Connie Schultz came late to her first newspaper job. After years of freelancing, she went to work for The Plain Dealer at age 36, as a newly single mother. Within five years, she was getting offers from national papers, following her 1998 series about the death from cancer of a 41-year-old woman and her family’s first year without her. But she stayed in Cleveland. Her 2002 series on a falsely convicted man, Michael Green, was a Pulitzer finalist and helped earn her the role she has become known for: a columnist with an unapologetically populist bent. She won the 2005 Pulitzer for Commentary, for columns on topics that ranged from tipping and concealed-weapon permits to soldiers killed in Iraq.

One of Schultz’s specialties as a columnist has been finding the nexus between the personal and political, and her 2004 marriage to then-Congressman Sherrod Brown has provided a tutorial in that regard. Schultz took a leave of absence during Brown’s successful 2006 Senate run, to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest and to write…And His Lovely Wife, an account of life as a candidate’s spouse. Last September, with Brown’s re-election looming, Schultz resigned from The Plain Dealer. Now 54, she continues to write a syndicated weekly column and essays for Parade magazine, but her primary project is her first novel. She spoke with Alec MacGillis in December and January; a longer version of their conversation is available at cjr.org/behind_the_news/schultz.php.

An angry man

My dad worked maintenance for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company for 36 years, at the power plant on Lake Erie. He hated his job. We had the “Jack and Jesus wall,” Jack Kennedy and Jesus on the same wall in the living room. But Dad’s worst boss was named Kennedy. That must be why I remember so many of those conversations. He would talk about things from work and my mom would say, “Chuck, we know you’re better than that,” or “Chuck, he should never have talked to you like that.”

My mom was a nurse’s aide before she got pregnant with me. She went back to work at the same hospital as a nurse’s aide when I was a junior in high school because it was the only way they were going to be able to afford to send me to college. I remember many, many arguments where he did not want her to work. I remember feeling so guilty. Going to college was going to be a tremendous strain on the family. And my mom just kept saying, “Chuck, how do you think she’s ever going to go if I don’t work?”

My dad was an angry man. And he was a tough dad. I loved him and feared him in equal measure. But I understood so much more about his anger after I went to that plant. I finally toured it last year. It was a ghost town. They had boots sitting covered in ash, they had things that had been sitting there for decades. They let me have this metal sign that Dad saw every day when he went to work. It said, “The best safety device is a careful man.” Yeah, right. Let’s put it all on the shoulders of the workers.

I have that sign in my home office and I have his hard hat and his lunchpail underneath. And I have my mom’s nurse’s aide badge from Ashtabula County Medical Center. I have them there all the time because they remind me that as hard as I think I’m working, I haven’t known a day’s work, compared to my parents.

When I started at the Daily Kent Stater, it clicked that people would talk to me. When you’re a freshman from a small town at this giant university and editors are saying, “How did you get him to stay that to you?” it dawns on you that people trust you. I looked harmless. I’m a round-faced Irish girl. You look at pictures of me as a child and I look like I’m in shock because my eyes are so big. I was never a threatening presence. What didn’t particularly work well with men, perhaps, was really working well as a journalist.

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.