A displaced furniture factory worker. A veteran with PTSD. A group of Somali Bantu refugees who are finally getting outside the public housing apartment they’ve been stuck in for five years and doing what they loved before the war tore their lives apart: digging in the dirt. For 25 years, I’ve been privileged to report on these stories — mostly for my newspaper, The Roanoke Times, in the Blue Ridge mountains. I also write for magazines, radio and online journals; from locations ranging from a mobile home in Bassett, Virginia, to a crowded cholera ward in Limbe, Haiti.
I love what I do. I’ve eaten ceviche in Sauta, Mexico; hung out in rural Virginia nursing homes; plunked myself on a tenement floor to get a battered African refugee to look me in the eye. I’ve witnessed birth and death and joy and suffering and, while I’m not exactly rolling in the dough, there’s pretty much nothing I’d rather do than talk to strangers and then describe to other strangers what I’ve witnessed and heard and felt.
I believe what Annie Dillard said when she wrote that: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
I love Anne Lamott’s advice about writing shitty first drafts, and keeping it real, and, above all, if you really want to see your name in print, stop whining and start writing.
I believe Will Durant nailed it when he defined civilization as a stream with banks: “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.”
The daughter of a factory worker mom and housepainter dad (an eighth-grade dropout), I was the first in my family to go to college. So when a displaced furniture-factory worker gives me her elderly mother’s phone number — because her own phone is about to be turned off — I recall exactly how that feels. My current project is a book for Little, Brown & Co. called “FACTORY MAN,” about a black sheep furniture-maker from the storied furniture-making family in Bassett, Va., who gave cheap imports from China the middle finger and kept his Galax factory workers employed. I’ll tell it using historical documents, interviews with family members as well as from the perspective of the workers who were laid off when their factories closed — and the lucky ones who were not. I’ll also talk to some of the managers and workers in Asia who produce the furniture that used to be crafted in southwest and southside Virginia. The book, which will publish June 2014, recently won the J. Anthony Lukas Book-in-Progress Award, culminating with me on a panel at Columbia’s J-School, seated at a dais between two of my nonfiction heroes, Robert Caro and Andrew Solomon. Keep digging, was the gist of it, and follow what moves you.
I love talking to students, readers and journalists alike about the importance of covering diverse communities. I’ve spoken in venues as varied as a South African newsroom, to my class of Nieman fellows at Harvard, to my graduate students at Hollins University, as well as to myriad church groups, community organizations and writing workshops.
I figure I’ve been reporting since I was 4 years old. That’s when I ran away from home with my tricycle and my beagle mutt, Tessie — to the grocery store (still my favorite place). A neighbor found me there, chatting up the butcher and staring longingly at the Popsicles, and returned me to my frantic mom. Six years later, I got my first newspaper job — delivering the Urbana Daily Citizen from my Huffy 10-speed.
I still run all over the place being curious, only now they actually pay me to do it. I’m privileged to get to follow what moves me most of the time.