PBI is pleased to present a series of Q&As with Black leaders making a difference in the community. To read more, click here.
Whether you know her best for her cheeky columns in The Palm Beach Post or her pop culture–infused Twitter feed, Leslie Gray Streeter has become a vital voice in the Palm Beach County culture scene. Streeter, who has been at the Post since 2002, explains that writing has always been a part of her life. “I’ve been making up stories since I was a little girl,” she says. “When I found out that there was a way to get paid to write, to talk to people, and to experience communities, I was in.”
Earlier this year, Streeter released her first book, Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words like “Journey” in the Title. The memoir chronicles the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband, Scott, and her experience as a single mother. It also touches upon Streeter’s life with Scott, exploring the intricacies of being in an interracial, interreligious marriage and knowing that those differences made a difference in their relationship, as Streeter notes, in the best way possible.
In June, Streeter announced that she’ll be relocating to her native Baltimore to be closer to her family but will remain on staff at the Post through the end of August. PBI caught up with Streeter ahead of her big move to discuss her life as a young reporter and her development as a writer.
PBI: As a young writer and reporter, what role models did you look up to and what did you find most inspiring about them?
Streeter: I always tried to find older reporters or editors who weren’t annoyed by the overenthusiastic kid asking questions. One of my favorites is Liz Evans-Scolforo, the amazing police reporter at the York Dispatch in York, Pennsylvania, my first daily. She used to introduce me to officers so when I had a story that concerned them, they would know she vouched for me. She even took me to a police bar once. I was overwhelmed and she said, “You have to talk to people. It’s your job.” She is fearless—and always gets the story. I also love newspaper columnists like Dave Barry and Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald, as well as Liz Balmaseda, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner there and is now The Palm Beach Post food editor and my friend. They were just undoubtedly themselves and used their voices so well. I aspire to be them all.
Can you think of a time in your career when you faced what felt like an insurmountable obstacle? What was it and how did you overcome it?
The first time I ever did a morning news shift at the York Dispatch, which is an afternoon paper and has a morning deadline, I messed up. I think I missed a call on the scanner or spelled something wrong. I don’t know. I was 23 and terrified. And the news editor, who was an old crusty guy named Tom Sawyer—for real—yelled at me because he was an old-school guy and he yelled at everybody. I went and cried in the bathroom and may have melodramatically told another editor I was quitting to go fold sweaters at The Gap, which was a very ’90s thing to say. She told me not to and also to never let anyone ever see me cry. So, I went back out into the newsroom, and Sawyer said, in his nicest voice, “Just. Get. It. Right.” And that’s the only thing I needed. They hired me knowing I was green, but also not an idiot. Don’t quit. Get it right.
You’ve become well-known and beloved for the voice you bring to your work. How did you go about cultivating your voice as a writer and what advice do you share with young writers about doing the same?
I once told Dave Barry that I used to basically steal his cadence as a college columnist. And he said, “I’ll take my royalties now.” So, don’t steal from other writers, but it’s helpful to identify the ones that you respond to and then just start writing. It comes with time. I’m a lot more chill about it than I used to be, because when you’re young EVERY. THING. IS. A. THING. And you overwrite. Just let it flow and don’t try too hard. You’ll find your voice.
The subtitle for Black Widow signals to readers that the book subverts the typical connotations often associated with memoirs about grief. In what ways do you feel like you achieved that?
I just kinda wrote the book I wish I’d had, which was a plainspoken recounting of events, the sad, the sadder, and the funnier-than-it-should-be. I didn’t want to write a how-to, because who the heck knows? And I didn’t want to claim to have any divine wisdom or imply that I knew anything special. I just wanted to say, “I got through this and I hope you can too. You can do this the way that you do it. You have to make your own template.” And it seems to have worked.
Your relationship with your late husband, Scott, is at the heart of the memoir. What message about your experience as an interracial couple did you hope to get across to readers?
It’s hard to isolate those things as, you know, a message, because we weren’t trying to make a statement or anything. We just happened to fall in love and were not the same race and religion as each other, and acknowledged that those differences mattered, but in a good way! We learned from each other and were excited about that. Those experiences were just part of who we were, whether they were good or bad, and it was just part of the adventure. I guess I just want people to know that who you love is who you love, and you make your own way, in a way that isn’t anyone else’s to judge.
What has been your biggest takeaway from the events of this year thus far?
That you can’t plan a thing. I was supposed to have been on a book tour, taking a lot of trips and making media appearances. I did most of them from my makeshift studio in my bedroom, with the laptop and ring light set up literally on a box of books that I was supposed to sell at appearances. So, make plans but be ready to pivot. Pivot, pivot, pivot.
What resources do you think are most helpful to young people of color in their quests to succeed in their careers?
Mentors. And people who can model the thing that you are. I was told by an idiot professor that I couldn’t be a film critic because there weren’t any Black female ones (and there were, he just didn’t know about them, which meant it didn’t matter). And I was stubborn enough to be like, “There will be!” But it’s helpful to have a model to know that it’s possible. Have a mentor and then be a mentor.
Besides Black Widow, what’s one book you feel everyone should read once in their life and why do you think it’s a worthy read?
Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. It’s the best, most raw memoir I’ve ever read, so funny and painful and naked. I guess I was inspired 20 years ago when I read it and never knew I’d write my own. You have to be true and read or readers will know.
What tips or words of wisdom would you share with young professionals looking to follow a similar career path as you?
Well, this is a weird career to have at this point in time, to be honest, because it’s so up in the air. But I think the best advice is to ask questions of people who do what you want to do, to research what it really entails, and find opportunities to try it. Don’t think you’re gonna be a star on your first outing, if ever, but don’t accept that you have to hold back just because you are young. Work hard, be humble, but stay fiery.