Amy Calder, born and raised in Skowhegan is a Mainer through and through. Growing up in an imaginative family, Calder developed a love for stories at a young age—a love that would lead her into a thirty-four-year career as an award-winning reporter for the Morning Sentinel. Her columns and personal stories highlight the moments, people, and experiences that make living in Maine special. Her new book, Comfort is an Old Barn represents a partial collection of those columns. In it, you’ll read about the colorful characters Amy has encountered over the years, as well as personal stories about growing up in Central Maine during the sixties. Keep reading to learn more about Amy, her life, and her career.
What is one of your fondest memories of growing up in Skowhegan?
I’d have to say being the youngest in a brood of seven imaginative, adventurous, and sometimes unruly kids, scouring the woods and fields, building cabins and treehouses, riding horses, watching people and listening to their stories. As a teenager, I got to use the family car on weekends if I agreed to pick up my mother, a registered nurse, after her shift ended at midnight at the local hospital in Skowhegan. Sometimes I had to stay until four in the morning because it got so busy in the ER where she worked. I sat in the waiting room and watched all of the characters come and go, listened to their stories, and loved catching a glimpse into their lives. One time, a doctor hauled me into a treatment room to help with two crash victims whose car had gone off a bridge in Solon.
What elements make up a great human interest story? What is critical to make it truly shine?
Finding an unusual or fascinating character is key. Then, you should have the source tell a story or recall a specific event. You always must take care to tell his or her story with empathy, imagining what questions readers would want answered and ask them, and include color. It’s also important to take notice of details in the setting, such as the color of a person’s eyes and the items in the environment.
When you think back about all the columns you’ve written, is there one subject that stands out above all the others?
One column that stands out was about a man who told a story about a crow he had as a pet when he was young. The crow, Smokey, was smart and slept in a tent with him in the summer, pecked him on the ear when it was time to get up to do his newspaper route and flew along with him as he rode his bicycle to deliver papers. The crow also flew around downtown Waterville in the summer, ducking into open doorways and snatching shiny items off shelves to add to his stash on a building ledge.
Is there one story that was more difficult to write, or one that stayed with you for a long time?
There were a lot of news stories that were difficult to write, particularly those that involved tragic deaths where I had to interview friends and relatives of the deceased. As for columns, I remember one many years ago about a bridegroom and his best man who were killed in a car crash on the way to their wedding rehearsal the night before the wedding. They had been drinking and I drove to the spot where the crash occurred and described the scene, including all the beer containers strewn around. I also found the junkyard where the totaled car had been towed and snapped a photo. A relative of one of the victims called me after the column appeared, dressed me down and said I was a horrible person for writing the column. A few months later, she called to apologize, saying she was in shock at the time and needed to lash out at someone.
You’ve spent thirty years in the newspaper industry. Who was your greatest influence?
There were many. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were giants in the field of journalism, working for The Washington Post when they broke the Watergate scandal in 1972,. They were dogged and determined to get the story and flesh it out, and they did. Katharine Graham, Leslie Stahl, and Helen Thomas were women who worked in journalism at a time when men dominated the field. These women were smart, inquisitive, and working in the pursuit of truth. As a teenager, I watched them on television and admired their persistence and professionalism. I aspired to be like them.
Mike Royko was a newspaper columnist who wrote thousands of columns over thirty years for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Chicago Tribune, until his death in 1997. His writing was witty, moving, and heartfelt. For me reading them was pure pleasure. Lastly, Gerry Boyle, author of the Jack McMorrow books, was my colleague for many years at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville. He started as a reporter and then became a columnist and editor. I learned a lot about writing a column just by watching and listening to Gerry tell stories. He was a good role model.
You have a lot of experience with the people of our state. What is one misconception about Maine culture that you’ve found?
That Mainers are naïve, uncultured, and backward, when actually, they are smart, savvy, astute, resourceful, and eternally interesting.