Acclaimed author speaks to journalism students
Writers treat description with care.
In his book, “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” Stephen G. Bloom described a woman he interviewed as “big-boned and handsome.”
After the book came out, he was approached by the woman’s friends, who demanded an apology from Bloom.
“You called this lady something I don’t care to repeat,” a man told Bloom. “She’s going to remember this until the day she dies. You hurt her feelings.”
Bloom apologized. When the paperback version of the book came out, the phrase “big-boned and handsome” had been deleted.
“Your words have impact,” Bloom told a Journalism 207 class Oct. 18. “Your words carry significance. People reading your words will be affected by them, if you’re doing your job.”
Bloom, a prolific author, journalist and Internet essayist, is this year’s Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer.
“Stephen’s work is both exceptionally well-crafted narrative and extraordinary in-depth reporting,” Journalism Dean Jerry Ceppos said. “As such, he is an outstanding practitioner of the type of writing for which Robert Laxalt is remembered.”
Bloom is perhaps best known for his 2000 nonfiction book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America which earned several Best Book of The year awards. His most recent book, Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, was published by St. Martin's Press in November, 2009. The nonfiction story chronicles the cultural, economic and political saga of pearls, the world’s first gem. Bloom collaborated with photographer Peter Feldstein on a 2008 book The Oxford Project (Welcome Press, distributed by Random House), a series portraits of Oxford, Iowa residents taken 21 years apart with first-person text from the subjects.
Bloom spoke to UNR college and McQueen High school students and also answered questions informally at a Reynolds School faculty lunch. In the evening, Bloom gave a public address in the Joe Crowley Student Union, explaining how good writers are constantly rewriting and reworking their words – “kneading them, like dough.”
He let the audience in on the secret to good writing: look up.
“Observe the world, at least your part of the world,” Bloom said. “Witness it, be a part of it.”
Bloom said he is constantly “churning stories over” in his mind. The job of a writer is to tell people what’s going on, and do it in a way that’s “informative, enlightening and entertaining.”
“All well-crafted stories are deliberately told,” he said. They have to have a beginning, middle and end – and the beginning has to draw the reader in right away so they keep reading.
“Craft your leads. Polish them, rewrite them, cut out superfluous words,” he said. “In that last sentence, ‘out’ was superfluous. Cut superfluous words.”
Citing an example of a good beginning, Bloom quoted the first sentence in Laxalt’s “Sweet Promised Land,” which reads “My father was a sheepherder and his home was the hills.”
The middle of a story is important, too, because it builds a case.
“Quotes are important in the body of your story,” Bloom said. “Quotes are for opinion, not recitation of facts.”
Endings are Bloom's favorite part, he said. Sometimes a quote is an effective ending, other times a description of an action or event sums up the story nicely.
“Remember, writers, your primary role is to tell a story that captivates,” he said. “Your primary target has to be the reader … don’t ever forget the reader. He or she ultimately is your employer.”
Bloom's essays have appeared in the electronic magazines Tweak (We All Sat Around Like Schlemiels and The French Eat Their Young), the-cake.com (Mikey's Close Call and Shop), Salon Magazine (Busy Signal, Fantasy Isle, Pack of Wolves, Facts of Life, Sex-free Bliss?, Dr. Fart Speaks, and Prozac for PMS), Oyster Boy Review (The Little Man), and on National Public Radio (Postcards from Postville).
A 1973 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Bloom has been honored with the Iowa Author of the Year Award (2008), as well as with fellowships at the MacDowell Colony (2008) and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (2008). He also has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Society and Medicine under the aegis of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Bloom co-wrote the dramatic play, Shoedog, with colleague Brian Cronk, which premiered November, 2003 at the Quad City Arts Center in Rock Island, Illinois. Several of his short stories have been published including: "The Swedish Wife," "The Reptile King of Atlanta," "Is Everyone Batty, or What?" "Ode to Sheila¸"The Writer's Writer"; "The Academy of the Overrated: Hello Sy Hershman, Goodbye Bob Woodward," "Ode to Maestro Järvi," "The Last Time I Saw Martha," "Anna Elena's Tongue," and “The Rabbi Who Smelled The Presence of The Lord.”
The Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer Program honors the memory of one of Nevada's finest writers. Bob Laxalt founded the University of Nevada Press, authored 17 books, wrote for National Geographic and served for 18 years as a professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism. In 2007, the 50th anniversary of his masterful memoir, Sweet Promised Land, was commemorated.
The Laxalt Distinguished Writer Program is funded through community contributions, including the generous support of the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust. The 2010 Laxalt Distinguished Writer program is presented in association with Nevada Humanities.
Bloom is the seventh writer to be honored by the program.
Bloom’s book Postville focuses on fundamental changes confronting a small, predominately Lutheran, Iowa town after 150 Lubavitcher Jews settle there, buy the local slaughterhouse, and become the community's new power brokers. It was chosen as a Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, as well as of Quality Paperback Books Club. Postville was named a Best Book of the year by MS-NBC, The Chicago Sun-Times, Denver Rocky Mountain News, Chicago Tribune, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
His 2009 book Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls has been reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Orion, Sydney Morning Herald, China Daily, and DeepGlamour.net. The Minneapolis Star Tribune review written by Maureen McCarthy notes, “Bloom spent four years and traveled more than 30,000 miles from oyster beds in the South Seas to the auction houses of New York City,” to research the book.
Reviews and stories about the Oxford Project have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker Book Bench, Smithsonian, London Weekend Guardian Magazine, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN.com, National Public Radio (2), Harvard University's Nieman Reports, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlantic, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Houston Chronicle, Minneapolis Post, ArtWorks, and Shanghai Morning Post. The book won the prestigious Alex Award in 2009 from the American Library Association, and was named Gold medal recipient for Outstanding Book of the Year from the Independent Publisher Association for Most Original Concept.
Bloom’s work has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Wilson Quarterly, DoubleTake, Chronicle of Higher Education, American Journalism Review, International Herald Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune Magazine, Money, Journal of Health Communication, Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, American Editor, The Californians, Pharos, Wapsipinicon Almanac, Quill, and National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
A collection of Bloom's articles and essays was published as Inside the Writer's Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism in August, 2002. The book provides his advice on reporting and interviewing along with a detailed description of the steps he followed to get the stories. It has been used as a reference in many Reynolds Journalism School writing classes for years.
Bloom is co-founder (with Professor Emeritus Hanno Hardt) of The Iowa Journalists Oral History Project, the first systematic effort to chronicle the lives and contributions of Iowa's senior journalists. The project records the professional histories of Iowa reporters, editors, publishers, photographers and columnists. A version of the project is accessible on the Internet at: http://collections.uiowa.edu/oralhistory/
Note: Information for much of this article was obtained from the University of Iowa website profile of Stephen Bloom updated August 29, 2010. Bob Felten, Tammy Krikorian and Deidre Pike contributed to this report.