My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Gwen Florio, author of the debut novel, Montana (The Permanent Press), a mystery set in...well, you know where. Kirkus Reviews had this to say of the novel: "Crammed with atmosphere and intriguing characters...The author does a great job of writing a book that's both evocative of the Montana countryside and a satisfying, hair-raising ride." A veteran journalist Florio has covered stories ranging from the shootings at Columbine High School, the trials of Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the glitz of the Miss America pageant and the more practical Miss Navajo contest, whose contestants slaughter a sheep. She's reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as Lost Springs, Wyoming (Population: 3). Her journalism has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize and her short fiction for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Her second novel, Dakota, is scheduled for release in March 2014.
My First Published Novel, My Last Newspaper Story
I’d been writing fiction for 20 years—a few short stories published, a novel wisely shelved, a second roundly rejected—when I signed a contract last year with a small press, Permanent, for a crime novel titled Montana. Obviously, fiction wasn’t my day job.
No, that was journalism, which was my day job, night job, weekend job, more an entire way of life than work. Sure, I’d always wanted to write novels. But in my junior year as an English major at the University of Delaware, my father pointed out the obvious: “You’ll need to pay the bills. Take a journalism course.”
I did. And, to my shock, fell instantly in love. More accurately (accuracy being a key component of journalism), I fell in lust.
The rush of a byline, the thrill of beating a competitor to a story, a banner headline across the top of Page 1—think sex has anything on that? Think again. I can’t count how many times I took a phone call, hung up, and said to some poor schmo who until moments earlier had seemed eminently worthy, “Sorry. Gotta go. Story.”
Besides, there was a bonus. Every new and strange place a story took me—from a Delaware trailer where a woman lived with 27 dogs, to a Jersey guy nicknamed “Johnny Bag o’Doughnuts” for his penchant for feeding rats, to an Ohio man who looked and dressed like Jesus but for the obvious lack of underwear beneath his too-thin robes—was, I reasoned, fodder for the fiction I remained sure I would eventually write. Someday. Right after I finished the story for the next day’s paper.
Two decades into journalism, “someday” crept closer. I signed up with the Rittenhouse Writers Group, a scary-good fiction workshop in Philadelphia whose members actually saw their short stories and novels published. These folks weren’t fooling around. Keeping up with them meant that I had to get serious, too.
But journalism, that sweet seductive bastard, wrapped me tighter. I scored a plum job covering the Rocky Mountain West, territory that occasionally expanded south to include Mexico, and reached north into the Canadian Arctic. I wrote about anti-government standoffs in Montana and the savage fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, and the hundreds of raped and murdered women in Juarez. The Oklahoma City bombers were tried and convicted on my watch. JonBenet Ramsey was slain (and no one tried and convicted). High school kids slaughtered one another at Columbine.
Fiction’s hesitant tug felt trivial beside the intensity of reality. And real was about to get worse. After 9/11, I went to Ground Zero, then hopped a plane to Pakistan. Came home for a couple of weeks and went back, this time to Afghanistan. Spent the next two years hopscotching among conflict zones: Israel, the Palestinian areas, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan again and finally Iraq. By then, journalism’s grip was nearing suffocation. Back on home ground, I headed to Texas for a story about 18 would-be undocumented Mexican immigrants—the youngest of them was 5—who essentially cooked to death when their driver abandoned his semi at a truck stop broiling southern Texas. On the way to the airport, I started to cry. Reality had become overwhelming.
By this point, I was in full breakup mode. I moved to Montana and started introducing myself as “a writer with a day job at a newspaper.”
Inevitably, the response: “What have you written?”
Now, I don’t have to say “um” anymore. I can point to Montana, recently released, and its sequel Dakota, coming out in March. Both feature a former foreign correspondent named Lola Wicks, working at a small newspaper in Montana after being downsized. What can I say? Write what you know.
I’m fond of Lola. She’s tough and ornery, and never would have put up with a charming but ultimately unsatisfying relationship for 37 years, which is how long I stuck with journalism.
In May, I wrote my last newspaper story, ending my career at the Missoulian, where I covered crime, a beat that made my heart pound just as hard as every other newspaper job I’ve ever held. Do I miss it? Hell, yes. (Not to mention the lovely paycheck that came with it.)
But now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a writer.” Period. This time, I think the relationship will last.