Words on Words: An interview with Sue Corbett
There's a terrific middle grade novel coming out in paperback next week that you might not have heard of, The Last Newspaper Boy in America. In order to help thwart the potential irony of not enough word getting out regarding a wonderful book whose topic is getting the word out, we're featuring an interview this week with its author, Sue Corbett!
KB: Your book speaks eloquently about change. For example at the end of the book there is a sense of accommodation to a digital future, a sense that new technology is essentially a swapping of equivalent tools, putting down your "pencil to learn web design." Do you imagine readers see The Last Newspaper Boy as elegy or a cause to action?
Sue: Both my husband and I began our careers as reporters. Not only did we long count on newspapers to pay our mortgage, we love newspapers. Never, ever, during all the years I have been aware of "declining circulation" as the prevailing trend did it really occur to me that The New York Times might predecease me. But a few years ago I noticed while walking my oldest son to the school bus stop that there were markedly fewer newspapers in the driveways we passed, and it wasn't because all of a sudden people were getting up a lot earlier. In my own neighborhood, over the course of just a few years, newspaper circulation had dropped by maybe two-thirds. Where once I saw a newspaper in front of every other house, now I was seeing that plastic-bagged info at maybe every fifth house.
This made me so sad. For one, I had been a newspaper girl myself and the thought that home delivery would go away made me melancholy. But I also started to wonder what my own little world would be like if my neighbors and I were left to our own devices to find out what was happening in the world. I mean, I'm on the internet all day long but I never think to check in on what the planning and zoning commission is up to. I have always depended upon the newspaper to let me know if Walmart was trying to put another superstore on a nearby corner. We can't stop the digital tsunami, but what will our neighborhoods look like once it completely washes over us? How are we going to stay informed if the newspapers go the way of dinosaurs? Because newspapers have not yet figured out how to pay reporters and editors if nobody takes the paper anymore.
KB: "Remainders of the Day" huh? What would you name a bookstore?
Sue: I live in this little enclave of wonderfulness in Newport News, Virginia, called Hilton Village. There is an empty shopfront (actually, over the course of the past two years, we now have several empty storefronts) that I desperately want to become a bookstore. If I win the Lotto, I will call it the Hilton Booksmith, if that is okay with the Wellesley Booksmith, from whom I would seek permission to copycat. "Booksmith" carries the connotation of a person who actually makes books, not just sells them, so this seems perfect to me.
KB: I love all the stuff about paper clips. So tell us, can you abide pastel colored ones, or is it all about traditional steel?
Sue: I'm afraid I'm a sucker for all kinds of fancy office supplies -- colored paper clips, rainbow assortment post-it notes, gel pens, you name it. Writing is a lonely pursuit. You have to keep yourself happy any way you can.
KB: Was it your idea to use newspaper headlines as chapter headings? Pretty cool.
Sue: It was. After 25 years as a reporter, I'm afraid I think in headlines. And don't do anything, and that includes laundry, dinner, and writing assignments, until it has a deadline attached.
KB: History is so important in your book, tangible pieces of it are such a big part of Wil's sleuthing and his Fair project. Are there digital ties that bind, or do we need physical connections to the community and the past.
Sue: I think the digital ties are actually going to help us keep the past alive with so much less effort. The technology will continue to evolve but already it is so much easier to research the past than it was even 10 years ago. Almost too easy. You can put "Pennsylvania" and "Rural Farm Life," in your search engine in order to invent the story of Wil's grandfather's founding of their town and, eight hours later, you feel like you've spent the day in early 20th Century Pennsylvania, southwest of Pittsburgh. You know what they planted, how they brought it to market, what price they got for it, all by trolling through the archives of state historical society. It continually amazes me how much you can find without even leaving home these days. That said, there is the old reporter wisdom about there being no news in the newsroom -- you have to get out and see things, have the sensory experience, talk to people, or the writing can take on all the mustiness of the basement at the state historical society. And nothing renews my love of writing more than hearing somebody else tell me something funny or wise or intriguing and being able to noodle it into my own prose.
KB: I got an email from your talking beagle Louie. It read, "assdkl hjerrt asbnopuityty hjerrt nmerxcty bnopopkl" At first I was non plussed, but then I realized Louie's paws were too big for the keyboard and he was hitting both the letter he wanted and the one to the right of it. So I figure it says "ask her about her next book." First of all, why don't you get him an over sized keyboard? Secondly, what's he talking about? Is your next book about a dog?
Sue: Ah. I'm afraid you have mis-interpreted Louie's message. What he is really saying is, "She said I could have that leftover TVP in the refrigerator. Can you get the door open for me? I'll take it from there." Louie does not support my writing career because it prevents me from continually opening the back door to let him in and out. But the next book is about . . . wait for it .... a school newspaper's transition to going fully online and how that doesn't quite work out the way the middle school staff had hoped it would. It's titled, of course, Paperless. If my editor, the marketing staff, and the publicity department agree, that is.
KB: Thanks Sue!