Strata: Laurie Hertzel

Books and journalism, journalism and books—these things are deeply intertwined in Laurie Hertzel’s life. In her award-winning memoir, News To Me, she tells the tale of how she grew up as a journalist during the age when reporters clacked away on typewriters, and eventually became books editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she remains today.

Laurie, of course, has two desks for her two very different writing lives, and she has kindly shared the nitty gritty about both of them with me. And her book cover?  It was just made for Strata.

What does your desk—the bare desk itself—look like, and how did you acquire it?

My desk at home is a modest knee-hole desk, three drawers on either side, a wide skinny pencil drawer at the top, all made of sturdy maple. It was my father’s, and I have strong memories of him sitting at that desk—it was in my parents’ bedroom, in the far corner, and he always had a yellow legal pad off to the side, and a nice pen, and an old Remington Rand typewriter in the middle, which sat on a thick pad made of something scratchy and hairy-looking. Perhaps some sort of jute. A black plastic plate is screwed to the upper left corner; it says, in white block letters, L.J. HERTZEL. Those were his initials, and they are also mine.

My desk at work is much less interesting. It’s mostly plastic, I think, or some sort of indestructible composite, in a nondescript speckly whitish gray.

What’s on your desk?

Other than the usual scotch-tape dispenser, mug of pens, and postage stamps? A small white china dog with a chipped ear that had been my late brother’s. A carved wooden box that my father bought in India during the war. A gray stone gargoyle my husband gave me our first Christmas. A blue porcelain bowl from my friend Pam. A small figurine of a man sitting on a bench talking on a tiny telephone; another brother of mine made it for me years ago and it is supposed to represent him, talking on the phone to me. A round birchbark container that I got in Russia. Bills. Dust.

A box of odds and ends that I don’t know what to do with. (I open it and see: a heavy crystal globe, which the Strib editor gave me in 2000 as some sort of honor. A framed photograph of my dog. A stapler. A calculator. A blue-and-white porcelain letter holder that once belonged to a friend, now dead.)

At work, my desk contains the usual things: staplers (two) and scotch tape dispensers (two) and coffee mugs (two) and a Rolodex of phone numbers and a teamaker and several packets of tea, and some reporters’ notebooks and lots of pens and a flat desk calendar and books books books books books books books books books and more books.  It is very, very, very cluttered. I don’t know how to solve that. I seem to need to have everything right at hand.

What do you wish wasn’t on your desk?

The dust! The bills! The books! And the sadness. So many of my mementoes are of people now gone.

Are there artifacts in your office that relate to your current project?

In the box of things-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with is a packet of photos, the ones that appeared in News To Me. I haven’t figured out what to do with them. They were culled from various albums when I was getting the book ready for publication and I do not feel inclined to go figure out, now, how to go about putting them all back. Also in my office (if you can call it an office; it’s really just a windowed alcove off the bedroom) are press clippings and bookmarks and posters celebrating my book and the Minnesota Book Awards. (News To Me won the Readers’ Choice Award.)

At work: No. The worlds of writing a book and reviewing books must never meet.

Are there living things in your office (besides yourself)?

At home there are dogs, sometimes. We have two: a 16-year-old border collie and a 9-year-old springer-lab-beagle-coonhound mix. Also, a peace lily that was given to us when my mother in law died.

At work: an entire newsroom of activity and noise and bustle and people. My work desk is by a window, too, but it is the window of the interior office of one of our managing editors, and so it is not very interesting. I have pasted posters on my side of the glass.

What’s on the walls?

I find that am I person who does best in clutter. I need things on the walls; I need things to look at; I need to make my space my own. And so at home I have photographs from Up North, and a framed poster I bought in Russia, and a small ceramic tile that my nephew made for my sister when he was a small boy; he gave it to me after she died. And postcards from New Orleans, and a plastic plaque I stole from the wall of the Duluth News Tribune when they were remodeling; it says NEWSROOM AND WOMEN’S ACTIVITIES and it is from back in the days when men ran the newsroom and the women’s section was put out in a tiny separate office down the hall.

A mask a friend brought back from Paris. A quilted wall-hanging made by a friend, now dead. And, along the top of the windowsill, three tiny shoemaker elves. During my childhood it was my responsibility to take these elves down from the curio shelf every Saturday and wash them in warm soapy water. Since they moved into my house, though, they have not had a bath.

At work I have posters from vacations in Montreal, Dublin, Paris, and up the North Shore. More postcards. A photograph I took in Leningrad in 1986 of people buying watermelons on the street. A picture of my husband, a picture of my dog, a picture of one of my nieces as a crabby three-year-old. I don’t have a lot of wall space, but I make good cluttered use of what I have.

What have you lost in your office that you really wish you could  find?

It is not so much things that I have lost but things that I have foolishly, foolishly thrown away in a misguided attempt to declutter. Letters, mostly. I hardly have any letters from my past. How stupid could I be?

What tools do you write with?

At home I write mostly on a Macbook laptop, and to be honest I wrote very little of my book at my desk. I wrote most of it on the dining room table, and on the front porch.

At work I write entirely on a PC. I am no longer any good at writing by hand. I don’t even write out checks anymore but pay everything online.

Is anyone allowed to come in and clean?

Allowed? Certainly. But do they? Sadly, no.

T. Myers is a writer who loves a good typewriter.

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2 Comments to Strata: Laurie Hertzel

  1. September 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    My mother read this and said, “His typewriter wasn’t a Remington Rand. It was a Smith Corona.” Ah, so much for my memory!

  2. September 28, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    But good for hers!

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