Tom Eblen: Chronicler of Calumet saga to talk about writing at Carnegie Center

Herald-Leader columnistJune 3, 2014 

When Ann Hagedorn was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, her father would bring her to Lexington each spring break and they would visit horse farms. The most memorable one was Calumet.

"Calumet was always what he told us was the example of excellence," she recalled, from the farm's freshly painted white fences to its spotlessly clean barns.

So in 1991, when she was a Wall Street Journal reporter covering major corporate bankruptcies, she was both heartbroken and curious when she read that Calumet had filed for bankruptcy.

Hagedorn came to Lexington to read through the court file, figuring there was a good front-page story to be written. She soon realized this story of greed would also make a good book. Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Calumet Farm Inc. was published in 1994.

Hagedorn will return to Lexington on Friday to be the keynote speaker at the third annual Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Other speakers include Frank X. Walker, Kentucky's current poet laureate, and beekeeping mystery writer Abigail Keam.

The conference is designed to help people through the challenging process of writing a book and getting it published. For more information, and to register to attend, go to: Carnegiecenterlex.org.

"What we're trying to do is create a sense of community among writers," said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center's director. "While writing is a solitary endeavor, writers need a lot of help and support."

Hagedorn, who has known Chethik since they were both reporters at the San Jose Mercury News in California, said she never planned to leave daily journalism for book writing; it was a natural evolution.

After Wild Ride was published, she returned to the Wall Street Journal and soon became fascinated with the subject of her second book, Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping, published in 1998.

"As much as I missed the newsroom, I decided this is what I was meant to do," she said. "I started believing in the importance of narrative non-fiction books and kept finding topics."

Her next three books were on diverse topics, but they shared a theme: periods of American history, from the 1830s to the present, when democracy has been under severe stress.

Hagedorn's third book, published in 2003, was Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. It told about men and women in southern Ohio who risked their lives for years to end slavery. The American Library Association named it one of the 25 most notable books of the year.

Next, she wrote Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. Through narratives of key individuals, it told the story of the tumultuous year after World War I ended that gave birth to modern civil liberties. The 2007 book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

On Sept. 2, Simon & Shuster will publish Hagedorn's fifth book, The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. She said the book explores the recent rise of the private military and security industry, how these companies operate and why Americans should be concerned.

"I try to find stories or topics that I feel are important and need to be told through the narrative, non-fiction genre to make them more accessible," she said.

Hagedorn said her talk Friday will focus on the lives of writers: "Who we are, what we do and how we can do it the very best we can. The larger theme is that we're all in this together in terms of our quest, and in terms of the learning process."

She also will lead a session on story structure, which she finds both the most challenging and rewarding part of writing.

Hagedorn said many people want to write, but success requires practice, hard work and a desire to keep learning. Even successful writers struggle, she said, recalling an interview she once had with the late Norman Mailer.

"He said he could not believe that every single time he did a book he felt challenged and scared and he learned a lot of new things about writing," she said. "That's the wonderful part. That's the scary part. That's what discourages people and makes them stop sometimes. It's really what should drive you. Always around the corner there's something new to learn. It shouldn't defeat you, it should empower you."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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