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Column: 1,000-plus interviews yield treasures

Column: 1,000-plus interviews yield treasures

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The well has run dry. I had some leads, some interesting story possibilities, but none panned out. That happens sometimes. People are shy or they want their private lives to remain private or they don’t trust reporters. Even when I explain that I’m not a reporter — just a freelancer who enjoys writing human interest stories, I can’t convince them.

I was particularly disappointed to be turned down by someone who’s run a gas station for decades — the old-timey kind with full-service gas pumping, windshield washing, putting air in tires, checking under the hood, oil changes, towing, the works!

With time running low on getting a story written, I decided to interview the only person who was available and willing: myself.

Q: Where do you get your story ideas?

A: Well, Mary, they come from a variety of places. People make suggestions by way of email, phone, or telling me face to face.

Secondly, they come by way of simply living life and noticing or hearing about a person, place, event, or organization that I think would make a good story.

And third, they present themselves through personal experiences that are just too good to keep to myself, such as travel, things that cause me to laugh, and making light of common, possibly irritating occurrences that everyone goes through. This third one is the reason some people are cautious around me. They’re afraid I’m going to write about something I’ve seen them do or heard them say. I have to make that Las Vegas promise. You know, that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” assurance.

Q: On what do you base your decision to write about a certain person, place, event, or organization?

A: My number one rule is that the story be as positive as possible. In this world, there is no lack of bad or sad news, and there’s certainly no shortage of negative opinions, finger pointing, and ridiculing. Why would I do what so many already are doing? Contentious topics are off limits in my stories. That’s not to say I won’t stand up for what I believe is right as long as the subject relates to fairness, justice, equality, kindness, and respect, but I’m not going to force-feed negativity. It’s unconstructive.

Q: So, Mary, you’ve never written about anything controversial?

A: Well, there was one time when I expressed displeasure at folks leaving grocery carts in parking lots. I received a number of unkind responses from people who believed they had good excuses for not pushing their carts into the closest corrals or back into the stores.

Q: How did you get started writing columns?

A: I was teaching English and reading at Grandview Middle School and wanted to start writing for an audience. I bought a book about getting published. It’s first suggestion was to contact a local newspaper to find out if they might be interested in printing my stories. I took the advice and wrote for several years for a publication that no longer exists. When that opportunity ended, the editor of the Hickory Daily Record at that time asked if I’d be interested in doing the same sort of articles for the HDR. So, here I am.

Q: What are some of your fondest interviewing memories?

A: Good question, Mary, because it’s really the interviewing that’s the privilege in this process. In 25 years, I’ve talked to well over a thousand people, most of whom I didn’t know before questioning them. Nearly all were conducted face to face because it lends itself to a more satisfactory interview, and people often have things to show me, such as the elderly woman in Alexander County who had over 5,000 pairs of salt and pepper shakers. I met her in her home many years ago. Every wall in just about every room had floor-to-ceiling shelves covered in shakers. Had my mother seen that collection, she’d have cried just thinking about trying to keep them all dust free.

I’ve met famous people, such as authors. For 40 years, Morganton had a wonderful family-owned bookstore called The Muses. Owners Shirley Sprinkle and Kelly Treiber had a magical way of not only stocking their shop with wonderful books and gifts, but of drawing world-famous novelists to Morganton for book signings and lavish meet-and-greet parties. In the 1990s, Shirley invited me to meet and write about some of the authors, including David Baldacci, whose crime thrillers I can’t put down; Ann Ross, whose Miss Julia books leave readers in stitches; and Sharyn McCrumb, whose “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” was my introduction to the real-life woman who was hanged in 1833 in Burke County for allegedly murdering her husband with an axe.

I’ve made friends, many of whom are no longer with us. Glenn Miller of Hickory was one of them. He was like Santa Claus, not in appearance but in jolliness, and he loved explaining that he was not the famous 1940s bandleader. Glenn called me often with story recommendations. One included an invitation to a party in his backyard. On his behalf, his daughter had entered a short essay contest sponsored by WBTV, winners of which got an Outback Steakhouse spread for, I think, 50 or so people, and a visit from meteorologist Al Conklin. I attended the party, and guess what happened. It poured rain.

Everyone has a story, and Glenn had many.

Another local celebrity who’s passed on is Dr. Bob Hart who built Hart Square, the nation’s largest collection of historic log structures. It truly was an honor and treat to tour the village, sitting beside Bob as he drove a golf cart from building to building, explaining the history behind each.

I’ve interviewed in a single-engine airplane piloted by a man who’d recently gotten his license, in homes, medical offices, on farms, at sporting events, a convent, restaurants, colleges, places of worship . . . you name it. I’ve talked to people who got right to the point, and the interview lasted less than an hour, and I’ve spent entire afternoons with folks whose digressions were repeated and lengthy but packed with unexpected treasures for the story.

One last recollection — and this is one I’ve shared with only a few people —has to do with a woman named Kathleen O’Hara Fuldner who lived in Lenoir when I interviewed her in the 1990s. She got in touch with me because she wanted to tell me about life in New York City with her brother, author John O’Hara, who wrote, among other novels, “Butterfield 8,” which was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. While I was at Kathleen’s house, she suddenly announced that it was the cocktail hour and asked if I would I join her. I agreed. She said she had only gin. I said OK. She then said she had no mixer. I reluctantly said all right. Kathleen poured gin into two juice glasses, filling them to within a half inch of the rims. Writing became difficult after that, so I called the interview concluded, and Kathleen and I just enjoyed the evening.

Q: Any final words, Mary?

A: There’s very little money in writing a column for a small-city newspaper, but one gets rich just the same.

Share story ideas with Mary at marycanrobert@charter.net.

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