A Man of His Words
The good ole’ days. A time when writers sipped coffee at a Parisian cafe while spotting Hemingway pen his next novel and Anais Nin chat with Henry Miller a few chairs over. Many writers long for that golden literary period in the 1930s when the art of writing was nurtured and beloved. A time when you saw F. Scott Fitzgerald at the same bar with T.S. Eliot. Today, we writers are scattered all over the world, spending our days glued to our computers while competing for the same gigs that are mostly all digital.
The writing scene has surely changed since the days of the Lost Generation, but there are still some writers amongst us who are as dedicated to the written word as much as those literary giants who proceeded us. They not only live and breathe writing, but they have managed to take their passions and turn them into successful careers. One such writer is Steve Piacente, a former journalist, who for the past twenty some years has honed his talent and has become an accomplished writer, speaker, and communication coach.
Steve is, without a doubt, a master of communication and speaks as beautifully as he writes. When I say master, I’m talking prima ballerina, first chair violinist type. During our interview, he spoke clearly– his voice elegant and rich, while he gave off a sense of wisdom and an undeniable spark of natural charm. For most people, speaking in front of an audience tops their greatest fear list, but for Steve, he makes it look easy. And despite his elevated position at work, he remains an extraordinarily humble person. In fact, when I approached him about doing this article, I was nervous.
He has written his entire adult life – as a journalist, speechwriter, author and blogger. But instead of giving me a long list of excuses as to why he couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t, he did not hesitate and said a quick “sure.”
|Steve with With Ray Locker, author of “Nixon’s Gamble”
A few weeks ago, Steve sent over his resume; immediately, the one word that came to my mind was the word accomplished. During Steve’s life, he has excelled in three careers: communication, journalism and teaching. For many years, Piacente worked as a top journalist, covering the Washington D.C political scene for the Charleston Post and Courier where he covered an eight-person congressional delegation.
He was also a journalist for the Tampa Tribune, and the New York Times-owned Lakeland Ledger. His work has appeared in several publications such as the Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. Oh yah, did I forget to mention that within the last few years, he has also published two highly acclaimed novels, Bella and Bootlicker.
Steve also spent 10 years in the federal government as a speechwriter and communications manager at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Now serving as a communications coach at The Communication Center in D.C., and with a Masters in Fiction from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, Steve also finds time to teach at his Alma Mater, American University. He loves being on the campus where his career was born so many years ago, and helping to train the next generation of journalists.
One thing I’ve come to realize and appreciate about Mr. Piacente is that is he is a role model and a consummate professional. There are many out here who are, like Steve, on the top of their game. Successful and accomplished. But instead of being gracious and humble, the others are anything but. Steve, however, remains a gentleman in a world of grizzly “I’m so self absorbed” flakes. Instead, he answers emails and phone calls within a day, and treats you like you are important even when you may not be all that important. It is so refreshing, so truly great, to just talk with a guy who knows his stuff, but cares less about his accomplishments and enjoys asking, “Well, how are you doing?”
I would love to sit down and have coffee with Piacente. Whether it be in the 1930s in grand Paris or right here at a local Starbucks. I know the conversation would be divine, lessons abundant and most of all…I know I’d be talking to not just a talented writer, but a person who is just a nice guy. In fact, when I mentioned to him that I was having trouble with the title, he responded a few seconds later. Instead of being the helicopter editor who was ready to critique my work, he instead simply said, “When I can’t decide, I usually go with my gut.”
Gaya Lynn: From journalism to education to the communication field, you have accomplished so much in several different fields. A lot of people may start a task, maybe get to a certain point but fail to finish. You seem to always finish what you start, and hence, your resume of life is filled with so many accomplishments. Were you always so driven?
Steve Piacente: Thanks, Gaya, and it’s a pleasure to visit with you and your readers. I’m dating myself, but I was in college in Washington, D.C. during Watergate. If you were interested in writing at that time, you pretty much went into journalism. The problem was that there was a lot of competition. I remember applying for a job in California and some editor telling me to forget it – he could have 100 qualified applicants in his office in hours. Why would he fly in some unproven kid from across the country? I saved that letter as I embarked on a 25-year in print journalism, including 15 years as a Washington correspondent. I don’t like when anyone tells me I can’t do something I know I can do. Flash forward to writing fiction. Toward the end of my newspaper career, I went back to school for a Masters in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University. That led to two novels, two different agents, and, unfortunately, no contract with any of the big publishing houses. That was okay. I self-published and recently enjoyed my 100th review on Amazon. Most are four and five stars. Want me to do something? I guess you should tell me it’s impossible. For me, it’s also about enjoying the journey. I loved reporting and I love writing. I didn’t report – and I don’t write – as a means to an end.
GL: Despite having worked in many different fields, the one common theme in your life seems to be writing. When did you realize This is what I’m supposed to do in life or is that still question still somewhat dubious and unclear?
SP: I learned very young that I just could not do the math. I could not do the science. I could write, however. I could even write about the people who could do the math and science. I believe we gravitate toward whatever talents we’re born with, so long as we’re given the opportunity and are blessed with help from others who will help us learn and grow. That is partly the reason that I’ve taught writing (for mass communication) at my alma mater, American University, as an adjunct professor for more than 15 years.
GL: Steve, you began working as a journalist in the 1980s. Since then, so much has changed. Today, journalists often endanger their lives for a story, the digital age has changed the face of journalism with many print magazines and papers going under, while the rise of reality TV and sensational journalism is more popular than ever.
Instead of becoming pessimistic, you seem still so passionate about your craft. Are you optimistic about the future for writers and journalists? And what is it that keeps you so faithful to the art of writing?
SP: On the contrary, I’m very worried about the future of journalism. I feel, for instance, that the line between journalism and entertainment has become impossibly blurred. I also think that too many media outlets cater to specific audiences, which only reinforces a particular point of view and further polarizes the nation. I think that accuracy has been sacrificed far too many times in the mad dash to be first with a story. The Duke University lacrosse team “scandal,” and the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia coed – both stories that turned out to be untrue – are but two examples. Wicked fast technology has not produced better journalism. There are positive examples as well, as pointed out in the movie Spotlight. I am hopeful for more of the same as we move forward.
GL: These days, it seems that Instagram has become the most popular means of communication especially with the younger generation. So basically in terms of digital, we went from emails, to Facebook, to Twitter, now Instagram, Snapchat. Apparently, in a blink of an eye, we went for our fascination with 140 word twitters to now selfies and photos with a quick caption.
Do you ever worry that prose will become obsolete as a form of communication especially for the younger generation, which has been raised solely on the internet?
SP: I do think as a society we have shorter attention spans. But I’m not worried about the future of good writing. Each semester I have one or two students who work well beyond the requirements of the syllabus simply because they must get it right. That, plus many other examples I could cite, tell me the instinct to write is in our DNA and that the stream of excellent writers will always be replenished. Besides, I write novels, plus I’m on Twitter and Instagram (and enjoy both!) I don’t think using social media is incompatible with, or will undermine, good writing.
GL: You are proponent of clean sharp writing. Get to the point writing while it seems from your blog www.stevepiacente.com, you are a fan of twitter. In your essay, “Note to Twitter. Keep it brief,” you propose, “Twitter forces the issue. Get out your message, and do it fast,” you wrote. So can a novelist or storyteller use this type of writing without sounding rushed or sterile.
SP: I’ll answer in 20 characters: One word. Hemingway.
GL: Along with being a journalist, you also are a novelist. You have written two award winning novels, Bootlicker and Bella. First tell me about your novels and your upcoming novel.
SP: Bella came first: A striking widow intent on proving the military lied about her husband’s death lures Washington journalist Dan Patragno into the investigation. Working together, they discover the power of temptation, the futility of revenge, and the consequences of yielding to either.
Bootlicker, a prelude to Bella, opens in 1959. A poor, black teen named Ike Washington stumbles on a Klan lynching led by a local judge. Caught, Ike must choose: join the dead man or begin hustling black support the judge needs to advance. In trade, he is handed a life of comfort and power. Decades later, guilt-wracked Ike is poised to become South Carolina’s first black congressman since the Civil War. His plans are interrupted by rookie reporter Dan Patragno, who breaks the story just before Election Day.
My forthcoming novel, Pretender, is a sequel to Bella. In the third and final book in the series, Dan finds himself a disgraced ex-journalist after breaking one of his profession’s most sacred tenets. He stumbles on a story that will let him reclaim his life and career, but redemption comes with a price: he must place his faith in the racist senator he sent to prison for murder a decade earlier. I am especially excited about Pretender, which explores the raw instincts that inform our choices and drive our actions, sometimes with consequences that span generations.
GL: And second, you are a pro at social media. How important is social media for writers today?
SP: Given the cluttered marketplace, authors must be able to switch from creative writer to creative marketer. These days, that requires a mix of social media and old school soft skills. I’ve just written on this, so please take a look:
GL:I understand that you were the emcee of the Kensington Day Book Festival. With over 80 authors attending, it was a wonderful event for both writers and readers. Tell me about how you got involved with the festival and a little bit about it.
SP: The Kensington Day of the Book Festival was downright inspiring. This festival has grown from 10 authors and 50 attendees in 2005 to 100 authors and more than 6,000 visitors on April 24. As emcee, I told our guests that we were present to celebrate the talent and tenacity of our authors, and the evolution of a simple sidewalk event to one that draws thousands who still enjoy the profound pleasure of reading!
Information on Book Club:
Book clubs that choose one of Steve’s books get the author as well. That is, if wanted, Steve will Skype in to your club on discussion night and happily join Q&A. Use this link to reserve a date:
Steve Piacente’s Book Club…Reserve a date