By the Book

Mary Ann Grossmann shares memories, literary reflections and winter reading tips.

In 1961, a young Mary Ann Grossmann began working in the newsroom at what was then called the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press. After several years as editor of the “women’s department,” Grossmann went on to be named the books editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1983. She has since become one of the most highly regarded literary lights in the community, and a recipient of the Minnesota Book Awards Kay Sexton Award and a Page One Award.

In 2001, she retired from her full-time position with the Pioneer Press, but continues to review books and interview Minnesota authors for the newspaper.

As a woman with a fondness for language, here are some of her reflections on career highlights, great books and more in her own words:

Memorable interview moments

President Jimmy Carter: “His eyes are gray and he looks at you like a laser. It’s like his whole energy is just focused right on you. It’s disconcerting and so interesting.”

Susan Sontag: “I was so terrified—the more I heard how brilliant she was, the more terrified I got. I prepared even more than I usually do. We could see the Minnesota State Fair, which was going on at the time, from her hotel. At the end of the interview, I asked her if she had time, would she want to see the 1,000-pound boar? She laughed and said, ‘Yes, I would.’ ”

Dr. Zahi Hawass: “Meeting him was my ‘I can die happy’ moment. He is an Egyptian archeologist— I love archeology—and I begged to cover his visit to the Science Museum for the Tutankhamun exhibit. I don’t know what got into me, but I said, ‘Dr. Hawass, if it weren’t unprofessional, I’d hug you’—before I had even asked a question. He said, ‘I think we should.’ In this job, you have to let yourself be a little starstruck sometimes.”

The stellar literary community

“Here’s my big rant. [Laughs.] From 1975 to 2000, there was an explosion of literary activity here that I think was unprecedented in the country. In 1975, there was a fundraiser at Sammy D’s in Dinkytown that was the beginning of the Loft; there was this guy there with a big beard named Garrison Keillor and no one had ever heard of him.

“In the years following, publishers like Coffee House, Graywolf and Milkweed Chronicles (now Milkweed Editions) started. Garrison landed on the cover of Time magazine. Independent bookstores like Hungry Mind and Odegard’s were thriving. Reading series were just beginning—we weren’t considered flyover land anymore for authors on tour. I end it at 2000, when Open Book, which is the biggest writers’ building in the country, opened in Minneapolis. It’s the only building owned by three literary entities: The Loft, Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Milkweed. The founders wanted the synergy of everything feeding off everything else. Nobody had ever done anything like this before.”

Mary Ann Grossmann’s latest must-reads by Minnesota authors:

The Nix by Nathan Hill. “Everyone must read this. It’s written by a professor from the University of St. Thomas and it came out of nowhere. He’s being compared to John Cheever and Charles Dickens, which is pretty good.”

The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee. “The story is set in the sandhills of Nebraska. It’s about a very feisty woman who takes back her ranch. It’s also a mystery.”

Perfume River Nights by Michael Maurer. “Everyone, but especially Vietnam vets, should love this book. The author is a vet who went back to live in southeast Asia for eight years—he had promised his buddies, who died in the war, that he would write this story. It’s just shivery and very moving.”