John Gray is an EMMY® Award-winning journalist, writer, and news anchor for WXXA Fox 23 and WTEN ABC 10 in Albany. His new debut novel, Manchester Christmas, is available for sale online and at bookstores nationwide. Listen to the interview at OldMillRoadRecording.com.
Sherman: Where were you born?
Gray: I was born and raised in Troy, New York. I grew up in South Troy. It was a very culturally diverse town. Things were different back then. Back in the 70s, parents could just open the door and let their kids play outside. All the parents looked out for each other’s kids and kept an eye on them. It was a great community.
Sherman: Did you know at an early age that you were interested in writing and journalism?
Gray: I had a fourth-grade teacher named Miss Palusiak. She gave us an optional extra credit assignment to write a poem. A lot of the other kids didn’t want to do it, but I enjoyed writing. I wrote a little poem about a pirate ship. I incorporated all of the names of the other kids in the class and made them characters on the ship. It was very silly and fun. She gave me an “A” on it. She told me that she liked it so much that she wanted me to read it to the rest of the class. I was only nine years old. I had never read anything in front of anyone else before, but I got up in front of everyone and performed it. They were all laughing and clapping. They thought it was hilarious. From that moment, I was hooked. I was only nine or ten years old, but I knew that I wanted to do something with my life that involved writing.
Sherman: Were your parents supportive of your interest in writing?
Gray: They were always supportive. Back when I was at school, my teachers would send me home with these little pamphlets for mail-order books, such as “The Hardy Boys” mysteries. We were a lower-middle class family, but my mom and dad always found a couple of dollars to buy me a book. I also had a library card at a young age and got to go to the Troy Public Library, which is still there today. Whenever I meet kids and they tell me, “I want to be a writer”, I always tell them: “Well make sure you’re a reader.” To me, that’s the first part of the equation. My parents always nurtured my interest in reading from a young age. They were also supportive when I decided to major in communications and journalism at college. Some parents might say “it’s hard to find a job that pays well with a degree like that. Maybe you should think about being an engineer or a lawyer.” My parents never said any of that. They told me, “If you want to do it, then go for it.”
Sherman: Who were some of the early mentors that helped to guide you?
Gray: My earliest mentor was a teacher named David Kissick. He pulled me aside when I was in eighth grade at the end of a class. At first, I was confused. I didn’t know why I was in trouble. He handed me back a paper with an “A+” on it. He said to me, “You’re writing differently than the other kids. I can’t explain it, but it’s different – and it’s good.” It meant a lot, because I really respected him as a teacher. I knew that I was never going to be the quarterback of the football team, and I knew that I would never be able to dunk a basketball. It felt great to hear this guy tell me that I was really good at something. It made me believe in myself. I started writing more and more. The best thing about David Kissick was that he was honest in terms of his feedback. He held me to a high standard. Sometimes he’d write these notes in the margins that were just brutal, but they ended up really helping me. He was my first editor in a way. He taught me to never be lazy with my writing. It made an incredible difference in terms of my creative development.
Sherman: What was college like for you?
Gray: I chose to start my college education at Hudson Valley Community College. It was reasonably priced and provided a good education that was not that far from my home. I started working for the school paper, and then became the editor of the paper. It was a thankless job that no one wanted to do, but they told me that they would pay for my tuition and pay for my books if I did it. When I transferred to SUNY Oswego to finish my journalism and communications degree, I got in front of a TV camera for the first time. I was terrified initially. I got so overwhelmed that I started sweating, but I was able to calm my nerves over time. From there, I started doing regularly scheduled shows on college radio. Not that many people listened, but it still gave me a taste for what it was like.
Sherman: What happened after college?
Gray: I graduated in May of 1985. When I graduated, I assumed that the whole world was going to be waiting to hire me with open arms. It didn’t happen that way. I knew that I wanted to work in the field of TV or radio, but there were no local positions available for someone with limited experience. To make ends meet, I took a job bussing tables at a restaurant in Colonie. It actually paid pretty well, and I got to eat some delicious food while I was working there. It was a fun period of my life. I fit right in with everybody who worked there because I came from a blue-collar family. When I finally got hired for my first job in radio, it was a minimum-wage job at a little local station, I did some filing work for them. When one of their employees left, they gave me a chance to do my own radio show.
Sherman: What was your experience like working at the radio station?
Gray: When I first started, I would go out and do news stories and record interviews on a little tape recorder that I bought with my own money. I would gather the news and then put it together for my show. It wasn’t easy at first, but the older disc jockeys who worked at the radio station were incredibly kind to me. One of them approached me when I was setting up for my show and said, “When you’re done with the newscast, don’t walk away. I’m going to talk to you during the broadcast.” I was incredibly nervous, at first, to be talking to another person live on-air, but it helped me to become more comfortable with myself. I became better at reacting in real time. As a broadcaster and news person, it’s essential to always remain in the moment. Radio was a great training ground for me. I got to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. It allowed me to refine my craft before I ever got started with TV.
Sherman: How did you get your first break on TV?
Gray: When I first started applying to work at local TV stations, nobody in the Albany region wanted to hire me. I couldn’t even get in the room to talk to anybody. There was a young news director at the Channel 13 NBC station named Steve Bullock. I kept contacting him to ask about potential employment opportunities, but his secretary kept telling me that he was unavailable. One day in January of 1988, I called his secretary and asked her if Steve had just five minutes to speak with me sometime in between January and September. We picked a day in March and I wrote it down in my calendar. I showed up at noon on that day with my resumé, but Steve had completely forgotten about the appointment. I sat outside his office until he invited me in to talk. When we finally talked, it went very well. He liked me. I got my start at NBC 13 working part-time as a producer behind the scenes. I then began working as a writer. A lot of the anchors really liked it when I wrote for them. They started requesting my services as a writer. That helped me get my foot in the door and establish a reputation. It took me about a year to go from behind the scenes to in front of the camera.
Sherman: What was it like to be on TV in the beginning?
Gray: It was a lot of fun, but it was definitely different from working on the radio. You had to be conscious of your visual presentation. If you wear an ugly tie or don’t fix your hair the right way,
someone might write a letter to complain. I tried my best to remain in the moment and not let the little things like that get to me. I became fascinated with storytelling. I was always trying to find a fresh and different angle. I had somebody tell me early on, “If you want to last in this business, make me remember you.” That’s some of the best advice I ever got. Of course, in the beginning, your ego goes through the roof. When you’re first on TV, you’ll be walking around the supermarket hoping that somebody recognizes you. Once you move past that, it becomes more about the job and less about the ego. I worked at NBC 13 for 15 years. I started full time on the air in 1989. After two or three years of successful work as a reporter, they gave me a show in the morning. From there I started working nights, and then I took an offer to work for a different station. I’ve worked at WXXA FOX 23 and WTEN ABC 10 for the past 16 years.
Sherman: What kind of work goes into an average news broadcast?
Gray: If I’m anchoring, my producers work on the show all day. I read as much as I can before I go into work so that I know what’s going on. I try to stay as well-informed as possible. Sometimes the producers responsible for putting the show together are young and inexperienced. I want to be able to catch any potential mistakes that they may make. For my reporting pieces, I either come up with the topics for my own stories, or get tips from other people. Funnily enough, a good example would be the story that I did about Old Mill Road Recording. During a trip to Southern Vermont, I took my kids to the Chocolate Barn over in Shaftsbury. When I was talking with the owner, she told me about the studio in East Arlington. When I got home, I googled it, saw the studio, and decided to do a story on it. I love stories that I learn about in an organic way. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of a story I want to do, and it will take me years to put it together. You have to spend a lot of time tracking certain people down, because some of the best stories don’t want to be told right away. You have to almost pull them out of people. Having a good track record is key. If people know your name and trust you, they’re more likely to open up to you when you’re interviewing them for a story.
Sherman: Have you had any bad experiences where things went wrong in the newsroom?
Gray: I’ve had some bad experiences with laughing on air. Sometimes I laugh when something goes wrong, and then I can’t stop laughing. If I’m with an anchor who’s prone to laughing too, then we both can come off as silly on the air. The worst thing that can happen is when you’re giggling about something during a feel-good story, and the next story is about a local tragedy. Those are the situations I try to stay away from. I also try to pick the stories that keep me out of trouble, and stay out of hazardous situations. I always tell crews when they’re going out to shoot stories, “Don’t put yourself in danger.” If you use your brain power, you can avoid a lot of potential trouble just by exercising proper judgment.
Sherman: Did you ever have aspirations of going national?
Gray: I’m probably the one person who worked in local TV that never did. I looked at it realistically. I had a lot of friends that made the jump to bigger markets. That sort of rat race just never appealed to me. Some of the people who made that type of transition told me that it was no different than local news, just the same job with more pressure. I love where I live and work here in the capital region. I love Vermont, too. I’m grateful to be where I am.
Sherman: How have you carved your niche within the world of TV journalism?
Gray: I’ve carved my niche by being honest and direct. After you spend years covering accidents, fires, and other tragic occurrences, you can certainly get burnt-out. I certainly would prefer to just do fun feature stories, but the nature of the work isn’t always like that. You have to do it all when you’re an anchor. It’s important to connect to every story that you cover. There’s a prevalent illusion that when you work as an anchor, you have to be distant and detached from your emotions. That’s not really the way it is for me. I like to think that if I’m telling you about a tragic event, you should see the tragedy in my eyes and you should hear it in my voice. It’s not because it’s acting, it’s because I’m experiencing it the same way that you are. I always try to be an honest anchor. One of my role models was Walter Cronkite, who was the face of American news for many years.
Sherman: Speaking of Walter Cronkite, I’ve heard that you got to meet him face-to-face. What was that like?
Gray: When I was anchoring at Channel 13, a local girl from the Albany area got cast as the lead in Annie on Broadway. Her name is Brittany Kissinger. She was originally cast as the understudy for the lead part, but she was chosen to replace the girl who originally played the lead at the last second. It was a big controversy down on Broadway. They sent me down to Broadway to interview the girl and her parents on opening night. I was right there on the red carpet where all of these celebrities were coming in. Security told us that they would throw us out if I walked past the rope, but I was happy to oblige. We had pretty good press access for a local news team from Albany. Suddenly, I see Walter Cronkite walking down the carpet. I knew I had to seize the opportunity, so I ran across the rope and I approached him. I said, “Mr. Cronkite, what do you think of Annie?” He knew about the controversy, and he had an incredibly witty response. He said, “I love Annie, and any old Annie will do.” I loved it. It was classic Walter Cronkite. He was so nice and gracious about it.
Sherman: I’ve heard that you’re a big Broadway fan! Do you have a favorite Broadway show?
Gray: I just love Broadway. My favorite show is Rent. I’ve seen it about 14 or 15 times, both with the original cast and the different casts that have performed it since then. When an actor named Jim Beaver – who has acted in shows like Deadwood, Supernatural, and Justified – came up and did a play in Berkshire County, I interviewed him for a newspaper column. During the interview, I asked him, “What is it about theatre that speaks to people?” He looked at me and said, “I know what it is. Whenever you’re sitting in a theatre, whether you’re in the first row or the last row, what you’re seeing only happens once. Every performance is a unique experience just for you and the other people that are there.” I think that’s what I love so much about it. I’m also just incredibly impressed with the talent. I love going to shows with different actors and seeing how they interpret the characters.
Sherman: What was it like when you won your first EMMY® Award?
Gray: When I was up for my very first EMMY® Award, I knew that it was a long shot. I was down by myself in New York City. My wife asked me, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I know I’m not going to win tonight, but I don’t want this trip to be entirely wasted. I want to have a nice memory.” I got tickets to see a live performance of Of Mice and Men with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. I realized I had to be at the EMMYs immediately after the show, so I wore my tuxedo. The only seat they had available was on one of those overhanging balconies. People were probably looking at me like I was some overdressed dignitary from London, but the play was great. I ended up winning the EMMY that night, which was completely unexpected. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. The stories I don’t think are going to win are the ones that end up winning, and the ones I think are going to rock the world either don’t get nominated or don’t end up winning. You never really know what’s going to happen. I’m at the point now where I’ll submit something to the EMMYs if I’m really proud of it, but if I don’t win, I’m okay with it. Getting that first one was huge, though. That was a big deal.
Sherman: When did you first discover Southern Vermont?
Gray: My sister used to rave to me about it when I was a kid. I saw her one day and she said “Why don’t you come with us?” and we drove over the state border to Southern Vermont. I loved everything about it. We actually came exactly where I’m being interviewed right now – right next to the Battenkill river in East Arlington. I sat next to the water and I thought, “This is just beautiful over here.” There’s just a charm to Vermont that you don’t experience anywhere else. I’ve been coming back every year since that first visit.
Sherman: What are some of your favorite places in Vermont?
Gray: I love East Arlington. This whole area is so gorgeous. I also love Shaftsbury. I love the scenic drive up Route 7A, and all the shops along the road. I love to spend a day at the outlets in Manchester and at the Northshire Bookstore. It’s different from any other bookstore business I’ve ever been to. It’s the type of place where you could easily spend two hours in there just walking around and looking at things. My wife loves to go eat at Up for Breakfast in Manchester whenever we visit. There are just so many places over here that I love.
Sherman: What inspired you to write your first full-length novel, Manchester Christmas?
Gray: I had a dream one night a couple of years ago. There was a man in an abandoned church. He was looking around, and he saw a light coming in through the church’s Tiffany windows. He turned to me and said, “Did you see that? The image just changed in the window. Something’s there that wasn’t there before. I wonder what that is…” Then I woke up. I remember thinking, “What was that? That was a weird dream.” The dream stayed with me all morning after I got up. I thought it would be an interesting idea for a story: “What if somebody was in a church, and they saw something in the windows that no one else saw? Would everyone think they were crazy? What if what they saw came true?” I sat with the idea in my head for about six months. I sent the idea to a publisher and an agent I was already working with, and they told me that they weren’t sure about it yet. When I knew that I wanted to write the story, I decided that it was better to make the book about a woman. Then I got the idea for how this woman who has never been to Manchester, Vermont ends up there. I developed a story arc of a young woman on the west coast, who grew up in a modest family. She collected scenic calendars that she bought for a discounted price at the shopping mall. I pictured the girl putting the pages of these calendars on her bedroom walls, and looking at them and dreaming about the life that she wanted to live one day. One year, she picks a New England-themed calendar, and she sees a picture of Manchester at Christmas time. She falls in love with the beautiful snow and the lights. She loves the image of Christmastime in Manchester so much that she never takes it down. She leaves it up on her wall for years. One day, she becomes a successful writer. She decides to get in her car and go to Manchester to experience it for herself. That’s how the story begins, when she’s coming to Manchester. I don’t want to give it all away, but she meets some interesting people, and the moment I spoke about in the church from my dream comes into play later on in the story as well.
Sherman: Different writers enjoy different parts of the process. Some authors write very fast, but it takes them a long time to edit. Some people are the opposite. What’s your process?
Gray: It’s different depending on what I’m writing. I’ve written novels, and I’ve also written children’s books. The children’s books were pretty fast, but I didn’t start writing them until I had the story outlined in my head. That’s probably why it was fast. When I wrote the novel, I had never written anything like it before. I didn’t know if I could even do it. I just had to sit down and start writing one day, once I felt that I was ready. I didn’t know where the story was going to go initially, but the process of developing it was a lot of fun. I didn’t write it fast, because I was writing it part-time due to my full-time job. That forced me to slow down, but I’m honestly grateful about the fact that it was a slow process for writing the novel. It gave me the time to develop the story.
Sherman: What are you working on next after Manchester Christmas?
Gray: When I first finished the book, I shopped it around to different people. One of the people I first sent it to was a Hollywood director. I didn’t hear back from him at first, so I circled back around and sent it to him again when I had a book deal. He read it and loved it, and he ended up purchasing the movie rights. He’s out shopping the film now in Hollywood. It might get made into a film. As far as potential sequels, my publisher recently asked me “Is this it for Manchester Christmas? Or is there more to the story?” I said, “No, I think there’s more. I think there are a couple more books with her, but maybe not set in Vermont. Maybe she goes somewhere else.” He said to me, “Well, tell me where she’d go?” From that prompt, I ended up doing outlines for the next two novels. I’m almost done writing them. I don’t have them due to my publisher until next summer, but when I’m ready to write a story, I can’t just sit with it. I have to start writing it down.
Sherman: Your dogs are a big part of your life. How many dogs do you have?
Gray: My family and I have five dogs. We’ve got two German Shepherds, Sebastian and Winston. One day, I was doing volunteer work at an animal shelter. The day Keller came in, he was a blind and deaf puppy who was abandoned and born with no eyes. I met him by accident when I was there. I was working in the back area. The volunteers typically didn’t go where he was kept. I started checking on him over the next few weeks. I kept asking the people who worked at the animal shelter, “Did you find him a home?” They told me that they hadn’t found a home for him yet. I talked to my wife about Keller, and then I took her to meet him. We both decided to adopt Keller then and there. Keller is a Double Merle Australian Shepherd. Many Double Merles are born blind and deaf. After we adopted Keller, my wife started looking for information on how to raise a blind and deaf dog. While she was doing her internet research, she realized that there were many dogs still out there with special needs. At that point, we adopted a second special-needs dog named Eli, a deaf Australian Shepherd. Then we adopted a third one named Bella, who is also deaf. We now have three dogs that are deaf, one of which is both deaf and blind. They get along so well, and they’re a lot of fun!
Sherman: Speaking of Keller, I hear you wrote a children’s book called Keller’s Heart about him. Have you published any other children’s books?
Gray: The first children’s book I ever wrote was called God Needed a Puppy, which was a book I wrote to help kids overcome the loss of a pet. That one did really well, because it really connected with parents. They were able to sit with their kids and give them some hope and closure on a tough day. There’s also a children’s book that’s out right now called Sweet Polly Petals, which is about a little girl who goes to the park and sees homeless people sometimes. One day, she asks why they’re there and how she can help them. She offers a homeless woman her lunch. The homeless woman has a potted orchid flower, so Polly helps her water the flower. The woman is so touched by Polly’s generosity that she gives her the flower. She then tells Polly, “I have a secret: this flower is magic. It grants wishes, but there are two catches: the first catch is that each wish has to help someone else. You can’t wish for something for yourself. The second catch is that every time a wish comes true, the flower drops one of its four petals. Once the petals are gone, there are no more wishes.” Polly then has to decide who she’s going to help with the wishes. I’m hoping teachers like the book, because it’s really good for sitting with kids and discussing the question of, “If you had four magic wishes, who would you help?”
Sherman: What are the best ways to pick up a copy of your new novel, Manchester Christmas?
Gray: Manchester Christmas will be in stores in early November. It will be available at most bookstores nationwide, both independent and chain stores. It will also be available for sale online. It’s a story about forgiveness and helping others. I think people will really enjoy it if they read it, especially if they’re from the Manchester area. They’re going to recognize a lot of the things that I mention in this story about Vermont.
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