This week we’re featuring VPA president-elect Steve Weddle. Weddle is currently the publisher of The Central Virginian and Vice President of Lakeway Publications. He is also renowned fiction writer.
Weddle talks about how his reporting days helped shape some of his fiction, the current state of weekly newspapers, what makes a good story and what he is looking forward to as he assumes the role of president of the VPA’s Board of Directors.
First off, can you give me a little biographical information (school, previous occupations ,etc.) and tell me what you currently do and what your association with VPA is, for those that don’t know.
I took an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University, then my wife and I moved to Virginia, where we taught a little college. In the late 1990s, I started working as an ad compositor for the Westmoreland News in Montross while their ad compositor was on maternity leave. I was making ads during the day, teaching college at night, and covering football games for the paper on weekends. After a few years of that, I spent nearly a decade as editor of the Northern Neck News. During that span, the Northern Neck News was sold from Chesapeake Publishing to Tribune to the Diederich family and then to Lakeway Publishers. I moved from editor of the Northern Neck News to publisher of The Central Virginian and now serve as vice president for Lakeway’s Virginia newspapers.
As I type these words. I am currently president-elect of the VPA’s board of directors.
And you also managed to find time to write a few works of fiction, right? How did you get started with writing fiction? Did your work as a reporter, editor, and then later publisher, ever compliment your work as a fiction writer, or vice versa?
Right. I get up about 4 each morning and get some fiction down before heading to the office, which seems to work out for me.
My MFA from LSU is focused on poetry, but I found that poetry does not pay very well. I switched to fiction, though the experience with poetry was helpful in terms of imagery and sentence rhythm. To my mind, a clear, rhythmic sentence is that glorious matching of math and art.
Covering crimes and courts certainly helped, as did working on deadline. Good stories, whether journalism or fiction, tend to depend on conflict and empathy.
Did you ever recreate an event you covered as a reporter into a work of fiction? I’ve heard other authors with journalism backgrounds say that got ideas for plot and character for their fiction from the stories they covered as a reporter.
I did not recreate any event, though I used a great deal of experience with crime reporting for many of the stories. In one section, the multi-jurisdictional grand jury plays an important role, which is something I would not have known about without covering potholes and pot busts for years. While many of the events the informed the narrative came from outside my newspaper work, the experience of covering crime news clearly created the lens I needed to tell the stories.
It seems some people don’t necessarily consider your standard news reporter to be a storyteller. Instead, they see them as an official chronicler, or scribe, of some sort. What’s your take on this?
I’m not sure the question is whether the reader considers a reporter to be a chronicler or a storyteller, honestly. From my experience, the reader doesn’t usually consider the reporter at all. The reader scans through a story, sometimes lingering on a quote or image. If the writer is doing his or her job, the reader shouldn’t consider the writer, in my opinion. Does the writer consider the story worth telling? Most good stories have some sort of conflict, two sides to the story. Otherwise, it isn’t a story – it’s a press release. So how does this impact your neighbors? Who wins and who loses? What does the story mean to the reader’s daily life? As for storytelling, sometimes you need to get out of the way. If the road between my house and my work is going to be closed next week, I don’t need a feature article on the woman waving the detour flag. The difference between knowing what happened and knowing why it happened is important for journalists. And back to the idea of readers giving thought to writers for a second. When I was covering courts and crime, I had more people threaten to kill me than to send me flowers, so it was rarely to my advantage for readers to think much about me.
In regard to your fiction, what are you currently working on? What are some authors, and books, that have influenced you in your writing?
Currently I have a few projects, including a prequel to my 2013 book, a novel I’ve promised to deliver to my agent by 2025. I also have a few short stories I’ve contracted to deliver in early 2018.
As for influences, I’ve learned from reading Denis Johnson and Bonnie Jo Campbell, but lately I’ve been impacted by Cynan Jones, Sjon, Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, and other authors of short novels. Likely that’s due to the fact that my newest novel stands at 860 pages as of 4:30 this morning. I have much to learn. Other influences, for various reasons, are Holly West’s historical mysteries, Chris Holm’s thrillers, and Steph Post’s rural noir.
As the publisher of The Central Virginian and as VP of Lakeway, what are some challenges you see smaller newspaper publishers currently facing?
I’m not bright enough to have a handle on all the challenges of smaller papers, but I do see many opportunities in 2018. Consumers of news are becoming more and more attuned to quality journalism over click-bait. We are all in a great position, going forward, to provide work that demands openness and transparency from our government while remaining genuinely invested in the interest of our readers, of our communities. In that sense, we’re better positioned than ever to move with alacrity in the digital and print spheres.
The Central Virginian broadcast the state championship football game recently from Williamsburg. Can you imagine a small weekly newspaper even considering do that a decade back? I covered a state championship game from Harrisonburg years ago and spent days writing the copy, interviewing coaches, and so forth. That was where a small weekly was then. And now, smaller newspapers have access to the same internet as everyone. And in terms of generating revenue, small and large newspapers can monetize very particular niche offerings, can focus more and more on local news. From newsletters to text messages, mobile technology has been a great help in leveling the playing field for smaller newspapers.
As president-elect for the VPA Board, what are you looking forward to in this role?
Aside from instituting Casual Mondays across the Commonwealth? Well, I think that the VPA has a great deal of momentum at the moment, focusing on member services. November’s #VPADay session with the governor-elect and a host of others was one of the strongest events we’ve had in a while. From the quick survey I did, many people from various types of positions among our membership found the day highly informative and enjoyable. The annual conference has become much more than an awards dinner recently, and we’ve essentially outgrown Short Pump. Now we need to make sure that we carry that momentum back to Newport News and Roanoke area for upcoming years. This is a great time to be in the news business, as each day provides us new opportunities to reach our communities. We’ll continue to stay focused on those matters that strengthen our papers and inform our readers, from public notices to digital sales and more.
One book you would require an aspiring newspaper person/novelist to read.
For newspaper folks? Without hesitation->THE LAST EDITOR by Jim Bellows. For people trying to write a novel? I have no suggestion, because nothing helps.
Steve Weddle is the author of Country Hardball and South of the Bradley. He is currently more than 800 pages into his next novel, which is slated for publication around 2025. More information on his work can be found here.