I once shared a cab with several book conventioneers in Chicago after we all got tired of waiting for the shuttle bus that never came. We introduced ourselves, and the woman sitting next to me said, “I know you. You’re big in Duluth!” I looked at her in astonishment — never having been to Minnesota — and she quickly explained that my book reviews and columns, syndicated on the KRT news wire, were frequently published in the Duluth News Tribune.
I came home to Orlando and shared “Big in Duluth” with my friend Dewayne. We’ve collected odd phrases over the years that we think sound like intriguing titles for short stories. “Big in Duluth” joined such favorites as “But It Came with Extra Horsehair” and “Punch Were Served.”
Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, and I’m having a Facebook/e-mail conversation with Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Turned out she’s from Duluth, so I told her my “Big in Duluth” story. Turns out she was the reason I had a rep in her hometown because she picked out the reviews that ran in the paper, where she worked for 18 years. Hertzel thought being books editor/critic must be the best job in the world and wanted to be “me” one of these days.
The newspaper world is small (and shrinking rapidly) so these kind of coincidences happen all the time. After reading Hertzel’s engaging new memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, I could tell you a lot more that the two of us have in common, but suffice to say she’s really the one who is “Big in Duluth,” and a lot of other places as well, including Russia.
The narrative is chronological, beginning with Hertzel starting her own newspaper full of her large family’s activities as a preteen, to joining the smoke-filled, male-dominated newsroom as a clerk in 1976, to working her way up the reporting and editing chain while witnessing the factories closing in Duluth and the population moving away. Change threads its way through News to Me.
Any writer/journalist, or readers with such career aspirations or interests, will learn a lot from this book about the pre-computer newspaper world of IBM Selectrics, pica poles and clattering wire machines. Those days weren’t all that far removed from hot type and “hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite,” and female reporters still had to prove themselves outside of the women’s section. Hertzel got out of coffee-making duties for the male editors by making it undrinkable. Sorry, she shrugged. I don’t drink coffee, she told them, I don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. (I’ll second that.)
But Hertzel hasn’t just compiled a bunch of “war stories” for fellow journalists to appreciate. As she writes, she didn’t set out to be a journalist; it just sort of happened as she followed her motto, “When a door opens, walk through it.” Still, I don’t think it’s an accident she ended up having a successful and varied career. She’s a naturally gifted storyteller with an eye for the telling detail and a way with words. Not that she hasn’t made mistakes and blown deadlines. But those doors she walked through don’t slide open as effortlessly as she would have it, like those at a supermarket. Just finding them takes talent and persistence, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
Speaking of which, I’m not going to spoil for you how Hertzel found the story of a lifetime in the Soviet Union in 1986 in a small town near the Finnish border. But part of it involves being met after an incredibly long train trip by smiling old people handing out flowers and speaking English. It’s a chapter in history that I was previously unaware of and now I want to read the book about it that Hertzel later co-authored, They Took My Father. Now there’s an intriguing title.
Open Book: The University of Minnesota Press sent me an advance reading copy of Laurie Hertzel’s News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist. I laughed at the cover picture because it looked almost exactly like the top of my old desk at The Fayetteville Times, right down to the standard blue-and-white reporter’s notebook, ashtray, press card, mug, newspaper clips, a clutch of pencils and pens. No computer in sight.