We are back with Justin Williams Pope, journalist and writer of the Henry and Matilda’s Adventures children’s book series.
Justin visited us earlier in a live interview in October. We decided to follow up with him here to learn a bit more about his experiences.
Let’s jump back in!
On Education And Success
You have to dare yourself and challenge yourself to grow. If you don’t ask to do it, how will you know if you might get the opportunity? Most people miss out on these things because they are afraid to ask how they can pursue it!Justin Williams Pope
You spent five years at Wayne Community College, in part, because you didn’t put your best foot forward in your work. What motivated you to take your education seriously?
My dreams and desires to be successful. I knew that Education was the only route for me to attain success in the area I wanted to be in and I needed to buckle down and get my education.
You struggled with a lot of different career path ideas before you ever left Wayne County. How did you focus enough to pursue a degree in Communications at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington?
I certainly did struggle. Honestly, I fell into communication studies due to my love for writing as well as my disdain for Math. I knew to be a Communications (Com) major, I could just take statistics and I could still pursue Public Relations or Journalism.
Looking back on the successes you have had so far, how important has college education been to your success as an artist in multiple genres?
A college education is invaluable because, if anything, classes teach you the best skill of all: time management. It may help teach you something specific to your major, yes. However, the biggest takeaway, in my opinion, of obtaining an undergraduate degree is the ability to manage and balance your time successfully. It is so important. Yes, you may have the skills, but if you don’t know how to manage the time you have, you can never obtain any degree of success.
What advice would you give to students like you that struggle here in their studies today?
Keep on keeping on. Take advantage of the tools and resources that are on campus: Writing Center, Math Lab, tutors, advisors, etc. to get advice from along the way. All of those are to your advantage in your educational journey. USE THEM.
You have an amazing gift for pursuing dreams and passions without fear of failure because you believe in yourself and know you can’t fail or succeed without first trying. You have not always felt this way. What helped you take such a positive approach to living your life?
You have to find that within yourself. I may not be the smartest person ever, but I have just enough about me to ask the question. For example, I think about how I ended up in the internship at One Tree Hill. I was folding washcloths at Belk one afternoon when I realized I was going to walk into my intern advisor’s office the next day and ask for that internship. Those more daring things have only served to assist in building my confidence. I also credit my yearning to know about things and to dare myself to do it. i.e – dangling nine stories up from the WFD fire tower or wading out into the intracoastal waterway without a lifejacket just to try to help find an endangered species. You have to dare yourself and challenge yourself to grow and if you don’t ask to do it, how will you know if you might get the opportunity? Most people miss out on these things because they are afraid to ask how they can pursue it!
On Journalism And Acting
There are many different types of writing, but you really fell in love with journalism from the beginning as a student writer and editor for Wayne Community College’s Campus Voice. What made you realize this career was one you really wanted to pursue?
I have two favorite mediums of writing – the first is that journalism/quasi-editorial of telling a story in a very interpersonal way. I had loved writing since 2nd grade and even when I look back at that now, I was writing very interpersonally then. I thank God for that talent and aim to use it to the best of my ability. If you can convey a story to a reader, you can change a life! The second type of writing is Public Relations writing. I love writing Press Releases. I excelled at this in college as it was a professional, clear-cut form of writing but if you can make it sound good and clean, it will wow your readers. It’s also nice to be on both sides: press release writer and then as a journalist, take that press release and create a story out of it.
Journalists used to take pride in telling well researched, honest stories that were meticulously fact checked and edited for typos. Today, simple typos appear in every article and journalists intentionally report false news as much as real news. What do you think is the cause of this change?
Sensationalism, unfortunately. I think Social Media has added to this as many people fancy themselves as journalists when they are not. Sadly, our world has changed with the advent of social media. We live in a 24 hour a day news, news, news and the need to fill space is there. Unfortunately, journalists are going so fast and there are so few of them for multiple platforms – on cam, on web, print, blog, etc. The medium is no longer just tv or the afternoon newspaper.
As far as bias in journalism, all stories can be slanted to appeal to a certain audience or persuade a certain group. Or to make someone look bad. If you look back at a broadcast of the news from the 1970’s, Walter Cronkite reported just the facts of what happened. Today, journalists often insert their own opinion or feelings when they should just report the facts but they want to have their story clicked on so the word sensationalism comes to mind because ultimately, journalism is a business.
I remember pitching a story to freelance write for a local paper, and the editor took my idea and gave it to his own staff writers to complete. How competitive is journalism today and how can someone new get into it?
I feel like that was hi-jacking your idea and that’s not nice on that editor’s part to take your idea and give it to a staffer. I have never had that happen to me, yet. I feel like it is becoming harder and harder to break in as a freelancer in print media at least. There used to be 11 of us and we are now down to 3 in the Wilmington Market. Sadly, the newspapers are shrinking and the need for stringers are not needed like it was in previous years and there is just not the funding for them as advertising dollars are down.
You have said the landscape of journalism is changing as less and less readers buy print media and the publishers are converting to online subscriptions. How has this changed how writers are managed today?
In my market, I write about happy/community things so it has not affected what I do. I write about church anniversaries, school events, etc. As we have grown smaller in numbers, my area has increased. Years ago, I was only allowed to write for Pender County but now I cover all three counties. It has been a pro for me because I can cover all three areas but the problem is that if you are looking for immediate news, your phone is the go to. By the time the newspaper comes out, Trump has tweeted something new. The online version is the way to go for instant find out! I have not been asked to not cover something because I write about things that people will go to the box and pick up a paper.
How has the transition to online readers changed the types of stories you tell? Do you feel you have more or less readers now than you would have had twenty years ago?
No real changes on my story types. But size is much smaller than years ago. I used to write 850 words per story. Today – I cannot go over 350-375 or it will be cut. This is because reader’s attention span is much shorter and they will not take the time to read a longer story. I feel like 20 years ago – the print subscriptions were much stronger, but online has only increased and the print editions have decreased.
You were introduced to acting through local theatre here at Wayne Community College and, in the community, through Stage Struck Productions. One of the first things you developed to pursue a career in acting was a professional portfolio of pictures and acting experience. How important was this step towards opening the door in the acting world for you?
Eh. I never saw myself as an actor. I only developed my portfolio because I needed to as part of my senior seminar at UNCW. It was indeed helpful but it wasn’t the direction I was going in. Whatever you do, however, it is good to have a professional portfolio.
You had an internship with One Tree Hill in Wilmington. What you expected to be an open door into the world of performance art ended up being a dead end. How did you handle that seeming failure and reshape it into a positive experience?
I just kind of felt it wasn’t meant to be. There are times in life when you know that it just wasn’t meant to be and that another avenue will open up if you keep pursuing. I wasn’t going to act. I wanted to write but it didn’t seem to happen and now looking back I wouldn’t want it any other way.
You have a gap between your two front teeth that is a rather endearing identifying mark, but it hasn’t always been treated that way. What negative comments have you received about your appearance and how have you handled them without letting them derail you?
I find my gap inspiring and I never wanted to change it. I did have it closed in as it was once even larger. It was hurtful when I was told that I would never be on television because it was so large. But there are people with that opinion. I like to think of it as a unique thing because not everyone has it. I’m special!! And again, you just keep going no matter what!!!
You joined a Writers’ Guild to improve your opportunities in the field of writing. There are professional guilds for many artistic careers including acting and writing. What is a guild and how can it be beneficial for an artist to join one?
I never joined an actors guild, but I joined the Writers Guild. (It is good because) there are tons of resources that benefit a fledgling writer including agent opportunities and writer’s groups. It also gives you a professional standardization that resonates with those in the writing world.
You transitioned from acting to creating and hosting a show you are pitching to The Discovery Channel now. You proudly claim the show, Sacred Places, will be a lasting legacy of something good you will give back to the world. How difficult has it been for you to take on this role, and what has been your best help in fulfilling it?
I have had the good fortune to be able to utilize lots of resources to get this off the ground. My University of North Carolina at Wilmington resources as well as my Wilmington Star News background. The churches themselves are really the star of the show. They tell the story of our history and our time. I am just like the viewer, along for the ride but I am fortunate to be able to help share these stories with the audience and if picked up, hopefully the world. It has not been a hard task as it is something I love and I am thankful for the opportunity.
On Creative Writing
You may have the skills, but if you don’t know how to manage the time you have, you can never obtain any degree of success.Justin Williams Pope
You have explored different types of writing including short stories, screenplays, and children’s literature. How do you determine what genre a story should be in?
It usually just starts with an idea in my head. It definitely varies as I have lots of ideas. I then use the clustering system to develop the idea and story. For my journalism stories, I use a set formula that makes it easier to write but still compels a reader in.
You were inspired to tell a travel story as a children’s book that is now a published, ongoing series about a country dog and chicken exploring historic locations in America. How do you determine locations for the series to explore while still making them believable journeys for your characters?
We have so many great places in America that I want them to travel too. The first book was a no-brainer. New York is not your average market – it is a global market so I wanted it to be a “larger market” book that would sale lots of books. As we search for new locations, I try to look at what may educate our readers as well as take them to a place of new exploration, somewhere that is fun yet still with great learning opportunity. Our 4th book that will publish in late 2020 will be in the mid-west and will be the first time we have adventured to that area.
Some of the best advice given to young writers is to write from what you know. You have done that with the Henry and Matilda’s Adventures series because you grew up on a farm (around farm animals) and used real people to inspire your work. How similar are your literary characters to the real inspiration for Henry and Matilda?
Henry and Matilda are best friends much like the real Henry (Me) and the real Matilda (my good friend Drucilla) are as we set out on an adventure to New York City. As far as what they are doing, the characters do take on a life of their own. I like to think of Henry as being very loyal and Matilda as being very sassy but they both certainly love their adventure.
As simplistic as a children’s story may be to an adult reader, it is actually far more daunting to write. What are the key factors that have to be considered when writing a children’s book?
A large part is being in harmony with your illustrator. You have to ask ‘can she draw this?’ Henry and Matilda’s illustrations are fantastic painted by a professional artist who met with me in depth over periods at the farm to capture what I wanted. The story is formulated as Henry and Matilda will always go on an adventure together, the artist is the one who brings my story and vision to life.
The market for children’s literature today is both saturated and competitive. How do you find and create a niche in that genre?
You follow through and don’t give up. You keep pushing and develop not only the story but if you want to last, you create a brand.
In the past, writers wanting to get published would submit work to publishers directly and wait to hear back. Over time, less and less publishers have accepted unsolicited work, and many of them have closed up their doors. You used an agent to help market and get your book published. How did you find an agent, and how has that helped you?
Any quality presentation would seek out assistance from the Writer’s Guild (yes, it costs money to do so) and their assistance is invaluable. The Writer’s Guild brings a prestige and professionalism to your work.
Many writers today are turning away from traditional publishing houses in favor of self-publishing and self-promotion. Presses like Amazon make it possible for writers to do their own layout and print only on demand as copies are sold. How has this made the world of writing better or worse as a whole?
I don’t think it has made it worse. I think it has actually provided an outlet for people who may just want to see their story come to life. They may have no interest in being a professional writer or a lifetime story teller. I think online has encouraged creativity and has allowed people to see themselves as an author. They may never make tons of money from it but they got their dream of having their book published.
Some writers feel they are not writers till they can write full-time and live off their writing income, but that is a pressure that often strangles creativity and is unrealistic for most writers. Do you feel writers shame themselves and each other into unrealistic goals?
The reality is that most writers have another 9-5 job until they can become professional writers in some medium. I don’t know about “shaming themselves”. I can only speak for me, and I look at it as a business just as much as it is a creative passion. Some writers can never discern the two.
Many writers benefit from the stability of a regular job and write around it. You currently write while working a 40-hour week in Public Relations in the healthcare industry. How has that job enabled you to be a better writer?
Both are so different – I’m looking at things from two opposite spectrums so I feel l can write from both arenas and it strengthens my writing.
Many of our readers are aspiring writers too (of all ages). What is your best advice to young, yet unpublished, authors?
Keep writing. Remember, that there is no plot that has not been done. What can you do to make it unique but sellable? Who is your target audience and follow the correct business steps to get published.
This concludes our two-part interview with Justin Williams Pope. You can find his Henry and Matilda’s Adventures series available wherever books are sold including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
We hope you were enlightened and encouraged by what was shared. Please leave a comment below and share how we have encouraged you and any questions you may have to continue the discussion.