Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New series by Laurie Hertzel: When I Was ...

Today the UMP blog is kicking off a monthlong series by Star Tribune books editor and author Laurie Hertzel. The series, When I Was ..., will move chronologically through Hertzel's early years and adventures in writing and while on assignment at the Duluth News-Tribune. Read on about her multiple early career ambitions.

This series will appear on the UMP blog on Mondays throughout the month of September. See below for links to subsequent posts.


A young Laurie Hertzel reads with her brother, David,
on the steps of their childhood home in Duluth.
Gateway to Storyland was one of their favorite books.
When I was growing up, my parents gave us books for every birthday and every Christmas. I was only seven when I got my first Laura Ingalls Wilder book, Little Town on the Prairie--yes, they gave me the series out of order--and I was deep into reading it one afternoon when Ace Levang stopped by.

Ace Levang was my father’s friend, an English professor at UMD, and I loved him because every time he visited he crouched down to eye-level and asked me, very seriously, what I was reading. After I told him, he then wanted to know what I thought of the book.

In the case of Little Town on the Prairie, which I had only just started, I wasn’t sure what to tell him. “The chapters are short,” I said (Chapter One was less than a page). He laughed, stood up and said, “That’s a valid criticism,” and went off to find my father.

Books, his attentiveness told me, were important. Reading was a serious pastime. This reinforcement was terrific, because my ambition even then was to write my own book some day.

I started with comic books, even though I couldn’t draw, and spent hours in my room creating paneled stories that featured characters based on my favorite comic book hero, Millie the Model.

When I got a little older, I left illustration behind and ventured into journalism, creating a family newspaper, which I filled with what passed for news in our house—the dinner menu (laboriously recreated, right down to the nightly vitamin pill that I always worried was really for dogs—our veterinarian uncle sent them to us by the cartonful), the comings and goings of my nine siblings, and the birthdays of my friends.

Always a mimic, I channeled the inverted pyramid structure of newspapers just as I had previously channeled the big-city adventures of Millie the Model.

At fourteen, it seemed that it was time to get busy on my future. A friend had gotten a job as a page at the public library (and yes, we laughed about being pages in a building filled with books), and I thought it sounded like a perfect job. The Carnegie Library in Duluth was one of my favorite places, with tall stained-glass windows, marble floors, and a cathedral-like rotunda. Best of all, it was filled with the most precious items on Earth—books.

It wasn’t very long, though, before I grew terribly bored at my job. Yes, I was surrounded by tempting books, but no, there was no time to read any of them. My job was this: I put them away. I spent a lot of time in the back workroom, where all the returned books were dumped. Some of us sorted them onto carts, and some of us wheeled the carts out into the library and put them back on shelves. On those rare days when we got everything put away, we spent our time reading the shelves to make sure that all the books were in the proper order.

I learned pretty quickly to keep an eye out for certain men who liked to hang around the library. One of them sat at a table and copied poetry into a grimy notebook in his big scrawly childish hand; he’d rip out the page and carry it over to us and tell us that he had written it just for us. He was a slow, shy guy and seemed harmless, but there was another man, rather good-looking, with dark hair, who was of more concern. The dark-haired man used to stand on the other side of the shelf from me and when I squatted down to shelve a book he would squat down, too. It was pretty clear what he was trying to see—the library required us pages to wear skirts to work—and often his creepy presence would send me fleeing for the safety of the workroom.

It didn’t take me very long to know that libraries were probably not my future. Writing books was one thing. Tending to their care was something else entirely.


-Part 2: When I Was ... 19 (and a newsroom clerk at the Duluth News-Tribune).
-Part 3: When I Was ... starting out as a reporter at the Duluth-News Tribune.
-Part 4: When I Was ... 30 and stumbled upon the biggest story of my life.
-Part 5: When I Was ... 38 and embarking upon a new career adventure.
-Part 6: While journalism has come a long way since my Duluth years, the fundamentals have—and will—stick around.

Laurie Hertzel is author of News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, published by University of Minnesota Press. Click here for more information, including a list of upcoming Minnesota reading events and links to Hertzel's website and Facebook page. You can also check out the News to Me book trailer, which was recently featured as Shelf Awareness's book trailer of the day.

Want to know what's on the cover of the book? Check it out (click image to enlarge):


  1. How lucky we were to get hooked on reading so young. And to grow up in a family that encouraged reading was even better. I also worked in a library but it was in college and the guys that I met there were anything but creepy!

    This Monday blog is a great idea, Laurie.