The commute is nothing, says Keith Ferrell. Greensboro-to-New York is hardly a bother.
Just means getting up at 5:15 every Monday and catching the 7 a.m. flight to Newark from Piedmont Triad International Airport. That puts him in the Jersey terminal anywhere from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., depending on the flying conditions. Then it's a bus ride across the Hudson to the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan, and a cab ride to the office at 1965 Broadway. With any luck, Ferrell, 37, can be behind his desk by 10 a.m. and editing away as the new boss of Omni magazine. Happily editing away.``I could not have dreamed of a more wonderful opportunity,' says Ferrell, grinning broadly. He has reason to gush. Just a month ago, he was senior editor of Compute, the Greensboro-based computer magazine. Then, while he was in Paris attending a computer conference, he got a phone call offering him the job at Omni, the science magazine which, like Compute, is owned by General Media Corp.
``I hesitated almost a nano-second,' Ferrell recalls.
And not only is he suddenly chief of staff on his favorite magazine, the one he awaited so eagerly each month during his days as a free-lance writer and manager of the News n' Novels store on West Market Street, he is also working in the Big Apple. Can you say, I love New York? Keith Ferrell can.
``I love it better than anywhere else in the whole world,' he says. Ferrell may be a North Carolina boy who grew up in Raleigh and went to college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who still flies home to spend weekends with his wife and son in the big white house on Walker Avenue, but he's got New York in him. Always has. He felt it on the very first visit. ``Something about Manhattan just energizes me,' he says.
Not that Ferrell has had much time to play in Gotham during his first month on the job. His duties at Omni - supervising a staff of 12, editing, consulting with the art department and even writing stories himself - keep him busy until 7 o'clock at night. Lunch is usually fruit and cheese at his desk. Dinner is back in his apartment, just before he sits down and gives himself an hour's worth of quality writing before bedtime.
He's still got novels to finish, you know. And biographies, and articles for World Book encyclopedia, and software reviews, and book reviews. You name it. Ferrell is a writer first and foremost. Has been since he made the choice at age 6 and started sending off his science fiction stories to the pulp digests. ``I've got the rejection slips to prove it,' he says.
He broke into print as a teenager, when his review of a William F. Buckley book was published in The News and Observer of Raleigh. Then it was off to UNCG as part of the first wave of students in the school's ``Residential College,' an alternative program in which freshmen and sophomores both live and take some courses in the same co-educational residence hall. Small classes, a close teacher-student relationship and a wide range of subjects are emphasized.
``It was phenomenal,' says Ferrell. ``I remain very committed to the idea of Residential College.' Too often today, he says, college students feel pressure to choose a major during their freshman year, before they even have a chance to sample different cultures. ``It's like putting blinders on.'
Ferrell spent three years in the Residential College, then he got married and left school. That was 1975. And, although he has never taken the time to finish his undergraduate degree, Ferrell remains a loyal alumnus of UNCG. He has even taught several courses there.
``I just had some writing to get on with,' he says.
His projects at the time, he says, involved ``writing two of the very worst novels ever written in America,' and ``trying to learn to write effectively about science.' The latter field would become his specialty.
After a dozen years of free-lance writing, including hundreds of magazine articles, a few novels under a pen name, and the publication of juvenile biographies of H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and John Steinbeck, he landed a job as feature editor of Compute Magazine. The bosses at Compute were interested in his writing and editing talents. He was fascinated by computers. It was a three-year marriage made in microchip heaven, says Ferrell.
``I saw a lot of the world and won awards as the leader of one of the most dynamic industries in the world,' he said. He also gained valuable inside knowledge of the rapidly shifting magazine industry.
``The publishing environment is changing drastically in this country,' he says. ``People don't read anymore.' The challenge, both at Compute and now at Omni, he says, is to make complex subject matter readable to the masses.
At Omni, readership hovers close to 2 million, Ferrell says. ``These are educated readers, interested in the nature of the future,' he says. Consequently, Omni offerings tend to be eclectic. An upcoming issue will deal with UFOs. Other recent topics include ``Management Challenges of the 21st Century' and New Year's resolutions from the Dalai Lama, that noted Tibetan holy man.
Omni will continue its emphasis on graphics and startling pictorials, he says. But he predicts a ``more exciting physical arrangement' of the magazine. And a continued wide breadth of subject matter. ``Our readers have supple minds,' says Ferrell. They also have generally hefty incomes and home computers and like to keep abreast of new developments in science. Ferrell fits that mold, too.
``Over the next 25 years we're going to answer many of the questions that have obsessed the species throughout history,' he says. Take death, for instance. ``It gets pushed back a little every year.'
There will be changes in technology, too. Television sets, for one, will become smarter and smarter. Ultimately, TV will merge with the home computer, Ferrell says. He also predicts high-speed rail service and longs for the resuscitation of the U.S. space exploration program.
At the moment, however, Ferrell still has his hands full as editor of Omni. And as an author of books, non-fiction articles, biographies and whatever else passes through his processor.
``If you can't write when you have a full-time job, you probably would not be writing anyway,' he says. Besides, it's all accumulative.
``If you write a page a day, at the end of a year you have a book. At the end of several years, you have several books.'