McPherson native Christy Potter talks about her journalistic, writing career

By Steve Sell
December 19, 2013
Contributed Photo

(Note — McPherson native Christy Potter is an award-winning writer and longtime journalist, now based on the East Coast. 

Potter is a 1987 graduate of McPherson High School and 1989 graduate of Central Christian College. She entered the newspaper business at the age of 20 with The McPherson Sentinel and quickly earned critical acclaim. She left McPherson in 1994 to chase her dream of living on the East Coast and much success has come her way in a variety of endeavors.

She is the author of "The Shiksa's Guide to Yiddish" and the award-winning "The World Was My Oyster But I Didn't Know How to Cook." Her debut novel, "Oh Brother," is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and has received numerous outstanding reviews.

She will be in McPherson for a book signing from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 22, at The Bookshelf.

She politely agreed to a Q-and-A with Mid Kansas Online's Steve Sell in advance of her book signing. Many will remember her as an award-winning columnist for the wildly popular “Out of My Mind,” which appeared weekly in The Sentinel. She is married to Guy Kass and they make their home in New Jersey.) 

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• Q — When did you know that writing was going to be your chosen profession? Was there one particular event in your life that inspired you or did you know from the time you were young?

• A – I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Or I should say I knew from the time I was old enough to know what a writer was. I always loved books and reading. My mom said I was so impatient to learn to read, and she told me when I started kindergarten, I’d learn how. I came home after my first day and told her in disgust that I hadn’t learned to read yet so I wasn’t going back.  Once I was reading in earnest, it didn’t take long for me to want to try my hand at writing. That’s where it started.

• Q — Who were the early influences in your writing career? Teachers, authors, etc.?

            • A – Wow, this is going to be quite a list. Beverly Cleary, of course, Judy Blume, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle. I grew up reading some of the most amazing writers out there. And there were a handful of teachers in my life who saw my writing ability very early and encouraged  me. Mary Heitschmidt, Barb Cole, Toni Ayers, Millie Samuelson, Wendell Kuhlman, Jackie Engel, … all amazing teachers whose support helped me find this path. 

• Q — You started in the newspaper business at the age 20. What were your duties and what did you like most about working at The Sentinel? Was it a bit overwhelming at first? 

            • A – I was a general assignment reporter, so basically I covered whatever (Editor) Tom (Throne) told me to do. I covered the McPherson County Commission every week, picked up the police reports, did feature stories… that kind of stuff. Was it overwhelming? Yeah, you could say that. Deep down I knew I could do it, but the ink on my associate’s degree from Central was barely dry and I had no real-world experience, so I was a little unsteady on my feet. I remember the first story I was sent to cover – I behaved less like a cub reporter and more like a cub paparazzo sent to follow Charlie Sheen on a bender. A man at Bethany Home in Lindsborg was having his 102nd birthday. They were having a party for him in the common room, but I was way too terrified to introduce myself to anyone or ask any questions. I crept into the room, wrote down what I heard some people saying, snapped a picture, then turned around and ran like blazes back to my car. I got better at my job, thankfully, and it wasn’t long before I genuinely loved it. I loved doing interviews (still do), getting to meet all kinds of people, and I loved that people looked to me for their local news. The first time I saw someone with a Sentinel in their hands, reading a story I’d written, I got a rush like you wouldn’t believe. Then a little later I started writing my column, “Out of My Mind,” every Friday, and I don’t have to tell you how much I loved doing that.

• Q — You are a Midwestern native, but you always knew when you were younger that you would eventually wind up on the East Coast. What was it about New York and that part of the country that was so alluring? Was it a difficult decision to make to leave family and friends and venture out into the great unknown?

• A – You’re right, I’d known for a long time I wanted to live somewhere in the New York metro area. As a journalist, I knew there would be considerably more job opportunities out here, and also I just have always thought New York City is just the most amazing place on earth. This summer it will be 20 years since I came here, and I still think so. It was very hard to leave, though. I was born at Memorial Hospital, went through the McPherson school system (Go PUPS!) and then Central. McPherson was all I’d ever known, and my family and friends were there. I cried buckets at leaving, but I knew it was the right decision for me.

• Q – You worked for some time in the newspaper business back East. How did it differ from the Midwest? More political? What were your duties?

• A – I worked as a reporter and later an editor for a couple of different newspapers out here, and most recently as the managing editor for an online news publication. I wish I could tell you it is much more glamorous out here, but honestly, it’s basically the same. At least at the level I worked at – covering municipal and school board meetings is basically the same no matter where you are. For reporters at the state and national level, it’s a much more intense area of the country to cover. That said, a few months ago I did cover a speech by Chris Christie. It doesn’t get much more intense than that guy.

• Q – At what point did you decide it was time to get out of newspapers and become a full-time author? What have been the challenges of writing books and novels? 

            • A – About two years ago I realized I’d come to a crossroads in my career. I wasn’t enthusiastic about journalism anymore, and I’m not proud of much of what’s going on in the field right now. I can be old-school cranky about it and blame the Internet, which I largely do, but the truth is we weren’t ready for the changes that hit the industry, and we should have been – or at least better prepared than we were. I’ve ranted about this before so I’ll spare you all the mouth-foaming, but I will just say that I’m disappointed at how much journalistic quality has gone downhill in the past few years. Now it’s all about being the first out with the story, and that trumps everything, often including accuracy. For me, I was trying to keep the passion I’d always had for journalism alive, and I decided I wanted to go back to school to get my master’s in journalism, learn some new ropes, recharge my batteries a little. So I applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (you know me, go big or stay home) and was accepted. The day I got my acceptance letter was a turning point for me. Instead of jumping up and down with excitement, as I expected to, I looked at the letter and just thought, “I’m done.” I finally was able to admit to myself that I was ready to step down. The interesting part, really, is that getting accepted to Columbia was what it took to make me realize I wasn’t quitting because I couldn’t do it anymore. The best journalism school in the country, probably the world, said I still had what it took. That was very validating, and very freeing, for me. I knew then that I was stepping down because I chose to. So that’s what I did. Now I’m a full-time author, although I do still write for a couple of magazines in the area. 

• Q —How do you come up with ideas for books and novels? Do you base them on personal experiences?

             • A – I have about 12 different ideas for books in my head at any given time. As Philip Roth once said, “The road to hell is paved with works in progress.” I do often find myself putting my own experiences into what I write, even if it’s just a bit here and there. It gives the writing more color, more relate-ability. The book I published last spring, “The World Was My Oyster But I Didn’t Know How to Cook,” is a collection of essays, a bit like what I used to write in my column for The Sentinel. There are some interviews and short stories tossed in as well, but it’s mostly essays. Those, of course, are intensely personal and very much slice-of-life style of writing. It’s what’s become known lately as “creative non-fiction” and I have to tell you, I was surprised how well it was received. It got the Princeton Literary Review’s Gold Standard for Literary Excellence, and author P.F. Kluge (who wrote “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Eddie and the Cruisers,” among others) gave me a nice endorsement for it.

My most recent book is a novel, my debut novel, that came out this fall. It’s called “Oh Brother” and is loosely (very loosely) based on some of my life. I don’t want to give too much away, but again, it’s a great example of how drawing on my own experiences and things I’ve heard about from other people really help make a book that much better.

• Q — Do you ever have days where you say, “I just don’t have any ideas today?” How do you get your mojo back? Are there ever days where you sit at the computer and feel so inspired that you don’t want to stop?

• A – Yes and yes. Some days the Muse just isn’t singing, and those days are hard. I write anyway. If I read back over it and it’s all garbage, fine. I’ll toss it. But the important thing is to write, no matter what. And the days that it’s just really flowing are amazing. It’s hard to step away from the keyboard on those days for irritating interruptions like food and sleep. I think the good days and the bad days balance each other out. They keep me from ever taking for granted how lucky I am to be able to spend my days doing what I love.

• Q - What can we expect next? How many more books or novels do you envision writing? Any hint on what the topics might be?

• A – I am about a third of the way through my next novel. I never say what it’s about this early, but since it’s you, I will say this much: it’s a retelling of a very old story. I’ve never written anything quite like this, so it’s an interesting experience.  I’ve also begun messing around a bit with playwriting. That’s something I’ve always wanted to try my hand at, so it’ll be fun to see where that takes me.

• Q – What do you miss most about the Midwest, besides, of course, your family?

• A – Wow, that may be the toughest question you’ve asked so far. The Midwest, and McPherson in particular, is a great place to have grown up. I tell people that all the time when they find out I’m from Kansas (after all the requisite Dorothy-and-Toto jokes, of course, hardy har). I miss the friendliness of the people, I miss passing someone on a country road and waving even if you don’t know them. I miss the Kansas sky at night in the summer. I miss the wheat harvest and the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast and how, if you time it just right, you can get almost all the way down Main Street without hitting any red lights. I miss being called by name when I walk into any store, I miss the All Schools Day Parade and basketball games in the Roundhouse. This is why I’ve been telling people that having a book signing at The Bookshelf is such a big deal to me. I left here to expand my horizons and see what I could make of myself, yet coming back to where it all started feels like my greatest achievement yet.


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