The Process of Discovery: Q&A with Scribbles to Novels Featured Author, Dick Lehr

Scribbles to Novels celebrates the power of written word while raising funds to support Jumpstart programming. Our next Scribbles to Novels event takes place in Boston next week, and features acclaimed journalist and writer, Dick Lehr. Lehr was a member of the Boston Globe’s famed Spotlight investigative team, and is the author of The Fence; Birth of a Movement; Black Mass (now a film starring Johnny Depp); and its sequel Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss. In today’s blog, we chat with Lehr about what led to his writing career and his love of the written word.

Jumpstart’s vision is to break the cycle of poverty by helping children from under-served communities enter kindergarten prepared to succeed. Your books, such as Birth of a Movement and The Fence, often highlight the injustices and systemic racism that people from these communities face. What drew you to this work? Did you set out to write about social justice?

This is a great question, because when I started out in journalism it wasn’t like my goal was to focus on social justice. That interest emerged over time. I first worked at a tiny weekly newspaper covering a small town along the Connecticut shoreline. It was my apprenticeship, where I learned a ton about reporting and how to dig and push for information, and the value of that information to the community once it was published in a newspaper story.

So it wasn’t until I began working at an urban daily newspaper — first in Hartford, and then the Boston Globe — that an interest in criminal and social justice began to come into focus. It was a process of discovery, really. I found myself drawn to those stories, and I went looking for them. Because with them came the satisfaction of digging deep and developing stories about justice and injustice, and the challenges faced by people confronting wrongs and wrongdoing.

To me, they were important stories, ones that go to the heart of what journalism is all about — serving as a watchdog and a check on power.

What is your favorite part of the creative process?

That’s a tough call. When I first got into journalism it was because I had realized I liked to write, and I wanted to become a better writer. But pretty soon I realized how much I liked the research and reporting, too. I came to love the challenge of finding out things, especially when someone or some government agency didn’t want you to have the information. It becomes like detective work, and I really got into figuring out how to find something out, how to push and persevere until finally I cracked the mystery. Besides, the best writing is built on a mountain of good material — the results of strong reporting.

So, I like reporting and writing in equal measure. I can’t pick one over the other.

Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

No. I have to confess that when I was a kid I was more interested in sports than reading and writing. I played hockey and soccer and shooting pucks was about all I cared about. I was not a reader — and, looking back, I regret that. Because once that changed, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do, both in reading and learning how to write. The good part is that I sure became motivated to work hard and work a lot.

Did you have a teacher or other mentor who inspired you to become a journalist?

Yes, and this is a big reason why I went from being a kid who wasn’t interested in books to one who was. In high school I was lucky to have an English teacher I connected with. It wasn’t planned, it was just one of those things that happened — the way it does for many students. In my case, the English teacher showed me the joys of reading novels. He also ran a writing workshop and gently encouraged me to try it. To my surprise, I found I liked the process of writing, getting swept up in my own creating of a story. Then the teacher encouraged me to join the school newspaper. He was the paper’s adviser. So I did that, too, and, really, there was no looking back after that. I was hooked.

At Jumpstart, storybooks offer a way to connect with preschoolers and to build their language and literacy skills, helping prepare them for kindergarten. Did you often read with your children when they were growing up?

Absolutely! I have four kids, and I read to every one of them when they were little.

What was your favorite book to read when your children were young?

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Then, as the kids got older, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.

What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

Like I said, I wasn’t much of a reader. But I did like science fiction and scary stories. One book I read over and over was called Stories from the Twilight Zone by Rod Serling.

Join us for the Scribbles to Novels gala in Boston on Thursday, May 11, 2017, to meet Dick Lehr and our other featured authors included New England Patriot Malcom Mitchell, The Life of Octavian Nothing author MT Anderson, The River at Night author Erica Ferencik, and House of Sand and Fog author Andre DuBois III.

Together, we can help all children build the key language and literacy skills they need to take on the world.

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