Interview With Jan Risher, Author of Looking to the Stars from Old Algiers and Other Long Stories Short

You’ve written a weekly newspaper column since 2002. How did you decide which ones to include in this collection?

Picking the columns to include in the book was a much greater task than I expected it to be. In fact, finding all the columns was a bigger task than I expected. My weekly column started just at the cusp of the transition from print to digital media. Newspapers across the land were working through changes to their model — and those changes affected the way the newsroom was organized. At most smaller papers, including The Daily Advertiser where my column was and continues to be published, newspaper librarians and maintaining paper copies were a thing of the past by 2002. The idea was that everything would be archived digitally — which didn’t happen (which makes me concerned about the bigger picture of what will be lost to history during this period of media disruption).

To select the columns, I eventually found most of them and read each and every one. I put aside the ones that I thought were the strongest — or ones that held a sentimental place in my heart. From there, I asked three outside editors to go through separately and help me decide which ones made the most sense to include. (Special thanks to Elizabeth Lyons, Amanda Elliott and Joelle Polisky for their help as editors.) Once we had an idea of which ones to include, we had to figure out how to organize the book — which was a challenge. Initially, we thought organizing the pieces by theme made the most sense. However, after several months of working with the columns and thinking about the best way to present the story as a whole, we opted to present them chronologically.

At the time the book was published, you’ve been writing a weekly column for more than 16 years. How do you come up with ideas to write a new column every single week?

At this point, my newspaper columns are akin to public therapy. I’m always looking for ideas and inspiration. These days, I send myself an email or jot a note in my phone when an idea comes. I constantly keep a look out for my theme of the week.

Occasionally, I’ve got nothing and simply don’t know what to write about. For those times, I’ve found a special trick that helps my brain develop an idea. I have an old Pantone color booklet with thousands of color swatches in it. If I flip through that booklet, I’m able to come up with an idea for a column. I’m not sure why, but it works consistently. On a side note, I am proud that I’ve never missed a single week of sending in a column.

You’ve had lots of jobs, — teacher, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, public relations, non-profit executive. You’ve mentioned that you loved full-time journalism, which you left in 2008. Why did you leave and do you miss it? 

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First, I do miss it. I believe most people who have worked in a newsroom will miss the thrill of being in the middle of whatever is happening for years to come. I would also be remiss not to defend the honor of journalists and journalism — both take quite a rap these days. Our founding fathers recognized the importance of free speech by making it the First Amendment. Democracy won’t survive without it — and, with that, I’ll get off my soapbox and answer the rest of your question.

I left journalism because the internet changed everything and the newspaper model changed. At the time I left, both my husband and I worked at the newspaper. Every week, we wondered if that was wise. Even though I loved the work, it was all-consuming and I was a mother with young children. Ultimately, we decided the best interest of our family was for one of us to leave newspapers. So, I did. Four months later, my husband was laid off — after 34 years with the same company. That was a time of major transition for our family, but we came out the other side smiling.

You’ve mentioned that you come from a family of storytellers. Do you believe storytelling is genetic or learned?

Like the nature/nurture question in every form, I believe it’s some of both. As a child, I loved listening over and over to my grandparents’ stories — even the ones I knew by heart. I had lots of cousins. They weren’t nearly as interested in the stories of long ago as I was — so that shows me that an appreciation for stories and storytellers is not all nature since my cousins and I came from the same gene pool.

On the other hand, certain uncles (particularly David Risher and Guy Henderson) were great storytellers. My uncle David held court at every family gathering in the living rooms of my childhood. Listening to both of them taught me a lot about the importance of rhythm, repetition and the pacing of a story. 

Do you have a personal favorite column?

Indeed, I do — hence the title of the book. My favorite column is the one I wrote after the 10-year Katrina anniversary, the night my husband and I had the 10th birthday party for the little fellow who had gotten separated from his parents in the tumult that came with and followed Katrina. His name is Keldon Ruffin Jr., and at that time, he lived in Old Algiers with his mother, brother and baby sister.

But, there are other ones I like too. That one just holds a special place in my heart because it encapsulates so much hope and heartache. The dinner my husband and I shared with Keldon and his mother that night was so full of joy and love, but I can never think of the evening without thinking about the poignant walk we took after dinner. My husband and I were walking to our hotel. They were walking to get a bus to head home. It was a Cinderella-after-the-ball moment that I had to examine closely because I realized the carriage had indeed turned into a pumpkin.

While I’m sure they enjoyed the dinner, they were headed back to the harsh realities of their lives — to a home that I later learned didn’t even have running water. Looking back, I have to ask myself, “Who was that fanfare really for — them or me? And what difference did any of it make?”

I still am not sure of the answers to those questions. I went on to try and help the family as much as I could after we reconnected. Sadly, I lost touch with them again less than a year after I found them. That whole saying about “making a difference for that starfish” is more complicated than the act of just throwing the starfish back in the water.

Connect with Jan: Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook ~ Pinterest ~ Instagram


  1. I love the feel of this book, and look forward to experiencing the stories :)

    1. It's one you savour over a long period of time - a column here and there.


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