Stephen Rodrick is one of our finest magazine writers and this spring he published a compelling memoir about this father, The Magical Stranger. Check out book excerpts in the New York Times; Slate, and a nice long one in Men’s Journal. And visit The Magical Stranger website.
I had the chance to talk with Stephen about the book recently. Here’s our conversation:
Q: As a magazine writer you are used to dropping in on a subject and then you’re out. What was it like having to live with this material for a long period of time?
SR: Well, for my sanity and finances I kept my hand in the magazine game writing three or four pieces a year while reporting the book. That gave me some much-needed distance from all the heaviness that permeates the book. I remember I was writing the chapter on re-creating my dad’s accident and was sinking into the pit of despair, and next thing I knew I was in Malibu with Rick Rubin as he dodged the pot smoke from the guitarist of System of the Down and brought his own eggs to a restaurant before going to work out with the cranky doctor guy from Scrubs. The same thing with the Lindsay Lohan/Canyons story, I just returned from the Gulf where Tupper was struggling through his last cruise and we watched Iranian ‘fishing’ boats shadow the USS Lincoln’s moves through the Gulf. I flew off back through the protests in Bahrain and a few weeks later I’m in the back of Lohan’s Porsche as she flips off the paparazzi in Santa Monica. They were nice Fellini moments to break up trying to decipher the precise speed that my dad’s plane hit the water before disintegrating.
Q: Were there any memoirs that you read, and particularly liked, before writing yours?
SR: I was drawn to James Salter’s Burning the Days because he was a combat pilot back in the 1950s and wrote beautifully about the flying life. On the flip side, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is a novel that reads like a memoir and I’ve read that a half-dozen times. The two couldn’t be more different, but they both share a certain simplicity in the language that I loved.
Q: Have you always felt that this was the story one day you were destined to tell?
SR: I don’t know if I felt I was destined to write it, but it had been gnawing at me for years and i just didn’t feel I had the emotional strength to write it in the way I knew I wanted to do it. The final kick in the ass, was VAQ-135, my Dad’s old squadron, was phasing out the Prowler, his old plane, and I knew it was now or never if I wanted to follow his old squadron flying his old plane. They even got me up in a flight, which was one of the most frightening and meaningful moments of my life even if I did boot a spectacular yellow fluid into my barf bag.
Q: How did you arrive at the narrative structure for the story, shifting between your story from childhood through the present, with that of Tupper and the current Navy?
SR: It just sort of happened naturally, I’m not a big outliner, but I knew the chapters I wanted to write and they somehow clicked into place. I know I wanted to start at both of our points of entry: For me, the day my father was killed marked an obvious demarcation in my life. For Tupper, it was the day that he took command. From there, things sort of tumbled out naturally going back and forth between my journey and Tupper’s. I was hoping the reader would be able to see what life was like from the two perspectives: The son left behind and the father trying to do his job.
Q: Early in the story you talk about being described as “the magical stranger” by a friend who says that you have this remarkable ability to adapt to social situations and put people at ease.
SR: Yeah, as a magazine writer, you’re always the new kid, you don’t know where the bathrooms are etc. I don’t put on a persona when I go and talk with people; I’m just me, just a paying more attention me. With very few exceptions, I’ve been blessed to write about men and women I find fascinating so I don’t have to fake it.
Q: As a military kid you moved around a lot, always being the new kid. Is that charm, for lack of a better word, the ability to get people to feel comfortable, something that’s conscious?
A: That’s a really good question. Is it a nature or nurture thing? I was always the smartass from the start, but I don’t know if it was just the nature of my personality or part of always being the new kid and realizing that the best way to ingratiate yourself is to get people either laughing with you or laughing at you, whichever one doesn’t really matter.
Q: Has it ever gotten in the way of you forming intimate relationships–not with subjects so much, as friends, family?
SR: I’m not sure. There’s a restless nature in me that doesn’t always mesh with every-day life. I think the key is finding like-minded people who understand that and still love you anyway. I think one of the great things about doing the book was finding out that my purportedly straight-arrow dad was a troublemaker in his younger days. I’d always felt with my personality that I was an alien in my own family and a massive disappointment. I found a diary he kept when he was thirteen, the age I was when he was killed. And sure, he’s serving mass and getting scholarships, but he’s also getting called a punk by the nuns and hitchhiking throughout New England as an eighth grader. I went to his 50th high school reunion and a friend of his told me: The stuff Pete cared about, he was the best and smartest kid I ever knew, the stuff Pete didn’t care about he didn’t give a damn about and he’d stare out the window for the entire class. And that was gratifying to me because I’m sort of the same way. I found a precious connection that I never knew was there and eased my burden of never feeling like I could measure up to him. It’s like he was a statue on a pedestal that magically walked off it and put his arm around me and said, “Son don’t sweat it, I’ve done some dubious things. It’s ok.” There’s never been a man more excited that his dad was a teen fuck-up than me.
Q: You also say that it was your father who was really the magical stranger. How did you fantasize how things would have turned out had he not been killed?
SR: Well, there’s the fantasy and the reality. The fantasy is he would of came home and we would have probably moved to DC and he would have kicked me into shape and I would have ended up at Georgetown or one of the Ivies and gone on to be president of the United States. The reality is he was a devout Catholic while I was distancing myself from Catholicism quickly before I hit twenty. We probably would have fought over that. So, you just never know how it could have been. But I’d pay any price to have the chance to find out.
Q: You’re tough on yourself when you describe yourself as a kid. Now that the book is finished, have you let go of any of the harsh judgment?
SR: Ha! I wish. I think it’s hard to shake a childhood where everyone is constantly disappointed in you. Whether it’s a priest—later busted for pedophilia—telling you that “you’re the man of the house,” and then not stepping up or entering high school with one of the highest board scores and the vice principal telling your Mom at graduation that “Steve was the student with the most potential who did the least with it.” (Thanks Ms. King!). It’s hard to shake that even after having success as an adult. I still see myself as inherently lazy while my wife sees me as a workaholic. But I’m trying to give myself more of a break. Sometimes, I tell myself, Hey, you lost your Dad at thirteen when you needed him most and you might have stumbled, but you didn’t fall. You still turned out ok. You’re a man your father would be proud of. (Well, he wouldn’t be proud that I hate the Red Sox, but most things). I try to own that as much as I can.
Q: Did you emphasize your difficulties in the book for the sake of a dramatic arc?
SR: Nope. The one thing I wanted to do with my story and my family story and Tupper’s story was to keep it simple: This how this happened. This is how we dealt with it. One thing I can say is I lived this life, not just my own but Tupper’s life for three years. You can criticize my approach as artless, but I’ve never had much time for grandiose set-ups, faux Faulkner hand wringing, or 2000 words of throat clearing before you get down to the task at hand. To me, this is what my life and the life of the others I wrote about really were like, good and bad, dangerous and idiotic.
Q: I was compelled by how your family dealt with things by not dealing with them—the Rodrick way. When you approached your mom to talk about your father you discovered that you’d both avoided it in order to spare the other person’s feelings. Yet your mom seemed willing, appreciative even, to share her memories. Has your relationship for the better?
SR: It has. We sort of had this standoff for decades where she thought I didn’t want to talk about my father and she thought I didn’t want to talk about him. It really took me writing the book for us to breakthrough that wall. So thank you to the publishing world.
Q: How did she like the book?
SR: Funny story. My mom is the only person in the book that I let read it in galleys. I went to see visit her in Michigan and stayed with my sister about 20 miles away. After she had the book for a few days, she told me she had read it and told me to come over for lunch and we could talk about it. I arrived, very nervous and sweaty. But she told me she liked it and that she was very proud. I was so relieved; we watched the Lions lose, had lunch and took her dog for a walk. It was perfect. I drove back to my sister’s and spent about 24 hours in a state of euphoria, blasting their stereo and dancing around in my boxers. But then my sister came up for work and just shook her head at me and said, “You’ve got to go and talk to mom again, she’s bitching about the book all over town.” (Mind you, all over town would be maybe five people).
I drove back over to her house with a single Xanax in my jean pocket not sure if it was for her or me. She let me in and said, “I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I come across as a bit of a bitch in the book.” I told that wasn’t other people’s take, but she said “It’s not anything you say isn’t true, but there’s no mention that even in the worst of the times, I kept you fed, washed your clothes, and car-pooled us all over town.” And she was absolutely right; I’d fallen into a somewhat myopic well on that subject. I was happy to add a few lines to the book to make it clear, it was the least I could do. My mom is a sweetheart who was left with three kids at 36, one who was a constant pain in the ass—that would be me. She did the best she could and none of her children were lost. We’re all doing pretty well and that’s a testament to her.
Q: I think you’re fair to your mom. What I found moving was that she apologized to you for being so hard on you back when you were a kid. To me that’s the real takeaway—parents do the best that they can.
SR: That’s it exactly. The Go-Betweens have a song called “Devil’s Eye” that has a line that goes “Sometimes, we don’t come through, sometimes we just get by,” and that. I think, is pretty true of the human condition. Saying you’re sorry and forgiving make the world go round. And Chipotle.
Q: You don’t really mention it in the book but did you seek out father figures, mentors, or just older men to hang out with as you’ve grown up?
SR: No, not really, probably to my own detriment. I know this sounds like something out of a cheddar voiceover in a Western, but I’ve always found more comfort in the company of women than men. Maybe it’s not surprising since I grew up with my mom and two sisters, but there it is. Not having a mentor professionally probably has hurt me at different points, but it’s also saved me from idol worship, which might be an even tradeoff.
Loudon Wainwright has a great song “One Man Guy,” that his own children, Rufus and Martha, sing probably to taunt him a bit. (My ex-wife hated that I loved it.)
The solo life that Loudon’s raves about as a young man comes across as sad in middle-age so I’ve made an effort to reach out and make more dude friends. But they’re all equals–Fed Ex delivery guys, Navy pilots, book editors–no one that I put on a pedestal as a mentor. I think part of that is because I always had my father on that pedestal, there wasn’t room for anyone else.
Q: It makes sense about being more comfortable around women, and not having room for mentors with your father looming so large. Have there been other magazine writers that, if you haven’t worshipped, then admired? Both in creatively and just how they conduct themselves?
SR: I fell in love with magazines as a kid reading Sports Illustrated, all those bonus pieces week-after-week. Frank Deford’s byline is the first one I distinctly remember. That’s not a bad one. His pieces are not-flashy, but funny and human. That’s something to shoot for.
Someone gave me Pat Jordan’s first memoir, A False Spring, and I’ve read it many times. I finally met him a few years back when I was in Florida on a spring training story and a friend suggested I meet Pat so he could finally tell me the difference between a curve and a slider.
I went to his house in Fort Lauderdale. We had a drink and either he or his wife was packing heat. There were dogs and birds screeching and Jordan kept telling me, “Get out of New York, move to Florida, you can live on 65 grand here, make 65, you’ve made your nut.” I was like “What is this nut you so speaketh about?” We went out for dinner and I think New York Magazine ended up buying a take-out steak for their dogs. And I thought, Now, here is a guy I can look up to.
Q: That’s great. In the book, you talk about sports and politics being a big deal for you as a kid but only touch on how music impacted your life. When did it become a major part of who you were?
SR: I’ve got a big weakness for the line of tart, clever British songwriters from Ray Davies to Paul Weller, to Damon Albarn, to Pete Doherty. Oh The Beatles aren’t so bad. My love of music started as a kid listening to transistor radio on my back delivering newspapers. I remember hearing Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” at 12 or 13 and going ‘oh wow, this song isn’t a happy one. Guy’s talking about being the joke of the neighborhood, what he could have done with a little more time, and that his wife thinks he’s gone insane. And that was a Top 40 song! I loved that you could tell a story in three to five minutes. I love the economy of language you need to write a great pop song.
The older I get the more I listen to it as I write to set a mood, if I need little anger/outrage I go with The Stones’ “Monkey Man” because of the great marimbas at the beginning, the swaggering guitars, and the bad/sublime lyrics: “I’m a flea bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies. That’s not really true. I’m a cold Italian pizza I could use a lemon squeezer.” He’s an animal an unreliable narrator, and then pens worst line ever. Genius!
Q: “Monkey Man” is one of my all-time favorites. What were you listening to while you wrote the book?
SR: Half the World Away by Oasis. ‘So here I go, still scratching around in the same old hole, my body feels young, but my mind is very old,’ was sort of my personal motto for the book along with another line, “I’ve been lost, I’ve been found, but I don’t feel down.” ITunes says I listened to the song 397 times. Perhaps that is too much.
Q: What was the reaction from the military guys you hung with after the book came out?
SR: I’d say 99% of them loved it and loved the Catch-22 tales I tell of squadron life. Of course, they’re human and they all wish I’d left the story about the time they buzzed Midway Island causing an ecological furor or sprinted across an Army base in Japan just in a kimono hoping to thank the base CO for his hospitality at 4am in the morning out of the book. But they’ve been so supportive, I consider myself lucky to have these nuts in my life.
Q: Beyond that, what has been the response from military families that you don’t know to the book?
SR: I’ve got some great notes on my website and people coming up to me at readings and saying, ‘I lost my dad in a helo crash when I was twelve and your book said all the things I couldn’t say.’ That means more to me than I can say.
Q: How do you feel—exhilaration, relief, let down?—now that it’s done?
SR: Well, like most of life it has been alternately spectacular and heartbreaking. The friends and family that have come up to me at readings and written to be about my Dad makes me feel closer to him than I ever felt possible. But there is a bit of postpartum depression that sets in when your book is done. Should I have spent another year on it? Should I have spent a year less on it? They’re no greater second guessers than authors. Well, except for Stephen A. Smith. I love that guy.
Q: What does it say about the world that you can spend three years on a book but one quote of Serena Williams saying something dumb and that’s what people focus on?
SR: There’s not a lot you can do about it: She said it, it exploded, and the rest of the story has sort of have been forgotten. That happens, but it’s frustrating because I think there’s a lot of stuff in the story that paints her as a real, live human trying to figure life out. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s all the nature of modern life if you search my name on Nexis—not that I would do such a narcissistic thing!—you’ll find eighty or ninety mentions of the Serena and Lohan pieces, and maybe five or six on my book. But hey, THAT’S SHOW BUSINESS.
Q: You do a lot of magazine stories on jocks and entertainers. Access is so difficult to come by these days. How do you work around the restrictions?
SR: That’s a simple one: unless I can get enough to spend enough time to write about anyone—navy pilot, tennis player, independent film festival guy– where I feel like I have a sense of who they are, then I’ll pass on the story. I’ve only done two or three profiles based on a single sit-down interview and I hated it. I know there’s a whole genre of magazine profile writing where the guy–and it’s always a guy–tap dances for 2000 words before you get a snippet of the guy he’s writing about. It’s like a 30-second commercial where you don’t know what the hell they’re selling until the tag line at the end. I’ll tell my editor to cut the story from 4,500 to 2,500 words just so I don’t have to play Three Card Monte for half the piece. I want to write ‘this is what the person was like from observing him and watching him in action not ‘this is what the person is like in my fantasy relating to my childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia.
Q: Last one. I wonder, do you still feel the same restlessness now that you did when you were a kid or even in your 20s?
SR: I do, but in a different way. Now I just want to have two residences, down from the four or five of a decade ago. I’d love someday to own a summer place up in Anacortes, Washington where the book is largely set. It is so goddamned beautiful and it’s 58 degrees and misty which is my kind of weather. It’s strange, I only lived there from seven to thirteen, but I feel that place is home deep down in my bones. I remember being in Dublin once and I heard some teen buskers playing this beautiful song “Learn to Be Still” and I was struck: That’s exactly what I need to do: Learn to be still. I gave them money and had them play it again. A little later, I found out it was an Eagles song. I took that as an ominous sign and kept moving.
Q: Ha. So, what’s next?