The first thing I remember writing was the front page of my own newspaper, which featured a celebrity interview with the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. I was 6 years old. I didn’t know it then, but journalism was to become my career.
I majored in English at Cornell University. In my senior year I became a junior editor for Cornell’s literary magazine, Epoch, working alongside such writers as Alison Lurie, James McConkey, and Archie Ammons. I dreamt of a life writing fiction, but post-graduation reality demanded an immediate income. Like many women of my generation, I started out in secretarial positions. Eventually I was hired by Cornell’s Office of Public Information, where I wrote press releases and articles for the university’s newspaper, The Chronicle.
Those years taught me the basics of news writing, but they also persuaded me that I’d rather receive press releases than compose them. I began to look for a newspaper job and was hired as a features writer for The Raleigh Times, the afternoon sister-paper to The News and Observer. I loved writing features; I found that it demanded depth and accuracy in reporting but offered more room for creativity and expression than straight news reporting. It also gave me unparalleled opportunities to write about people living lives of astonishing diversity.
In 1984 I moved to The Roanoke Times, one of three metro newspapers owned by Landmark Communications. At that time, the newsroom at Landmark’s flagship paper, The Virginian-Pilot, was led by Sandra Mims Rowe, one of the industry’s few female editors-in-chief. Her presence told me that Landmark was a place where women could succeed.
And in Roanoke, with Landmark’s support and mentoring from Publisher Walter Rugaber, I succeeded beyond anything I could have imagined. In 1995, I became the first woman to be appointed as the paper’s top editor. I was twice honored to be named as a juror for The Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism. In 2000 I became president and publisher, Landmark’s first woman in that role.
The news industry, particularly print news, is struggling now, its credibility under irresponsible and ceaseless attack, its business models in flux. But I wouldn’t exchange the decades I spent newspapering for any other career you could offer. I was privileged to work with phenomenal people: reporters, photographers, and editors who were dedicated, talented professionals, and at times hilariously irreverent; advertising sales people who took as much pride in the paper’s quality as anyone in news; circulation staffers who somehow managed to deliver a hundred thousand copies across 19 counties every day; and press and mailroom personnel who worked through the night to produce a beautifully printed and packaged paper.
When I retired from the Times in 2007, I moved from Roanoke to Charlottesville and, after serving as Reynolds Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at Washington and Lee University, from non-fiction to fiction.
Writing fiction is astonishingly different from writing news or feature articles. A friend refers to it as “channeling characters,” and that’s true. I used to be able to write an on-deadline review of a rock concert in the midst of blaring music and screaming fans – but for fiction I need solitude. Like toys that come to life only when children are asleep, the characters won’t speak to me if others are present. And as Anthony Trollope lamented, sometimes they refuse to stick to the plot outline or say what they’re supposed to say. It’s very odd – and magically rewarding.
If you were to ask which I prefer writing, journalism or fiction, I could have only one honest reply: