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Interview: January 10, 2003

January 10, 2003

In this interview with's Tom Callahan, acclaimed novelist and journalist Pete Hamill discusses his latest novel FOREVER, conveys his love of New York City and explains why he feels "New York fatalism" has helped make life "tolerable" since 9/11/01.

BRC: Is it true that you completed FOREVER on the morning of 9/11/01 and were about to drop it off at the publishers when the attack took place? Did you then have to do a lot of rewriting?

PH: Yes. After three years of work, I finished the manuscript at 11:20 on the evening of September 10. I sent an e-mail to my editor, saying I was finished, then hugged my wife. I had an 8:15 meeting at the Museum of the City of New York on Chambers Street, and at about 8:50 the world changed. After the emergency settled down, many days later, and I turned to the novel again, I knew I had to do much more than I'd already done. That final draft took almost another year.

BRC: Your description of the attack is powerful and journalistic. How difficult was it to write this? Were you afraid that, with the attack so fresh in our minds, it would overwhelm the fictional story?

PH: I didn't really think it would overwhelm the fictional story, because I had included earlier New York disasters in the novel, before September 11. These included the fire during the early months of the Revolution, which destroyed hundreds of downtown homes, and the 1835 fire, which burnt about 700 homes to the ground and destroyed the remnants of the old Dutch town (while permanently changing the way we lived with each other). September 11 seemed on a sheer physical level to be an outgrowth, more immense, more baroque, and definitely more evil of things that had come before. What interested me about the earlier disasters was how the city recovered, how resilient it was way back then, and how much tougher it became. On September 11, we soon learned similar lessons. As part of a work of fiction I constantly had to keep in mind that this was not September 11 as I experienced it, but as Cormac O'Connor experienced it.

BRC: Is it too early for the arts to deal with 9/11?

PH: No. My novel is one of the first to deal with it as serious fiction --- perhaps the first --- but there have been many poems, paintings sculptures and even music that already have approached it and there will be many more, for years to come.

BRC: In FOREVER, New York is a central character. We see the city evolve from 1740 to the present through the eyes of Cormac, who has been given the gift of immortality. Events you describe, like the slave uprising of 1741 really happened. Were you deliberately trying to tell us some of the overlooked history of the city?

PH: Yes: I wanted to include some things that are usually overlooked: the rebellion of 1741 (and its alliance of blacks and Irish); the betrayal of black Americans after the Revolution; the horrors of disease that came from political corruption involving the water supply. I wanted Africans to be woven into the New York story from the beginning --- the way they are in our language and music. I wanted Boss Tweed to become more than a cartoon and Washington more than the face on the dollar bill. I wanted to show the way the alloy of the New York character was shaped by hardship, collision and hope, much the way Cormac's father took the rubble of discarded metal and transformed it in his forge into something of beauty. All those things, and a lot more.

BRC: How long did it take to research FOREVER?

PH: I had been reading around in New York history since I was a young reporter in the 1960s. But the concentrated research took as long as the writing: more than four years.

BRC: What books would you recommend for people who want to learn more about some of the events you describe?

PH: The best book so far is the first volume of GOTHAM by Mike Wallace and Ed Burrows. I also loved Edward Robb Ellis's THE EPIC OF NEW YORK CITY. A longer list is in the acknowledgements.

BRC: How long did it take to write this book?

PH: Four years. The problem was the time it took to allow research to marinate into memory. And not my memory, but the memory of Cormac O'Connor.

BRC: Was it difficult to write a book this ambitious while still working as a journalist, doing a weekly column for THE DAILY NEWS? How did you find the time to do both?

PH: Sheer discipline. I've been writing both fiction and nonfiction since the late 1960s. One personal key to getting the work done is The Nap. I take a nap every day, particularly after writing journalism. This gives me two mornings. Or so I've persuaded myself. And it allows me to leave the hard accuracy of fact and slide into the quite different sensibility demanded by fiction.

BRC: What impressed me in the writing is how finely sculptured the words are. A New Yorker talks with "an accent like a fist." At nightfall, "…the tall broad-shouldered buildings of Central Park West are forming a black wall pierced with diamonds." Was this book harder to write than your earlier novels?

PH: This was the hardest of my nine novels to write, because of the history. I can't judge whether it's my best. I do know I put everything I knew about this imperfect craft into the writing of it.

BRC: Cormac is granted a gift that men have dreamt of since antiquity: eternal life. He lives a rich, intellectual life, yet there is a real sadness about him. He says that "dead languages are in my head at all hours." At the end, he returns to the cave "that gave him too much life." So eternal life might be a mixed blessing, right?

PH: The thing he learns is that immortality --- experienced by one person --- would be a curse. He buries everyone he loves.

BRC: As one of America's leading journalist for the past 40 years, you have always been a voice for justice and fairness and peace. That voice comes through clearly in FOREVER, especially in the alliance between blacks, who came here as slaves, and the Irish, who came here as indentured servants, little more than slaves. The eternal quest for justice is one of the central themes of this book, correct?

PH: Yes, but that's not unique to me. The notion of justice goes back --- at least --- to the Greeks, and has had many consequences to human beings, not all of them good.

BRC: Historical figures, like Washington and Boss Tweed, make appearances in the book. Others like Walt Whitman and Sanford White, get mentioned in passing. Was it hard to resist putting real people in a book like this?

PH: There were dozens of others I could have added to the cast, but I didn't want the novel to feel like a pageant. Cormac is a newspaperman. He gets to see more people than others do. But I could have written an entire novel about, say, White or Whitman, or any of dozens of others. If they all took their place in FOREVER, it would have been 12,000 pages long.

BRC: Boss Tweed comes off well, despite the corruption. Do you see him as a sympathetic figure?

PH: I think the Boss was corrupt, but for a good reason. He couldn't get anything for his constituents --- schools, water etc. --- without bribing the Republicans in Albany. He was the only one of the Ring to do time, and he died broke. So yes: I see him with a certain affection and sympathy. He was no angel. But he wasn't Hitler. He wasn't Saddam Hussein.

BRC: Music plays an important role in this book, from Irish flutes to African drums to modern jazz and Latin rhythms. Music almost provides a pulse beneath your words. Music is an important part of writing, isn't it?

PH: Every writer should study music, listen to it carefully, understand how it's structured, etc. Somebody wrote somewhere that all art aspires to be music. I think that's absolutely right.

BRC: Few writers are more closely associated with a city than you are with New York. This book reflects your lifelong love affair with the city of your birth. The city is described as "the city of the present tense, as eternal now." Why, in your view, is New York the greatest city in the world?

PH: Ooof. I'd need another hundred thousand words to answer that one. Very short answer: toleration, opportunity, tenacity, heart.

BRC: What do you think your legacy as a writer will be? What would you like it to be?

PH: I can't answer this. When you start thinking about your "legacy," you're finished as a writer.

BRC: To get back to journalism for a second: on the anniversary of 9/11 last year, you wrote about "that New York fatalism that has made life tolerable since September 11th." How can fatalism be a good thing?

PH: I think of it as a healthy fatalism. That is, September 11 taught us that we can die while reaching for a cheese danish or a cup of coffee. All the more reason to live as fully and humanly as we can. To love our wives and husbands and children. To take our grandchildren to the ballpark. To cherish our friends. To be kind to strangers. To help the weak and the injured. Living like that --- in the shadow of possible sudden death --- is the healthiest sort of fatalism.

BRC: What's next for you?

PH: I'll write a shorter nonfiction book about Manhattan and begin a new novel. I'll write the column as long I feel I have chops. The same goes for magazine work. I'm a writer. Writers write.