Professor Profile: Iris Krasnow
Want to see a woman who changes how feminists think and act? Meet Iris Krasnow, a professor at AU for the past 23 years. Her first book, Surrendering to Motherhood, described Krasnow’s decision to end her career as a national features writer at United Press International in order to spend time with her children at home and continue as a freelance writer. Krasnow has published four books, and has a fifth coming out in October. The scope of her work is broad: she’s interviewed Yoko Ono, Queen Noor of Jordan, Ted Kennedy and Billy Graham, among others.
AWOL's Kelcie Pegher sat down with Krasnow as she frantically spoke about journalism, what it means to be feminist and snacking with Queen Noor.
So how did you become a professor at AU?
When I was a national features writer for United Press International, I sat on an airplane next to an AU professor — John Doolittle. Louis Farrakhan was on our plane, and I went and talked to him. I met John Doolittle and he said, ‘What do you do?’ And I replied, ‘Oh, I’m a journalist,’ because I brought back all this information about these people; I’m just trained as a journalist — you just go up to people. So he said, ‘You have to come speak to my journalism class.’ That was in 1985 — so by 1988 I was teaching here as an adjunct. From 1988 to 1994 I taught almost every class you can imagine for SOC undergrads. My favorite, obviously, was feature article writing, so I started teaching feature article writing in 1994 and I kind of never left. In 1994 I became the academic director of Washington Journalism Semester and have been at that ever since.
What is Washington Journalism Semester?
It’s the oldest experiential learning program in the country. Students from all over the world come to Washington for one semester from their home schools to be immersed in journalism by me. I have students this semester from Korea, Germany, from France, from South America and about twenty other schools in this country.
Many of your books focus on the idea of “psycho journalism.” What does that mean?
After all the stories I’ve heard about relationships, I joke — but I’m very serious — that I’ve gone psycho from all these crazy stories. But early on in my journalism career, when I was at UPI, and even before that when I was at the Dallas Times Herald, I was always really fascinated by trends. Like tattooing, dating, monogamy is in, monogamy is out, speed dating. So I just started writing about relationships and started writing for the Washington Post regularly and I got such a great response from the Washington Post that those stories really turned into my books.
I’m just really interested in relationships. When you get to the heart of people, it’s not about the fact that they’re lawyers or doctors. It’s about who they really are. I think that’s what I love about journalism: the ability to really excavate and get to the heart of the human spirit.
What makes a good story?
The best journalism — and this is not going to change, no matter how the newspaper industry keeps evolving — is when you tell a story that is riveting and truthful and heartfelt. And that’s the heart of our field, and that’s why I really love to teach budding journalists. All you’re giving them is permission to be curious, painfully aware of what’s going on in the world — to be bold, to be adventurous, to be honest and to really live a life on the edge, and that’s sometimes where you want to be.
Your first non-fiction book, Surrendering to Motherhood, prompted a lot of criticism among the feminist community. How has that affected your writing?
Well, the truth about controversy is it’s a wonderful thing. I mean, I was accused of abandoning feminism. I shared a podium with Betty Friedan here at AU and we had a very testy exchange, and she said something to me about setting the women’s movement back 50 years. The core of Surrendering to Motherhood is that when we as liberated, smart, professional women make the choice to have children, then we can choose to stay home for a few years and raise those children and still not be abandoning feminism.
So for me to get a lot of feminist critique was good because it caused all the journalists to want to write about it. And also it really gave me an opportunity to get my point across, which is: I’m a committed feminist and I am to this day. When I was staying home with those four little children, I also kept a finger on the artery of my life. I wrote books, and I didn’t, like, abandon my career and bake cookies. But if I had abandoned my career and baked cookies for three or four years, the core principle of feminism is not to look to society to define you. It’s about an independent choice defined by your own self and soul that makes you feel powerful as a woman.
What have you found to be the secret to your success as a journalist?
There are really only two questions in life. Here’s the deal: do you want more money or do you want more time? And for me I always wanted more time. Really the root of my success is a strong support system of family. Family is however you define family — it might be a structure of best friends or it might be a warm and loving community from your university — but the most successful people come from a really solid anchor and core of support and love.
Do you think you would be equally successful without that family structure?
My family has been the core of my writing. You know, I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m interested in empowering women, and I think one of the secrets of empowering women is to have work you love and people you love. Motherhood — for me at least — has been the most empowering. And teaching. Being able to give people this self-knowledge and self-esteem to go, ‘Wow! I can do journalism!’
What’s the difference between journalism 30 years ago and journalism today?
Well, my Twitter-freak, social networking friends are going to shoot me, but I feel that the core tenets of journalism are not going to change: tell the truth, the truth takes time, ask great questions and listen hard for the answers. Be skeptical, be curious, be accurate, be responsible, be passionate. And know the worst thing you can be in journalism is wrong.
How have you found writing about trending topics and relationships is different than daily journalism?
I’ve done it all — I’ve written daily beat, I’ve covered plane crashes, drug busts. But I think what’s different is I get to think about not what people are doing but why people are doing it. I’m not a five W’s, ‘Who, what, when, where, why,’ type of person. I’m a ‘Who, what, when, where, why, and who the hell are you?’
What is your favorite interview as a journalist?
I will always think of Queen Noor and sitting in the palace of Amman, and she was pregnant with her fourth child. Her husband was with Yassar Arafat in the next room and she didn’t like him at all. The King of Jordan was having a really important political conversation 12 feet from us and I was sitting with the Queen of Jordan, our feet tucked underneath our tushes, drinking orange juice from silver goblets and eating almonds. I was talking to her about where she shopped and how she feels about motherhood and how she sometimes flies in McDonald’s for the kids and I remember thinking ‘Wow, I just can’t believe this is my job. I can’t believe I do this for a living.’ Some people sit on their butts and do legal briefs. I’m not knocking their professions, but I’d rather be drinking orange juice with the Queen.
Tell me about your next book.
I have a fifth book coming out in October from Penguin Books called The Secret Lives of Wives. I interviewed 200 women across the country over the course of two years who had been married anywhere from 15 to 70 years and asked them, ‘What does it take to be married?’ Some of them revert to naughty behavior, but most of them were like ‘You need these five things to be married.’