FCLC Awards NY Times Writer with Sperber Prize


New York Times Building in New York on 42nd street. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN GILMAN JOKELSON VIA FLICKR)


Wearing a sharp suit and a large smile, Charles M. Blow  had spent no more than five minutes in the 12th floor lounge of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) before beginning to sign copies of his memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” Blow’s demeanor, despite his intimidating height, put attendees at ease. “When I met him at the door, I told him I felt like I had known him for the longest time,” Rev. Joseph McShane S.J., president of the university, said. “I had no sooner finished our conversation when someone came up and said the same thing.”

“I never thought of myself as a writer,” Blow, an op-ed writer for the New York Times, said of his unanticipated career as a journalist. “When you live in a town with a thousand people, that’s not a job.” However, he is now an esteemed member of the writing world. In addition to his position at the New York Times, Blow’s memoir and authorial debut, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” has won him the annual Ann M. Sperber Prize. This prize honors the year’s best biography of a journalist or memoir of one, and has been sponsored by FCLC since 2000.

This year’s ceremony took place in the 12th floor lounge on Nov. 18 and was held by FCLC’s Department of Communication and Media Studies. “The jury has to go through all the books that are submitted, [and] it’s always a big, long list of books that are worthy of consideration,” McShane said. Jury members include Alan Sperber, Raymond A. Schroth, Brian Rose, Jacqueline Reich, John Matteson, Neil Hickey, Joan D. Hedrick, Patricia Bosworth and Albert Auster.

The ceremony was attended by “heavy hitters in American, and especially New York, intellectual life,” as described by McShane. “If you look at the names of people who have won, they really are knockout names.” Indeed, these names are impressive–past recipients include Robert Miraldi for “Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist” and Douglas Brinkley for “Cronkite.”

“In the past, the award has typically gone to the journalist in the heyday of their career,” John Matteson PH.D., a former Sperber Prize recipient, said. “Mr. Blow did not endeavor to tell such a story, but what he did do to his great credit was describe the sentimental education of a journalist and to narrate the long uncertain process by which that journalist came to be.”

“Charles has written an astonishing memoir about his childhood and his struggles to be a journalist,” Brian Rose, Director of the Sperber Prize and professor of communication and media studies at FCLC, said. “This book takes a bold leap into his career as a memoirist.”

Blow’s acceptance speech, in which he thanked FCLC, friends, family and colleagues, was riddled with jokes that showcased his sense of humor. “To my therapist that I went to for a whole year. Disclosure was not the issue,” Blow said to a laughing audience. “I kept saying, ‘My life’s going to be over because they’re going to hate it,’ and he said ‘Charles, calm down—it’s well written,’ and I said, ‘you haven’t read it!’”

A product of several essays, Blow provides proof that long, agonizing commutes have benefits to reap. It is, after all, long commutes in which he credits with the onset of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”

“I had all this time on my hands, so I would write during that time,” he said. Once the essays had accumulated over 30,000 words, he decided to turn it into a book.

However, Blow noted that writing was not the career path he had intended on taking. After procrastinating on a personal essay for school, Blow began the assignment the night before it was due–“Dr. Pepper and those little mini donuts, the really sugary ones,” were what helped him get through that night. To his surprise, the professor was impressed with the paper and asked a question dreaded by every student: “what are you going to do with your life?”

“I told him I wanted to be a politician–full of scoundrels and I thought I was a bit of a scoundrel. I thought it would be a perfect fit,” Blow said. Instead, he ended up studying mass communications with a concentration in digital communication, graduating at the cusp of the digital revolution of America.

“I guess it started with redesigning Time Magazine to be full of all these little trinkets and charts and things. Every publication knew that, to be modern, you had to have graphics. Here I [was] a kid who could not only do graphics works but can also write, so I was a hot commodity.”

Blow went on to discuss the difficulties he faced while writing his book, referencing the distinguishable features that make writing a memoir more difficult than writing a novel. “There are periods of life that are not particularly interesting and you have to figure out how [to] keep the person engaged with [a] character who is me, even during the periods of my life that are very mundane,” Blow said. “Everybody goes to high school. You played a sport. It’s about keeping the lens as close as I can to the ground so I can see the grit.”

While “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” provided Blow with a new medium  to write, it also marks Blow’s departure from the scientific approach to writing he has taken in the past. “It’s a regular custom for him to illustrate his columns with surveys and scientific studies, expertly chosen to shed further light on his chosen subject,” Matteson said. “It was therefore both fascinating and revelatory [to] discover that Charles M. Blow, in addition to his talents in using numbers and statistics to illuminate our world, has lived a life that has made him acutely aware that social dysfunction always has a face.”

Once audience members were given the opportunity for questions, Blow was asked whether his children had read his deeply personal account. “My oldest kid, he’s a very fast reader,” Blow said–adding that he is, by contrast, a slow reader. “He went into his room, read the whole thing in a few hours actually and he came and he said to me, ‘Why didn’t you develop my mom’s character more?’ It was like an editorial comment. I was like, ‘I have an editor’.”

The Ann M. Sperber Prize will continue to honor writers in 2016, selecting a text that sheds light on personal journalistic experiences, or the experiences of other journalists. Quoting Eli Wiesel, Father McShane said“God created man because He loves stories.” He then added, “Where are our stories told better than in biography and memoir?”