The End of Your Life Book Club: An Interview with Will Schwalbe

Emily Gatlin

Staff Writer

Emily Gatlin is a former independent bookstore manager turned freelance writer. Follow her antics on Twitter: @emilygatlin

During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us. A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love—The End of Your Life Book Club is also about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.

Q: Will, you had quite a career in publishing before writing The End of Your Life Book Club. Just so our readers know, you were the SVP and Editor in Chief of Hyperion Books and before that, you worked at William Morrow. Growing up, what was your “reading life” like? Did your mother have an impact, and what books did she share with you as a child?

will-schwalbeWS: My childhood reading had a huge impact on me, and I think in many ways set me on a course to work in publishing. When my brother and sister and I were little, Mom would read us each our own book every night before sleep (when she wasn’t out or traveling for work). Part of the joy of the nighttime reading ritual was selecting and discussing the books with Mom. So it was when I was very little that I started to understand the pleasure that comes not just from reading books, but also from choosing them and talking about them. And that’s really what publishers do – find and spread the word about books they love. My first favorite books were HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON by Crockett Johnson and THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. Then I fell in love with JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes. And as a pre-teen began racing through Alistair Maclean books like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.

Q: You left Hyperion and founded Cookstr, a website devoted to organizing the world’s best cookbooks and making them universally accessible. So not only are you a book lover, YOU’RE A FOODIE! How did Cookstr come about, and what was it like to jump from words to food?

WS: Books and food! They just go together. Cookstr came about because I love food and cookbooks and cookbook authors; I was very excited about exploring digital media; I had acquired and edited THE LONG TAIL by Chris Anderson and was really taken with his vision of the future and wanted to be part of it; and I wanted to create a way that chefs and cookbook publishers could share whatever rewards there were on the web. One thing we are really proud of at Cookstr is that we are the only site that shares its income with the people who create the recipes. Because I always published cookbooks and am still involved with books through writing, I don’t feel like I’ve jumped from words to food – only somewhat shifted my focus.

Q: The End of Your Life Book Club not only impacted my life and lead me to share more books and have more discussions with my family and friends, it also made my “to read” pile multiply exponentially. Have you heard of any readers adopting your list?

WS: That’s the nicest reaction imaginable. Thank you! Yes, I’ve had quite a few readers say they are adopting the list. And I even saw that one book blogger wrote that she’s going to spend a year reading all the books.

maryanneschwalbeQ: What recent releases do you think Mary Anne would have enjoyed?

WS: I keep reading books I think Mom would have loved. THE UNWINDING by George Packer; THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud; TOBY’S ROOM by Pat Barker; THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer; A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki; and HOW TO GET RICH IN RISING ASIA by Mohsin Hamid. These are just a few. There are so many terrific books out now. And I’ve heard wonderful things about WE NEED NEW NAMES by NuViolet Bulawayo and suspect that, based on the reviews, Mom would have rushed to the local bookstore to get a copy. It’s next on my list.

Q: You’re in the middle of your paperback tour. What are some things you do while on the road? Do you buy books on your travels? You’re a food guy. What do you like to eat? Local fare?

WS: I have a blast on tour. I buy books everywhere I go – and am particularly drawn to “staff recommends” in the great bookstores I visit. I try to visit libraries and museums whenever I get the chance. I stayed an extra day in Kansas City to visit the great Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and wished I’d stayed at least one day past that so I could go back again, and also visit some of the other museums there. I was livid with myself for being in Houston on a Monday and missing the chance to visit some of the awesome museums there. I bring my running shoes but I never (as in, never ever) seem to make it to the gym. As for food, I make a bee-line for whatever restaurant is most famous for local fare: I’ve had insanely delicious Cheese Coneys at Skyline in Cincinnati; Cheese Fries at Michael’s in Highland Park; Burnt Ends at Jack Stacks in Kansas City – I could go on and on. But I also seek out great local chefs and farm-to-table restaurants. Some recent memorable meals include Curate in Asheville and Local 127 in Cincinnati.

You can download a complete list of Will and Mary Anne’s books.