Over at audible, you can download the essay, “In Memory of a Friend, Teacher and Mentor” by Phillip Roth for free. Here’s more on the story at the Paris Review.
[Photo Credit: Dan Burn-Forti]
Over at audible, you can download the essay, “In Memory of a Friend, Teacher and Mentor” by Phillip Roth for free. Here’s more on the story at the Paris Review.
[Photo Credit: Dan Burn-Forti]
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.
[Photo Via: Magnificent Ruin]
Bronx Banter Interview
“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.
First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter’s work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.
I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)
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.
BB: Did you feel guilty at all?
PD: No. Why?
BB: Because he’d broken his arm in the bar fight you’d been in together the previous winter in South Philly.
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.
Hainey’s new book, After Visiting Friends looks like a good one.
Over at Salon, here’s the most gifted Jennifer Egan:
One of my strengths as a writer is that I’m a good problem-solver. I write these unthinking, ungoverned first drafts. The project for me always is to turn that instinctive stuff into pages that work.
I want all the flights of fancy, and I can only get them in a thoughtless way. So I allow myself that. Which means that my next step has to be all about problem-solving. My attitude cannot be, Gee, I wrote it, it’s good. I’d never get anywhere. It’s all about seeing what’s wrong from a very analytical place. It’s a dialectic.
Once I have a draft I make the plans, edit on hard copy, and make an extensive outline for the revision. The revision notes I wrote for “Look at Me” were 80 pages long.
This essay appears in a new book: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and WhyThey Do What They Do.
Check out this excellent Paris Review interview with the novelist/screenwriter, Richard Price:
I want to apologize for asking a personal question, but would you tell me about your hand?
My hand? Well, I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. It’s no big thing on a day-to-day basis; mostly people get uncomfortable when they have to shake hands with me. What the hell . . . of course, I’d like to be a weight lifter, but I can’t.
You’d like to be a weight lifter?
Anybody who has something wrong with them physically is kind of obsessed with their appearance, so I’m always dabbling with weight lifting. My left hand’s twice as strong as my right hand, so I never get anywhere with it, but…
I don’t want to get too abstruse here, but do you consider there’s any connection between all this and your becoming a writer?
If you’ve got something obviously awry in your appearance people treat you differently, like you’re a special case. It never stopped me from playing sports. I played handball for my high-school team. You have to be ambidextrous to be a good handball player. I developed a backhand to compensate. It was no big deal. But, then there would be all this drama. The gym teacher would see me playing with that fouled-up hand and he’d call me over with tears in his eyes and he’d say, Son, you can always play on my team.
It’s not like you walk around thinking about it all day. But as you grow up with this sense of yourself being singular, in some way you get hooked on the singularity of yourself. To be an artist is to be singular. I think, in some people, before the desire to write there is the desire to be special. That’s not exactly healthy, and there’s nothing relevant to creativity in that. Maybe I was just trying to maintain that sort of special thing by writing.
My grandmother, who was a big influence on my life, would take me under her wing because there was something wrong with my hand. She was a very unhappy person herself, very heavy, about five feet tall. Really overweight. Like two hundred pounds or more. It was her against the world and she saw me as her ally. I think she tended to see herself as a freak. There was something wrong with my hand, so we were fellow freaks . . . although she never said that to me. To go to her house on a Saturday was like getting parole for a day. I didn’t understand how unhappy and isolated she was, but she’d be all filled with this melodrama about everything. We’d sit and look out her Bronx kitchen window and watch the East 172nd Street follies. She’d see a black man who lived across the street and she’d say, Oh, this one is a gentleman, married to this white piece of trash. She goes with anything in pants. She has him wrapped around her little finger. Do you know how much of a gentleman this man is? If he goes into his building lobby to go into the elevator and he sees a white woman there who’s gonna get spooked by him because he’s a black man, do you know what he does? He steps out of the lobby so she can go up the elevator herself. Now, this is a gentleman. But that whore he’s married to . . . ?
Then there’d be some other guy: Oh, this son-of-a-bitch, he’s a junkie. Every time he sticks a needle in his arm it’s like sticking a needle in his mother’s heart. She comes to me, she says, Mrs. Rosenbaum, what can I do! What can I do! Richard, what am I going to tell her?
It was this constant rat-tat-tat. I’m six and I’m with the fattest, biggest ball of love to me. This is my grandmother. Then we’d go all day to monster movies. She’d be talking back to the screen the whole time.
In a neighborhood you wouldn’t go into with a tank. We’d watch The Attack of the Praying Mantis, along with The Crawling Eye and The Creature From Green Hell. She’d be the only person over fourteen in the whole theater. Not only that, the only person over one hundred and fifty pounds. She’d pack up these big, big vinyl, sort of, beach bags. She’d make sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and chocolate milk, and bring plums and nectarines. If there was a turkey carcass, she’d wrap it in silver foil so we could pick on the bones. We’d go into the movies with all this. We were ready for anything. And when we came out of the theater we’d have those little light dots in front of our eyes because we’d gone in at noon and we’d be coming out at five o’clock. Coming out, she’d walk all hunched over. She was only in her fifties, but she was so arthritic and rheumatic and heavy. We’d walk all the way back home, about one block every twenty minutes with that nonstop commentary about everybody who crossed our path. She lived on the third floor of a walk-up, so that took another hour, one step at a time. Then we get up there, and even after the triple horror feature we’d watch Zacherly’s Shock Theater, pro wrestling, Roller Derby—everything—drama, stories, tragedies, drama, drama.
One time she took me to a wrestling arena in the early fifties in the height of summer. She had me on her lap and when one of the villains walked by she jabbed him with a hatpin. She was what was known as a Hatpin Mary. So, for the next match, when Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, this peroxide pompadoured villain, who wore a leopard-skin Tarzan getup, came strutting down the aisle, people were looking at my grandmother and they started chanting, Stick him! Stick him! He heard the chant and stood right over us, daring her. She was paralyzed, so he took her hand with the hatpin, a woman who probably felt very unloved by the world, bowed down and kissed it, said, “Madam.” And then he continued walking toward the ring. At which point my grandmother dropped me, just dropped me on the floor. I remember ten, fifteen years later, when I would watch wrestling with my grandmother, every once in a while she’d say, I wonder how Nature Boy Buddy Rogers is doing. He’s such a nice guy.
[Photo Credit: MPR]
Do you write with a sense of your audience? Or is it more like Gertrude Stein said, that you write for yourself and strangers?
I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.
I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.
[Photo Credit: Land-Sh]
Here’s Richard Russo in the L.A. Times talking about his latest book, Elsewhere, a memoir about his relationship with his mother:
Why your first memoir now?
In a sense I would have preferred that it be never. I’m a perfectly happy novelist. I love to invent things. But in the months after my mother’s death, which was about five years ago, she was very much on my mind and also visiting my dreams as well, which made it feel to me like maybe there was unfinished business there.
I think that this book is in a way connected to my novels, especially the last couple, because “Empire Falls” and “Bridge of Sighs” are both about people who are pushing 60 pretty hard and wondering, how in the world did I come to be here? [In “Empire Falls,] Miles Roby has this profound sense of his mother’s dream for him, and he imagines this other life where he is a learned man if only he had finished college the way she wanted him to and become some sort of teacher or professor, that he would have fulfilled her dream. In “Bridge of Sighs,” Lucy Lynch, who never leaves his hometown, wonders, how is it that life turned out this way? What was it in my genetic makeup, what were the choices that I made?
And in the months after my mother’s death, I found myself puzzling over these questions of destiny, because we shared so many similarities, both of nature and nurture. We’re both obsessive genetically, I think.
…Did you feel it was your responsibility to make your mother happy, which she never really was?
Yes, I felt the weight of that. I felt that if she wasn’t both happy and healthy — and healthy every bit as happy, because at a very early age, I felt that her health was in some way my responsibility… We’re not talking about front-of-the-brain stuff, we’re talking about back of the brain. I mean I’m not stupid. I know that nobody can make somebody else happy or healthy, but that’s in the front of the brain. That’s what you know intellectually, which has really very little to do with that other part of the brain that you don’t have control of.
I wondered whether there wasn’t something about the intensity of this relationship that was peculiar to the fact that it was between a mother and son, especially since the mother is a single parent and the son a single child.
When you’re an only child and you have no one to compare notes with, everything seems normal. And for me, part of the experience of writing this book was not to tell people what I knew, but rather to tell them what I didn’t know, what it was like growing up as a child with someone you sensed was in some way possessed.
[Photo Credit: Joel Page]
This speaks to me. From Isaac Chotiner’s 2008 Atlantic interview with Jhumpa Lahiri:
One critic who reviewed your first book said that your prose is extremely un-self-conscious and not showy. Without making a judgment on that, do you think he was correct?
I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more. There’s form and there’s function and I have never been a fan of just form. My husband and I always have this argument because we go shopping for furniture and he always looks at chairs that are spectacular and beautiful and unusual, and I never want to get a chair if it isn’t comfortable. I don’t want to sit around and have my language just be beautiful. If you read Nabokov, who I love, the language is beautiful but it also makes the story and is an integral part of the story. Even now in my own work, I just want to get it less—get it plainer. When I rework things I try to get it as simple as I can.
Do you have any desire to write a huge, panoramic novel?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m an effusive writer. My writing tends not to expand but to contract. If I do write more novels, I think they’ll be more streamlined and concentrated.
That fits into what you were saying about your prose style, right?
Maybe. Yes. I don’t like excess. When a great sweeping work is great, what makes it great is that there’s no excess.
[Photo Credit: Camille Van Horne]
ML: One aspect of public relations at which Land was especially adept was in building relationships with artists. Because a Polaroid camera is a bit clumsy in the hand and hard to focus, because the saturation of the film is so idiosyncratic and rich, and because the format is so unique, Polaroid encourages, as you note, a kind of self-conscious artiness. It’s amazing what a broad spectrum of artists ended up working with Polaroid. I know when I started taking Polaroids, I was influenced by Walker Evans, one of the “house” artists.
CB: That’s somewhat true — though I’d say that it even more encouraged a kind of casual artless shooting that equates with what we do on social networks. The other day, I met an artist named Tom Slaughter who was a huge Polaroid user back in the eighties. We were going through his photos — he has thousands — and it’s striking how much each box of them looks like an Instagram feed. They’re the same kinds of casual snapshots that somehow also feel documentary and a little profound: people eating and drinking, sitting on the porch, whatever. And it’s even the same square format, which is not an accident: the Instagram guys explicitly pay homage to Polaroid in their logo, and have a display of old Polaroid cameras in their offices. On the genuinely arty end of things, though, it’s true that Polaroid opened up its own big niche. The spontaneity was valuable to some people, like Andy Warhol; the color was especially useful to others, like Marie Cosindas; and the unique technology was valuable to Ansel Adams and a lot of other people.
I’ll never forget my father’s Polaroid camera, the sound of it being unfolded, the pleasure in pressing the red buttom to take a picture (always a treat), watching the image come out. And then fighting with my brother and sister to see which one of us could shake the photograph until an image appeared. It felt like magic.
[Photo Credit: Sincerely Lola]
Sam Anderson interviewed Junot Diaz in yesterday’s Times Magazine about Diaz’s new collection of short stories, This is How You Lose Her:
How many stories did you generate in total?
I’ll tell you what, I can name the stories for “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” before “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” came. There’s a story called “Primo” that was supposed to be at the end of the book — that was a miserable botch. I spent six months on that, and it never came together. There was a story called “Santo Domingo Confidential” that was trying to be the final story, that I spent a year on. I must have written a hundred pages. It was another farrago of nonsense. I wrote a summer story where the kid gets sent to the Dominican Republic while his brother is dying of cancer; he gets sent because his mom can’t take care of him. It was a story I called “Confessions of a Teenage Sanky-Panky,” which was even worse than all the other ones put together. And that was another 50-page botch.
That must be tough.
That’s why I never want to do this again. It’s like you spend 16 years chefing in the kitchen, and all that’s left is an amuse-bouche.
There’s a classic bit of creative-writing-class advice that tells us we need to learn to turn off our internal editors. I’ve never understood how to unbraid the critical and the creative. How do you manage that?
You’ve raised one of the thorniest dialectics of working, which is that you need your critical self: without it you can’t write, but in fact the critical self is what’s got both feet on the brakes of your process. My thing is, I’m just way too harsh. It’s an enormous impediment, and that’s just the truth of it. It doesn’t make me any better, make me any worse, it certainly isn’t more valorous. I have a character defect, man.
So turn on your harsh paternalistic, militaristic critic —
It’s my dad.
O.K., invite your dad in: I want to hear his review of Junot Díaz the bad writer. What is wrong with that stuff? What are the mistakes you make?
First of all, nonsense characterization. The dullest, wet-noodle characteristics and behaviors and thoughts and interests are ascribed to the characters. These 80-year-old, left-in-the-sun newspaper-brittle conflicts — where the conflicts are so ridiculously subatomic that you have to summon all the key members of CERN to detect where the conflict in this piece is. It just goes on, man. You know, I force it, and by forcing it, I lose everything that’s interesting about my work. What’s interesting about my work, for me — not for anyone else; God knows, I can’t speak for that — what’s interesting in my work is the way that when I am playing full out, when I am just feeling relaxed and I’m playing, and all my faculties are firing, but only just to play. Not to get a date, not because I want someone to hug me, not because I want anyone to read it. Just to play.
[Photo Credit: Fornication]
Head on over to Flavorwire for these pearls of wisdom from William Faulkner…
“Read, read, read. Read everything —trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” – Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947
“All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy.” – Interview with The Paris Review, 1956
[Image Via: The Economist]
Pelecanos was a writer, story editor and producer for “The Wire.” He wrote crucial scenes as different as the ex-junkie Bubbles’ breakthrough at a 12-step meeting and the western-style standoff in an alley between Omar Little, the street legend who robs drug dealers, and Brother Mouzone, the prim shootist from New York. Pelecanos also created Cutty, a character who turns away from the street life and opens a boxing gym, and gave “The Wire” its Greek gangsters, even providing the background voices shouting in Greek when the cops raided a warehouse. In story meetings, he refereed arguments between Simon and Ed Burns, the show’s other co-creator.
“Ed and I are often butting heads in a way that somebody who doesn’t know us might think is toxic,” Simon told me. “George’s essential role was to be the gravitas, to make the decision. We’d present our best arguments, and he’d sit and listen until he couldn’t stand it any longer. He was the one with the storytelling chops to decide. He has a really strong ear for theme and idea. He writes books and scripts that are about something. When George says you won an argument, you feel good because it means the idea was good.”
Expanding on his description of Pelecanos as a moralist, Simon said: “We didn’t know we needed Cutty until George invented him. It’s not about plotting, it’s about defining some aspect of human endeavor that wasn’t covered by other characters. Institutionally, not much is redeemed in ‘The Wire,’ yet all of us believe in the individual’s ability to act. George said, ‘We need a moral center.’_”
Burns told me a story about scripting the death of Wallace, a likable corner boy gunned down by his pals. “It could have been just Bodie, who was pretty much a monster back then, who would just walk up and kill him. But that would have left nothing for Poot, and it would have sealed Bodie as a character. The way George wrote it, Bodie can’t finish it, and Poot, who’s a good friend of Wallace, has to step up and do it. That transcends genre; that’s squeezing all the juice out of a scene.” Bodie opens up as a character from that point, grappling with a dawning understanding that the large forces bearing down on him make it almost impossible for him to act honorably and survive. “That’s why you hire writers like George,” said Burns, “because they find what’s inside a scene, what’s inside the character.”
This piece is featured in a compelling new collection of Rotella’s non fiction work: Playing in Time.
I highly recommended it.
[Photo Credit: Ian Allen for Stop Smiling]
The other day, Glenn Stout mentioned this 2010 Paris Review Art of Non-Fiction Interview with John McPhee.
I hadn’t read the piece in a few years but was happy to revisit it:
INTERVIEWER: What were your first impressions (of New Yorker editor William Shawn)?
MCPHEE: He spoke so softly. I was awestruck: the guy’s the editor of The New Yorker and he’s this mysterious person. It was the most transforming event of my writing existence, meeting him, and you could take a hundred years to try to get to know him, and this was just the first day. But he was a really encouraging editor. Shawn always functioned as the editor of new writers, so he edited the Bradley thing. So I spent a lot of time in his office, talking commas. He explained everything with absolute patience, going through seventeen thousand words, a comma at a time, bringing in stuff from the grammarians and the readers’ proofs. He talked about each and every one of these items with the author. These were long sessions. At one point I said, Mr. Shawn, you have this whole enterprise going, a magazine is printing this weekend, and you’re the editor of it, and you sit here talking about these commas and semicolons with me—how can you possibly do it?
And he said, It takes as long as it takes. A great line, and it’s so true of writing. It takes as long as it takes.
McPhee is talking about writing here but I think can apply to anything. And it’s a wonderful, necessary reminder that nothing worth having comes fast.
MCPHEE: The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly. A John Updike comes along, he’s an anomaly. That’s no model, that’s a phenomenon. I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope. This is terribly important to me as a teacher of writers, of kids who want to write.
INTERVIEWER: After you’ve done your reporting, how do you proceed with a piece?
MCPHEE: First thing I do is transcribe my notes. This is not an altogether mindless process. You’re copying your notes, and you get ideas. You get ideas for structure. You get ideas for wording, phraseologies. As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.
And so now you’ve got piles of stuff on the table, unlike a fiction writer. A fiction writer doesn’t have this at all. A fiction writer is feeling her way, feeling her way—it’s much more of a trial-and-error, exploratory thing. With nonfiction, you’ve got your material, and what you’re trying to do is tell it as a story in a way that doesn’t violate fact, but at the same time is structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read.
I always say to my classes that it’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.
[Photo Credit: Peter C. Cook; painting by Paul Cezanne]
Rest in peace Ray Bradbury. A master.
Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.
Imagine if sixty years ago, at the start of my writing career, I had thought to write a story about a woman who swallowed a pill and destroyed the Catholic Church, causing the advent of women’s liberation. That story probably would have been laughed at, but it was within the realm of the possible and would have made great science fiction. If I’d lived in the late eighteen hundreds I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.
Today is a good day.
Robert Caro probably knows more about power, political power especially, than anyone who has never had some. He has never run for any sort of office himself and would probably have lost if he had. He’s a shy, soft-spoken man with old–fashioned manners and an old-fashioned New York accent (he says “toime” instead of “time” and “foine” instead of fine), so self-conscious that talking about himself makes him squint a little. The idea of power, or of powerful people, seems to repel him as much as it fascinates. And yet Caro has spent virtually his whole adult life studying power and what can be done with it, first in the case of Robert Moses, the great developer and urban planner, and then in the case of Lyndon Johnson, whose biography he has been writing for close to 40 years. Caro can tell you exactly how Moses heedlessly rammed the Cross Bronx Expressway through a middle-class neighborhood, displacing thousands of families, and exactly how Johnson stole the Texas Senate election of 1948, winning by 87 spurious votes. These stories still fill him with outrage but also with something like wonder, the two emotions that sustain him in what amounts to a solitary, Dickensian occupation with long hours and few holidays.
…Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. He dresses every day in a jacket and tie and reports to a 22nd-floor office in a nondescript building near Columbus Circle, where his neighbors are lawyers or investment firms. His office looks as if it belongs to the kind of C.P.A. who still uses ledgers and a hand-cranked adding machine. There are an old wooden desk, wooden file cabinets and a maroon leather couch that never gets sat on. Here Caro writes the old-fashioned way: in longhand, on large legal pads.
On the twenty-second floor of the Fisk Building in New York — an elegant brick giant built in 1921, stretching an entire block of West Fifty-seventh Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue — the hallways are lined with doors bearing gold plaques. The plaques reveal the professions of the people at work behind them: lawyers, accountants, financial advisors. But one plaque displays only a name, with no mention of the man’s business: ROBERT A. CARO.
Behind that door on this February morning, as on most mornings for the twenty-two years he has occupied this office, Caro is hunched over his desk. His tie is still carefully knotted; his hair is slicked back. But his fingers are black with pencil. In front of him is a pile of white paper: the galleys for The Passage of Power, the fourth book in his enormous biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The seventy-six-year-old Caro has worked on this project nearly every day since 1974; he has been working on this particular volume for ten years. In most cases, once a book reaches galleys — once it has been designed and typeset and a few preliminary copies printed, unbound — it is finished, or close to it. All that remains is one last pass. This is not true for Caro. For him, the galleys are simply another stage of construction. Less than three months before three hundred thousand copies of his book are due to be in stores on May 1, Caro has torn down and rebuilt the fifth paragraph on the 452nd page — and torn it down again. (It is, in fact, the fifth paragraph on the 2,672nd page of his work, factoring in the first three volumes of the series: The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate.) Now nearly every word of it sits dismantled in front of him like the pieces of a watch. He starts fresh. “The defeat had repercussions beyond the Court,” he writes.
This was meant to be the last of the Johnson books, but it is not. The Passage of Power spans barely four years in 605 pages. It picks up Johnson’s story with the 1960 Democratic nomination, won by a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, and it ends with President Lyndon Johnson passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. There is an assassination in between. On two large rectangular bulletin boards, Caro has carefully pinned up his outline for his next volume, the fifth book, the rest of the story: Vietnam, resignation, defeat. The pages of that outline overlap the lighter rectangles where the outline for the fourth book had been pinned for so many years. “I don’t feel my age,” Caro says, “so it’s hard for me to believe so much time has passed.” He knows the last sentence of the fifth book, he says — the very last sentence. He knows what stands between him and those final few words, most immediately the fifth paragraph on page 2,672. He digs his pencil back into the paper.
This room is almost a temple to timelessness. Caro has worked with the same set of tools since 1966, when he began his first book, The Power Broker, his definitive 1,162-page biography of Robert Moses, the controversial New York planner and builder. For so many writers, for most of them, The Power Broker, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, would represent their crowning achievement; for Caro, it was just the beginning. Back then, he and his wife, Ina, lived in a pretty little house in Roslyn, Long Island — he was a reporter at Newsday — and one of the great crumbling neighboring estates had a fire sale. Caro went. He bought a chess set, and he bought a lamp. The lamp was bronze and heavy and sculpted, a chariot rider pulled along by two rearing horses. “It cost seventy-five dollars,” Caro remembers. The chess set is hidden away under a couch in their apartment on Central Park West. The lamp is here on his desk, spilling light onto his galleys. Except for a brief period when he couldn’t afford an office, when Caro worked instead in the Allen Room at the New York Public Library, he has written every word of every one of his books in the same warm lamplight, millions of words under the watch of that chariot rider and his two horses.
“Nobody believes this, but I write very fast,” he says.
[Photo Credit: Ethan Hill for Esquire]
Here’s an NPR interview Crews did with Terry Gross in the 1980s and here is a recent one with Vice Magazine.
Rest in Peace.