‘Ask Amy’ says goodbye, making way for new advice columnist, R. Eric Thomas

Don’t get it twisted. Longtime syndicated Tribune advice columnist Amy Dickinson is not retiring. She’s leaving “Ask Amy,” the writing gig that she’s had for 21 years, on her own terms and with her own “steam.”

Although doing the job she calls “amazing” was not physically taxing — she admits to working on it while in bed on many occasions — the constancy of being a seven-day-a week sage and never really being able to step away from it has proven challenging. Dickinson is looking toward other adventures closer to her home in Freeville, New York.

“Maybe I’ll be the first advice columnist not to die at my desk,” she said jokingly. “Ann Landers (the columnist Dickinson succeeded) — they ran her column after she died. She had banked a bunch of columns. Mad respect for her, but I am not built like that.”

Dickinson will be handing the reins of syndicated column writing to R. Eric Thomas, a Black male playwright, screenwriter, bestselling author and a former columnist for Elle.com and Slate.com. His new column will be called “Asking Eric.”

Dickinson said that as someone who hasn’t ever “left” anything — a person or a job — the decision to walk away from her advice column was not an easy one, especially because people may want to frame her departure as retiring. “I am leaving, not retiring,” she said.

Dickinson’s friend Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Chicago Tribune journalist and author of “Quitting: A Life Strategy. The Myth of Perseverance — and How the New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free,” had offered her these words of wisdom: “You may run out of money, but you may not. But you know you’re gonna run out of days.”

“I have incredible ideas and goals,” Dickinson said. “I want to fulfill them.”

Dickinson’s last column will run June 30, and in it she hopes to offer what she calls “big picture” wisdom. She’s learned a few things over the years through her experiences as a single mom, as a reader of self-help books, as the youngest in her family, as a partner in a 16-year marriage whose wedding and Hallmark Channel-esque relationship was covered by The New York Times, and as a bestselling author of “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home” and “The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them: A Memoir.”

Let’s not forget her regular appearances as a panelist on NPR’s weekly news quiz “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” which she plans to continue.

Dickinson’s fascination with human behavior has served her readers well through the years, with some viral moments along the way, including homophobic parents and notable pranks. And it’s the connection with readers that she’s going to miss the most, Dickinson said.

Now, Dickinson is pivoting to opening a library in her hometown. Remember the “A Book on Every Bed” initiative she kick-started with the Family Reading Partnership 14 years ago? It encourages readers to leave a wrapped book on their children’s beds on Christmas morning, birthdays or other holidays, so kids wake up to the gift of reading. Dickinson says the library that she is creating, the Freeville Literary Society, is the next step in her childhood literacy campaign.

“I’m no Dolly Parton, but I feel so strongly about literacy,” Dickinson said. “I grew up in a pretty hardscrabble environment. But we had books and books and books, and we got them from the library. To put a book in the hand of a kid … children who already love books, love getting books. Children who don’t know about having books, these become really treasured artifacts.”

Dickinson is excited about focusing on the relationships in her life. And as she gears up to “go do those for a while,” she’s passing the syndicated columnist duties to Thomas, who has been heard on a variety of NPR shows himself, including serving as a host of “The Moth” StorySlams in Philadelphia.

Thomas loves audiobooks, dinner parties and cooking; he’s still trying to perfect his bouillabaisse, he said. Thomas’ husband is a pastor with a green thumb. “I don’t really have a green thumb, but he grows the rhubarb and I make the cobbler, so it all works,” he said.

For those not familiar with Thomas’ work, he gravitates toward projects that have people going through hard things in life and negotiating the ways that all identities intersect. It’s “who you are in various places in your life,” he said.

“It’s always gonna be this mix of pathos and humor,” Thomas said of his approach. “There’s this line from ‘Steel Magnolias’ that Dolly Parton’s character says: ‘Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,’ and that is very much how I like to operate.”

Thomas said a lot of people got to know him through his Elle.com column. “That was very voicey, fun and focused on pop culture and politics,” he said. “But, there was a certain remove to it and what I love about doing advice is that you get to have a fun, little brunch conversation with a friend, but we’re talking about things that are going on in their lives, as opposed to what celebrities are doing.

“As we’ve come out of the pandemic, I’ve been hungering for that human connection,” he said. “I want to talk to more people. So when they approached me about doing this, I jumped at it because … it was sort of like the universe was conspiring to make it happen.”

Thomas’ column will premiere in early July. He said he’s proceeding with excitement but a fair bit of caution.

“There are times that it seems a little bit daunting — the exposure — but I’m really excited that I have this kind of opportunity and that people can see that somebody like me also has something really valuable to give, and I think that’s really important,” Thomas said.

Send questions to R. Eric Thomas at [email protected] or P.O. Box 22474, Philadelphia, PA 19110. Follow him on Instagram and sign up for his weekly newsletter at rericthomas.com.