Garfield English teacher Adam Gish, who realized that for many of his students, buying a book was an unheard-of luxury. Here’s how I described the scene:

About 450 books were purchased, each speaking to its new owner in some way; each bringing, as books do, a new world. And as the buzz in the store grew, with students excitedly showing off their choices and recommending titles to friends, it seemed almost like the steady noise of a construction site — the sound of building something new and lasting, book by book, reader by reader.

Books and bookstores are magic, and I’ll miss chatting about them, reader-to-reader, with all of you. Thanks for sharing the magic with me.

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