Interview with Charlise Lyles

Charlise LylesCharlise Lyles is the co-founding editor of Catalyst Cleveland and conceived the expansion to Catalyst Ohio. Before that, she was a metro columnist, editorial writer, ombudsperson, government, social services and courts reporter, and feature writer at daily newspapers.

A native of Cleveland, Charlise Lyles is an alumna of the A Better Chance program and a 1981 graduate of Smith College. Lyles began her career as a clerk for The New York Times White House Correspondent Hedrick Smith. In 1987, she was part of a team awarded the Copeland Public Service award for contributions to a series in The Virginian-Pilot on poverty and low-income housing in an affluent city.

A 1990 recipient of an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship, she has worked as a reporter for the Virginian–Pilot and the Ledger-Star newspapers in Norfolk, Virginia and the Dayton Daily News. Lyles is the recipient of three awards from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists. In 1999, Lyles co-founded Catalyst Cleveland now Catalyst Ohio magazine, which provides independent reporting on the state’s eight large, urban school districts.

Lyles was also a Fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at the John Glenn School at The Ohio State University. Catalyst has also received three awards from The Ohio Society for Professional Journalists and is a winner of a 2007 Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Communication.

In 1995, her memoir, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? From the Projects to Prep School, was published by Faber & Faber Inc. The second edition was published by by Gray Publishers & Co. in 2008:

I felt the original version of the memoir was incomplete. It didn’t live up to its subtitle, which is From the Projects to Prep School. The first edition covered the early part of my life [projects] well, but didn’t really talk much about my three years at Hawken School [prep school]. More than a decade has passed since I wrote the first edition, and I’ve had time to more deeply reflect on what I experienced at Hawken and to come to some understanding of how my experiences there have defined the woman I am today.

  • What were your experiences with the first edition of your book as you began the book-signing and promotional tours? What was the reception like from teachers and school administrators?

    The first lesson that this writer’s soul learned from doing book promotions and signings is the profound irony of writing memoir, which is that writing is an intensely personal act; yet the act of promoting and selling my book has to be an intensely public act if the book is to succeed. I wasn’t always comfortable openly pushing my book, even though I yearned to tell my story and share it with others. There is a very modest part of me that is uncomfortable putting my work in the limelight. Also, I guess I have a very old-school notion of the literary writer as being low-profile and hermetic—Emily Dickinson writing her poems and then tucking them away. But there are so many contemporary models who can teach me how to sell my work, for example, Maya Angelou. I am still learning how to genuinely and graciously promote my work. I want to feel comfortable in my own skin as I urge readers to buy my book because I sincerely believe they will find truth, a moving narrative and a new voice in American memoir.

    The second lesson I learned is just as important as the first. When an author signs a contract with a publisher, a provision that provides a publicist is essential. For the first edition of “Do I Dare,” I was pretty much on my own to do the promotion. This second go round, I’ve had tremendous support from the publisher Gray and Company of Cleveland.

    As for the reception that the first edition received from teachers and schools, it was very good. Cleveland Schools actually hosted a reception for me attended by many of my old teachers who are now retired. I had a chance to see Miss Collins, Miss Nelson, Mr. Jarvey and many others. It was deeply moving. In addition, some high-school teachers made the book required reading for their English classes. I was invited to several schools to read from the book and talk with students. The book was also picked up by a few college sociology courses at Tufts University and elsewhere.

  • What was the initial reaction that you expected?

    I really didn’t know how teachers, administrators and others would respond to the book. When writing any work as personal as a memoir, I believe one has to hold at bay one’s expectations of readers because those expectations can get in the way of the truth of the story as the author experienced it. One cannot write to please, or for that matter to displease, any particular audience.

  • Did reader reaction influence your decision to write a new edition?

    To some extent, yes. Many readers commented that the first edition did not quite live up to the promise of the book’s subtitle “From the Projects to Prep School.” And they were correct. That first edition covers my girlhood and junior high school years but the narrative ends just as I enter prep school; it stopped short of chronicling the three years during which I actually attended prep school. So readers felt that they did not get the full story.

    I agree. I realize now that I hadn’t fully digested my experience in prep school enough to write about it in the first edition. More than a decade has passed since I wrote the first edition. I’ve had time to reflect more deeply on the years I spent at prep school. Also, over the past 10 years, I’ve co-founded and edited Catalyst Ohio, a magazine on urban school improvement efforts. Reporting on equity issues and the achievement gap helped me to better understand the educational disparities that I witnessed and lived on my trajectory from the projects to prep school.

  • With the new edition, has promotion become easier? Any lessons learned from promoting that first edition?

    Promotion is never easy. However, I have learned to do it with more ease and grace. Also, I’ve learned to use technology more. I plan to post a simple web site or blog. I continue to send out e-blast when I am appearing at various bookstores or other events. Most significantly, I’ve learned to have high expectations for my work. Book promotion can be, in one sense, a real test of being my true self and asking readers to appreciate and accept me as I am.

  • Has the reaction been similar to the new edition?

    I find that readers are still very excited about reading a Horatio Alger narrative—in this case, somewhat of a bootstrapping story of a kid plucked from a public housing project and put on a path to educational success. It offers readers some hope, although it in no way addresses the systemic problems that plague urban education.

    In the context of the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president, there are some readers who see “Do I Dare” as a Great Society coming-of-age narrative that speaks to the experiences of many African-Americans who took very different paths to an education, paths that forced them to venture into new and different worlds, paths that forced them to forge a new and unique identity. And as a result, those African Americans have grown up to be people who see the world through a very different lens.

  • Any changes to your writing style or habits between the first and second editions?

    The three new chapters in the second edition are written as scene and summary narrative, while the original chapters are a more detailed and dramatic narrative that almost reads like a novel. The new chapters and the old have two very distinct voices: the new carry the voice of a mature woman looking back on a painful but enriching and necessary passage in her life and trying to make some sense of it; and the old carry the voice of a naive, in-your-face teenage achiever who doesn’t quite know what she is getting into and isn’t very reflective.

    Rob Lucas, the editor at Gray and Company Publishers did a very meticulous job helping me to make the narrative work.

  • As a published author, the co-founding editor of Catalyst Ohio, and an advocate for public education reform, what’s next for you?

    Right now: I have a ghost-writing project that I am currently under contract to complete the first quarter of this year. And I also have a novel manuscript that I am determined to finish this year. Lastly, I have stepped down as editor of Catalyst Ohio magazine but I will continue to contribute to it by writing a column on urban education issues.

    In the not-so-distant future: I hope to teach young people the craft of journaling as a tool for psychological well-being or self-nurture, as well as for developing good writing skills. I believe this can be especially therapeutic for adolescent boys. I began keeping a journal in 11th grade in prep school. The 39 dairies that I have accumulated over the years are a testimony to my love of journaling. I value it as a tool to help me and others make some sense of the often painful and paradoxical world around us and the world we create and recreate in our immediate surroundings. And it can offer clues to how we can change ourselves to make that world a little better.

    Finally: As an education advocate, my passion is to do non-profit work in the field of college access for African American and other under-serviced students.

    Thank you for reading and I hope you will buy and enjoy my book.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Charlise Lyles”

  1. Dear friends,

    I just wanted to share my good news with you. Catalyst Ohio, the magazine I co-founded 10 years ago, has won a 2009 Clarion award from the prestigious, national Association for Women In Communications. The Best Group Project for a magazine with 100,000 circulation or less was awarded for a series of reports titled “Early education: Neediest mom and kids miss out.” Published in September 2008, the stories examined why the most impoverished mothers in Cuyahoga County find it difficult to enroll their children in preschool. The stories are based on a survey and reporting by a rookie staff of two very dogged reporters: Joy Brewington and Rachel Abbey. I directed and edited the project. This is Catalyst’s second Clarion award. The series also received a 2009 Press Club of Cleveland award.

    Thank you again for your continued support of Catalyst magazine and my work as an author.


    Charlise Lyles
    Author: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School

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