Interview: NPR Books' Petra Mayer ’96
As an Amherst student, Petra Mayer ’96 signed on as chief engineer for WAMH, the College’s radio station. This led into a summer gig as an engineering assistant at National Public Radio, and then into journalism and nearly a decade as one of NPR’s live broadcast directors. Today Mayer is an editor—“and the resident nerd”—at the NPR arts desk, where her daily responsibility is books.npr.org. Her focus is on genre fiction, which encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror and the like.
The book that made her a nerd
In the summer of 1984 I was 9 years old, and my dad, Jeff Mayer ’63, who’s always had weird ideas about his daughter’s intellectual capacity, handed me his college copy of George Orwell’s 1984. I’d been an avid reader since preschool, but that was my first exposure to dystopia and the political and social uses of genre fiction, and I always say it’s what made me a nerd. I reread it every year until the entire story finally came into focus when I was in high school.
The voice in the dark
You can definitely trace my entire career back to WAMH—that was where I fell in love with radio, with being the voice in the dark speaking to you. When I graduated, everywhere I went, from WBUR in Boston to Radio Free Europe in Prague, was in the service of learning enough to jump from NPR’s engineering division to the news side of things. I still love radio, and I’m happy when I get to do radio reporting in addition to my work on NPR.org. Does WAMH have any open slots?
In praise of genre fiction
“Genre” and “literary” are pretty much marketing distinctions—they tell you where in a bookstore or library you’ll find a given title. I do think that the lines are blurring now. Part of it is that science fiction and fantasy have served for decades as a way for writers to comment on current events—like Orwell watching the rise of the Soviet bloc and the start of the Cold War. Right now, for instance, there’s a subgenre called cli-fi, or climate fiction. What I’d say to people who look down their noses at genre fiction is: there’s good and bad work in every genre; bad literary novels, of which there are many, don’t invalidate that category. Read something like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and tell me she doesn’t have just as much to say about what it means to be human as, say, anyone in the 20th-century literary canon.
Two book recommendations (plus hundreds more)
The two books I’ve read this year that I’ve enjoyed the most have been Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide, a thoughtful reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft that addresses a lot of the serious issues people have with him, and Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw, set in modern-day London and centering on Dr. Greta Helsing, who’s sort of the family GP for all the supernatural creepies in town. A few years ago, my colleagues and I decided we were tired of year-end best-of lists, so we designed the NPR Book Concierge, a visual matrix of hundreds of our favorite books, all searchable by fun stacking tags, and now it’s our most-anticipated project every year. If you want to kill an hour looking at great books, I highly recommend it!