American Studies
American Studies

Jo Giese: Journalist, Author, Community Activist

Thu, May 9, 2019
Jo Giese: Journalist, Author, Community Activist
Never Sit If You Can Dance: Lessons from My Mother

Throughout the 2018-2019 academic year, we've been conducting interviews with UT AMS grads who utilize their American Studies degrees in different ways in the world outside the 40 Acres. Next up in our series is Jo Giese, an author, journalist, and community activist.

Gaila Sims: When did you graduate from American Studies at UT, and with what degree?

Jo Giese: I finished in January '69, but probably officially graduated in Spring 69 with a BA in American Studies Honors Program.

GS: When did you discover that you wanted to be a writer?

JG: I don't know that I ever "discovered" that I wanted to be a writer.  I just was a writer.  When I was in elementary school I wrote articles that I submitted to children’s magazines. They weren't published, but I loved writing them. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to type, so my mom typed my stories and when she changed a word or two, I was furious. Those were my words.  How dare she edit and revise as she typed! Even in elementary school I felt proprietary about my work!

GS: As an author, journalist, and community activist, how do you structure your days?

JG: I'm a very early morning person and do my best writing first thing in the morning after a walk and talk with my neighbor. The community activist activities have taken a back seat lately because of all the activities associated with the launch of my new book Never Sit If You Can Dance: Lessons from My Mother.

GS: Do you have any advice for students in our department who are interested in pursuing work in journalism?

JG: Advice for students wanting to pursue work in Journalism. That's a hard one.  I didn't take any Journalism courses at UT, and when I graduated I thought that because of the American Studies program and writing all those lengthy papers, all I knew how to do was write. I applied to the Houston Post and got a job working on a Question and Answer column. The editor who hired me said I was the first non-Journalism student he'd hired. But that newspaper has closed, and newspapers around the country are closing and suffering--unless you're the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. But I've found that if you're crazy-passionate about something, it'll work out.  

Since my father, an inventor, had said, Boss is a four-letter word, I was happiest working on a contract, project-by-project basis, and never aspired to have a Boss and land one job for a lifetime.

GS: How does your background in American Studies inform your work as a writer?

JG: My background in American Studies was a template for my work as a writer, though I did not know it at the time. Here's what happened.  My American Studies thesis was Frank Lloyd Wright's Contribution to American Architecture. I spent my junior year traveling around the country--as much as I could afford--and met Wright's brother, and widow, and saw many of his buildings. At the time I didn't see how chatting with Wright's widow in her suite at the Plaza Hotel had anything to do with work in the real world. I thought it was a lark. You see, I didn't know any working journalists. But a few years later when I was an associate producer working on documentaries for Public Television in New York I was doing the exact same thing--talking to people, getting their stories, but this time turning the stories into documentaries.

GS: What are some of your favorite moments from your career as a journalist and author?

JG: I get a thrill when my work touches someone and makes a surprise connection I hadn't anticipated. When the personal writing becomes a catalyst for animated public conversations it's rewarding. My favorite moment as an author is right now--being invited to travel around the country from Annapolis, Maryland, to Orange County, California, Santa Barbara to DC, Austin to Charlotte, South Carolina, is heady stuff.  

GS: Your new book, Never Sit If You Can Dance: Lessons from My Mother, highlights your relationship with your mother, Babe. What made you decide to write a mother-daughter memoir? What did you discover in the process of writing this book?

JG: When my mother, Babe, was 95 she moved into a senior community in Houston, Texas, and she blossomed.  We had hoped Babe, who was social, would enjoy this new community but we hadn't expected it to give her a whole new life at 95, but it did.  I was fascinated and started writing about her and her new friends and wrote Sometimes Life Begins Again at 95, which was published in a Houston magazine.  Then I realized I had a lot more to say about Mom, and I had fun saying it.

Recently a reporter asked me about the difficulty and hardship of writing a memoir.  I bristled: Why prejudice the writing process by presupposing it was difficult?  For me, it was pure joy.  I loved revisiting these favorite family stories.  And getting to write about my mom after she'd died let me continue to spend time with her.


Jo Giese’s new book, Never Sit If You Can Dance: Lessons from My Mother, is available now. For more information about the book and the book tour, visit


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