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Mark Holmberg visits with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – There’s a lot of love in the work of Leonard Pitts Jr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald whose work appears in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Pitts stopped by the Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip Thursday evening to talk about his new novel, a love story called “Freeman.”

We got a chance to visit with the sometimes controversial and always thoughtful columnist.

Pitts said he started out in the business as a music critic. But his first writing was as a child. He’d walk around the house, reading his prose to his beloved mother.

While his column hits on a wide range of subjects, race is a frequent topic. Even his colleagues ask . . . “You want to write about race again? Because race is a scary thing.”

He says the subject needs to be demystified and shared in a way so whites don’t feel guilty and blacks don’t feel angry. He also calls for vigilance so progress continues.

“I thinks it’s the two-steps-forward-one-step-back syndrome that we are enduring right now,” Pitts said. “Part of our problem as a country is we tend to get a little too comfortable with progress we’ve made without understanding progress needs to be defended.”

For the most part, he gets a positive response to his columns. “Probably on any given column, probably 60-40.”

But it’s only human to remember the negative, he added.

There have been death threats, threats against his family, especially after a column criticizing those who tried to make a racial issue out of a white Knoxville couple who had been raped, shot and set on fire by a group of blacks in 2007. His closing words addressed (and inflamed) those who though it was white genocide: “Cry me a river.”

I asked, would he – or a white columnist – say the same thing to those who felt Trayvon Martin was targeted for his race?

Pitts said that’s an unfair comparison. “Me saying that racial profiling exists and here is an example of it, I think there is an obvious qualitative difference there. “

He also said the angry and hateful responses comes with the turf. “The job is what the job is. Either you can do the job or you can’t do the job.”

But he says he didn’t set out to be a voice of conscience. From the start, he wanted to be a novelist.

“Actually, just now,” he said, “30-some years later getting to do what I actually wanted to do when I came out of college.”

“Freeman” is his second novel. Fans flocked to Shockoe Slip to hear him.

“Freeman is a love story about a former slave who, at the very end of the Civil War, embarks upon a nearly suicidal, 1,000-mile walk from Pennsylvania to Mississippi to find his wife, whom he has not seen in 15 years.”

Pitts had this simple advice for anyone wishing to write a novel: Write 1,000 words a day. For him, it’s the first thing he does when he wakes up, “after brushing the teeth.”