NPR reporter to speak about her novel

By Page H. Gifford

Martha Woodroof hadn’t considered becoming a journalist, nor did she have any formal training.

At a party in Charlottesville Woodroof met seasoned National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Wendy Kaufman. Woodroof, who was doing features for commercial radio, spoke with Kaufman about the wonderful experiences of storytelling with sound and other people’s words. Kaufman gave her the name of Jay Kernis, who was considered the king of NPR news programming at the time, and suggested she come work with them.

“It was the 1980s and I’d never heard of NPR, but it sounded like a fun place, so I phoned Jay and asked to come see him and bring along some of my work,” Woodroof said. “He declined to snap me up like a Black Friday bargain, but he did give me permission to call him back. The third or fourth time I called him back, we discovered we both like to rock climb and he allowed me to come see him. Bless his heart, Jay listened to an essentially unedited conversation I’d had with an old blues singer, told me I was a brilliant interviewer but that I knew zippo about technical radio. He then suggested I go away, learn something, and come back. Which I did.”

Speaking with abandonment and few restraints, Woodroof is refreshingly frank about her beginnings in freelance writing and radio. Woodroof’s curiosity, passion and perseverance have formed the substance of her writing career.

“I’m very much a learner by doing. I didn’t drop out of college, talk my way into University of Virginia grad school and then drop out of that because I love sitting still in a classroom,” she said. “I’ve always been nosy, and I’ve always loved storytelling. Looking back over my chaotic career, writing and reporting were kind of inevitable choices as a way to earn a living.”

Woodroof discussed her addiction in her first book, Stop Screwing Up: Twelve Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time. After getting sober in the early ’90s with the help of a 12 step program, she has been in recovery ever since.

“My office had a big comfortable armchair that I’d brought from home, and people would come in for a sit,” she said. “It was the most comfortable chair in the office, and sometimes they’d tell me their troubles and ask what I thought. I don’t believe in giving advice, but I do believe in doing what you can to help. So I found myself addressing other people’s problems by talking about what I’d learned through working the steps.”

As a result, she wrote her first book about the universal helpfulness of addressing all kinds of dysfunction by working within the 12 steps.

Her latest book is a novel, Small Blessings, a departure from her more serious published work. Her book draws on her own experiences, making her characters real and vulnerable as they unearth wisdom they discover about themselves, others and the lives they live.

“I’ve been teaching myself to write novels for years by writing novels,” Woodroof said. “As for where Small Blessings came from, I have always been fascinated by our very human tendency to cling to the familiar rather than risk a change that might make us a lot happier. I wanted to tell the story of nice, well-meaning people who dared to risk changing their ways.”

Woodroof explained how different forms of writing have influenced her life and how her life experiences have helped form her stories.

“For me, fiction and non-fiction are similar bare bones. Both involve a lot of hard thinking about exactly what story you are trying to tell, and then figuring out the clearest way to tell it,” she said. “Reporting, of course, involves strict adherence to the truth, while writing fiction relies on the imagination. And I do love playing pretend.”

Woodroof will discuss her current novel with the Friends of the Library on May 1 at 7 p.m. at the Fluvanna County Public Library.


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