Even when it's time to grieve, a journalist often feels detached

Beautiful Minds

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Everyone in the City Paper's editorial department has a routine they follow from one issue to the next, certain tasks that they perform on set days, sometimes even at set times, as the next week's issue begins to take shape. Our week begins on Wednesday, the day we publish and the day after we upload all of that issue's copy to the printer. My week generally begins with an email to Ken Hanke, the Mountain Express cinephile who has supplied us with capsule movie reviews since well before I started working at the City Paper in 2007.

This hasn't always been the case — emailing Ken first thing on a Wednesday morning. Depending on the size and makeup of the City Paper's staff, I've served as the Screen section editor some years, while others I haven't. The section has always been something of an afterthought, an odd-duck collection of pages in which the paper deviates from our Charleston-centric focus. And rightfully so.

We're still at heart an entertainment publication, and, well, the filmmaking scene in town just isn't big enough to generate copy week in and week out. Of course, our readers want to know what's playing at the local cinemas or streaming or might one day make it to this cinematic backwater, and so we run reviews, in particular capsules. Enter Ken. 

Despite reading and editing Ken for years, it wasn't until recently that I learned that Ken was a horror buff, something that had established a bit of a kinship between us over the past year or so. Whenever I saw a preview or got word about an indie horror flick that was scoring big on the festival circuit, I sent Ken an email to find out if he had seen it or if he wanted to get a screener and review it for us. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn't. It didn't matter if it was It Follows, The Green Room, or Goodnight Mommy, I always tried to check with Ken first. He was the fright flick authority in our stable of freelancers.

But this was Wednesday, and the only horror movie in sight was The Purge: Election Year, and I wasn't about to bother Ken with that. Two films in, we both know what to expect from that franchise — yet another intriguing premise hobbled by poor execution. So, all I really wanted to know from him was which movies he intended to review that week. I generally passed on the inspirational movies that plague the megaplexes, not because of some religious bias, but because, like Ken so often said, they were poorly scripted, low-budgeted, horribly acted messes. Except for Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes as a Roman solider investigating the disappearance of Jesus' body. Ken liked that one. 

On Monday, Ken had turned in capsules for Free State of Jones, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Our Kind of Traitor. The week before it was Central Intelligence, Finding Dory, and Weiner. This week, I fully expected to get reviews for The BFG and The Legend of Tarzan, among others. But Ken didn't respond. 

This was out of the ordinary, of course. Ken was an almost instantaneous replier, a trait I admired in him. A few hours ticked by. At one point it even occurred to me that I hadn't emailed Ken, although I had, a testament to Ken's promptness, my poor memory, and the power of routine. It was only by chance that I learned that Ken had died the night before. 

It would be a lie to say that I was feeling anything even approaching the turbulent swell of emotions that Ken's family, friends, and long-time readers in Asheville were feeling. But I did feel something — sadness yes, but a type of sadness that felt like a sigh, knowing but detached.

In a way, this is the curse of being a journalist. When tragedy strikes or the community suffers a loss, we don't have time to mourn. We instantly have to begin thinking of how we are going to cover it, if we are at all. Even in the case of the Emanuel Nine, I woke up the next morning and immediately began formulating how we would report on the horrible news. I wish I hadn't. In fact, I feel ashamed admitting that I did. But it is my job.

Regardless, we do — I do — grieve. And in the case of Ken Hanke, I will miss him, and I will miss reading him. He was a unique voice, often cranky, almost always right on. My heart goes out to his loved ones and his fans.

Sadly, Ken's won't be the only voice that will no longer be in the City Paper. If you've read the most recent column by our resident feminist activist, Alison Piepmeier, you know that her battle with cancer is coming to an end, and that she is struggling to find some sort of peace. I hope she finds it. She surely deserves it. Maybelle deserves it.

As Alison's editor, I've been in a unique situation. On the one hand, my heart aches, but on the other, I still have a paper to put out and sometimes putting out that paper means editing one of Alison's columns on her ongoing fight against her brain tumor.

An academic by trade, Alison's columns have always required a little bit of finessing. Often full of passion, sometimes even fury, her words still needed a little assist. This isn't a slight; we all need editing, myself included.

Like the best of us in this business — and Alison is one of the best — she has never taken any edit, any tweak, any clarification negatively, at least as far as I'm aware. As with all my writers, I try to make each and every one of their works to be the best they can be, even when I disagree with them, whether it's Mat Catastrophe today or Jack Hunter years ago. 

To do that, you've got to try to get into their minds. You have to think long and hard about what it is that they are saying when sometimes it's not quite so clear what they're saying — and you have to do it in their voice, as much as possible. And so a quasi-mind-meld is created. You try to absorb their personality, or at the very least the personality that they adopt when they write a column. They're not always the same thing — this public persona and the real person.

Even though you end up spending so much time trying to think like someone else, to think like a fellow writer, the end result is not exactly what you expect. You don't grow closer. You don't become more alike. In fact, a detachment begins to settle in. Regardless of how a story might make you feel, you still have to make sure the subjects and verbs agree. You have to make sure that "it's" isn't "its." You have to make sure that the column has the impact the author intended or it needs or else its a failure. See, there I go. Mistakes are easy.

But regardless of how much time I've spent getting into the beautiful mind that is Alison Piepmeier, her struggle is not my struggle, her pain is not my pain. And I don't want it to be. I may have to know these things, but I don't want to experience them. Nor do I wish for my friends and family to either.

When I think of Alison, I think of the person and I think of the writer. I think of the living breathing soul and I think of her words. I think of what she is going through and I think of what we at the City Paper will do to honor her. I don't know what that is yet, and I wish I didn't have to think about these things, but the copy can never stop.

And so, in the minutes just after I heard that Ken Hanke had passed away — a long-time contributor to our paper, a husband, a father, a man who was passionate about his craft and wrote reviews up until the very night of his passing — I picked up the phone and called Ken's associate Justin Souther, one of the writers who Ken had enlisted to help him with the capsule reviews that run in the City Paper. I offered my condolences, and then I let him know that we would like for him to continue to write for us. I didn't need an answer then, I didn't need an answer the next day, but I needed one soon. It doesn't matter that a man I admired just died or that a writer I adored and worked closely with is at the very the end of her life. Another week is coming up and another paper has to come out.

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