Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 7 1997

Writing Seminars
professor looks
at the news

McGarry's Novel Of
Newsroom Life

Leslie Rice
News and Information

With her usual gift for observation and light satirical touch, author Jean McGarry will introduce her readers to Catherine Gallagher, an engaging new character in the novel Gallagher's Travels, due in stores at the end of this month. The book, McGarry's fifth work of fiction, draws upon the Writing Seminars professor's own experiences as a reporter for both a small town and a big city newspaper in the early 1970s.

Gallagher's Travels (Johns Hopkins Press) begins in 1974 in the offices of the Wampanoag Times, where young and ambitious Gallagher launches her career as a reporter. At first, Catherine is assigned to cover weddings and funerals, hardly the stuff of Pulitzers. But under the tutelage of Jack McGuire, the paper's fiery editor, Catherine begins pushing the town's buttons, writing controversial stories about Wampanoag's pretentious blue bloods, unsuspecting merchants and politically incorrect welfare recipients. McGarry's ironic voice is sharp and witty as Catherine relishes her new role as provocateur.

Eventually, her stories get Gallagher noticed and she takes a job at a big city paper. There Gallagher is determined to succeed during a time when journalism is increasingly at odds with itself. She is forced to grow up as she faces an entirely new set of challenges in a business complicated by shifting priorities.

Gallagher's Travels is about far more than one woman's struggle to "make it" as a reporter, however. In many ways, it is also a lament depicting the wane of the golden age of the newspaper business in the 1970s.

"I wanted this book to be about the decline and fall of a great popular media, one that used to have such vitality before it was taken over by the giant corporations," McGarry says. "I wanted to write about how that vitality has become endangered, like it has with movies. That is the trajectory of this book, reflected in the day-to-day experiences of this character, Catherine Gallagher."

Excerpt from Gallagher's Travels, by Jean McGarry
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)

Slowly, over the next few days and the free hours in them-- and in spite of the many Swampers of every age she saw and brooded over--the coffee story grew, and McGuire edited it in chunks, with art and a layout that would fill the Saturday hole in a way that wouldn't insult his intelligence or hurt his eyes. He did all the graphics himself, leafing through books for dingbats, logos, bullets and symbols. He came up with a simple system using filled-in coffee cups, half-cups, and empties to rate the product sampled in each of the humble and unsuspecting joints his writer had visited. So far there were twenty ratings made on brew from drum-like percolators, glass globes on hot plates, small pots bubbling on grills, dripmakers with individual pods of ground coffee exposed to the air and forever stale; laced with cream from metal pitchers, porcelain jugs, sealed paper cups; some squeezed from kegs with sour-looking yellow pastes clinging to the silver pumps and puddling on the counter; and sugar in beads, lumps, squares, and bricks.

It wasn't an easy story to write, despite Gallagher's inborn confidence and zeal for the subject. McGuire had estimated 30 inches for this item, a story gripping not in itself, but in the blow it would deal--and when the M.E. got wind of it, he'd hit the roof--to friends (read: advertisers) of the Wampanoag Times, who owned, ran, or cooked in the downtown eateries, and whose lives--and livelihoods--had never before been so rocked with scandal.

Through Catherine's experiences, McGarry charts a change of course in the newspaper business, as hot type and family ownership give way to computers and corporate takeovers.

Precise description and authentic dialogue allow McGarry to delve into the rhythms of newspaper life--a profession she portrays as rife with condescension, sexism and power-mongering. She even offers a wry commentary on the art of feature writing, and its fixation on "finding the angle."

"I see the art of feature writing--even if it is a positive piece--always in some way working against the subject," McGarry says. "It is as if the journalist and the reader are always winking at each other, saying, 'The subject may see the story this way, but you and I both know better.' A good feature writer will never tell the story the way the subject sees it or wants to tell it. Instead, the writer will find an angle, so the reader can enjoy the subject at his or her expense."

McGarry is also author of the novel The Courage of Girls, as well as three short story collections all available from Johns Hopkins Press: Home At Last, The Very Rich Hours and Airs of Providence.

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