Something must have been in the stars last week, because three big coups came within a matter of days.
First, we returned home from Europe on Monday to learn that Willamette Week reporter Nigel Janquiss had won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories chronicling former mayor/governor Neil Goldschmidt's affair with 14-year-old female in the 1970s while running city hall. This was only the fifth time in its history that the Pulizer went to an alternative weekly, and while I've certainly had a bone or two to pick with WW while writing for the paper over the last six and a half years, I feel enormously proud. Plus Nigel is a very nice guy and has regularly been the most likely among the news reporters to say "Hello" to me when I'm on the editorial floor.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, a call came in from London, where our good friend Neil Griffiths (with whom we had been staying just a few days prior) rang at 1:40AM his time, somewhat drunkenly I might add, to tell us that he had won the prestigious Authors Club Award for Best First Novel for his book Betrayal In Naples. Neil hadn't even written an acceptance speech for the black-tie gathering because he didn't think he had a chance of winning. But anyone who has read his book (it's not distributed in the US but you can buy it at Amazon UK) knows it shouldn't have come as a surprise.
Then came what for me is the main event. That same Wednesday afternoon, my sister Sara called. At first I didn't pick up the phone, because it was after 5:00 and I didn't want to take any more business calls (we screen most of the time anyway). But then I heard Sara's voice on the machine say in her sarcastically understated way, "Uh, I think that you should pick up your phone."
Sara is a junior at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications, and she was calling to say she had been chosen as next year's editor-in-chief at the Daily Trojan newspaper. She has been a senior editor there since her sophomore year, and was clearly in line for the job. But she still had to sweat it out with one other candidate.
For most of her life, Sara has been besting me academically and professionally. And I've enjoyed every minute. In high school I had been rather proud to have a 3.7 GPA, until Sara rang in with a 3.99 -- one 'B' in her entire four years. I was content playing intramural basketball; she edited her school paper to a first-place-in-the-nation award....twice. In college at USC, she has not only been a member of the cross country team, but is a regular on Dean's List and holds down a work study job while putting in essentially the equivalent of a full-time job at the paper. I routinely get calls from her at 9:30 or 10:00pm where she's on her way home from the paper to start dinner and, later, begin her homework.
What's also interesting to me about the success of Sara, Neil and Nigel is that all three are writers who do something different from me. Sara is a good reporter and critic, but she is most at home as an editor--being part of a team that puts a paper together. As a freelance writer like me, one is expected to be going after a salaried job as a staff writer or editor. But I have discovered that I much prefer to maintain the status quo, moving from one publication to another like a writing ronin, and sleeping in without an alarm clock. (I learned this from my mom, an accountant who time after time turns down promotions because she doesn't want to be a boss, and because she's sure enough of herself to reject ambition for its own sake when she can be happier continuing as is.)
Neil is a fiction writer, and that is something else I've often been encouraged to do -- and most certainly will not. Often times people assume nonfiction writers and journalists are just punching the clock with articles to bide their time until they can write fiction. But one of the reasons I hold Neil's writing in such high regard is that I could never do it. Fiction is just too wide open for me to imagine conjuring stories out of nothing. And besides, I'm a realist.
Nigel is obviously an investigative reporter, and that is something I have done and, quite honestly, am not cut out for either. A few years ago I was able to get my foot in the door at the New York Times by volunteering to assist with news stories in Portland of national interest when they came up from time to time. So on countless stories dating back to about 2001, be it Christian Longo's murder of his family or the helicopter crash at Mt. Hood or the Tacoma roots of DC sniper John Malvo--or most memorably a murder-suicide in my home town of McMinnville--I would collect information and conduct interviews for Times reporters under very tight deadlines and tremendous pressure. A few times, I even wrote the stories myself for the paper's National section. It was all a tremendous source of pride and a real boost to my resume, but deep down I always felt like a fake. I hate reporting, and earlier this year I finally let the Times's Seattle bureau chief know I didn't want to work on news stories anymore. It's a tremendous relief to not dread the phone ringing with New York on the line when a major story here breaks.
So while it's because of my personal connections to Sara, Neil and Nigel that I'm happy for their achievements, it is also with a sense that each one brings talents that I don't have -- which I say not out of false modesty or self pity, but out of contentment and confidence in what I do as well.