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Book, movie arise from Letcher native's work as international journalist

Letcher native Barbie Latza Nadeau is pictured in September above the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship that partially sank when it ran aground at Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, on Jan. 13, 2012. It was righted in September. Latza Nadeau covered the events as part of her work as a journalist in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Latza Nadeau) 1 / 4
Letcher native Barbie Latza Nadeau reports live for CNN at the site of the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship that ran aground at Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Latza Nadeau)2 / 4
Letcher native Barbie Latza Nadeau is pictured in Italy, where she has lived and worked as a journalist since 1997. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Latza Nadeau)3 / 4
Letcher native Barbie Latza Nadeau is pictured here in Italy, where she has lived and worked as a journalist since 1997. (Photo courtesy of Barbie Latza Nadeau)4 / 4

It’s a long way from Letcher to Rome, but in some ways, it’s almost like home for Barbie Latza Nadeau.

“I have always found that Rome is not so different from growing up in a town like Letcher, because there are small neighborhoods and a real sense of community here, like I remember growing up,” the Letcher native wrote in an email to The Daily Republic. “I can’t leave the doors unlocked, but I do leave a set of keys with the neighbor, and another set at the coffee shop downstairs in case I lock myself out.”

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The 47-year-old Letcher native moved to Rome in 1997 and has been working as a journalist in the Eternal City ever since.

During her time there, the dual print and TV reporter has covered some of the world’s biggest breaking news stories, including the papal conclave and the murder trial of Amanda Knox, an American student accused of murdering English student Meredith Kercher while they were studying in Italy. Latza Nadeau wrote a book, “Angel Face,” on the Kercher murder that is being developed into a movie starring Kate Beckinsale.

Here are excerpts from The Daily Republic’s interview with Latza Nadeau.

Q: How did you end up in Rome?

A: I moved to Rome in 1997 when my husband got a job with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. I had been working for Eyes On You magazine in Sioux Falls as a journalist before we moved. The year we moved there, I answered an advertisement for a reporter for Newsweek magazine and got the job. Like most things in life, it was all luck.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to live overseas?

A: I never really wanted to live overseas but when my husband got the job, it seemed like a good opportunity for us. Now I see the value of the experience. Rome is such an old city that it is almost like living history. I live near the Colosseum and see an ancient Roman wall from my bedroom window. There is something really special about living in a place where history is part of everyday life. I am really happy to have lived both in the United States and in Europe.

Q: What is it like there?

A: Rome is the kind of place where you do know your neighbors and everyone stops on the street to visit. It is very friendly that way. But maybe surprisingly, it is also far less advanced than living in South Dakota. Italians don’t use clothes dryers so they have to hang clothes out on a clothes line, and most people don’t have air conditioning even though it gets very hot. I admit that I do have a clothes dryer, though all of my Italian friends think I’m crazy to use the electricity when the weather is always so nice you can hang things out yearround.

Even in the capital city of Rome, many stores close for an afternoon siesta and you still can’t do much online. Things are slowly getting more modern, but you still have to do most things in person, face-to-face.

And the rural areas are a lot like those in South Dakota. It’s not uncommon to have to stop for a farmer moving his sheep or cattle on the roads just outside of Rome. I think people who move here from large cities like New York find it far more difficult to integrate than people who come from places like South Dakota.

Q: What do you do in Rome?

A: Most of the time, I do what most working moms do: laundry, get the kids to and from school and activities, worry about what to make for dinner.

Q: What is your job like?

My job is very interesting. As a journalist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, I follow the news that is happening here and write stories for an American audience. That means I have to read about five Italian newspapers every day, watch the news, go to press conferences and generally hunt for stories all the time. If breaking news happens, I have to generally just drop everything and go to where the story is. A lot of journalists have a packed suitcase ready, almost like a pregnant woman ready to deliver a baby. You have to just be ready to go when it’s time.

I am also a backup correspondent for CNN, so when their regular correspondent is out on an assignment, they call me and I go to the CNN Rome bureau to be a TV journalist, which is the opposite of being a print journalist. On television, you have about 30 seconds to say what you need more than 1,000 words to write. I work from home often because I have to work American hours, which means I am six hours ahead of my editors in New York. My daily deadline is midnight (6 p.m. in New York). But I also have a desk in an open newsroom at the Foreign Press Association in the center of Rome near the Trevi Fountain where correspondents from all over the world based here work a few days a week.

Q: How did you decide to pursue a career in journalism?

A: I have always liked to write. When I was young, I used to make little “books” about how to do things with illustrations and stories. I studied special education at University of South Dakota and started working for Eyes On You magazine in Sioux Falls in the early 1990s when I was working at what was then United Cerebral Palsy, and I did some writing for other publications, and I realized that journalism was the job I really wanted to do.

I think journalism is one of the best jobs in the world — you get to ask questions, meet people, go to interesting places and you are somehow part of the record on what is happening.

Q: Do you make it home very often?

A: It takes about 26 hours to get from my door in Rome to Letcher, but I try to come home once a year. Sometimes I make it back more than once, other times, like this year, I don’t make it back at all. But my sister comes to visit us every other year, so we do get some family time. Everyone in my family has been here at least once and I expect my brother to come again soon. My nephew is getting married in South Dakota next August, so that will be a great occasion for a family reunion. My sons, age 14 and 11, love to go to South Dakota. They were born in Rome, but they feel a strong connection to my home.

Q: What would you say are some of the highlights of your career?

A: The death of John Paul II was one of the most moving stories I have ever covered. People were in St. Peter’s square for days praying for him and then when he died, people came from all over the world to honor him. The election of Pope Francis this year was also amazing and one of the most incredible stories I’ve covered.

The crash of the Costa Concordia has also been a huge story here, and one that I am sure not many journalists get to cover. I raced to Giglio the morning after the crash to interview passengers who were coming off the ship, still wet in blankets. It was incredible to see the giant ship on its side. Then to watch them roll it upright this fall was almost as incredible.

Q: Your book, “Angel Face: Sex, Murder and the Inside Story of Amanda Knox” handles some pretty heavy material. How did you get involved with that project, and what was it like?

A: I followed the murder investigation and trial, and found myself very interested in the dynamic of how the truth gets lost in court cases and in many ways lost in translation. The case is interesting to me more because of the mystery than the murder. It was such a tragic death, and to spend days listening to testimony about how Meredith Kercher was murdered was tough, especially because she was so young. I certainly hug my sons a lot more than usual when I cover such horrible cases.

I had so much information in my notebook that didn’t make it into the stories that I was writing, that it seemed like the right thing to do to write a book. The book is being made into a movie right now, which has been an incredible experience. The movie isn’t about the murder, though, but about the different ways journalists handle big stories like this.

I’m now writing a book about the Costa Concordia disaster for the same reason. Sometimes there are too many side stories to tell about one story to just leave them all hidden away in a notebook.

Q: Your brother, Greg Latza, has also established himself in a media-related field as a highly respected photographer. Have you ever been able to work together?

A: We always talk about working together, but I think we will have to be very creative to find a story that spans the ocean. Our sister Sherri (Stekl) is also very creative, and does website design, so we could theoretically do something as a whole family if one of us comes up with a good idea. But I’m not sure we would be able to agree on who gets to be the boss!

Q: What was it about your upbringing that inspired you and your siblings to be such creative people?

A: Our parents were both very creative people. Our dad, who was a farmer, used to be very good at drawing and building things from scratch. He would be in his workshop for a few hours and suddenly he had a new piece of furniture or could just magically remodel a whole room. He was also always very clever and funny, saying things that always made you stop and think, which I think was a subtle inspiration. You always had to be on your toes with him or you’d miss something.

Our mom is really talented and creative, too. She sewed beautiful clothes and was always learning to make a new craft project while we were growing up. I remember that she was always working on something new and creative on the dining room table; often out of the blue, she would just want to learn to do something new like cake decorating, or macrame weaving or a new stitching project. We did tons of crafts growing up, making Christmas decorations or painting ceramics or doing felt projects. It seemed like we were making something all of the time, which I’m sure at the time we didn’t appreciate so much — but it obviously paid off.