NORFOLK, Va. — This two-part craft talk with writer and editor Tom Robotham covers a lot of ground, including the state of journalism, local alternative media, and the art of writing a coffee table book with Charlton Heston.
Robotham, a columnist locally in Veer and Hampton Roads Magazine, may be best known as the longtime editor of the now-defunct PortFolio Weekly, where, among other honors, he earned the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Leadership in the Community.
Almost just as impressively, he recently was featured in a Belligerent Q&A here. One of the reasons I wanted to do a longer talk was that Robotham recently went back to school in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program. Which is awesome.
As regular readers know, I’m in that program. Additionally, Robotham and I are friends, dating back to the days he edited my sweet, sweet copy for PortFolio, no doubt drawing little stars and happy faces atop the print outs he absolutely and really then placed into a special folder marked “The Awesome File,” kept in his personal safe along with family heirlooms and an autographed publicity still of Kip Winger.
Absolutely and really, I say.
Robotham, while a student, is also an educator at ODU and the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.
Q: This is your first semester going back and you’re enrolled at ODU?
Correct. I’m only taking class at this point, a non-fiction workshop. I’m officially enrolled in the MFA program, but, because I’m teaching four classes, I decided I’d dip my toe in the water with just one since I haven’t been a student in more than two decades, let’s say.
Q: Why did you want to go back?
One, I wanted to get a terminal degree because I really love teaching and I’m hoping in this second half of my life I can – hopefully the second half and not the final eighth – I can get a terminal degree so I can get a full time gig someplace.
Q: Did you come here for PortFolio?
I came here six or seven years before PortFolio. My wife at the time and I were living in Manhattan and we had our first child, my daughter Sarah. That was in 1989. We moved to New Jersey for a year … I knew I didn’t want to do that commute. … I kind of wanted a stronger sense of community for myself and my kids. I was getting my master’s at the time in American studies at the Graduate Center of the City University, and I’d read this book called Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985). The subtitle is ‘Individualism and Commitment in American Life.’ It’s by Robert Bellah, a sociologist, and a whole team of people from other disciplines. It was a study of how our emphasis on individualism in this country has in recent decades fragmented communities, because people are so transient. And even when we’re not transient, we tend to hide behind our stockade fences with our huge garages in the front. So I’d started visiting here because this is where my (ex) grew up. She had this extended family, which appealed to me because I never did have that and it just seemed like the kind of place where you could really settle in and build a family and build a sense of community.
I freelanced for six years, traveled back and forth to New York City regularly. I had been working for Hearst Magazines in a division that produced books and videos related to the magazines. They kept me under contract, flew me up there on a regular basis, but finally that started to get old, getting on a plane once a week, pretty much. So I took a year off from any kind of job because I got a contract with this book publisher I knew who wanted to produce a book called Charlton Heston Presents The Bible. It was a companion to – don’t laugh.
Q: I’m laughing a little.
He did a TV series on A&E, a four-part series, and it was a really good series. It’s unfortunate that Charlton Heston became such a cartoon character because I got to know him and he was a really nice guy and really well read.
Q: And well armed.
(Laughs.) Well armed, too, but I didn’t see that side of him. He talked about Shakespeare and The Bible as literature. This was not a religious initiative on his part. He was interested in The Bible as literature and the historical aspects of The Bible. So each episode, he’d go to some site like Mt. Sinai, and talk about that, and then he would do these dramatic readings. So they wanted a coffee table book to go with this and they hired me to produce this whole thing. … That carried me for a year, and just as that money was running out I saw an ad for the PortFolio job. That was in 1998. I applied and I got it. I did that for 10 years.
Q: And that’s how most people in Hampton Roads know you.
Yeah. While I was doing my own thing, and especially since I was gone a whole lot, I always felt like I had just one foot in the community. Very quickly as I was editing PortFolio, a lot of people got to know me. I had a voice in the community. I became a very active public figure going to different functions and things like that, being a kind of spokesman for the magazine. I enjoyed that aspect of the job. That was kind of a culmination of my vision of wanting to be part of a community.
Back to your original question, of course, after 10 years and two months, I was fired. I’d always been at odds with management over editorial direction, but I managed to stay on my feet, to use a boxing analogy. A friend of mine once told me, ‘Use your jab.’ Which I did successfully for 10 years. But, you know, that was a function of (Landmark, owner of the PortFolio, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, and others) wanting to sell off the properties and everything. As a result, more closely scrutinizing the editorial direction of the paper. So we just came to blows about that and they gave me the boot. I immediately called folks I knew at (ODU) and asked whether they had any adjunct work. Within about five minutes I had another job. Not a full time job, but something.
Q: You mentioned a second reason to go back to school.
The second reason was I had always done, I’d written a lot of essays, a lot of feature stories, quite a bit of hard news, though that was never my strong suit. … I wanted to develop my long form narrative writing, and I felt that would (A) impose discipline on me, because I have to write to get grades and (B) help me polish my craft in a dimension I hadn’t worked at before, i.e., writing literary nonfiction with the techniques of a novelist – scene-setting, dialogue, all of that. So those two reasons – the terminal degree and the desire to be more disciplined with my writing. I’m working on a memoir now.
Q: We’ve talked before about how when I went into the (MFA) program, how little I knew about writing. As a journalist, you tend to develop a lot of tricks, especially for deadline writing. … I think what I found was a lot of my tricks weren’t really serving me very well. Do you feel that way with any of the work you’ve done? Do you feel you’ve fallen into habits that you want to work around?
I do. I would say those tricks work really well for newspaper articles, but newspaper articles are very different from books. Obviously, in terms of length but also in terms of that narrative that reads like a novel. For instance, this past Literary Festival I worked with Claire Dederer, the author of a best-selling memoir, and I showed her a feature story I’d written on martial arts, which I got into in 2005, and she said, ‘Obviously you are a very strong feature writer, but I want to encourage you to write more in scenes.’ And she went through my piece and said this could be a scene, that could be a scene. So, yeah, absolutely. I feel like I find it very easy to turn out a feature story. Now I’m struggling with a whole new kind of writing which I’ve attempted before but never seriously.
Q: But you’ve written books.
I’ve written books but they’ve all been, by and large, history. It came out of my American studies discipline. … Not academic, because I hope I write in more general-interest prose, but they’re not creative nonfiction, as we use the term. It was more ideas. I wasn’t telling a lot of stories. They were almost more like book-length essays.
Q: You didn’t feel you were telling stories?
No. There were stories sprinkled throughout, but by and large what I was doing was writing, I guess, what they call in the newspaper business ‘think pieces.’
Q: You worked in New York as a reporter.
I started out at The Staten Island Advance.
Q: What were some of the beats you covered?
I started out, like a lot of people do, on the night shift, the police and fire beat. I liken that first year or so to boot camp for journalism. One of the stories that stands out most was at a bout 2 a.m. when I was getting ready to knock off, because I worked the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, a report came over the police scanner that there was a five-alarm fire up in this poor section of Staten Island. So I raced up there, and it was raining … bleak, a lot of puddles on the ground, cold … stood there for like three hours to people from the building, mostly Spanish speaking people … After they finally put the fire out, I went across the street, did two shots of tequila, and went back and wrote my story. … I think like five people died, and there were dozens of people who were homeless, all poor people. …
So then about a year later, I started covering education (as a substitute) and the education reporter left and that became my fulltime beat. They also gave me a music column. That was great. Those are two of my favorite subjects to write about.
Q: When you’re at a relatively smaller paper, you have a lot more opportunities.
Yeah. Just as The Pilot wants to focus mostly on South Hampton Roads, The Advance … wanted to focus primarily on Staten Island. But as a music columnist, I had complete freedom. I interviewed people like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. You know, I could go to New York City jazz clubs for free. The perks of that gig.
Q: Music writing is the best scam in journalism. (Laughter.)
I loved education reporting, too. I used to get into a lot of the philosophical issues, too. The push for the so-called ‘gifted’ was really strong at the time, and I got into that conceptually, as far as interviewing people about whether that was really just a scam for affluent parents to get their kids into the best setting or whether that was legitimate. Stuff like that. I left there after about four and a half years. …
I still had to do general assignment pieces (sometimes) and the editor had subscribed to this widespread complaint that newspapers only report ‘bad news.’ So he started this daily front page column called ‘It’s Good News.’ It would be stories like somebody lost a wallet and somebody returned it with all the money in it. … It was just the goofiest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Q: Was it worse than doing a weather story?
Those I hated, too. I’d gag everytime I heard a reporter use the term ‘the white stuff. We’re going to have more of the white stuff this weekend.’ It was like, ‘Just say snow, for Christ’s sake.’ (Laughs.)
Q: At the time, they were probably referring to cocaine.
(Laughs.) I don’t think so, though it was the height of the cocaine boom. … Sure, there’s bad news, but most news in newspapers is either good or bad depending upon your point of view.
Q: I think that you had an opportunity with PortFolio, and continuing with the writing you’re doing now for Veer, to use writing to talk about thinks you care about. I wonder if it’s at that point you were already thinking, “Maybe I want to try another form of writing … where I can write about social issues.”
I was, and I wanted to get into magazines for that reason. … When I was still working for The Advance, I went back to a five-year college reunion and a friend said, ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I said, ‘I want to be editing The Village Voice.’ I’ve always remembered that conversation, because I ended up doing that in a way. Not The Voice, but something like it here. Long before that, I got a temp job at Esquire … and then got a fulltime job as an assistant editor with Esquire Press, a book imprint. I really got sidetracked from my goal writing for magazines. I couldn’t break in. … Hearst bought Esquire. … It took me pretty far afield.
Two things got me back into writing. One thing, I had gotten pretty familiar with the magazine archives. Hearst owns all those (Varga) pinups from World War II. … Some book publisher came to us and wanted to license those images for a coffee table book, and asked, ‘Do you have anybody who can write this?’ … So I wrote that book, and I established this relationship with the publisher. I was getting my M.A. at the time, and had the opportunity over the next four or five years to do these other coffee table books. The other thing that got me back into writing is I was sitting there one day thinking how far afield I’d gotten and I’d let people convince me that if I wasn’t doing it by now, i.e., my late 20s, I’d probably never do it.
I remember reading Cosmopolitan one day, one of their magazines, and I’d gotten to know Helen Gurly Brown, one of their legendary editors of Cosmo, and I went, ‘I may not be Faulkner, but I can do this.’ (Laughter.) So I went over to Helen’s office and she referred me to their managing editor and he said, ‘Sure, give it a shot.’ So I wrote this feature article […] about job burnout. Young women, five years on the job, experiencing job burnout. … So that’s how I got back into writing after taking, it must have been, seven years without doing any writing other than promotional copy writing.
Q: Safe to say you didn’t want to write again so you could write about young women having job burnout.
No, though I must say getting $1,800 for an article that took me two days to write wasn’t too shabby. (Laughter.) And, furthermore, there’s a certain amount of ego – at least for me – involved in writing, especially back then, when you’re younger. Having my name for the first time in a national magazine was pretty cool. But, of course, I was far afield from my dream of being editor of The Village Voice or Paris editor for The New York Times. But that continued to eat at me. I didn’t think I was doing anything really important or meaningful. I kept that dream alive in the back of my head. When I got the PortFolio job, I felt the dream had been realized. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I felt it was really important work.
I hope to have Part Two up in a few days … Part two is at this link.