Facts, folly and my newspaper swan song

It was a fitting end, my newspaper swan song. A challenging story, my Sunday article was an update of the toughest story I ever wrote — featuring two “Pregnant and Proud” teenagers in 1993, back when Roanoke had the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state.

The public reaction had been harsh. Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

The outcry went national. It was very definitely personal, with more letters to the editor pouring in to decry the story — and the reporter who wrote it — than just about any other piece in our newspaper’s history.

The emotional toll it took on me was mighty — sleepless nights, fears that I’d sunk the reputations of two minors in a way that would forever set their lives on a downward spiral. I was 29 and pregnant with my first child, in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy. I was learning to give myself insulin shots at the same time readers were publicly calling me everything from racist to naïve.

That story — badly packaged and shallowly reported, true though it was — was not my finest moment in journalism, though it not only won awards; it also taught me many of my finest journalistic lessons:

That words matter.

That you can’t predict or influence the reaction people will have to a set of facts in a story.

That you can only do your best to present those facts humanely and fairly, digging as deeply as you can.

That, when in doubt, the medical code of ethics is always a good fallback: Do no harm.

I began trying to revisit “Pregnant and Proud” in 2011. The update seemed every bit as fraught as the first, filled with reluctant family members, depressing statistics, and rap sheets full of raw truths and damning decisions.

The main  subject, Shannon Huff, wasn’t sure at first she wanted another story written. By the time she was on board and the complex set of facts of her life came into focus, I wasn’t sure there was a story to tell myself — at least not one that did no harm.

But not many journalists get to revisit a story some 21 years after the fact. Fewer still get to report from the same place for the same news outlet for 25 years.

When people ask what my favorite part of being a reporter is, I try to describe the way it feels driving to an interview. Sometimes I’m nervous. Usually I’m hopeful. Always I’m running through the possibilities, prepping for the wrinkles that might emerge.

Sometimes moments of grace occur, such as when I told Shannon I’d never set out to harm her and apologized near the end of our first sit-down interview earlier this year. She stood to hug me, tears streaming down her face. She’d “been through hell in gasoline drawers,” as she put it, and her experience as a proud, pregnant teen — including the newspaper feature — had become her unlikely lodestar. She wanted badly now to prove her critics wrong.

The U.S. poet laureaute Natasha Trethewey once told an interviewer that writers have a responsibility to grapple openly and honestly with difficult subjects.  “When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying why open these old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. … The best we can hope for is acknowledgment.”

Acknowledgment. That word was on the spelling test I took as an applicant for a feature writing job at The Roanoke Times in 1989. So was the word accommodate (some things you just never forget!).

The best journalists worry less about accommodating official viewpoints and more about acknowledging the little people caught in the web of tough circumstances, whether they’re showing up for court or for medical treatment, or standing in line at the VEC.

As the great reporter Susan Spencer-Wendel, who died last week of ALS at age 47, put it: “It was a privilege to go to work each day and grow democracy, to ferret out stories no one wanted told, to be trusted to inform and, yes, entertain our readers. When someone would ask me: ‘Who sent you?’ I loved to reply, ‘Well, ma’am, that would be Thomas Jefferson.’ ”

Nothing but the truth: It’s worth remembering the journalistic oath we made when we signed on for all the bad hours, low pay and sleepless nights, infused with the privilege of witnessing heartache and joy and, yes, judgment.

On the eve of the publication of my first book, “Factory Man,” I recently quit newspapering in favor of the deeper dive of researching and writing books. I’ll seek out my usual underdog subjects, working through the issues I now know I was born to tackle.

I’ll mine for the facts, which will do what they always do: morph into falsehoods the more I learn and the deeper I go.

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Shannon Huff, 16 years old in 1993, from the original newspaper article. Public radio reporter Beverly Amsler interviewed me about this story for a featured that aired here.

There Are No Great Stories in the Newsroom (or on Twitter)

jmu cover1HARRISONBURG, Va. — They had just returned from mostly unpaid internships, two or three months of working for free. The managing editor told me she posted to her student newspaper’s website between assignments at the entertainment weekly where she worked. A diner in town had closed, a James Madison University institution, and she’d read about it on Twitter, then posted a brief story to the site.

My talk was supposed to be a back-to-school pep talk for the editors and page designers at the student newspaper, The Breeze, to remind them why journalism matters. I was about to turn in the revisions on my 110,000-word book, “Factory Man,” and I was incredibly tired of sitting at my computer for 12 hours at a stretch. When it came time to prepare my PowerPoint for the talk, it hit me that I could avoid technology (sort of, if you count scissors, tape and a phlegmy sounding scanner on its last leg) and get my main point across at the same time.

I love technology and use it all the time. Especially Command-F on my Mac desktop when sifting through my 530-page manuscript for some hard-to-find detail.

But my main message to the neophytes is that you can’t truly provide the  civic connective tissue that your readership deserves if you only talk/Facebook/tweet with the same people you already know. Too many reporters, young and old, rely on technology as a crutch.glue

Technology bridges geography and time zones, but it is no substitute for wandering around a community you don’t already know. Talking to a grieving mother about her son, who overdosed on heroin, then talking to the mom whose son is about to go to prison for selling him the drugs.

“You have to be there,” says the master, Gay Talese. “You have to see the people. Even if you don’t think you’re getting that much. … One of the problems of journalism today is how we are narrowing our focus and becoming indoors in terms of internalizing our reporting. The detail is what I think we’re missing.”harry

I’d all but finished my book reporting on the hollowed-out factory community of Martinsville and Henry County when a friendly source took me on one final tour. I’d already written about the demolished factories, but it wasn’t until I actually saw Harry Ferguson on his backhoe, burying the last literal chunks of the last factory in Bassett, that I understood it viscerally: “If you’d told people in Bassett 10 years ago that I’d be up here today burying this factory, they’d have said you were a complete fool,” he said.

So I attended my own makeshift factory funerals. I journeyed by kayak down the Smith River, the reason the factories were built where they were. I trounced through an overgrown, chigger-filled cemetery searching out the overturned graves of slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-furniture factory finishers. I talked to dozens of the 20,000 people who’d lost their jobs to globalization and offshoring over the past 15 years, and still had a palpable, almost desperate desire to tell me what it was like trying to live on $8.50-an-hour part-time jobs with no benefits, and the indignities suffered in line at the VEC.

Get away from your damn Smartphones and computers, I told the budding journalists — some of whom were live-Tweeting my talk! — and go back to the basics: paper, scissors, real people. Be the glue, as the great reporter Mary Bishop once taught me, connecting stranger to stranger, if only for an instant.mentors

Find mentors at every stage in your career. Feed the friendly photog, who is your extra set of eyes and the best on-the-scene collaborator you’ll ever have. (My book would not exist without the keen eye of freelance photographer Jared Soares.) Seek out the kind of tough editing we all require and deserve and that secretly drives us crazy; that red pen-wielding hardass who sends you back to your subjects again and again — until, finally, you understand what it is you’re trying to say.

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When a student wanted to know how to show diversity among the largely white, upper-middle class population at JMU, I told her about my first tough editor, Wendy Zomparelli (we called her editing sessions Zomp Stomps), who used to send my features back to me if they didn’t accurately reflect the diversity of our city’s population, down to one-quarter of  our sources being African-American to reflect Roanoke’s 25 percent black population. Every single time. It was the greatest training a young reporter could have.

Stories are everywhere around you, and things aren’t as simple — or as lily white — as they look on the surface, I reminded her. What about the men and women serving your lunch in the gourmet cafeteria? What about the student down the hall whose parents are renting out their newly spare room to pay for your $20,000 state tuition and room and board? What about the uptick in college drinking, opiate abuse in the suburbs, campus rape? Subjects that are all grist for digging beyond the obvious, life-is-good Twitter/Facebook feeds. Ask around. Be genuinely curious. Be friendly. Be skeptical. Above all, keep digging.the book process1

It’s the trust-building and context-layering that require the most attention, I added, showing them the holy mess that turned into my 28-chapter book  — complete with a brick from the demolished Bassett furniture factory that Harry Ferguson handed to me. Between all those arrows and statistics; between the numbers,  timelines and literally hundreds of interview notes — that’s where the magic lies.

Focus on the people, especially those whose voices aren’t typically heard.

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The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture's rub room in the late '20s or early '30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture’s rub room in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

The more I learn for my book-in-progress, the more I am humbled by how stupid I was when I wrote my proposal for “Factory Man.” I actually told my editor at Little, Brown & Company that I was halfway through my reporting, when in fact that figure was probably closer to 5 percent.

I wasn’t lying when I said it. I had just forgotten the central tenet of good writing: It’s all about great reporting. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn’t know anything before.

What do I wish I’d known before I started writing my book five months ago, after 20-some years of pining to land a book contract?

The connection-making mind needs frequent breaks. It needs mid-afternoon walks up Mill Mountain and breaks to make chili verde, and it craves any help and inspiration it can unearth along the way.

So I tape things to my computer, and atop the notebooks I carry with me on interviews. I write down nice things my book writer pals say to me, such as these aptly incongruent affirmations from Roland Lazenby: “You’re fucking fearless” and “Don’t be scared.”

I read and reread things like this partial paragraph from a profile of hip-hop pioneer Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, written by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger:

 . . . He had an unending appetite for pop culture, a prodigious memory for dates, and a compulsion for cross-referencing them. He can tell you, for instance, that Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985; that Tony Orlando guest-starred on “Cosby” that month, and that “Soul Train” was a rerun that week.

Stand back and look at the contextual heavy-lifting accomplished in just two sentences. Marvel at the astonished, easy tone. Count the status-defining details — where the subject lived, what he watched, who he listened to and what it meant to live inside his brain in the spring of 1985.

John Updike once said we like characters like Becky Sharp and Mr. Quilp because “what we like is life — and if the character is alive, we don’t apply any other criteria.” That’s another inspiration I’ve clipped, with thanks to Martin Amis, who recalled it in an interview with Vanity Fair writer John Heilpern.

The deeper you dig into a subject’s history, the tougher the material-culling will be. I’ve never spent this much reporting time focusing on one industry through one person and, the truth is, we might both be suffering from interview fatigue.

In a one- or two-shot interview, you save the tough questions for the end. But what do you do when the interviews are spread over more than a year? You spread the tough stuff out and hope for the best.

I’m not writing a hagiography, I remind my main character. I’m not writing a biography. So let’s put an end to the embedding jokes about Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus right now!

I’m writing a book about globalization in which he is a heroic main subject but he’s not a saint because, let’s face it, he’s colorful, he’s clever, and he seems to genuinely care about the plight of his factory workers. But he ain’t a saint.

When I worry that maybe I’m stirring up stuff that should remain hidden in history’s dusty archives, I turn to the new U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who said this in a recent interview:

It is better if we grapple with [history]. Openly and honestly. And include parts that are difficult. … When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying, why open old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!

I try to keep central in my mind: I may be writing about wealthy CEOs, but I’m also writing about their impact on tens of thousands of displaced factory workers whose stories are too rarely told.

“Factory Man” contains both history and current events, encompassing a decade of double-digit unemployment in Martinsville, Va., the recent sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and what life was like for a bunch of hardscrabble sawmillers in 1902. The subject is as deep as it is wide and meandering, and that’s what keeps me awake so many nights because I know that finding exactly the right narrative, and the right tone to tell it in, are crucial.

So I write and, like the old sawmillers-turned-furniture men, I try to cull the good wood from the bad. I talk to people on the phone and I visit people, and then I talk to them again on the phone. I’ve driven from nursing homes to trailers to communities so exclusive that they purposely don’t show up on GPS.

I read through court transcripts, annual reports and simplistic old newspaper clippings.

I love, love, love the librarians and the curators, especially Pat Ross at the Bassett Historical Center, and Bill Bishop, the genius at the International Trade Commission who returns my late-night emails — by 6:45 a.m. And people like Bassett barber Coy Young, who just happened to have a stack of archival photos from Stanley Furniture during the Depression.

I really love, love, love my across-the-street neighbors Scott and Jean, who just yesterday brought me a mixed CD and homemade chicken soup to cure my strep.

My husband, Tom, is so patient with all my non-cooking and non-hygiene, he’s the real saint of my book. My son Will comes into my office at the end of his school day and still, at age 14, beams, “Hey mom, how was your day?”

Same as it ever was. I practice Ass In Chair and, for several hours a day, I try as I type to weave story from facts. I rarely take showers or leave the house, except to walk the dog up the mountain. I haven’t seen my hairdresser in six months and it shows.

I worry because I know what Robert Caro says is true:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is.

 I was lucky to stumble into coffee not long ago with Internet journalism guru Clay Shirky, whose parents live in Roanoke and who very kindly offered to read my draft and give feedback. Just as I’m lucky to call on writers like Roland, Annie Jacobsen, Bret Witter and Andrea Pitzer, who advised me to “start recruiting readers now!” — among many other useful things.

Such has been the ongoing lesson I’ve learned from this project, this career, this life: The more exceptional the individual, the more generous they tend to be in sharing what they know.

It had been awhile since Shirky’s heralded book, “Here Comes Everybody,” was published by Penguin, and initially Clay said he had no advice to offer. Then he remembered a tip, a nuts-and-bolts editing suggestion that is applicable to both writing and life.

When the publisher’s copy editor sends his or her edits, simply click “ACCEPT ALL.” It saves time in the long run, and if you stumble on a change you don’t like as you’re reading, you still have time to make that sentence sing.

I’m not sure my ego will let me ACCEPT ALL blindly without previewing the changes first, but if it gets my butt out of this chair a moment sooner, it could be just the thing.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They're all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They’re all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

Separate and unequal

An interesting Q and A in today’s Boston Globe traced social decay in the United States to the widening gap between the poorest and the richest. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of “The Spirit Level,” posit that economic inequality is the root cause of problems like teen pregnancy, obesity, mental illness and crime — all of it fostered by divisive prejudice and rampant tension between the classes.

Wilkinson told the interviewer: “The quality of social relations seems to deteriorate in more unequal societies. People trust each other much less….In Sweden, people don’t bother to check your tickets on the train or bus. And it just feels so much nicer.”

People have asked what I’ve found most striking about the privileged enclave of Cambridge compared to my Roanoke, Va., hometown, a culturally and environmentally interesting place that also happens to be one of the most segregated places in the South, with 68 percent of the city schools’ children qualifying for free or reduced lunch (compared to the stage average of 29 percent).

The Globe piece made me zero in on an intangible difference that’s been gnawing at me these past several months. I’ve noticed a surprisingly greater level of trust among strangers here in Yankeeland (with the huge exception of Boston-area drivers, who you can never, ever trust to stop for a red light or stop sign; note that I’m talking about trust, not necessarily manners). Maybe it’s because we’re in insulated Cambridge, the intellectual capital of the East Coast . There’s a great deal of diversity here, yes, but the diversity is more ethnically and more economically diverse.

The lack of bureaucracy at Cambridge public schools is comparably stunning. For instance, when you check your kid out early from school, they don’t make you sign out at a computer. In fact, Donna — most of the secretaries are named Donna, for some reason — doesn’t even ask you to sign out. She just calls your kid down and waves you along.

At my son’s elementary in Roanoke, you sign your child out on a computer, which actually takes your picture — at the least-flattering angle possible, typically resulting in several chins beyond my normal two. You feel like your photo just might turn up on a Most Wanted poster. (And don’t get me started on the local pediatrician factory, where the surliest front-desk clerks in history treat all who walk in the door as if they’re trying to pull something over on them or, worse, they’re uninsured.)

The high schools offer startling contrasts, too. Students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin may leave campus to eat at nearby restaurants (sorry to say, it’s my teenager’s favorite thing about school this year). Whereas when the new Patrick Henry High School opened a few years back, administrators decided to literally lock the students inside the cafeteria, known by staff and students alike as “the cage.”

Comparing Roanoke to Cambridge schools isn’t fair, I know, especially considering that wealthy Cambridge spends almost twice as much per pupil as Roanoke does. That gap is about to widen, with the potential layoff of 200 teachers because of state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. (Here’s a thoughtful column by my colleague, Dan Casey, on the topic.)

A friend and civic leader predicted recently that we’ll be surprised by the uptick in cultural happenings in the ‘Noke. There’s so much interesting stuff going on now, it’s impossible to get to it all, he said, noting expanding offerings in theater, music, film and more. He also praised The Big Read, the valley’s collective effort to encourage reading, soon to kick off with a discussion of Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying.”

I loved that book, and I love that Roanoke’s undercurrent of groovyness seems to be widening by the minute. I just wish we could harness the same kind of excitement around improving our schools. Perhaps the No. 2 book on Roanoke’s Big Read list could be “The Spirit Level,” a book that could foster dialogue about the complex social inequities and poor educational opportunities that lie at the heart of our region’s slow growth and high dropout rate.

Because the Roanoke I know and love is surely two cities, a place where the twain rarely meet — except on the inside of a cafeteria cage.

Kid in a brain-candy store

I had seen him often on PBS programs and certainly read all about last summer’s dustup with the Cambridge police. But sitting in Henry Louis Gates‘ Introduction to African American studies course today reminded me again why Gates is so special — and why this country can’t seem to get over race. “There are 35 million African-Americans in the United States and 35 million different ways to be black. That’s the point of this class.”

The course, co-taught with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, is a thought-provoking examination of race, including how to talk about slavery today, urban poverty, hiphop, beauty conundrums and why Frederick Douglass changed the identity of his father in each of his three autobiographies. Among Gates’ opening salvos:

• “That whole notion of ‘You’re aren’t black enough’ — that debate’s been going on since the first black got off the boat on the James River in 1619.”

• Gates asked how many in the packed room had taken a steam bath. “Imagine that, in chains, for six weeks,” the length of the Middle Passage. Of the 10.8 million Africans shipped out in the slave trade, only 450,000 came to the United States. Most of the rest went to the Caribean and South America. In 1808, when the importation of slaves was banned, “Our ancestors became baby machines.”

• Gates gave a plug for his new PBS documentary, African American Lives 2, for which he tested the DNA of several African-American luminaries. Chris Rock, it turned out, is 20 percent white. Don Cheadle is 19 percent white — a fact that caused the comedian to rib Cheadle and Cheadle to respond: “You can tell Chris Rock to kiss my black ass!”

• “The black middle class has quadrupled since we were in college, but at the same time, the percentage of black children below the poverty line is the same. Is the cause the system or behavioral, or both?”

• “If you’re black at Harvard, how do you represent? That’s a big question here.” When Gates left his West Virginia hometown for Yale University in 1969, his father gave him a brand-new Mustang and three pieces of parting advice — all of which he promptly ignored: He told him not to get a black roommate, not to sit at the blacks’ lunch table and “for Christ’s sake, don’t go up there and study black studies because your ass been black for 18 years and you know enough.”

Gates presented a slideshow of famous art history images featuring black people, some of which dated back to 1000 B.C. He showed a map from a book published in 50 A.D. that was a kind of travel guide to commerce in Africa and the far east during that time. “They used to say Africans were too dumb to sail anywhere; like they were just waiting for Europeans to come discover them. . . . This is a classic example of Western racism that our ancestors are represented as to be too benighted to even get on a damn boat and go across the ocean. That makes me mad.”

This being Harvard’s “course-shopping period,” I was all set to sample New Yorker book critic James Woods’ course on women writers from Austen to Wolff this afternoon. But after a fantastic slice of Oggi’s pizza with my favorite Cambridge foodie, Audra Ang, I asked to join her sitting in on Ted Bestor’s anthropology course, Food and Culture, instead. That class was equally up-my-alley. It examines cultural comfort foods, food taboos and prohibitions, and the many ways in which societies turn food into social and cultural objects. (Made me happy that I had just finished reading the new essay collection, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” which was reminiscent of my favorite-ever food book, Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking.” Also, watched “Julie & Julia” — AGAIN — the other night.)

When Bestor asked students to share the the foods that best represent their backgrounds, I got to give my Midwestern ode to mashed potatoes, an expanded version of which follows below.

Pinch me. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to hang out at this place. Even if it is just for five more months. Except for the weather, being here is like getting a massage: It’s incredible, but there’s always this nagging feeling that reality is around the corner and this too, alas, shall pass.

Ode to Mashed Potatoes

I have something new, and old, to be grateful for this Thanksgiving: potatoes. Specifically, potatoes like my mom made almost daily growing up – because there wasn’t money for much else. Potatoes, mashed into a massive pile with milk, salt, pepper and lots of butter (oleo, actually).

 

Not long ago, it was just the kind of thing I took for granted. It was sustenance of the loyal, though not lackluster, variety. When paired with chicken pan pie at the local K&W Cafeteria, it provided the ultimate monochromatic starch plate: creamy, comforting, tan-colored food. And best of all – it was cheap.

During the height of fall colors last month, my son, Max, spotted the brilliant crimson leaves on a winding Bedford County road and reverently sighed: “These trees are so beautiful, they hurt my eyes.” I took it as a statement on the perils of excess from a 3-year-old (who, incidentally, has never met a spud he didn’t love).

Three months ago, I took a hiatus from a job some people would give their last slice of sweet potato pie for and ventured out on my own – minus the safety net of affordable health insurance.

I spend more days with my kid now, and three nights a week I try to teach college students that, not only can they write beautiful sentences, they also have a lot to say. I rarely go out to eat.

But I consume a lot of mashed potatoes – because they are cheap, and because I love them, and because they remind me both of the modest world I come from and what is most important to me now.

– published Thanksgiving 1997, The Roanoke Times