Harvey will hold a book signing on December 1 at 1 p.m., at Barnes and Noble, at the Shoppes at Blackstone in Millbury, as a follow-up to her successful signing at Piccolo’s restaurant, on Shrewsbury Street, Worcester, this fall.
“I put it together, mainly because I became a grandparent this year,” she says, adding that this life-defining marker got her “thinking about [her] mortality and how [she] wanted to be remembered.”
“So, I spent the summer doing that,” she says. “It was a fun project actually.”
What Harvey has put together is a greatest-hits package of columns — approximately 45 of them, culled from more than 360 — all written during her long tenure at the local weekly (16 years with her own column and three more writing anonymously in the “First Person” personal-narrative column started by then-editors Paul Della Valle and Walter Crockett), making her, by all estimations, the magazine’s most enduring employee since its inception in 1976.
Her start, you might not guess from the often poignant quality of her column, was not quite so auspicious. “The first thing I sent in, I tried to jump into the mailbox and get it back, because I thought it must be crap. I was just terrified.”
Things got better, though, she says. “They ran a lot of my stuff after that. I was lucky. I didn’t get the sting of rejection right away. That took a little while. I did eventually get it. They were pretty good to me. As a matter of fact, without Walter Crockett and Paul Della Valle, I wouldn’t have anything written.”
Harvey speaks very highly of her first editors, and credits them with teaching her to write. Crockett, in particular, she says, was a critically important mentor, who taught her more than any writing class she ever took. “And I’ve taken a lot of them,” she says.
“Walter,” Harvey says, “was a gentle teacher. He was very respectful of [my] writing. Walter is probably one of the most honest human beings I’ve ever known.”
When it came to sorting the wheat from the chaff, the great columns from the good tries, Harvey says of the difficult culling process, “I tried to think of, what did I enjoy writing and what did I still enjoy reading once I looked it over again. Some stuff I looked at it and said, ‘This is a clunker,’ or ‘Boy, I must have been stretched on this one,’ or ‘this was funny then, but it’s not funny now.’ It was more of a process of elimination on this [book]. Not everything is timeless.”
“Some stuff was still funny, and that’s the stuff that I included, or some stuff was still touching, and I included that. If it still mattered to me when I read it, I thought it might matter to someone else.”
And what is it she’s been writing about all these years, since her scary and tenuous rookie experience under Crockett and Della Valle? The topic every long-term resident becomes an expert in: Worcester itself.
“Worcester,” Harvey says, “is like your mother’s shepherd’s pie, or your favorite slippers: You just can’t throw them out. You just love them in spite of yourself. [Worcester] just trips over itself all the time. I love Worcester, and I can’t really even explain why. It’s that comfortable sweater, I guess.”
She’s also dished out slices (about enough to stock Table Talk Pies) of a life lived in Worcester’s neighborhoods – highlights and lowlights of parents, siblings, extended family, kids, neighbors, and local residents and landmarks.
“The pieces that have had the most impact usually were about other people and the impact that they had on our lives, and those things really generated a big response.”
Harvey’s column isn’t the polarizing polemic that generates water-cooler ranting, like her cross-town rivals Dianne Williamson and Clive McFarlane at the Telegram & Gazette, perhaps due to the more personal, narrative nature of her work.
Except for the occasional one-off about, say, tattooed women.
“That’s the one piece that I — I’m not going to say that I regret writing it, but I definitely — totally! — misjudged my audience on that one and I paid the price on it. I got, I think, the record amount of hate mail on that. I did end up writing a follow-up piece on it, sort of saying that I had made a mistake in not talking to people about tattoos and what the story was. It was a tongue-in-cheek thing. I thought I’d get away with it. Before I ran the thing, I asked two female editors at Worcester Mag, and they both said, ‘It looks fine to me.’ Well, we were all wrong, because that is a sensitive subject. But I did include that, because I have a whole section that’s stuff that got me in trouble.”
While the book is primarily comprised of reprinted columns, one long-form piece, called “Once around the room with Satan,” will be new to readers, and Harvey is quite proud of it. “It’s a very personal, private piece I never published,” she says. “It’s the last one in there. It’s much too long to be a column and it took me about five years to write. It’s about my son’s struggles with drugs. I’m pleased to be able to include it, because it was something readers have never read, either.”
In addition, like a great digitally remastered CD release by your favorite musical artist, Harvey has added copious liner notes. “Everything,” she says, “has an intro on why I wrote it, or what brought it about, or what impact it had.”
“Some of it riled people up,” she says, “some of it touched people. I have a lot of stuff in there that’s serious that people really responded to and really loved.”
“I have people asking me if I want to do another one. They’ve enjoyed it, and they would like to see more,” Harvey says. And though she thinks it’s a bit premature to look forward to the next book, she admits, “I could probably come up with another 40.”
The experience of the past two decades has meant a lot in Harvey’s life, and “columnist,” she laughs, would probably earn a spot high up on her obituary. “Right under teacher, under ‘rebel without a cause,’” she says laughing. “They’re five dollars a line. You can write anything you want!”
Even after nearly two decades, though, she says, “I’ve never taken for granted that I have a place from which to shout.”
“Go Figure: 15 Years of Harvey in Worcester Magazine” is available in print, online through booksellers like Amazon.com, and even in e-book form for Kindle. Meet Janice Harvey in person and have your copy signed on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 1 p.m., at Barnes and Noble at the Millbury Shoppes at Blackstone Mall.