Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, George Getschow. George is the founder of the nationally acclaimed Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and editor of The Best American Newspaper Narratives, an
anthology of the best narratives published by the nation’s daily newspapers each year.
He’s also editor of Ten Spurs, a collection of the best essays and narrative submitted to the Mayborn’s national writing contest.
He was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2012 for "distinctive literary achievement.”
In 2013 and 2014 George served as a Pulitzer Prize jurist for feature writing at Columbia University.
During a 16-year career at The Wall Street Journal, Getschow was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Robert F. Kennedy Award for "distinguished writing" about the underprivileged.
Today, Getschow is a principal lecturer for the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, and a writing coach for a number of storytellers across the nation.
He is completing a book, Walled Kingdom, for John Macrae Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Co., which grew out of two narratives he wrote for The Wall Street Journal.
Norm: Good day George and thanks for joining us on Bookpleasures.com.
How did you get started in writing and what keeps you going?
George: The Iowa State Daily, the student paper, gave me my start. The faculty advisor must have rued the day I was hired because I ignited a firestorm exposing all kinds of shenanigans involving the football team under coach Johnny Majors that infuriated the administration. Poor guy had to stand up to a loud chorus of complaints about my coverage.
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?
George: Receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Award for a series of stories published in The Wall Street Journal about exploitation of day labor workers in the oil patch, and a story published last year in The Dallas Morning News exposing the cataclysmic dangers posed by a leaky earthen dam above Dallas.
After a public outcry following publication of the story last December, North Texas legislators pushed Congress to come up with the money to fix it. A few weeks after publication of the story – “A Dam Called Trouble” -- Congress appropriated $120 million to do just that. The publisher of The Dallas Morning News, Jim Moroney, wrote me a congratulatory letter. “Hopefully, because of this work,” he said, “we will never know if the dam would have failed. We have given the government a chance to do what is right and get what needs to be fixed...fixed.”
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?
Norm: Has your environment and/or upbringing influenced your writing?
George: Texas is rich territory for storytelling, overflowing with sprawling cities and giant cattle baronies, with vaqueros and roughnecks, mariners and merchants, and other swashbuckling characters that you won’t find anywhere else on the planet.
Norm: What advice can you give aspiring writers that you wished you had gotten, or that you wished you would have listened to?
George: I’d pass along this gem from Jim Hornfischer, a topflight literary agent and author. “Sometimes the most important progress doesn’t have to do with writing at all, but just with reengaging what drew you to a story in the first place.”
Norm: What do you think is the future of reading/writing? As a follow up, how do you feel about e-books vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
George: Ignore the doomsayers. Stellar writing will always find a home, whether in print or digital publications, alternative or conventional. The type of platform will never be as important as the quality of the story. I will admit, though, that cracking open the cover of a new book or magazine, sniffing the fresh ink, and turning one page after another remains for me one of the most sensual experiences of my literary life.
Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
George: Writers have an implied contract with readers. If you’re writing non-fiction, it’s to employ the sort of storytelling devices that enable readers to experience, as if first-hand, the actual experience, fully, fairly and honestly. If you’re writing fiction, it’s to transport readers to a world outside of their orbit, allowing them to experience that imagined world psychologically, spiritually and emotionally. Readers should also count on both non-fiction writers and fiction writers to enrich their lives through the stories they tell, to make them more human.
Norm: How did the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference come about and what exactly is its function?
George: A former Mayborn dean asked me to help him launch a journalism conference that would draw distinguished local-area writers and editors to talk about the art and craft of storytelling. I got a bit carried away, and began recruiting the most acclaimed writers, editors and literary agents from the world of publishing to attend the Mayborn’s first conference in Grapevine in 2005. It was a smash hit from the start, because unlike other conferences, ours is a tribal gathering, offering professional writers and newbies, students and housewives, a sense of belonging, a sense that we’re in this together, and that the Mayborn exists for one purpose: to inspire and sustain a writing life.
Norm: Could you tell our readers more about The Best American Newspaper Narratives and how do you go about selecting essays to include in the anthology?
George: The Best American Newspaper Narratives is the brainchild of Jim Moroney, the publisher of The Dallas Morning News. Four years ago Jim proposed launching a national writing contest through the Mayborn Conference to “encourage more compelling, important and interesting narratives stories that attract and retain subscribers.”
He offered $8,000 in prize money, an incentive that caught the attention of every narrative writer in the country. We recruited writers and editors like Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, and Steven Wilmsen, the enterprise editor of The Boston Globe, to pick the winners – a difficult task because more and more newspapers are spending weeks and sometimes months churning out extraordinarily creative and engaging narratives that rise above the conventions of daily journalism.
Norm: How was it like to serve as a jurist in 2013 and 2014 for feature writing at Columbia University and what did the jurists look for when selecting a winner?
George: It was both exciting and terrifying. The responsibility that comes with selecting the best features produced in the country is daunting. What did we look for? The stuff of great storytelling, the stuff that is as lasting as literature.
Norm: How did you become involved with writing about the underprivileged where you were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Robert F. Kennedy Award for distinguished writing?
George: I just happened to be driving over a big bridge on the outskirts of Houston over Christmas when I spotted a bunch of people underneath that appeared to be cooking on campfires and living in tents. I pulled off the road and walked under the bridge to see a community – mostly families who had migrated to Houston from the Midwest and Northeast looking for jobs. That led to the discovery of labor camps sprouting all across the Southwest, which led to a series of stories that caught the attention of the Justice Department, which dispatched an small army of investigators to close down the camps.
Norm: What do your plans for future projects include?
George: Wrestling an 800-pound bull to the ground. At least how I sometimes describe a long-time-in-the-making book about the plundering a South Texas cattle kingdom the size of Rhode Island. The empire was run by a benevolent widow, Sarita Kenedy East, who decided late in life to create a foundation to alleviate the suffering of the poorest of the poor of Latin America. But her foundation became entangled in skullduggery, scandal and endless litigation. It also has entangled me for what seems forever.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
George: Just Google my name.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
George: There is no writer in the world who doesn’t wonder if they’re good enough. No matter how long we’ve been writing or whether we’ve received high praise for our writing, we all become discouraged the moment we sit down to write because our high expectations and hopes of what we want to write never quite measures up to what we actually write. But the writer – unlike the non-writer – keeps on writing through their disappointment and disillusionment. That’s what makes them writers.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
George: Have you ever tried your hand at writing witty or funny stuff? I have, and I stink at it. I’d rather endure a week of water boarding than attempt to write something funny or clever again.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.