Not many people can say this about Seattle Times arts critic Moira Macdonald: She helped me learn how to tap dance.
Moira and I have worked in the same newsroom for nearly 20 years, but we met a few years before that, when we were both in college, performing in the chorus line of a local, semi-pro production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” This involved learning how to do a triple-time step while wearing excessively patriotic red-white-and-blue dresses and high heels.
Later, reunited as writer and editor, we learned a new kind of dance, shaping words and phrases into daily stories designed to enlighten and entertain. To this day, Moira approaches this work with the same grace and dexterity she brought to the stage years ago. Whether she’s writing about movies, books, ballet, style or one of her many other enthusiasms, her witty, insightful voice is instantly recognizable — and beloved by readers.
Moira, tell readers a little about your background and how it prepared you for your job as an arts critic.
I’m from Seattle; I was born here. My parents are Canadian, and we moved back to Vancouver, B.C., when I was in the fourth grade. I used to have a Canadian accent, and it has been mocked out of me by my husband; I purposely erased it. You will never, ever hear me say “aboot” instead of “about.”
I was a drama and English student at the University of Washington — double major. Then I hung around and went to grad school — got a master’s in English literature so I could immerse myself in books. My interest in film started back then. I loved going to movies at the Neptune Theatre and the Harvard Exit, and then I’d rush home to see what The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael thought about them. She saw things I didn’t see at first glance.
Every beautiful sentence I’ve ever read has inspired me. And I read All. The. Time. I’m not a sports fan, and I’m an insomniac; that frees up a lot of time for books.
What’s unique about the kind of journalism you practice?
Criticism is different than reporting, and different critics approach their work differently. I believe we go to movies — or any work of art or entertainment — to be moved in some way: to laugh, to cry, to be scared, to be dazzled. So I try to write about that thing that happened to me. What I’m trying to do is get at “Where does this work of art want to take me, and did I get there?” It’s a really vulnerable way to write. It puts you at the center of your writing, but it’s a tricky balance because it’s also not an essay about you. … I’m trying to focus on this piece of art, and how I reacted to it, in a way that’s thoughtful, honest and informed.
What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
People always say, “You have the best job in the world … you get paid to watch movies.” And I say, that would be a fantastic job, but I have to also write about them. (If anyone has that job, they’re very lucky.) And think of the last ad you saw for a movie that looked really awful. I probably saw that movie. Sometimes, I think, “Wow, I just spent two hours doing that.”
Also: I’ve had people meet me and be really shocked and say, “But you seem really nice!” And I say, “Yes, I am.” Critics — most of them, at least — are not mean, bitter people. Someone once wrote to me after I’d written a critical review of a bad rom-com. And he said, “Obviously, no one has ever loved you.” For the record, people have and people do.
How do you choose which books to review? There are so many.
It is difficult. I never have as much time as I’d like to sit and look at the shelves full of review copies and look at what’s there. You don’t want to just review books by authors you liked before. I never would have found Angie Kim’s “Miracle Creek” that way, or Dominic Smith’s “The Electric Hotel,” both of which I read recently and thought were terrific.
I try to read a diverse selection of authors, though sometimes I have to remind myself to give nonfiction its due (novels will always be my first love). I start many, many books and put them down — something I can never do with a movie. We have so little space in the paper; I don’t think we should devote it to “Here’s a book you should not read.”
What keeps you engaged?
Writing in more creative forms. Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement and I started co-writing a series called Dinner at a Movie because I thought it would be a fun thing to do together. Originally, we thought I’d write about the movie and Bethany would write about the food, but it evolved into the two of us bantering together, and readers have really responded to it. It also spawned other co-written stories around the newsroom. Next, we’re hoping to start a new series called Bookstores and Brunch.
I’ve also written things in rhyme, like a review of “The Grinch.” I loved doing that — it’s an exercise, like doing calisthenics with words. I’m writing 250 or 300 stories a year, so it’s really fun to mix it up.
If someone were to visit you at The Seattle Times, what would they find?
My desk is a colossal mess. It’s covered in piles of notebooks, because I’m always forgetting them when I go to the movies, so I have to buy new ones. I also have millions of books and millions of Diet Coke cans, not all of which are empty.
How can people connect with you?
I recently launched an online book club for Seattle Times readers. (I founded my own personal book club in 1989. Let’s just say I was very young!) The next “meeting” is Aug. 21, and we’ll be discussing “The Summer Wives” by Beatriz Williams.
I thought for a long time about starting up something like this, and it’s been amazing — attracting way more people than I thought. It’s a work in progress, but it’s going really well: we’ve read Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight,” Sigrid Nunez’s “The Friend” and (my favorite) Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black.” And the conversations have been rich and thoughtful — on point, though not everyone agreed about everything. I’m hoping it’ll become a nice subset of Seattle Times readers who love to read and discuss fiction with people. Because it’s fun to not read alone.
Highlights from Moira’s portfolio
All of us go to the movies to feel something: to laugh, to cry, to be frightened, to be thrilled, to lose ourselves in a story. And that experience might feel just the littlest bit richer in a place with a story of its own, a place that holds some history.
Roughly a hundred Garfield High students came to Elliott Bay Book Co. to buy whatever books they wanted, each equipped with a gift card and a store discount. It was the brainchild of English teacher Adam Gish, who believes in the transformative power of reading.
John Okada’s novel is at the center of a controversy involving two publishers, one local and one national, with some prominent Asian Americans saying the publication of a new edition overlooks the work of those who brought the novel to light and kept publishing it for years, and the wishes of the author’s family.
If you’ve seen “Wicked,” you know how very green the witch Elphaba is. Here’s a backstage peek at how the face, neck and hands of the actor who plays Elphaba become the color of very, very concentrated pea soup.
You can find previous Behind the Byline interviews and other peeks behind the scenes on our Inside the Times page. Want to learn more about your favorite Seattle Times journalist? Send a message to assistant metro editor Gina Cole.