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Women Bisnow
January 11, 2008


This issue of Washington Women is presented by
The Reznick Group:
"Building Business Value"

By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business

What is the complete opposite of an idyllic childhood spent on a sugar hacienda in northern Peru? New Jersey. Summit, New Jersey. “When I came to the States, everything was such a shock. The country was not the paradise my mother described. It was nitty-gritty New Jersey,” Marie Arana, editor of Washington Post Book World since 1999, tells us.

Scion of a Peruvian engineer father and an American violinist mother, Arana spent the first 10 years of her life in and around Lima, Peru.  Home-schooled with lessons on horseback and on the beach by her mother, she came to the States at a time of drop-and-cover nuclear attack drills and the civil rights movement, a time steeped in chaos rather than the languor and molasses of her childhood.

Arana, left, with the Queen of magical realism, Isabel Allende

Drawn by the arts during her high school years, Arana graduated from Northwestern with the most marketable degree imaginable: Russian lit. After learning Mandarin and earning a Masters in linguistics in Hong Kong, Arana answered an ad in the New York Times, her Russian helping to secure her a job at publishing house Harcourt Brace. “I went from being a little schlemiel to being nurtured by one of the great publishing executives, William Jovanovich.” Arana stayed for eight years before being hired away by publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster.

As VP, then Senior Editor, Marie commuted between Washington and New York. “I had two children. I realized I had been commuting four years in a row, and had missed 100 days for four years every year with my children,” she says. “It struck me. That’s why when the Post came after me, I said yes. I took a pay cut but got 100 days back a year with my children.”

Wouldn’t you feel safe in a miniscule plane flying through the Andes Mountains with the doors open? Arana wrote the intro for Through the Eyes of the Condor, a National Geographic book of aerial photography of Latin America.

No longer just a newspaper, has eight million viewers a day compared to just 900,000 print subscribers.  Some 85% of those Web readers are non-Washingtonians.  The engine of multimedia that the ink and paper press has become now counts podcasts and web chats along with print media. ”We are in the top 50 podcasts on iTunes,” says Marie, who interviews two people every week – Garrison Keillor, Oliver Sacks, Margaret Atwood, to name a few – for the Web. Book World also hosts a weekly blog and online discussion. “That’s three additional things with the same staff. We’re turning ourselves into pretzels to keep readers in every form. The whole paper is doing that.”

“I said I can’t write the intro unless I know what it’s like to take photographs from an airplane,” saya Arana, who went over the Andes nine to 15 times a day with photographer Robert Haas and ended up bursting both her eardrums.

So what do journalists do in their free time? They write, of course. Arana’s first book, American Chica, a memoir of growing up in two cultures, garnered great reviews, almost every one of them referring to her family as dysfunctional. “There is no dysfunctional in the Latin concept. My whole Peruvian family didn’t want to accept it as a memoir. In fact they still don’t. They call it a lovely novel,” says Marie. Arana wrote another critically acclaimed book, Cellophane, which even her family could accept as fiction. “The book was supposed to be a satire on magical realism,” says Marie, who was quickly compared by critics to magical realism masters Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Isabel Allende.

Arana wrote her third book, Mano a Mano (to be published in early 2009), in a few short months.  “It’s a love story that goes badly. It is about a scandalous moment in the life of a friend of my father’s.” Is it set in Peru, we ask her? Arana nods yes with a laugh. “I just can’t seem to get my head out of there.”

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