Remembering Book Editor Pat Holt

Regan McMahon

When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area in 1989, Pat Holt remained at her desk, ignoring a co-worker’s urgent plea to take cover—choosing instead to stay on a phone call, making her passionate case to an author or publisher while her office swayed and rattled and books fell off the shelves around her.

Such was Pat’s dedication to her work as the former book editor, critic, and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Pat, who devoted her career to her love of books, died December 3 at her home in San Francisco following a brief battle with cancer. She was 78.

Pat joined the Chronicle in 1982 after getting her start in the literary world in Boston and New York publishing houses, then working as the Western correspondent for Publishers Weekly. She arrived at her Chronicle job interview armed with charts showing how much advertising revenue she could bring to the paper’s Sunday Book Review section, knowing the Bay Area was one the biggest literary markets in the country. She was hired, and she made good on her vow, bringing not only ads but national prestige to the paper.

I joined the Book Review in 1994 and edited reviews and Pat’s smart and refreshing weekly column, “Between the Lines,” in addition to laying out the section’s inside pages. In her column, she championed local authors, often ignored by East Coast critics and publishers, as well as independent presses and bookstores. Pat was a Joan of Arc of sorts, taking on in print a new website with monopolistic potential—Amazon—and otherwise serving as a pillar of integrity who put readers and authors first, even to the detriment of her own health. She was forever running behind and vowing to get ahead, and always laser-focused on the book or book conversation at hand.

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“She really did two-and-a-half jobs,” said Alix Madrigal, Pat’s longtime editorial assistant at the Chronicle. “She was the book editor, wrote her weekly column, and usually wrote the main book review on the cover. It was a lot.”

It was my job to get the section out, and the last thing I’d be waiting for each week was Pat’s column. But her copy came in clean and needed almost no editing. She was an excellent writer, a clear thinker, and a strong line editor, more prone to rewriting reviewers’ work than coaching them. Reviewers would file their reviews and she’d say, “I’ll go over it with my magic pen.” And it would inevitably come back covered in red marks.

Still, Pat was known for giving inexperienced writers a chance. Early in her tenure, she had a male reviewer who was averse to reviewing books by female authors. She asked Alix if she’d be interested in covering their works of fiction. Alix said sure, and Pat hauled over a giant box of books and told her to get started.

Pat also opened the door for me as a reviewer. In 1995 I pitched Pat on the idea of letting me share the monthly children’s book page with her existing kids’ book reviewer, Susan Faust. I had little kids at the time, so I had a built-in focus group for picture books. She agreed, and I launched a new career as a children’s book critic.

I worked under Pat for almost five years, and stayed on in the Books section after she left in 1998 and started her website, Holt Uncensored, where she continued to write about the book industry.

Having taken a buyout from the paper, I was freelancing when Pat called me in 2010 to tell me about her new internet startup. She called it Reader Meter, and she envisioned it as “a Rotten Tomatoes for books.” She asked me to be the site’s managing editor, and I made the leap from old media to new media to support her bold vision. Just before our scheduled launch, though, our funding dried up and we had to call it quits. But soon after, Pat had one more big role to play in my professional life: When Liz Perle, editor-in-chief at Common Sense Media, called Pat in 2011 to ask her if she knew anyone who could be their children’s book editor, she told her to call me, and I got the dream job I have today.

Pat was fiercely loyal to her friends and colleagues. When an editorial assistant with AIDS went to London, a trip on his bucket list, and fell seriously ill, Pat flew over to be with him so he wouldn’t die alone. When Alix’s father was dying in New York and she couldn’t afford to see him, she told Alix to use her credit card. But at the airport, Alix called to say the airline wouldn’t accept it from her, so Pat jumped in her car and zoomed to SFO to sign the bill—and Alix got on the plane.

Those who saw Pat only as a tough editor and a staunch feminist may not have known about her big heart. She was madly in love with her wife, Terry Ryan, and helped shape her quirky memoir of her mother, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. She was devastated by Terry’s death from cancer in 2007, and credited the Reader Meter adventure with bringing her back to the world again. One day I took a picture of her, Peter Handel, who wrote roundup reviews of mystery books for Pat, and Alix at a Reader Meter meeting and gave it to her. She wrote me an email saying, “I’ve had such a hard time taking photos of Terry down that I promised myself every time I get a photo from my new life that I love, I can use it to replace an old one. So yours has a very special place in the kitchen.” When I ran across a digital copy a while ago and sent it to her in email, she said the original was still on her fridge.

In February, I gave a eulogy at the celebration of Pat’s life at Book Passage in Corte Madera, in Marin County, California. It was quite an event, with many moving and funny stories from a variety of people in her life, including a woman who’d been her pal since high school and had tales of Pat working a summer job at the department store I. Magnin when she was 16. I went with Alix, and Susan Faust came, too.

Also at the celebration were several people from the book groups that Pat led at Book Passage for more than 20 years, right up until August 2022. As a treat, the friends who organized the memorial had put out—for the taking—all of Pat’s copies of the books she’d used in those groups, which had her underlinings and notes in the margin or even discussion notes on paper tucked inside. I took two and am reading one now: Colson Whitehead’s The Nickle Boys. It’s a charming experience feeling her reading over my shoulder and pointing things out as I go.

Before people arrived, the organizers had put CDs from her vast music collection on the empty seats—everything from opera to classical to jazz to Broadway show cast albums and romantic pop. There were lots. I brought home four. I’ve been listening to a collection of songs by one of Duke Ellington’s singers. I’m also cherishing a collection of Robert Johnson recordings.

Both the discs and the books were unexpected, intimate, meaningful gifts that reflected Pat and her passions and helped the mourners feel a tangible connection to her. We got to walk away with a reflection of her energy and critical eye, feeling her even now, still surfacing the good stuff for her fans.

Regan McMahon is the books editor at Common Sense Media and the copy editor for Zyzzyva.

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