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Laurie Hertzel on growing up in newspapers and what she learned from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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In “News to Me,” Laurie Hertzel writes about life as an ink-stained wretch during nearly 20 years at the Duluth News Tribune. Now books editor at the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, Hertzel is also an award-winning reporter and fiction writer (and occasional contributor to Nieman Storyboard). Projects and stories she has edited have won a National Headliner Award, a national Society of Professional Journalists Investigative Reporting Award and awards from the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. In these excerpts from our chat, she talks about treacherous memories, being denied access to her own clips and the value of being as stubborn as a goat.

When friends ask you about the book you’ve written, how do you describe it to them?

First, I kind of say abashedly, that it’s a memoir. I say it abashedly because everyone in the world is writing a memoir. And then I try to describe it by saying that I think of it as the world’s longest coming-of-age story. Longest not in length, but in duration, because most coming-of-age stories take place over a single pivotal summer, and mine took 18½ years.

Hertzel in the USSR in 1986, from "News to Me" (Univ. of Minn. Press). Photo: Joey McLeister.

What convinced you to record it for posterity?

We have an in-house message board here at the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. And a few years ago, a copy editor posted a message laughing at the lettering on one of the doors that leads to our basement. It said “Employes only,” and employees was spelled e-m-p-l-o-y-e-s – with one “e.”

He thought it was very funny that words would be misspelled at a newspaper. But it’s not misspelled, because anyone who’s been in the business as long as I have knows that back in the day when they were still using hot type, there were a lot of shortcuts they took in spelling. One was that cigarette ended with one “t”: c-i-g-a-r-e-t. There were a whole bunch of words like that they used just to save space.

I explained that in a note back on the message board, and he thought I was joking. He had never heard of this, and I started thinking about all the things about old-time newspapers that people nowadays know nothing about. Horseshoe-shaped copy desks – those are gone. Editing on paper with the time-honored editing marks – that’s gone. Cropping photos with a cropping wheel and a pica pole – all of this is gone. I wanted to remember them, and I wanted people to remember them.

And at the same time, I was reading a blog written by a guy named Julian Young, who is a British journalist now living in France. He was posting his stories about his early days on Fleet Street, and they were so interesting. So I started writing on my blog about the past, which isn’t nearly as glamorous as being on Fleet Street, but it was fun, and the blog readers liked it, and so eventually it became a book.

Adam Hochschild talks about the multitude of identities we have and how they can’t all fit in a memoir. So what identity did you choose, and what parts of yourself did you leave out?

I left out a lot. I didn’t write much about my family, I didn’t write much about my private life. This wasn’t a book about how I got married and got divorced. This was the story of a young woman who fell into something quite by accident and found that she loved it. That was how I viewed myself.

A couple people have said that they thought the first part of the book was overly self-deprecating, but I really felt that way at the time. I remember seeing these reporters doing this amazing stuff and being so confident, and I just remember thinking, “I could never do that.” And so this was the story of how I came to be able to do that.

Hertzel with Llama farmer in the early '80s (photo by Joey McLeister/from News to Me, Univ. of Minn. Press)

Hertzel with a llama farmer in the 1980s, from "News to Me" (Univ. of Minn. Press). Photo: Joey McLeister.

I really never had any desire to go to a big city. I’m not a city person. I love the outdoors. I love walking in the woods. I love riding my bicycle. I am pretty provincial, actually. Those are the things that I love. Reading on the porch, walking in the rain. It sounds like a personal ad.

Or The Piña Colada Song.

I love living in the Twin Cities. We go to the theater, and there are nice places to eat. But those aren’t the things that I grew up with, and they’re not the things I really fundamentally value.

Duluth was a wonderful place, and the paper was wonderful at the time, because there were so many opportunities. I used to talk to journalism classes and say, “If you get a chance to go to a small paper first, you should do that, because you can move around much more easily than you can at a big paper.”

I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore. I think big papers are much more flexible now, but when I first started at the Star Tribune, people were in the same beats for 20 or 25 years. You got a job and that was the job that you kept. So it was a real privilege to work at the Duluth paper where I could bounce around, and go to the copy desk, and then go to reporting, and go back to the copy desk. You could do it at a paper like that, and that was how I learned so much.

But I still love this city, and I feel very grateful that I ended up at a paper of the exact right size.

Like most memoirs, the book unfolds chronologically, which determines a lot of the structure. Beyond that, can you talk about how you approached organizing your material?

Well, I did end up throwing away big chunks that didn’t fit. The first half moves pretty quickly, because I didn’t make anything up — memories from back in the 1970s are not quite as distinct as memories in the 1990s, so there’s not quite as much detail.

I tried to structure it by pivotal moments in my career, so it was structured job by job by job. The harder chapters were the later chapters, where I had way too much material. I had help from a woman who is a wonderful writer herself, Ellen Akins, a novelist. She helped me to realize what I didn’t need.

For example, after I came back from the Soviet Union, the paper sent me to Cuba for a sister city trip in 1993. But it was sort of the same thing that happened to me in Russia, so that ended up coming out. The tricky part is figuring out what parts of your life to tell that keep moving the story of your life forward. And that was trial and error.

I had to write the book really quickly. I wrote it in a year while working full time. I got my job as books editor the same week I got the contract to write the book. So here I am, starting a new job where I should be reading everything that I possibly could read, but at the same time, I’m supposed to write a book and turn it in in a year. For a year, whenever I was reading, I thought I should be writing, and whenever I was writing, I thought I should be reading.

In your acknowledgements, you thank a lot of people for documents that helped you write the book. For anyone picturing memoir as something you write from your head, can you talk about what historical material you made use of?

One of the first things I did was to call the News Tribune to secure my date of hire, because I couldn’t remember exactly when I was hired. I had told people this story over the years about how I was working at the News Tribune as a clerk the day the Fitzgerald sank – the Edmund Fitzgerald. I remember very vividly one of the copy editors showing me a picture of a boat and saying, “You have to get the right photo. You have to run the picture of the right ore boat. If you run another ore boat and even Wite-Out its name, people recognize it. They don’t all look alike.”

So when I started working on the book, I called the paper to get the date of my hire, and then I Googled the Fitzgerald, and it turned out that the Fitzgerald sank six months before I started working there. So clearly that memory was not right.

But it was a vivid memory in your head?

I remember the copy editor making that point and showing me the picture, but I guess it wasn’t the day the Fitzgerald sank. Somehow I put that together myself. And that terrified me. I thought, “Everything I remember is suspect.” It really made me cautious about telling stories without checking them.

But I like research anyway, and so it really was a fun process: finding people that I hadn’t talked to in 20 years and asking them questions. I went up to Duluth and met with my old editor and a columnist who’d been there longer than I had. I went though tons of files at the public library. Jacqui Banaszynski sent me this whole packet of clips. I had thrown away most of my clips years before, because they’re not that great. I didn’t really want to read them again, but now I needed them.

The editor of the News Tribune at that time was someone I had never met; he’s not there anymore. For some reason, he decided he didn’t want me going through the files. He never communicated directly with me. I wrote him repeatedly to ask if I could go through the files and maybe find some photos I could use in the book. He never answered me. Other people I know who work there went in and asked on my behalf, and he told them all no. So I had no way of getting at my clips. There’s a copy editor who I had never met. I don’t know anything about this guy, but he thought this was unfortunate. So late at night, when his shift was done, he started going through my old clips, and he gave them to a friend who gave them to me. That was an act of huge kindness that was very helpful to me.

I guess what I would say is that the Edmund Fitzgerald story really gave me pause and really reinforced how important double-checking things and then triple-checking was. One thing I found is that no one else’s memory is any better than mine, and some are much worse. I talked to one guy who was a reporter there when I was a clerk back in the ’70s. He was telling me stuff that wasn’t right – and I knew it wasn’t right, because I had photos. I ran into that with some other interviews, too. You interview someone who tells you one thing, and your memory tells you something else. So then what do you do?

So I just verified as much as I could and then went with my memory.

We have centuries of self-aggrandizing memoir, and then we have the more recent popularity of the self-abasing memoir. In yours, there are no major tragedies. You didn’t lose a limb, you didn’t become an addict. But there’s sort of this intensity of the everyday, of how most people live their lives. It’s a celebration of person over image.

Which did make me wonder if anyone would read it.

Well, sometimes you read memoir and you feel that the writer is still struggling with what’s happened, but this feels like you’re done with it, and you’re not trying to convince the reader of anything.

I wasn’t trying to work through anything when I wrote this. I wrote this because I love remembering, and I loved sinking back into this world, and being kind of amazed at what it was like and how much it has changed. I don’t feel like I’ve changed that much. There are certain things I remember very vividly – clearly not the day the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. But other things – things I thought. Sitting there watching Jacqui Banaszynski tell stories, and thinking “I could never do that.”

And I thought that even when I started reporting, and they gave me the regional beat. I thought, “Oh, thank God, I have the easiest beat. I could never cover cops.” And then I had to do cops, and it wasn’t that hard, and then I thought, “I’m so glad I don’t have to cover the county board, because I could never do that.” And then I had to cover the county board. It would be hard for me to write a self-aggrandizing memoir.

What are you hoping the book will do?

I wrote it because I wanted people to know what the time was like. It wasn’t just preserving the feel of the old newsroom, because I think there are other books that do that. There are really two other things.

One is to impress upon people what it was like to be a woman there at the time. I think that we were behind the times a little bit. What we were going through in the late ’70s when I was there was what big-city newspapers had gone through five or 10 years earlier. But the way we treated women and called them Mrs. So-and-so in the paper rather than by their own names – all of those things need to be remembered.

And I also want people to know what you can do – my husband says I’m stubborn as a goat. So I guess I want people to know what you can do if you’re as stubborn as a goat. It wasn’t until I started writing the book that I realized I never got anything the first time. Nothing. I had to ask and ask and keep at it. I never even knew that about myself until I took a look at my life.




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