Levi Stahl: I first encountered Westlake via Hard Case Crime: they published Lemons Never Lie, one of the novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark about the heister Parker’s associate Alan Grofield. I was impressed by it, but in that way that happens when you read a lot, I just kept moving and didn’t dig deeper.
Then on the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 I was at the office—and if you’ve ever been in the office the day before Thanksgiving (and don’t work for Butterball), you know that absolutely nothing happens. You’re there just in case something catches fire. That day, nothing was even smoldering, so at lunch I went browsing at my local bookshop, 57th Street Books, and plucked from the shelves what would end up being the penultimate Parker novel, Ask the Parrot. Back at my desk, I set to reading, and two hours later when my wife arrived for the long drive downstate to my parents’ house, I had to apologize: I had promised to do the driving, but now there was no way I could do any driving until I’d finished this book and found out what happened.
I was hooked. By Christmas I’d read ten or so Parker novels, all harvested from the used book market, and was making the case to colleagues at the University of Chicago Press that we should try to bring the series back into print. Now, almost seven years later, I’ve read all 100 of Westlake’s books—the Westlakes, the Starks, the Samuel Holts, the Tucker Coes, and the one-shots from Timothy Culver, Judson Jack Carmichael, Curt Clark, and even “The Vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.” And almost all have been worth reading—even the couple that I would regard as truly weak offer some elements of interest.
Q: Damn, Westlake wrote 100 books? And you read them all? Man, that’s daunting. Okay, before we even get to the collection you’ve assembled, what Westlake titles would you recommend for someone who’s never read him before?
LS: The two series are an obvious starting point: trythe first Parker book, The Hunter, and the first Dortmunder, The Hot Rock. Neither is necessarily the best in the series, but they’re both quite good, and they give a clear sense of what these books are up to and whether you’ll like them.
From the standalones, I tend to recommend Somebody Owes Me Money, a hilarious first-person narrative from a put-upon cabby that opens, “I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent”; Killing Time, an early, hardboiled work that is clearly in thrall to Hammett and Red Harvest but satisfying on its own terms; 361, a crime novel that was written deliberately with no explicit emotional signposts; God Save the Mark, a brilliantly funny collection of cons and nonsense; and The Ax, a 1997 hardboiled crime novel that is also a dissection of contemporary economic pain, as a laid-off print shop manager decides to kill the competition for the job he’d like to land. It’s so unrelenting it can be hard to read at times.
Q: Also, for the uninitiated, can you talk about the difference between Westlake’s two most famous protagonists?
LS: What may be more interesting about Parker and John Dortmunder is a relatively underappreciated quality that they have in common: they’re both extremely good at their jobs, yet their well-laid plans always go spectacularly wrong. The difference comes in how they respond to that. Parker, while remaining utterly emotionless, is bothered when a job goes sour, and he then takes whatever measures are necessary, up to and including extreme violence, to extricate himself from the problem, preferably with the loot. Dortmunder reacts to problems with an unsurprised shrug of his shoulders. Everything has always gone wrong for him, so why should this time be any different? Parker is an existentialist, Dortmunder is a fatalist.
Dortmunder actually emerged out of those very differences: Westlake started writing what he thought was another Parker novel, in which Parker and a gang have to try multiple times to steal a giant diamond. When he got to the third or fourth time the gang tried to steal the diamond, however, he realized he couldn’t keep going: Parker would have already cut his losses and moved on. But he liked the concept enough that he created a heister who would just keep plugging away at it, and with that, The Hot Rock started really rolling, and John Dortmunder was born.
The other big difference is that Dortmunder actually likes and cares about his gang. They’re almost as much friends as colleagues, and it shows in his willingness to continue to put up with their irritating, silly quirks. Parker, on the other hand, sees his colleagues as mere tools, useful yet, like all tools, prone to failure. So the one time he does truly extend himself for a fellow heister—risking his life, and the job, to save Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon, it astonishes not just the other guys on the string, but the reader, too. The Parker novels are popcorn, or shots of whiskey; the Dortmunders are chicken soup, or a PB&J. You go to them on different days, for different reasons, and they deliver what you’re looking for.
Q: Okay, to the collection that you’ve edited. How did this project come about?
LS: I discovered Westlake the nonfiction writer via Trent Reynolds’s excellent Violent World of Parker site. He had posted a scan of an Armchair Detective article from the early 1980s that reproduced a talk Westlake had delivered at the Smithsonian about the history of hardboiled private eyes in fiction. That piece revealed Westlake to be a serious thinker about and critic of the crime genre, and it made me wonder what else he might have written. Quick searching turned up enough to build a book proposal, deeper library research fleshed it out nicely, and—best of all—a trip to the Westlake house to go through his files, courtesy of the endlessly gracious Abby Westlake, turned up a bounty of little-known and never-before-published pieces.
Q: With a guy as prolific as Westlake, how did you decide what to choose from—not only single pieces—but categories?
LS: The categories actually came last, when I looked at my giant stack of papers and realized, belatedly, that I would need to put them in some sort of sensible order. But once I started doing that, making stacks of pieces on Westlake’s own work, of pieces on other writers, of letters, etc., the very act of sorting helped me figure out whether I wanted to include the couple of pieces that were on the bubble. For example: you could probably do a whole book of Westlake interviews, but once I gathered what I had, it became obvious that the two I should include were the ones that focused largely on his film writing career, as most of the other topics that come up in interviews (his life and his books) were covered elsewhere.
My early readers, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime and Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, were also extremely helpful: seeing what pieces interested these two genre experts most, and which were less effective, helped to transform the early manuscript into something more compact and potent. The only piece that I knew from the very start had to be in the place it is was the final letter. The moment I read it, pulled from Westlake’s filing cabinet, I knew I had the last words of the book.
Q: Westlake’s generosity toward his peers—Rex Stout, Charles Willeford, even a review of a George Higgins novel come to mind—is admirable. He seemed not motivated by professional envy but professional admiration. I like the note he tacked up at his desk, NO MORE INTRODUCTIONS, but the truth is, he was very good at writing them, wasn’t he?
LS: He really was an astute and generous critic of other writers. His essay on Peter Rabe, whom he greatly admired and acknowledged was a huge influence, is the perfect example. In the book that section opens with a letter from Westlake to Rabe telling him he’s going to be writing about his work and asking some questions; the letter is appreciative, funny, and generous, and Rabe responded enthusiastically. However, knowing that Rabe would eventually read the essay clearly didn’t stop Westlake from offering strong criticism of his weaker books—but at the same time, the admiration for Rabe’s achievement is so strong, clear, and well grounded in detailed analysis that the overall effect is to make you come away wanting to read more of Rabe’s books. Ultimately, that’s the effect of all of Westlake’s introductions: it’s the job of the person writing the introduction to make you see what’s special about the writer being presented, and Westlake was spectacularly good at that.
Another example of his ability to analyze and offer criticism of crime fiction is the letter to David Ramus. Ramus had—I’m not sure through what channel—sent Westlake the manuscript of what would become his first novel, On Ice. I don’t know what he was expecting, but what he got was a detailed examination of what did and didn’t work in the book, with suggestions of how things could be done better—suggestions given, explicitly, not to say that Westlake’s way was right, but that another way was possible. The letter, and the investment of time it represents, is an act of stunning generosity. The most entertaining moment in that letter? “Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no.”
Q: Can you describe how he used humor in his books? His wife said he wasn’t jolly in real life, but witty, loved to laugh and loved making people laugh.
LS: In his foreword to this book, Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block takes issue with my characterizing Westlake’s writing as being filled with jokes. It’s wit, rather than jokes, says Block, and I think he’s basically right. Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my time researching this book was that Westlake hardly ever wrote a full page of anything—be it fiction or a business letter—without finding a way to get some humor into it. He just seems to have seen the world that way: everything is a tiny bit ridiculous, because, well, look at us? We’re not really very good at this living stuff, are we? Yet we have the audacity to make plans and think we’re in control. That illusion is the source of so much of Westlake’s humor. Everything is always going wrong, and that in and of itself is funny, if you look at it the right way. As he put it in his piece on Stephen Frears, “If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it?” He really seems to have written, and lived, with that motto in mind.
Q: The most delightful surprise in the book is the chapter on the Goon Show, the British radio comedy hit that was the precursor to the Pythons and Beyond the Fringe.
LS: Wasn’t that unexpected? Westlake was a comic writer, obviously, but like you I was still surprised to find him writing about the show, and weaving his appreciation of it into a short autobiographical essay. I’d thought a lot about his genre forebears and influences, but I’d never given the same thought to the influences on his comedy.
Q:What did you find that surprised you?
LS: For me the biggest surprise was more structural: I knew that Westlake had written for Hollywood, but it wasn’t until I was going through his files that I realized what a big part of his work, and income, it was. Even as he was writing 100 books, he was also turning out screenplays, and treatments, and pilots, and rewrites, most of which never made it to the screen. That was a big reason why I wanted to include the two interviews that focused on film, and the piece on Stephen Frears: it’s a side of Westlake that I think even those of us who are big fans don’t necessarily know about. (My only regret with the book, meanwhile, is that I couldn’t find a way to work in even a single reference to Supertrain!)
Q: What were Westlake’s experiences with Hollywood like? Several of his books were made into movies, some of them good—The Hot Rock, Point Blank. I didn’t know it at the time but I first remember seeing his name in the credits for The Grifters and a very good, creepy movie, The Stepfather.
LS: He worked hard with Hollywood and drew a substantial part of his income from there throughout his life. But he always seems to have held it at arm’s length. You get the feeling that the loss of control and independence that working with Hollywood, even in the relatively isolated role of screenwriter, required sat awkwardly with Westlake’s lifelong iconoclastic, individualistic, rebellious streak. There’s a reason that he didn’t like, and didn’t stick in, the Air Force; that same reason seems likely to be why Hollywood never truly seduced him.
Q: In a letter, Westlake described the difference between an author and a writer. A writer was a hack, a professional. There’s something appealing and unpretentious about this but does it take on a romance of its own? I’m not saying he was being a phony but do you think that difference between a writer and an author is that great?
LS: I suspect that it’s not, and that to some extent even Westlake himself would have disagreed with his younger self by the end of his life. I think the key distinction for him, before which all others pale, was what your goal was: Were you sitting down every day to make a living with your pen? Or were you, as he put it ironically in a letter to a friend who was creating an MFA program, “enhanc[ing] your leisure hours by refining the uniqueness of your storytelling talents”? If the former, you’re a writer, full stop. If the latter, then you probably have different goals from Westlake and his fellow hacks.
But does a true hack veer off course regularly to try something new? Does a hack limit himself to only writing about his meal ticket (John Dortmunder) every three books, max, in order not to burn him out? Does a hack, as Westlake put it in a late letter to his friend and former agent Henry Morrison, “follow what interests [him],” to the likely detriment of his career? Westlake was always a commercial writer, but at the same time, he never let commerce define him. Craft defined him, and while craft can be employed in the service of something a writer doesn’t care about at all, it is much easier to call up and deploy effectively if the work it’s being applied to has also engaged something deeper in the writer. You don’t write a hundred books with almost no lousy sentences if you’re truly a hack.
Q: I loved the piece that Westlake’s wife wrote about his working habits.
LS: Isn’t it great? In her tongue-in-cheek, yet insightful essay “Living with a Mystery Writer,” Abby Adams Westlake talks about the differences she would see in her late husband depending on which of his many personas he was writing as. In discussing his Timothy J. Culver pen name, she describes his writing set-up:
“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (Thesaurus, Bartlett’s, 1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”
In an interview conducted by Albert Nussbaum, Westlake went into a bit more detail about his approach:
“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”
Q: Craft was central for Westlake. In some ways, his Parker books are an appreciation of craftsmanship, aren’t they?
LS: When I first started reading the Parker books, what struck me was that they were essentially books about work. In the first one I read, Ask the Parrot, Parker sets up a hidey-hole in an empty house, carefully sawing off some screws in the wood that’s boarding it up so that he can get in and out easily without being detected. The activity is described in detail, and I’m pretty sure Parker doesn’t ever end up needing the hideout. But it was part of doing the job (in this case, the job of staying alive after a failed heist), so Westlake included it. (I wrote a bit about the Parker novels as books about work on my blog way back in December of 2007.)
“Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about ‘a workman at work,’ which they are, and that is why the have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and troubleshooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. . . . Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.”
There’s a passing line in The Man with the Getaway Face that has stayed in my head for seven years now: “When the mechanic came in at seven o’clock, he looked at the truck in disgust. He got interested, though, being a professional, and worked on it till nine-thirty.” That’s what a professional, a craftsman, is: a person who actually cares about, and becomes deeply engaged with working his best at, the job at hand.
You get up at six, you fix breakfast for the kids, you get them ready to go on to school. Leave home about eight. Most of the time I make biscuits for my kids, cornbread you gotta make. I don’t mean the canned kind. This I don’t call cookin’, when you go in that refrigerator and get some beans and drop ‘em in a pot. And TV dinners, they go stick ‘em in the stove and she say she cooked. This is not cookin’.
When I work, only thing I be worryin’ about is my kids. I just don’t like to leave ‘em too long. Wlien they get out of school, you wonder if they out on the street. The only thing I worry is if they had a place to play in easy. I always call two, three times. When she don’t like you to call, I’m in a hurry to get out of there. (Laughs.) My mind is gettin’ home, what are you gonna find to cook before the stores close.
They want you to get in a uniform. You take me and my mother, she work in what she wear. She tells you, “If that place so dirty where I can’t wear my dress, I won’t do the job.” You can’t go to work dressed like they do, ‘cause they think you’re not working—like you should get dirty, at least. They don’t say what kind of uniform, just say uniform. This is in case anybody come in, the black be workin’. They don’t want you walkin’ around dressed up, lookin’ like them. They asks you sometimes, “Don’t you have somethin’ else to put on?” I say, “No, ‘cause I’m not gettin’ on my knees.”
I had them put money down and pretend they can’t find it and have me look for it. I worked for one, she had dropped ten dollars on the floor, and I was sweepin’ and I’m glad I seen it, because if I had put that sweeper on it, she coulda said I got it. I had to push the couch back and the ten dollars was there. Oh, I had ‘em, when you go to dust, they put something . . . to test you.
You know what I wanted to do all my life? I wanted to play piano. And I’d want to write songs and things, that’s what I really wanted to do. If I could just get myself enough to buy a piano … And I’d like to write about my life, if I could sit long enough.”
I recently told a friend of my interest in telling stories with pictures and he recommended Cartooning, by Ivan Brunetti. This slim volume is a written version of a class Brunetti teaches on the cartoon format (he doesn’t care for the terms graphic novel and I don’t blame him). It is broken down into a 15-week course. There is no point in cheating or cutting corners. Brunetti insists that the reader, or student, follow each assignment. If they do, they’ll arrive at a place where they’ve acquired some fundamentals.
Dig this, from Brunetti’s introduction:
Most Italian dishes are made up of a few simple but robust ingredients, the integrity of which should never be compromised. It is a straightforward, earthy, spontaneous, unpretentious, improvisatory, and adaptable cuisine, where flavor is paramount: not novelty, not fashion, not cleverness, and not prettiness. If it tastes good, it will perforce also look good (note that the inverse is also true). It is a cuisine entirely based on a relative few, but solid and time-tested, principles. The techniques are not complicated, just hard; mastering them really takes only time, care, and practice. Originality, as Marcella Hazan instructs, is not something to strain for: “It ought never to be a goal, but it can be a consequence of your intuitions.” One plans a meal around what is available and what is most fresh, usually a vegetable, allowing this ingredient to suggest each course.
…Once you know the basic principles, what you are “going for,” you can add your own personal touch. The most important thing is the potential misstep at the beginning that can ruin the entire dish: don’t burn the garlic. If you do, it will not matter what fancy or expensive ingredient you add to try to cover it up; it will still taste bad. Thus, what I hope, in essence, is that by the end of the book you will learn not to “burn the garlic” and to create art based on sound principles.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve often said New York is your favorite city: Was it love at first sight?
SIMIC: It was. It was an astonishing sight in 1954. Europe was so gray and New York was so bright; there were so many colors, the advertisements, the yellow taxicabs. America was only five days away by ship, but it felt as distant as China does today. European cities are like operatic stage sets. New York looked like painted sets in a sideshow at a carnival where the bearded lady, sword- swallowers, snake charmers, and magicians make their appearances.
CW: What drew you into this book, initially? What kept you reading, and what inspired the recommendation today?
GS: At first I was just loving the descriptions of his childhood and being reminded of the fact that the only thing that will evoke the world as we actually experience it is great sentences – the difference between a boring, banal account of childhood and one that feels properly rich and mysterious (i.e., like one’s own actual childhood), is the phrase-by-phrase quality of the prose. Perceptions truthfully remembered make great sentences and great sentences provide the way for that truthful remembering to happen – something like that. I guess I’m just saying it was a pleasure to read such intelligent writing.
But also – lately I find myself interested in anything historical that can open up my mind afresh and get me really seeing the past, with the purpose of adding that data to my evolving moral-ethical view of the world. (We only live in one time but can read in many, etc., etc.) To have a witness as intelligent and articulate as Miler is almost (almost!) like having been there oneself. So here, wow, the stories and details – New York before the war, all his crazy relatives and their various ends; stories about Odets, Kazan, et al, Miller’s deep periods of artistic immersion, life with Monroe, trips to Russia, walking around with Frank Lloyd Wright (and finding him unlikeable), the moral-spiritual breakdown of Untermeyer, the way Lee J. Cobb first “got” Willy Loman, and on and on – I just came away thinking, “Jeez, what a life. Good for you, Arthur Miller. We should all live so fully.”
I also found myself really excited by Miller’s basic assumptions about art: it’s important, it is supposed to change us, it’s not supposed to be trivial or merely clever, it’s one human being trying to urgently communicate with another. But it was also exciting to see his uncertainty around this stance – the way he couldn’t always execute, and sometimes doubted those ideas, and found himself fighting against the prevailing spirit of the time – like in the 1960s, when everything felt, to him, ironic and faux-cynical. I found myself inspired by the way he went through his life, always holding out a high vision of what art is supposed to do – he strikes me as having been a real fighter.
I read the book when it came out. Sounds like it’s time to dive back in.
[Photo Credit: Elliot Erwitt]
Q: You recently wrote about Samuel Beckett in an essay on literary last moments for the Mulholland Books website, saying, “[There] is something so profoundly sad, hopeless, and hatefully true in [his] meditations on loneliness, regret, and death. I believe in a universal melancholy, and Beckett has come closest to getting it down on paper.” How did he influence what you did with language and tone in Angel Baby?
Lange: Beckett is one of the big influences on everything I do. You read him, and you’re forever changed. The psychological bleakness he captures, the air of regret. But there are a thousand other influences at work in Angel Baby, too. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters. My work is an amalgam of all of them plus my own experiences, all tossed into a blender, then formed, battered, breaded, and fried. Melville, Zola, Hemingway, Carver, Mamet, Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, Taxi Driver, Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Dancer in the Dark, Tom Waits, Black Flag, Will Oldham, some guy I overhead at a Laundromat once, the desert in a certain light, the feel of the sun on the back of your neck when you’re miles from water. Every time I sit down to write, all that and more is there, and I write best when I give myself up to the maelstrom and stop trying to control things, when I trust my natural rhythms. That’s not to say that it’s easy or that great stuff just pours out of me. I work hard to find the right word, the right cadence, the right moments in a story to spotlight, but it starts with letting go, not bearing down.
Pelecanos: One of the endorsement quotes on the back of Angel Baby includes the line, “Lange stands out as the greatest young crime writer of his generation, precisely because he doesn’t write crime—he writes literature.” Are the two concepts mutually exclusive?
Lange: Those are just marketing terms to me. I’m writing exactly what I want to write, and they can call it whatever they want in order to sell it. People have said I’m too literary for the crime crowd and to crime-y for the literary crowd. Everybody’s taste is different, and I’m not going to chase an audience. I like what I write, and that’s all that matters. I’ll probably have a short, shitty career because of that attitude, but it’ll damn sure be fun while it lasts.
AB: Not counting the book you wrote with Jerry Weintraub and the children’s book, this is your eighth book. Let’s start with your family memoir, Sweet and Low. Was that the book you always wanted to write?
RC: It’s hard to say exactly because usually when I’m doing a book I feel like that’s the book I always wanted to write and I genuinely feel that way, it’s not just something I’m saying. I think maybe you have to get yourself into that state of mind to do it. Sweet and Low was kind of the thing that I look back at and I say, “I can’t believe I did that, that was an insane thing to do.”
AB: You mean just to be so candid about your family history?
RC: Yeah and about my uncle. I could have got sued in a million ways, horrible things could’ve happened. It was just crazy.
AB: But you were driven a little bit by your mom being screwed out of her inheritance.
RC: Definitely, but it’s like when you get older and you have kids, you just play a little more safe, I think. Sweet and Low really worked well. Everything went really well with it and I’m really glad I did it, but if it went wrong, it could have gone really wrong. You always take that risk with a book, but usually you’re talking like it could go artistically wrong, you could not sell any copies, but it’s not like you could like never talk to your parents again kind of wrong.
AB: Right, or have these horrible lawsuits from family.
RC: Or worse, completely wrecking your family relationships. The most important relationships.
AB: Did you show your parents portions of the book before you finished it?
AB: Really? So you really were taking a risk.
RC: I couldn’t show it to them, especially my father, who would’ve attempted to re-write i. It’s like his story too. I knew I had to finish it and not only finish it, kind of get it almost perfect into my mind at that time and be so it was like unassailable in my mind. I felt really strongly about it.
AB: That’s one thing I always get from reading it. You have a very strong and sure voice narration. Sometimes that can even be when you’re being funny, you’re confident. There’s an authorial confidence that I always get reading your stuff. Did that grow after you did Sweet and Low?
RC: I think the big breakthrough book for me was The Record Men, the book right before Sweet and Low. Something in my head changed, I realized something.
AB: I haven’t read all of your books, but in those two, everything just seems so sound. The tone is really fluid throughout.
RC: Something just happened.
AB: Is writing hard for you?
RC: Of course, it’s impossible for me. Hardest fucking thing in the world.
AB: Good. I know that that’s the case for pretty much every writer that I’ve ever admired. Yet there are some writers that you read and love so much that it is easy to buy into the fantasy that they just wake up and do it with ease. That’s sort of the effect that your books have, there’s an ease to the way that everything flows.
RC: I don’t think it’s true for anybody. It feels that way maybe when you’re writing it, but then you go back and read it again and realize it’s a piece of shit basically. I start with what I call the vomit draft. You sort of put every single thing into it the first time, but I never believe when I’m writing that I’m writing a finished book.
AB: Well one thing that you say in this book which I thought was great–you said that as you’ve gotten older you’ve said that one thing you’ve really come to believe is true is that, I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something like hard work and determination is a talent.
RC: And it’s connected to my own thing because sometimes those qualities of persistence and trying again and again, they’re dismissed because they’re not genius. Then there’s this idea that there’s genius and then there’s the other stuff, but the other stuff – it’s just that the hard work is it’s own kind of genius. That was my point about Walter Payton. You write a book like this and you think about yourself and the people you know in the best possible way. When I came out of a college, I was suddenly in an environment where everybody went to a much, much better school.
AB: When you were aware of wanting to become a writer did you say, “Yeah I want to write books one day?” Was that your ambition?
RC: When I was a little kid, my dad wrote a book, sold a lot of copies. Not really a writer, but he wrote a really big deal book. It was exciting, I was around for it and we’ve always, in my family, held books in the highest esteem. We had a library in our house that you could actually add to that library something with your name on it that you wrote was the greatest kind of achievement. It was just held as the greatest achievement to actually write a book so I had in my head that it was almost impossible to do. My father was in his way, for a guy that had to work all the time, he really liked good writers and he really liked good writing. I always had this idea of really excellent writing and wanting to do that. What happened was I came out of college and I got a job at the New Yorker and I always said I wanted to be a fiction writer. ThenI realized that the stuff I liked at the New Yorker, not just when I was there, but the old stuff, was non-fiction. The stuff I didn’t like about fiction – the whole idea about plot I found maddening and boring.
AB: You were a pop culture junkie as a kid. You’re a huge music fan, you’re into movies, so were you naturally drawn to non fiction just as a way of acquiring information about things?
RC: I really was a big fiction reader but I think what happened was, in high school and in college, and I don’t know if it’s different if you go to a different kind of college, but I would take English classes and you’d read great writers and you’d take history classes and you’d read bad books. I never read the great non-fiction books. So there was this idea that real writing was fiction and the history was writing like the history teachers.
AB: Did you read Pauline Kael and movie criticism or Hunter Thompson or Rolling Stone and Creem or any of that kind of stuff?
RC: I definitely read Rolling Stone and I read Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke and I didn’t really get into Pauline Kael until I go out of college which is too bad because I love Pauline Kael so much.
AB: I sent her a post card once when I was in high school actually and she wrote back to me.
RC: I knew her when I was a kid briefly because I was a messenger at the New Yorker and she was still there. She was like the kind of person that if you’re a messenger, she still treated you like you actually might be a person.
AB: Oh nice. Well so Monsters. The Bears. How did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
AB: So how did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
RC: The really good stories to me are like Sweet and Low. They’re so close to you and important to you. You don’t even recognize them as stories, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t occur to you and that’s how this was to me because this team was completely essential growing up. You completely thought about this team all day for many years and these guys.
AB: Is this just the ’85 Bears or is this the ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 Bears that culminate with ’85?
RC: Absolutely, I would say probably like really ’79 to ’89 or maybe even ’79 to ’90 or ’91. I was supposed to write a story for Harper’s about my father, but I just couldn’t do it. I was talking to an editor there and she said, “Okay well what else do you want to write about, why don’t you write about sports?” Because I’ve written a bunch of sports stories for them, as you know, because you’ve excerpted that one thing and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Do you want to write about the Knicks?” I said, “Why the fuck do I want to write about the Knicks? I hate the Knicks.” And she goes, “Well I like the Knicks,” so I said, “Then you write about the Knicks.” She said, “Do you have any sports team that you really love?” I said, “The ’85 bears.” I thought maybe I’d write about the ’85 Bears. One of the problems you run into with sports stories is the guys aren’t that interesting when you talk to them. I’ve written a lot of stories about guys playing now. I decided the first person I’d talk to would be Doug Plank. You’d think he’d be this because he was such a ferocious player and kind of a borderline player, and I called him up and it was like, it was the greatest interview I’d ever done. He had been so thoughtful about his career, what it meant, that time in his life, the game, what the game meant, what it means to succeed, what it means to fail, what it’s like to have to leave the game and your friends continue on without you, what’s it like to barely not win the Super Bowl because he retired too early. All these things about fame and what’s the Gay Talese book–Fame and Obscurity? All the big things not just about football, but about like being a human being and being alive and getting old.
AB: And how reflective the guy is. He talks about–who is the guy, you end that one chapter with him talking about a guy who tore his cartilage?
RC: He never told me the player’s name. He’s obviously protecting the guy and he’s talking about hitting a guy low.
AB: Yeah and he just says that you live with these things for a long time and you kind of–it’s real powerful stuff there.
RC: I thought so and his whole thing about Roger Goodell coming up to him and saying, “You’re a great player.” It’s sort of like that’s what everybody wants–to just really be great at one thing, I think.
AB: What’s interesting to me about that quote is the idea than an authority figure’s compliment would validate him so much, there’s still that adolescent need in Plank.
RC: It’s interesting too because Goodell didn’t play.
AB: That took me back actually because of all the things he said, and this guy’s pretty deep, yet he still craves that Dad kind of approval.
RC: But there’s another way to look at it too. That’s definitely true, but there’s also the idea of how you’re remembered. It’s like what Ditka said. I mean, I read it, I still sort of break up and cry over Ditka’s eulogy of Payton about how he played. It’s like how did they play, that’s just like life. How did you play the game? Did you play hard? Did you play clean? Did you obey the rules of the game you were playing? And all these things and there’s that too in Plank, I mean yeah it’s Goodell so that’s totally true what you’re saying, but it’s also here’s somebody remembering so many years later, you were a great player. It’s so long ago and he wasn’t on the ’85 Bears.
AB: And talk about fame and obscurity—say for instance they didn’t win in ’85 then really who would have remembered him? What I remember most about the Bears that year was that they were like the bad guys in The Road Warrior. They were just terrorists. They’d knock guys out, they didn’t just beat guys, it was ridiculous and they reveled in it too, that was the thing.
RC: Absolutely man. I tried to put that in the book because I was a Joe Ferguson fan for whatever reason because I used to love to watch him run all around. Remember how great he was? I remember him on the Bills. He was also the subject of the greatest, funniest referee’s call ever. Remember that? The guy giving him the business. That was Ferguson, “giving him the business.” Which shows people like to pound on Ferguson for some reason, he’s always getting “giving him the business.” It’s one of those guys who you associate him with one team. Always with the Bills. When Wilber Marshall just laid him out and it was the most vicious hit that I’ve ever seen and they say that the game has gotten so much quicker and so much more violent, I don’t believe it when I see that hit. That’s as violent as any hit you’ll ever see ever. You look at even the size of a guy like Ditka. Ditka could still be a great tight end now, he’s the same size as those guys. When he was playing, if you look at how big he was, now they work out more, but they were big fucking guys. Just to see him like–to watch him kill Joe Ferguson I just suddenly got, “Oh, this is what it must be like for every other team in the league.” To understand the greater context of it, the Cowboys have been beating the shit out of the Bears my entire life. Every now and then we’d get a Cowboy player and he wouldn’t be good anymore. Like Golden Richards came to the Bears, I was like “Oh we got one of these guys!”
AB: Well it’s like you said, it’s like who cares what happened with the rest of the season, win this game. At the time of that game, it’s like a poor man’s version of when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in ’04.
RC: It’s how I used to feel when I was a kid, I was a big Michigan fan and watched Michigan play Ohio State. It didn’t really matter what happened in the Rose Bowl, the main thing was that Michigan beat Ohio State. Woody Hays went psychotic, punched out a cameraman.
AB: I remember the Monday night game vividly. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Marino, it was Shula and it was maybe the fact that the Bears were a little cocky and that that loss proved to actually be a really good thing for them.
RC: Yeah like if the Patriots maybe a couple years ago had not had a perfect record. Maybe it would have been good for them. Sometimes you go in kind of arrogant and it’s like the Bears were rigid. They were rigid because Buddy Ryan had this idea, which was right that year, but look at what happened to him later. He was a rigid guy. He would draw up his plan and he wasn’t a pragmatic person, he was an ideologue. Rex is a little bit like that. Ditka, that’s why they were really complimentary, Ditka is the ultimate pragmatist, he doesn’t give a shit, if he goes to a team that has a great running back, he’ll run the ball every play. If he goes to a team that’s got a great receiver, he’ll throw, whatever he can do to win, he’ll do it. The 46, Shula figured out how to beat the 46 for one half, that’s all he had to do because the Bears didn’t score a lot of points and McMahon was hurt and the Bears had this idea that Marino was immobile and he just couldn’t move and they designed roll-outs and they suddenly had Wilber Marshall having to cover Nat Moore down the field and he just couldn’t do it and Marino was one of the best quarterbacks ever and that was it. If Buddy Ryan had switch to the nickel, which he finally did in the second half, they could’ve probably stopped him because not only did he have 46, but they also had great players, four hall of famers, three on defense I guess. Some of those guys could have been like Wilber Marshall.
AB: Well it’s like the Big Red Machine. It’s like the guys who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are still pretty fucking awesome.
RC: Right and they’re not in the hall of fame and they’re the reason why the other guys are in the hall of fame.
AB: They can’t put the whole damn squad in the hall of fame.
RC: Exactly so you have McMichael who is borderline and even a guy like Fencik who I guess is nowhere close, but if you look at the amount of interceptions he had and the amount of tackles he had.
AB: Now Fencik sounds like a great interview too.
RC: Well Fencik is a really smart, kind of regular kind of guy. Plank would always joke and Fencik would say the same thing and say, “Hey it’s Gary Plank.” They played side by side for a whole bunch of years. They were kind of like mirror images of each other. They’re both these like little, not very fast, hard-hitting white guys who would run around and completely crush people. I was watching a game the other night and they were trying to use the safety like that. It just wasn’t good enough. They would pick him up and he would suddenly be trying to get by a guy who was 100 pounds heavier than him and they just didn’t and as a result there was somebody open down field. It was a disaster. But just to see when you’d see Fencik come creeping up just before the snap and suddenly he’s the extra guy coming through on the safety. In that game against the Rams, the first tackle is made by Fencik of Dickerson in the Rams backfield. That’s crazy.
AB: Absolutely. The only drag to me about the way that that season ended, well there’s two drags and you go into it in the book. I was pissed they didn’t give the ball to Walter Payton to score a touchdown, but I actually understood it a little bit more, reading your book that he was a perfect decoy.
RC: When you go back and watch the game–I didn’t really write about this too much because I didn’t want to and I basically agree with you, but he did get the ball a lot by the goal and he didn’t score. He didn’t have a good game. He just didn’t have a good game and if you look at it, I counted at one point, there were five or six times he was given the ball inside the three. You know what I mean? Even one time when he was throwing the ball and he like dropped it in the end zone. Basically he was pissed at himself I think because he knew he had a shitty game and one of the reasons he had a shitty game was because he was triple teamed every time he touched the ball.
AB: That’s the one thing they could do.
RC: Right, the one thing they said, “Okay, we’re going to stop Payton, we’re not going to let Payton beat us. We’re going to make McMahon beat us” or whatever.
AB: What’s interesting was the way that Payton handled it, which wasn’t graceful. Finally he won the Super Bowl and he was kind of pissed in the aftermath, but also that Ditka was so swept up in the moment that it didn’t even occur to him to let Payton score a touchdown.
RC: Here’s the thing for me. I was at the game and I was a kid, so I didn’t even notice any of that. It’s amazing when you’re at the game–I mean, I noticed that Payton didn’t score, I noticed that bothered me, but I didn’t notice that Payton wasn’t handling it well because I couldn’t see his face. I realized it later and then I read the Jeff Pearlman book a couple years ago and he really went into it, but the thing is when I interviewed McMahon, McMahon who remembered every single tiny detail, McMahon like Ditka said, “I didn’t even realize until after the game. I didn’t even get it.” He was so focused on winning the Super Bowl and he said that the play that he scored that his first touch down was designed for Payton. He looked up and Payton was completely covered and there was a big hole so he just ran into the end zone and that’s the football play.
AB: Absolutely. The other part that I remember about that season being disappointed with was that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.
RC: I didn’t really write about that in the book because it was a shame. The Dolphins were probably going to lose, but you had a sense that–
AB: Right. Well the Dolphins, I just remember when they lost in the playoffs it was like: the season’s over. They were the best chance to put up a fight against the Bears. That would have been a sort of worthy -
RC: Not only that. As a Bears fan, there was a blemish on the season and there is a blemish and the blemish could have been removed. That’s why it was a bummer. The Bears had a chance–that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending, if the Bears beat the Dolphins. Even looking back on it though, it was so thrilling and it was so fitting that they completely trounced New England, if it had been a close game against the Dolphins. I was listening to The FAN in New York around Super Bowl time and they were just talking about the greatest Super Bowl teams and they didn’t even bring up the Bears. How could that be? Then realized, oh, because all the teams they’re talking about are teams that won in great games, that’s why they remember them. The Catch, the Ice Bowl, the Steelers and Cowboys going back and forth, your team, your era, my era too, Bradshaw, Staubach, and all that great stuff and the Bears game was never close.
AB: If I had to name one of the best teams of all time, I would certainly think of the ’85 Bears. Their offense I think is kind of underrated, but forget their offense. Their defense was an offense.
RC: Absolutely, the defense scored more points than the offense. It was Mike Francesa, I think it was his show. It was just an oversight. I know if you were to talk to him because he was just naming–when you started listening to the teams he was naming, they were all teams involved in great games. He was remembering great games. I heard him recently, somebody was saying the Jets have a great defense right now. This was a couple days ago, somebody was saying that, and he was saying, “Oh, they’re not a great defense, a great defense is the ’85 Bears, a great defense is the ’77 Steelers.” He clearly, on his ranking, has the Bears at the top of all time best defenses, as they should be. I think they’re the best ever. I was thinking about the fact that–If it had been the Dolphins and the Bears in the Super Bowl, and not a team that seemed like they just got hot for a couple of games, under weird conditions and if they had an actual game, then it just would have been the perfect ending. It’s sort of like when you get something you wanted to happen very easily and at first you’re really happy that it wasn’t as much work and then later you’re like you wish it was a little more of a struggle. That’s a little bit what it was like.
AB: After they won it’s almost like, what now? Okay, you’ve climbed a mountain. Now what?
RC: Right. It’s really especially cute, I think and maybe I’m wrong. For Chicago, there had never been a winning team in Chicago my whole life. In my entire life.
AB: That’s another thing. This is all before Michael the Bulls run.
RC: You had to go back to ’63 Bears which was five years before I was born and at that point, football was much less of a big deal than it became. One team did win and the media tried to blow it up into a big deal, but nobody cared, and it was the Chicago Kings in the indoor soccer championship and they tried to make it a big deal and the press went to the airport and there was nobody waiting for the team. There was like one guy waiting for the players like, “Hey you’re the soccer guys man, you won something, congratulations, good job!” Iit always seems like it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Just the year before that in ’84, the Cubs were 2-0 one game away from the World Series, they lost three games in a row. That was just crushing and the year before that, even though I wasn’t a White Sox fan, I sort of rooted for the Chicago teams, but I got kind of into it when the White Sox won their division by like 20 games. Then they maybe won one game against the Orioles.
AB: I got WGN so when I was in middle school I watched the Cubs all the time just because they were on after school so I was kind of familiar with those Cubs teams in a way that I wouldn’t have been with a lot of other teams.
RC: They’re real fun. There’s that Steve Goodman song, “The Cubs Fan’s Request.” First of all, Chicago has variations, just like every city of accents, so the one they do on Saturday Night Live, like the Super Fans, that’s a real accent, it’s like a South Side accent. Where I grew up is sort of like the North Shore and it’s like heading towards Wisconsin and then ultimately to Minnesota and it starts to be almost like a Minnesota accent, but it’s very particular to like a few towns and Steve Goodman has that accent, so it always makes me feel very warm to hear it. He’s talking about his funeral, what he wants for his funeral, it’s just really great. But he’s listing the things that he wants it to be, Wrigley Field, day, no lights, and he wants of all things, he wants Keith Moreland to drop a routine fly. He just dates it exactly. I think Keith Moreland has a son now and he plays baseball.
AB: So when you, you said that this started with something at Harper’s. Did it start as a magazine piece or did you think this could actually be a book?
RC: It started as me saying I was going to write a magazine piece about the ’85 Bears and then calling Doug Plank and then talking to him for three hours and Brian Baschnagel too, Baschnagel was another great guy. Then deciding, this a book, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write. Then I just talked to my editor and told him I want to write this book and he basically said go, do it.
AB: How long did it take you to do it?
RC: I have to think about exactly when I started. I probably spent about six months or a little more just going around and tracking down and interviewing players and hanging out with Brian McCaskey who is one of Halas’s grandsons. Then I probably spent like another year or whatever writing it, or something like that. Then it’s actually been published, from when I turned it in to when I published it, it was a really short period of time. I just turned it in in the spring, I never had that experience. That’s became if we didn’t make this spring, I would’ve had to wait until next football season which I really didn’t want to do. Plus it’s not really, but things happen, things become dated really, really quickly.
RC: The weird thing about McMahon is he’s alright. When you talk and when you hang out with him.
AB: I was a little surprised actually because having read that piece, I was expecting it to be worse. I didn’t know what your approach was going to be, but you ended up handling that subject dead on. That was like the subject you couldn’t avoid, right?
RC: As a fan, you can’t avoid it either, the more stuff you read about it. You think about it, you have kids, you think about it, but when you go deal with McMahon, you’re dealing with McMahon and how he is and he seemed like he always seemed. He remembers everything, that’s a short term memory thing, the fact is every now and then I get in touch with him and he always e-mails me right back and seems to know who I am.
AB: The other interesting thing about McMahon is that he plays the part of such a hick but actually did well with his money.
RC: He did a really smart thing, which is, all these guys were getting sports agents and he met Steve Zucker who just lived where I grew up basically and he said, well you represent me, he’s not an agent, he’s a really smart guy. The guy said I’m not an agent. He ended up being an agent because he did so well from McMahon and he ended up representing a bunch of Bears, but he said I’m not an agent and he said I don’t care it’s just that you’re smart and you know the people in Chicago. He said okay because he thought his kids would think it was really cool that he represented Jim McMahon. Steve Zucker was such a smart guy and McMahon told him what he wanted, which was when he stopped playing, he didn’t want to have to work ever again. He invested his money, took care of his money, told him what to do in such a way that–it wasn’t just that McMahon was pulling an investor, but he found a guy he could trust and trusted him. That’s like the same kind of thing we’re talking about, about like hard work. Don’t discount how rare that is. That he knew not to go with the biggest deal, biggest name agent. That didn’t mean shit to him. He just wanted somebody who was local in Chicago and somebody who was smart and seemed to have his shit together.
AB: How did you decide how to weave in the memoir stuff with the interviewing of the players and then include a general history of the Bears?
RC: I think that the structure, I hate to give it away because hopefully people can’t even see it, but underneath it all, all the structure is super, super simple, which is what I always like to have, a really simple structure. The structure is just–it’s almost like the history of the Bears from the time they were started until they won the ’85 Super Bowl. That’s really the underlying structure of the book. Then it’s really in thirds. The first third of it is the history of the Bears, then the history of the league because the history of the Bears and the history of the league are intertwined. So it’s the history of the Bears and it’s also a biography of Halas because it’s all intertwined. That’s the first third. Then the second third is the ’85 season and the last third is what happened after.
AB: How did you have to condense the team’s rich history to fit this story?
RC: That’s like the vomit draft . I don’t know how many words the book is. I knew at one point, it’s probably about 85,000 words or something and the first draft was probably 200,000 words. I completely freak out, lose my mind, think it’s a piece of you know – go through everything and then you keep cutting and cutting and the first cutting is easy because it’s obvious, but then it gets harder and harder so like I said, I had this whole chunk on Red Grange. It was just–Red Grange’s story was so much like Sid Luckman’s story I thought you only get one of those and Sid Luckman was more interesting because he was so important to the history of the way the modern offense evolved and Grange wasn’t. Also, Luckman was still around in ’85, he was still there and those guys knew him and he taught Ditka how to catch. He’s completely intertwined. He’s still in a conversation in a way that Grange is almost like Babe Ruth. He’s so distant from such a different era. Then you look at it and I wrote the Butkus and I wrote the Sayers and you sort of say, this book isn’t the whole encyclopedic history like you said, but at the same point it is a history of the Bears and can you really have a history of the Bears without Butkus and Sayers. I kind of thought–I always need a title, I always want a title to be Monsters–and you sort of thought as long as they’re one of the monsters, they belong in the book. That was true Sayers and that was true Butkus, they both belonged in the book. Also, they were the guys, the Bears from before I was born until they started getting good in the early ’80′s went through this long fallow period, that was my entire childhood and the last two great Bears, who never won because they played in that period were Butkus and Sayers. I’m just justifying this in my head but it all fits within and I wanted it to be–the memoir stuff was sort of like it just fits where it fits, the beginning scene with the Super Bowl and the end story, that’s like a bookend, it’s outside the structure, but it’s like a bookend and it’s a really funny way. It’s what really happened, but I thought it was a really funny story about getting on that crazy plane.
AB: I loved that. It begins the story in such such high spirits. That’s the thing for me that ends up being interesting about the story. I learned about a city that I don’t know a lot about. Great story when, after a loss, the cop yells at you guys and he says, “Pick your fucking head up, it’s another fucking day.” That was like okay that’s the city’s ethos or whatever it is.
RC: Absolutely and also, I didn’t want it to be like, it’s not like even though I love these books, it’s not like David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 or whatever–
AB: Well you wanted it to be–In your previous books, your sense of human, you definitely descend from Buddy Hackett’s blue shows. I always get the sense that you like some good vulgarity in your humor.
RC: Yeah I know and I constantly–you should see how many, those are the letters I get from people I sent the book to, “You probably want to take this out.”
AB: I’m glad you didn’t because that’s the fun part.
RC: I know, it’s just getting back to what it really is and what really makes it great, which isn’t–that’s how I felt about it–which isn’t just the statistics and the numbers and the fantasy football and all that shit and all the graphics, it’s a guy running for his life. It’s such a crazy game. This guy trying to through the ball 30 yards down the field as five guys are coming to kill him. What it takes to stand up in the middle of that and know you’re going to get completely flattened and still do it.
AB: The Bears are a great team because again, there was something so primal and awful and they were almost like a comic book. But there are two cases in your book, Tony Easton and Ferguson. … These are guys that you want to talk to who had particularly embarrassing incidents with the Bears. The Ferguson hit and Easton’s poor performance in the Super Bowl. You even mention Joe Morris too, who got the mystery migraine in the playoff game, but you couldn’t find these fucking guys and I wonder, do you think that there is something about football defeat that’s worse than being a goat in a different sport? Bill Buckner comes to mind.
RC: It’s public humiliation for anybody and if you’ve ever had it at all, it’s an awful thing. You never ever get over it. It’s like getting burned. For these guys who are masters, I mean, every one of them is an unbelievable athlete, the greatest athlete at every level just about. That’s what is interesting about Plank and Fencik, they were not. They were never. Like Tom Brady, they just were not and then they kept getting better but most of these guys like Buckner, he was an incredible player from the moment he came into the league and to sort of have this act of being–and he’s a graceful guy and to be in public in the biggest moment in his life and it’s a clumsy thing. I don’t think it’s just football, I think it’s everything and I think sports is just a magnet. That’s why good sports completely resonate because it should be what you live in a confined area in a really heightened way. You do mention Saul Bellow—I’m a big Saul Bellow fan. He had a line about explaining his books and he said it’s just heightened autobiography. It’s kind of like sports are when they’re working. There was a great hockey player even before my time, but legendary guy, Eric Nesterenko.
He was in the movie Young Blood, he actually teaches Rob Lowe how to fight in that movie and when I was at the New Yorker, somebody there, Adam Gopnik, he’s from Canada, he gave me this story which I’ve never heard of, called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and it was about how at the end of his career, Nesterenko got in a fight with, now I’m spacing out on his name, but sort of the enforcer of the Canadiens who later became a coach for the Devils. Nesterenko got the shit beat out of him and it was on national hockey net in Canada and Nesterenko was like 42. The guy he was fighting was like 24. The story is all about–the writer’s a big Blackhawks fan and the guy who beats Nesterenko up is on the Canadiens and it’s like he feels as if his own father is beating him up and he has this realization about his dad and his feelings about his dad and his life gets better at this point because he realizes and all this stuff. A friend and I went skiing in Vail in 1993 and we’d heard that Eric Nesterenko was a ski instructor in Vail and we hired him for a lesson and we spent the whole day skiing with him, talking to him about the NHL. We invited him out to dinner and we went out to dinner with him and at the end of dinner, we’d all been drinking a little bit, I asked him if he’d ever heard of the story called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and he lwent fucking berzerk. He’s like, “I fucking heard of it, some fucking candy-ass writer, some fucking asshole, I get my ass beat up, I get humiliated on TV, my kids watch that, my family watches that, and this guy has an epiphany about how he doesn’t like his dad? Fuck him.”
AB: You can’t undo that. What happened to him was a big deal for him, but you take that and you put Tony Easton in the Super Bowl–
RC: And for Nesterenko even though it was a nationally televised game, it wasn’t the biggest game in the world.
AB: You’re not surprised that a guy like Easton would just say, screw it?
RC: Right, I don’t want to talk about it again, you know? Same with Ferguson and I tried to phrase it as somewhat probably dishonestly, which is I want to talk about your entire career and then maybe we could talk about the ’85 Bears. And by the way, I really was a Joe Ferguson fan, so I probably would want to talk about him in Buffalo and if he had talked to me, maybe that would have been part of the book, more about Ferguson. He at first, he called back and he said he would talk to me and then he just blew me off, then I told Fencik about it and he said, “He’s never talking to ya.”
AB: Well Fencik and Plank are great because they are like anchors for the book.
RC: I felt like especially Plank because Fencik—I went and I interviewed and I talked to him and stuff, but Plank I spent a lot of time with. He’s the first guy I talked to and he’s the guy I still talk to. I really felt like he became the moral voice of the book because he’s the underachiever who becomes the most ferocious Bear who creates this spirit of the defense who makes the team what it is. He wears the number, he gives it a name, he doesn’t get to the big game himself, but he doesn’t hold any–there’s no pity.
AB: That’s genuine, that’s not like an act, right?
RC: No, that’s completely genuine, that’s who he is, he’s like one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. He’s like truly a great guy, just like you’d want him to be. In an early version of the book, I drew the diagrams of the single wing, the T formations, sort of the kind of alignment the Bears had when I was a kid, and a spread, and then most importantly the 46 for the book. I’m like, shit, man, I’m a fan, I’ve read everything, I’ve really thought a lot about it, but I’m not a football coach and this is the kind of thing I could’ve had these things wrong. I’m just going to get a lot of grief over it even if it’s a tiny bit wrong and I can have all these people check it, but who can I have check it. I’m like, fuck I’ll have Plank check it. What better source to check that shit than Plank, who is not only a great player, but who is a coach? And was a coach on the Jets and all this stuff. I sent it to him and he was really, really great and then he actually drew the 46 for me and that’s what’s in the book. Plank’s rendering of the 46 and a long description which I ran, I don’t know if it’s in what you saw, but the caption is Plank’s description of the 46. It’s just so great that I have that, it’s almost like a historical document.
AB: Were there any of Bears that were either difficult to deal with?
RC: Well a bunch of guys just didn’t want to talk to me, they don’t give a shit, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. One of the guys who was sort of difficult although he was okay, was McMichael who I talked to on the phone, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview because he was so pissed off about the Jeff Pearlman book. He’s like, “Look all we have is our reputations basically and that’s it because we don’t play football anymore and we know and I don’t trust you fucking guys anymore.” They were like really hurt so everybody I talked to was sort of–and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m a Bears fan.” I was there in ’85.
AB: And that didn’t matter?
RC: It mattered to some of them. I’ll tell you what, what’s cool about the Bears is that they are a bunch of guys from Chicago and they completely get who I am. So like Kurt Becker who was McMahon’s roommate and the right tackle I think, right guard, he’s from the West Side of Chicago, he’s knows who I am, he knows where I’m from. He knows I’m a Bears fan. Same with Fencik, who grew up in Barrington.
AB: You pull off kind of a neat trick in that it’s not a puff piece because you have to be, there’s unsavory things about some of the guys, Ditka, Buddy Ryan, whatever. I always though that Buddy Ryan what an asshole without knowing anything about him, but the way you describe him is kind of sympathetic but not soft.
RC: He is what he is, which he’s a product of an older America that really doesn’t exist much anymore.
AB: When you talk about he would check out guys to see who was wasting water when they were shaving, that tells me what kind of guy this guy is, or calling Singletary names.
RC: “Fat Jap.”
AB: “Fat Jap,” right. So just that.
RC: And by the way Singletary is not in any part Japanese, which I sort of assumed he was because I think he’s part Cherokee, I think that’s what it is.
AB: Was he interesting at all?
RC: I didn’t talk to Singletary, here’s the other problem. A bunch of the guys are coaches, like full-time head coaches, so you could get to them in a press conference about you know, so that’s in a testament to the team, so Singletary was because he was coaching San Francisco, then in Minnesota, and Ron Rivera is head coach, and Jeff Fisher is a head coach, and Leslie Frazier is a head coach, and then those other guys I spoke to, like Dent I spoke to and Otis Wilson was really great actually. He was a great one.
AB: He was from Brooklyn right?
RC: Brownsville. He’s one of my favorite players. Very charismatic guy when he was a player. Some guys are just great talkers, even a guy like Jim Morrissey, who is really from Michigan, but half of his grandparents lived basically where I lived, where I grew up, and he used to spend every summer where I grew up so he kind of was a Chicago guy really in a lot of ways. It’s just like a guy working for some brokerage firm making trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange now and he played like 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker, as a starting linebacker, which is a big deal. He was just a rookie on that team and he was just one of those guys who was really observant, watching everything, and could explain it really well. So you had the guys who were the great players, but they might not be a good interview. Like Dent who was a hall of fame player, but he’s not going to remember exactly–you know what I mean? Whereas Otis Wilson did, and Otis Wilson has a big complaint against Ditka, he was kind of angry. Morrissey did, and Brian Baschnagel, who was really one of the great players on the team when they were bad and was still with them in ’86, and he was just really interested in what was going on.
AB: And Ditka was pretty good with you too, wasn’t he?
RC: Yeah Ditka’s great. I mean, Ditka’s Ditka though. He’s like, “Why do you want to talk about ’85, why not about ’63? We had a pretty good team in ’63, why doesn’t anybody want to talk about the ’63 team?” Just stuff like that.
AB: I won’t keep you too much longer Rich, but there are two other things I wanted to touch on. Was Kahn’s The Boys of Summer a template?
RC: Yeah, Boys of Summer. As far as football books, and I’m not a completist, you know what I mean? I thought Paper Lion was a great book and one of the things that’s great about it is that Plimpton was a really excellent writer. He got this firsthand experience of catching a punt kicked by an NFL punter, and especially before ESPN and Hard Knocks and all that stuff, he went inside a place no one could go. I think it’s a great book and I think, though it’s a novel, North Dallas Forty, I think is a really great book, funny book. As far as football goes, I think the Michael Lewis book is really good about describing the offensive line.
AB: The one football book that I really was moved by was by John Ed Bradley who played at LSU and then was a writer for the Washington Post and then for Esquire and GQ for a bunch of years and SI, but he dropped out and became a novelist. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a memoir about John Ed growing up in Louisiana, his daddy was a high school football coach, and playing at LSU. He could have played in the NFL, but decided he wanted to be a writer. The book is about how for 20 some odd years, he couldn’t go back to LSU. He couldn’t talk to the people he played with because it was such a good time, it was such an elevated time, that he would never be able to get there again and it’s really a melancholy book, but I thought of that, his whole book is summed up into one sentence by Plank where he says, “If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it with the rest of your life.” That’s John Ed’s book. That’s fascinating to me that for some guys they can’t–and Plank seems to have gone on with his life and he was able to see that and sort of articulate that was really powerful.
RC: Well that’s why he was so great as a resource because he was both. He wasn’t a guy on the sideline, a guy on the periphery, he wasn’t a mediocre player, he was a great player, he really was. He was a heartbeat of the defense before he got hurt and he thought a lot about it. It’s just his description to me of when he got cut or basically got cut because he’s never going to be the same and he’s leaving the locker room and he sees Jeff Fisher and he tells Jeff Fisher and the whole look on Jeff Fisher face just changes like alright.
AB: You’re a civilian now.
RC: Yeah we’re not teammates and it’s over and how that registers is so sad for Plank, he just registers it.
AB: There’s a lot of sadness in sort of the idea, it’s not depressing really–
RC: It’s melancholy man, it’s melancholy.
AB: It really is, it’s sort of life moves on and you did this 25 years ago and sometimes even the idea of–I could almost imagine myself being a player and being like–
RC: Well, that’s the thing, like the shit about Walter Payton and what a hard time he had retiring, like it’s a surprise, how could you not? You put any human being in that situation where you give him that much adulation and control your life to that extent and it just ends and the fact that so many of these guys do so well is amazing. It just shows how strong they are. The fact that Doug Plank then while the Bears are in the Super Bowl, he’s running a Burger King, and he’s not screaming his head off. You know what I mean? And everyone’s talking about the 46 defense on TV and they don’t know it’s Doug Plank is in the Burger King.
AB: Well that’s one thing I think you do successfully in your book, I didn’t know what to expect. You touch on the big Vikings game in the ’85 season, the Cowboy game, you talk about games, but it’s like “and then in week two”–
RC: That’s what I’m saying, if people are expecting that, they’re going to be disappointed.
AB: To me that’s what’s so horrible even about baseball writing. “And then he hit the 2-2 pitch and laced it for a double,” even the language is horrible. How do you write interesting and lively prose about stuff that has been so clichéd over time?
RC: It’s really been a challenge and that’s what I mean when I say that there’s been books–every book I’ve read about a football season, they’re all like that. It’s like a blow–by-blow-by-blow of something that happened long ago that only means something and is only interesting if you’re a complete fanatic or it resonates in some bigger cultural way. That’s why Boys of Summer still resonates to people. Even if they haven’t read it, they know about it. Have you read it?
AB: I have, but to me it’s–I have mixed feelings about it but I’m still taken by Kahn’s ambition to write a great book. It’s melodramatic in parts but still powerful.
RC: That’s what’s good about it, like for me. It’s an imperfect book with a lot of flaws. You know what it’s like, when you read certain magazine writing and it’s so slick, you’re like I could never write that, but then you read something like Ian Frazier, who’s like a–I love him, you could tell a person made it, it’s like made by hand.
AB: What’s amazing reading it now is that Kahn had access to his subject that doesn’t exist anymore. The relationships that he had with these guys and the fact that he’s writing about the ’50s just as the whole ’50s craze, the whole Brooklyn thing was starting and it’s the last major thing ever written about Jackie Robinson before he dies. It set a standard that kind of book.
RC: You can’t sell what he’s selling anymore because for all the reasons you say, no one has that kind of access and what’s more, cameras are everywhere so people have seen, and also the fact that the guy made no money and you didn’t know what happened to them after they retired, they vanished. A guy working in the World Trade Center and putting in the elevators. The reason why–I agree with everything you’re saying, that’s why it was helpful for me because first of all it was totally imperfect and all kind of fucked up, yet so great. So you could sort of see how he put it together so obviously. Underneath it’s an incredibly simple structure, when you’re reading it you kind of forget that. For him, you’re always aware. It’s divided into thirds, it’s the history of the Dodgers up until when he was kid then it’s his own memoir, then it’s his season, culminating in his season with the team, which is not the season they want. So his season with the team, where the manager was Charlie Dressen, who was the first quarterback of the Bears technically. Then the ’55 season, like you expected, and then the last third—it’s not even integrated, it’s like separate chapters, separate essays about where are they now, about whatever it is, five or six guys culminating with Robinson, and that’s it, and it’s so simple, and it completely works. So that’s why it was–it’s not that it was the great be all and end all; it’s that he did something really really interesting, really really great and it’s very simple to see–to me–the structure of it is very plain. It’s like seeing a building and being able to see how it was put together. If you look at the sports books that had bigger culture resonance, Friday Night Lights does too. I thought that was actually a great book, there’s another book that’s sort of like not perfect, but it’s like Dreiser or something; it’s like the whole magnitude of it and the ambition is really interesting.
AB: So lastly, you write about the mixed emotions about the violence in the game. You love big hits but you love Dave Duerson more. Do you find that you don’t like football as much as you used to? You have three kids right?
RC: Yeah, but you know what though, I go back and forth about it because as a product as watching it, it’s just about as good as it’s even been, I believe. Part of me thinks there’s too much scoring because it becomes inflationary. I love hockey because there’s so much tension, who’s going to score? That’s kind of–some of these games seem like the Nerf football games you play as a kid and you say okay whoever scores next wins, but you don’t keep fucking score, everybody scores every time, so whoever is able to stop the team once is going to win. It seems like, as a Bears fan, you love defense and the defense had been so disadvantaged by the rules, partly to protect these guys and partly because people love to see goals, I mean people love to see points. When you see a guy, I remember when I was a kid, that Darryl Stingley had happened and it just really freaked me out, scared the shit out of me and then he came back and he was a paraplegic, it was just so awful. It is, it’s a tough thing.
AB: Now, when you did this book, you’re describing these guys walking around. You always talk about Plank’s titanium shoulders.
RC: The idea that Jim McMahon can’t play catch with me because he can’t fucking throw his keys—he’s all fucked up. So they made these decisions themselves. They had a choice and they made these decisions. A lot of them even knew because it wasn’t like if you were a player on the Bears and you were a rookie in ’85, all you had to do was look at Ditka, he was a fucking mess. He was a very physical player. He played for a very long time. But the fact is when you’re 22, you can’t make a decision like that. That’s why you need other people to protect you than yourself because you’ll do stupid shit, you’ll drink and drive, you’ll take drugs. You’ll do everything you’ll pay for later because you’re an idiot, you’re a kid. You’re just thinking about the next 10 minutes and you’re not thinking that other things–you haven’t lived long enough to realize that other thing is going to come around before you know it and you’re gonna have, you know. It’s just like what’s going to look good in the next. If you watched how a guy like McMahon played, he played like a guy who believed that it didn’t matter what happened in three years.. He’d dive head first. He would do it all the time and he loved it and he obviously was a guy who loved getting hit. There’s guys like that. We all grew up with them. He’s like sort of–
AB: He’s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s nuts.
RC: Yeah and that’s his whole thing and and especially now, it’s the coach’s job and the owner’s job and the GM’s. They have to protect that guy from himself. You’re using that quality he has to make your team great and to make this game exciting, but you also at the same time have a kind of responsibility to protect them from his own stupidity, that he can’t see what’s coming but you know because you’re 20 years older than him. Ditka would say, “Well I couldn’t change him—it would have ruined him.” That’s probably true to some degree. Now though it’s like watching a game, it’s like willing suspension of disbelief and you don’t think about it because you get into it, but when a guy gets really–when you see a bad hit, the kind you used to see 10 times in an ’85 Bears game you sort of have this moment of, what the fuck am I doing here. That’s what the league has to protect itself from because that’s what’s going to hurt the league.
MUNRO: I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish up around eleven. Then I do other things the rest of the day, unless I do my final draft or something that I want to keep working on then I’ll work all day with little breaks.
INTERVIEWER: Are you rigid about that schedule, even if there’s a wedding or some other required event?
MUNRO: I am so compulsive that I have a quota of pages. If I know that I am going somewhere on a certain day, I will try to get those extra pages done ahead of time. That’s so compulsive, it’s awful. But I don’t get too far behind, it’s as if I could lose it somehow. This is something about aging. People get compulsive about things like this. I’m also compulsive now about how much I walk every day.
INTERVIEWER: How much do you walk?
MUNRO: Three miles every day, so if I know I’m going to miss a day, I have to make it up. I watched my father go through this same thing. You protect yourself by thinking if you have all these rituals and routines then nothing can get you.
INTERVIEWER: After you’ve spent five months or so completing a story, do you take time off?
MUNRO: I go pretty much right into the next one. I didn’t use to when I had the children and more responsibilities, but these days I’m a little panicked at the idea of stopping—as if, if I stopped, I could be stopped for good. I have a backlog of ideas. But it isn’t just ideas you need, and it isn’t just technique or skill. There’s a kind of excitement and faith that I can’t work without. There was a time when I never lost that, when it was just inexhaustible. Now I have a little shift sometimes when I feel what it would be like to lose it, and I can’t even describe what it is. I think it’s being totally alive to what this story is. It doesn’t even have an awful lot to do with whether the story will work or not. What happens in old age can be just a draining away of interest in some way that you don’t foresee, because this happens with people who may have had a lot of interest and commitment to life. It’s something about the living for the next meal. When you travel you see a lot of this in the faces of middle-aged people in restaurants, people my age—at the end of middle age and the beginning of old age. You see this, or you feel it like a snail, this sort of chuckling along looking at the sights. It’s a feeling that the capacity for responding to things is being shut off in some way. I feel now that this is a possibility. I feel it like the possibility that you might get arthritis, so you exercise so you won’t. Now I am more conscious of the possibility that everything could be lost, that you could lose what had filled your life before. Maybe keeping on, going through the motions, is actually what you have to do to keep this from happening. There are parts of a story where the story fails. That’s not what I’m talking about. The story fails but your faith in the importance of doing the story doesn’t fail. That it might is the danger. This may be the beast that’s lurking in the closet in old age—the loss of the feeling that things are worth doing.
INTERVIEWER: One wonders though, because artists do seem to work to the very end.
MUNRO: I think it’s possible that you do. You may have to be a little more vigilant. It’s something I never would have been able to think of losing twenty years ago—the faith, the desire. I suppose it’s like when you don’t fall in love anymore. But you can put up with that because falling in love has not really been as necessary as something like this. I guess that’s why I keep doing it. Yes, I don’t stop for a day. It’s like my walk every day. My body loses tone now in a week if I don’t exercise. The vigilance has to be there all the time. Of course it wouldn’t matter if you did give up writing. It’s not the giving up of the writing that I fear. It’s the giving up of this excitement or whatever it is that you feel that makes you write. This is what I wonder: what do most people do once the necessity of working all the time is removed? Even the retired people who take courses and have hobbies are looking for something to fill this void, and I feel such horror of being like that and having that kind of life. The only thing that I’ve ever had to fill my life has been writing. So I haven’t learned how to live a life with a lot of diversity.
Michael Popek remembers visiting his grandfather’s four-story home in New Jersey, where anything that could be collected, was—stamps, toy train cars, cap guns, autographs, baseball cards. “There was a standing order not to touch any of the WWI grenades,” Popek says. As far as his grandfather knew, these were still live and active.
Those visits happened long before Popek, now 35, started gathering his own assortment of collectibles: things left between the pages of books, or as he calls them, Forgotten Bookmarks. It seems destined to happen, given that Popek comes from a family of collectors. He grew up in an old farmhouse in Oneonta, a small town in upstate New York. His father, Peter Popek, a former UPS deliveryman, started a book business in the mid-eighties, but only after coming upon a too-good-to-be-true deal at a local auction.
The offer was 5,000 books for $10. He paid an additional $10 for delivery. According to the elder Popek, no one wanted these books, including him. “We had no interest in books. We didn’t know anything about them. But we didn’t want to waste ‘em,” Peter Popek says. Within a few years, Michael’s father had filled a barn in the backyard with over 20,000 books. The Popeks also bought and sold antiques and owned a small shop in town, not far from their house. Slowly, though, the book collection muscled its way into the antique shop and took over much of the space.
In addition to your novels, you’ve also written a memoir. What makes a good memoir? Any recent memoirs you would recommend?
It’s not recent, but I would recommend “Bad Blood,” by Lorna Sage. It’s a memoir of childhood and private life that has an almost eerie immediacy. When I was reading it, I felt as if the author were talking to me: and I talked back (at least, in my head). Memoir’s not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.
“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)
Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.
What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.
Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?
Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.
BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.
PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.
BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.
PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.
BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?
PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.
BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.
PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.
BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?
PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.
BB: Did you get along with your editors?
PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.
BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.
PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.
BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.
PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.
BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?
PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.
BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?
PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.
BB: Was it a big transition for you?
PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.
BB: How so?
PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.
BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.
PD: Yeah, that’s right.
BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?
PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?
BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?
PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.
BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?
PD: No. Good Christ. No.
BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?
PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.
BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?
PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—
BB: Like your speaking voice—
PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.
BB: Kosher, huh?
BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?
PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.
BB: Did you write back to the guy?
PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.
BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?
PD: Read them? Sure.
BB: Did you enjoy them?
PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?
BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?”
PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.
BB: In your own life?
PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.
BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?
PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.
BB: The immediacy of it?
PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—
BB: Part of something.
PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.
BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.
PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.
BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?
PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.
BB: So it was a social thing, then.
PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.
BB: Was it like a locker room?
PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.
BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.
BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?
PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.
BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?
PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.
BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?
PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.
BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?
PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.
BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?
PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …
BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?
PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.
BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?
PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.
BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.
PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.
BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?
PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.
BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?
PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.
BB: When you go back, is it a different place?
PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.
BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.
PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.
PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.
BB: How is newspaper reporting different?
PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.
BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.
PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.
BB: Because of the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.
PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.
BB: What exactly was that?
PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.
BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.
PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.
BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?
PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.
BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?
PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.
BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.
BB: A nice thing to do.
PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.
You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.
DC: Did you see the Joseph Mitchell piece last week in the New Yorker?
MH: The lost story—yes.
DC: Last week they had a panel with David Remnick talking to Ian Frazier and Mark Singer and Mitchell’s biographer, who’s quite interesting. And they talked about Mitchell as a writer who’s on the street, who’s connected to the city, who understands the details of the people who live in the city. He would go to the Fulton Fish Market and walk up to the Bronx. The idea of a reporter was about going into the world and observing. It feels like such a different generation. There are a lot of those qualities in your book.
MH: Yes, it’s about reporting. I say this to the young generation at GQ. I learned this from one of my mentors, an editor in Chicago, and he said you’re never going to be a writer if you can’t be a reporter. I worked at this small magazine in Chicago right after college. It had a staff of four. I did everything: I answered phones, I fact-checked, I wrote captions. One day I was sitting there and he walked in and said, “What are you doing here? For the next four weeks I want you out there. I don’t care if you go to the zoo or ride a bus or sit in a diner but I want you to come back at 3 o’clock and I want you to write 800 words about what you did that day. What you saw.” I had from three to four to write it. We were still writing on typewriters and he would edit it for me. It was fantastic training.
It’s so true what you say about Mitchell, you have young people at the office. I ask them about a detail and they “Well, I Googled it.” And I say “Did you at least call and ask David Coggins if it has two G’s?” I think my book is vibrant in many places because I went out and reported it. I went to McCook, Nebraska and went to a small town in Kentucky to meet Natty Bumppo.