Monday, March 23, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day : An Interview with Debra Hamel

I am dedicating this post to Ada Lovelace Day (a series of events to celebrate women in technology) organised by Suw Charmin-Anderson who tweets in Welsh! ( So she already has won my slavish admiration and respect.)

Another person who has won my slavish admiration and respect is Debra Hamel. I first encountered Debra via her excellent review of Lynne Truss's surprise best seller on punctuation: EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES.

I think this was in 2006, shortly after I had entered the blogosphere. I commented on the review, we got 'talking', and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon afterwards we got round to looking at each other's books, so I had the pleasure of reading TRYING NEAIRA. In this book Debra has managed to do something I would never have thought possible - make what I thought was a very dry academic subject, namely Ancient Greece, not only interesting but very funny too.

My father is a reluctant traveller, but one of the highlights of the trips he made with my mother, when he was mobile enough to still do so, was to Pompei. There he managed to pick up a book on the spicier Roman artefacts, which was so 'interesting' that it actually attracted the attentions of an Italian waiter who asked him where he could get one too. There are similar artefacts mentioned in Debra's Neaira. Apart from this the book conveys the society and legal system of Ancient Greece, and these are gradually uncovered as Neaira's trial is explained.

Of course we shared an interest in reading other books too, and it is the way in which Debra has developed this interest in tandem with her interest in technology that made me think she would be an excellent candidate for Ada Lovelace Day. She has developed several 'bookish' ideas that have become very successful: 'Book-blog', Buy A Friend A Book, Twitterlit, Kidderlit and finally Sunday Salon. They are all ways of using the new technology to the full to share a love of books. But I'll let her explain what they involve herself.

The following interview is in three sections: a special technological one for Ada Lovelace Day and my usual Literary and General Sections.

Debra studied classics as an undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University and again as a graduate student at Yale, where she specialized in ancient history. Since receiving her Ph.D. in 1996 she has published a number of scholarly articles and reviews as well as publications for a general audience, including several articles that have appeared in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. (For a complete list of her classics publications, click here.) Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, Connecticut.

Technological Questions.

CD: What did you first start posting on the internet, and how did it come about?
DH: In the fall of 1996, when I was spending most of my time breastfeeding my daughter, I found that one thing I could do while feeding her was play around on the web. And so during that time I taught myself some rudimentary html from an online resource I've long since forgotten the name of. I created my first web page then, a sort of fan site for the TV western Rawhide, which has moved over the years and grown into a larger site. But that was created before the blogging phenomenon, of course, which made it so much easier for people to start web sites. If I were creating such a site now I would almost certainly do it as a blog. (E.g., see my sadly not-updated-for-a-long-time site Blogging Bewitched

CD: Can you give me a quick resume of your technological 'output' to date (twitterlit, Sunday Salon etc) - what they involve and why you started them.

DH: A complete list of my many web sites can be found here. But the sites that are most important to me are: -- My book review site and first blog, which I started in 2003. I started it because I was lamenting that while I read so much, I could hardly remember any of it. People would ask me what good books I'd read recently, or what I thought of a particular book, and my mind would go blank. At the same time, I'd just heard of blogging and found the idea interesting and thought I'd give it a try. So I started to write book reviews as a means of recording my thoughts about what I'd read before all memory of them vanished. -- Having started the book review site, I eventually found that I sometimes wished I had a forum for non-book-related observations. Hence I started a second blog,
about a year later, in 2004.

Buy A Friend a Book -- Roughly one year after that (in the summer of 2005) I was woken in the middle of the night by the unmistakable sounds of urination--that is, as I described it here, by
"the sound of a driving torrent of urine beating against the inner layers of my younger daughter's diaper as she slept, oblivious, a foot or two from where I lay."
So I woke up, and I had an idea about book promotion for some reason, and I lay awake in bed and mapped out the idea for Buy a Friend a Book Week (a quarterly book-giving holiday that's coming up again soon!) and its associated web site.

TwitterLit -- Roughly one year later (there seems to be a pattern developing), in April of 2007, I got the idea for TwitterLit. TwitterLit is a blog to which I post the first lines of books every day, one line in the morning and one at night (currently at 9:00 AM and PM EST, though when I started it was 5:00). These blog posts are also sent to Twitter, which is how most people see the lines. The post/tweet consists of the first line of a book without the author or book title, but with a link to Anyone who clicks the link will be taken to the book's detail page on Amazon, where they can find out what book the line is from. There are also UK and Canadian versions of TwitterLit, which link to and respectively. The links contain my affiliate ID, as I explain on my site, so that purchases made on Amazon through my links earn me money. TwitterLit was a product of my ongoing interest in books coupled with my relatively new excitement with Twitter. I'm quite pleased with myself for having come up with the idea and having figured out a way to make it work. (I had to fiddle with my site's RSS feeds, for example, and I know close to nothing about such things so was happy to figure out how I had to do things.)

KidderLit -- KidderLit is a children's version of TwitterLit, with one first line from a children's book posted per day.

The Sunday Salon -- The Sunday Salon is an idea that Clare and I had together. Simply put, book bloggers are invited to post about books on Sunday, to read one another's posts and comment on them, the idea being that we would create a sort of online reading room. But as it's developed it's
become larger than either of us quite expected. We thought participation would be confined to just a few of us virtual friends, but the idea somehow caught on and we now have more than 350
participants. On the technical side of things, creating the site involved figuring out how to merge the RSS feeds of all the participants into one feed using Yahoo Pipes. The Pipe must then filter out non-Salon posts. That part was pretty simple, but as the number of participants grew, updating the Pipe became horribly laborious. Happily someone pointed me to a way of simplifying the process which has so far worked well. If you're interested, I describe it here.

CD: What has been the most impressive technical innovation you have come across recently (webwise)?

DH: I don't understand the mechanics behind things, so a site that I find impressive may not really be more technologically advanced than something which is ostensibly uninteresting. But I do believe that my jaw literally dropped the first time I saw TwitterVision. TwitterVision is simply a means of reading the Twitter timeline, with recent tweets imposed on a map of the world. The globe spins around as the tweets are plotted on the map--from the U.S. to the U.K. to Japan to Niger to South Africa to Ontario in the last few seconds I've been looking at it. I discovered TwitterVision right around the same time I discovered Twitter, as I remember, and the idea of watching a global conversation go by immediately struck me as a fantastic thing. So I suppose it's not TwitterVision per se that excited me, but Twitter itself and its implications.

CD: How much upkeep do you need to do each day (or week)?

DH: That's hard to say.... If you neglect your blogs they don't take up much time :) When I post a review to it probably takes me--apart from writing the review, of course--20 or 30 minutes to finish all my related tasks (sending a copy to Amazon, mailing out a copy as a newsletter, updating my navigational menus, etc.). But that's irregular, depending on how quickly I'm reading. What I mainly have to keep on top of are TwitterLit and KidderLit, which together require that I post three first lines a day. This may not sound like much, but there is some labor behind it. I have to track down first lines and make sure I haven't posted them before and get my links to,, and in the proper format. Then
there's the post to my blog and scheduling the tweets and keeping track of when I need to add more. I'm not precisely sure how much time this takes me, because I work on it piecemeal, but it's hours per week rather than minutes.

Literary Questions.

CD: What is the origin of your Neaira book?
DH: At the time (in 2000) I'd been trying to figure out what I could possibly undertake as a project to justify my time in graduate school. I'd started and given up on a project or two, so I was feeling rather defeated. But anyway, this wanting/needing to write something was in the back of my mind. What I find amazing is how sometimes ideas will just click, seemingly without effort. What did it for me was a blurb on the back of a book I was reading. The blurber wrote--I just looked it up--that "Trials have provided some of the best examples of 'micro-history' or the 'new narrative'...." And that was it. I knew about the case against Neaira--a prostitute who was tried in Athens in the fourth century B.C., a case from which the prosecution speech survives. And after all that agonizing over what I could do with my time I had the idea at once to write an account of Neaira for the "general reader." I started on it the next day. (I think in retrospect that jumping into it at once was a good idea. If you think about the work involved in undertaking a project like this, it becomes daunting.)

CD: How did you go about getting the book published?
DH: I lucked out on getting the book published. (I had previously tried to get a YA novel published, without success, so I know how hard this can be.) In researching literary agents I did what the books tell you to do: I looked at the acknowledgments page of a book that was similar to mine. Happily, that author thanked his agent. I looked up the agent on the web and found out that he not only represented authors writing books similar to mine, but I knew some of his clients! So, I sent in the manuscript, and they decided to represent it. My agent did all the
heavy lifting where finding a publisher was concerned, and he's been able to sell it also to a number of foreign publishers, which has been very satisfying.

CD: What is your favourite part of the story?

DH: It's brief, but what leaps to mind is my radish section ("The Versatile Radish"), in which I describe what an Athenian male was licensed to do should he come upon a man in flagrante delicto with one of his dependents. Among the options he had was physically abusing the offender. This could mean beating him or whipping him, but your more imaginative cuckold had other options, e.g., anal penetration of the inappropriately libidinous male with a carrot-sized radish. There is also scholarly debate over the question of whether fish were sometimes inserted in such cases rather than radishes.

CD: Do you actually speak Ancient Greek or it is like Latin?

DH: No, it's like Latin in that it's not spoken anymore but read and written (with great difficulty) in dusty classrooms. Though of course it's different from Latin in that its modern descendant is still spoken. But there is no modern Latin, which instead morphed into the
various Romance languages.

CD: Which do you enjoy most - the writing or the research?

DH: Research is all well and good, but I definitely enjoy writing the most. I will happily sit at my computer and work on a single paragraph for hours. And there's no better feeling than when your writing is going well.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
DH: You know, my life has been sadly lacking in snails. I can't clearly remember any first-hand encounters. The best thing I can come up with is second-hand, a passage in Jacques P├ępin's autobiography (The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen) in which he describes prying snails from the terrace of his vacation home and cooking them up for dinner.
(Note from CD: Debra also recommended to me Patricia Highsmith's short stories which contained several snail-themed stories including a hugely memorable one about a man who was locked in a room with his snail collection and was slimed to death. I found this story even more interesting when I learnt a little more about Patricia Highsmith - apparently she was a snail devotee and regularly carried many of them around with her.)

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

DH: Well, certainly the births of my daughters. And meeting my husband, because my path in life would have been wholly different if we hadn't met (which we did over a Trivial Pursuit game in 1984). I'm always impressed that as we go through life most of the stuff we do doesn't matter that much, at least not ostensibly: you go to the grocery store, you work, you go to school. If any of that were omitted, most days, it wouldn't matter much. And then every now and again your
life's course can turn on one simple thing, some small decision the import of which isn't at all obvious at the time.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?

DH: Well. What leaps to mind is my mother's decline and death from Alzheimer's, but that's not a single event.

CD: What is happiness?

DH: The life-long accumulation of moments of contentment. Maybe.... These days I'm probably happiest when I see my two daughters loving one another.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

DH: After the morning laving I have to wake up daughter #1, and then I head to the kitchen where I settle in with my iPod Touch and check my email, Twitter accounts, and RSS feeds while waiting for her.

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Blogger pierre l said...

Thank you both for a fabulous interview. I have been reading some of Debra's blogs for some time, but never realised how many there were.
I must dig out my copy of Trying Neaira. But I'll read the recently reviewed A.D. 62: Pompeii first since I know where my copy is.

Mon Mar 23, 11:37:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And thank you, Pierre!

Tue Mar 24, 08:12:00 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Fab interview. I'd come across Debra before, so you've jogged my memory.

And twittervision - oh no! It's amazing watching all the tweets coming up... have to curtail that one, I think! :)

Tue Mar 24, 09:17:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Barbara, yes I think a lot of people come across Debra - and sometimes not realise it!

Tue Mar 24, 09:43:00 am  
Blogger dhamel said...

Be very careful. I could be anywhere!

(That was a joke.) Thanks everybody for reading Clare's interview. And thanks again, Clare!

Tue Mar 24, 11:26:00 am  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

A completely satisfying interview, Clare. Radishes! Fish! Twining imagination with the net in an interesting way...

Does Twitterlit make money?

Has writing down her thoughts about books made Debra remember them better?

Does blogging so much make her more compulsive about doing it, or does she secretly long to take a month off? (Everytime I take a month off, readers become lemmings.)

Fri Mar 27, 02:42:00 pm  
Blogger dhamel said...

Hi, Marly. I'm glad you liked the interview! To answer:

1. Yes, happily, though not a fortune.

2. Actually, yes, it does work. For one thing I've more actively thought about the book and my response to it than I would have otherwise. But also just the fact of writing help. Now when asked about a book I'll often find myself reiterating phrases from my review of it. But even if I do forget, I can go to my review for a refresher of my thoughts about it.

3. TwitterLit and KidderLit have to be kept up at all times, but I don't really think of that as blogging. But apart from that, I'm not too hard on myself. Sometimes I'm in the mood to blog more than other times, and I just go with what I feel like. If you compel yourself to write a certain number of posts per day or week I think you'll come to resent it in time.

Fri Mar 27, 03:27:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Great questions and really interesting replies. Thanks you both!

Fri Mar 27, 04:51:00 pm  

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