Interview: November 1, 2012
Pete Hamill is an American journalist, novelist, essayist, editor and educator. Born in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York, most of his writing --- both fiction and nonfiction --- perfectly captures the Big Apple. His latest collection of short stories, THE CHRISTMAS KID, is no exception. The book brings together here for the first time 36 of his short stories about Brooklyn. They cover the streets where Hamill grew up at a time when work and love mattered more than anything else and the Dodgers still played in Ebbets Field. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Tom Callahan, Hamill talks about the genesis of this project, New York City’s own brand of nostalgia, and his optimism regarding the future of short fiction.
Bookreporter.com: These short stories are based in the borough of your birth, Brooklyn. Writing in New York in 2008, you said that your “journeys into the old country of Brooklyn have always been a mixture of joy and melancholy.” Do you still feel that way and, if so, why?
Pete Hamill: The joy comes from a sense of the familiar, walking streets I've walked before, at all ages of a long life. It is fed by the human scale of the neighborhoods. The magnificence of the sky. Trees everywhere. The melancholy comes from the sense of what is lost in any life: friends, places, games, laughter.
BRC: In your intro to THE CHRISTMAS KID, you write, “many of these stories are charged by the city’s most enduring emotion: nostalgia.” Could you talk a bit about NYC’s brand of nostalgia?
PH: I'm a New Yorker, of course, born and bred in the city's largest borough, Brooklyn. And New York's powerful sense of nostalgia has two sources: the rapidity of change, and the immigrant tradition. You go away for a month in summer, and when you return, your favorite coffee shop is gone, about to become another sneaker store. The old joke remains true: "New York's a great city, if they'd ever finish it."
But the longing and sense of loss among immigrants is also a factor, often passed on to their children (like me) through songs, tales, old jokes. Even if they were driven to emigrate by bigotry, poverty or war, the Old Country remains the place where they once ran barefoot in the grass with friends they would never see again. This is as true for today's Mexicans, Chinese, Haitians, Dominicans and others as it was for the Irish, Italians and Eastern European Jews of earlier times. Loving America, for such people, also has a bit of a stabbing ache in it. Listen to Ray Charles sing "America the Beautiful," and you can sense what I mean. Charles was not an immigrant. But he knew what the ache was about.
BRC: Most of these stories were first published in The Daily News. What was the genesis of this project? What were you trying to do?
PH: I think the idea was mine. And that it was accepted by Jim Wieghart, then an editor at the News. The idea was simple: to find room in the paper for the stories you hear in the course of working at the job --- in my case, as columnist --- but are not newsworthy in the conventional sense. “Man Falls In Love, Gets His Heart Broken” would never make page one, or even page 41. But I had read stories by O. Henry and Damon Runyon, by Alberto Moravia and Frank O’Connor, that had originally appeared in newspapers. They were tightly written, often moving. I had written some weekly short stories as a columnist for the New York Post under the general label "The Eight Million" (an homage to O. Henry, who had published a collection called "The Four Million"). But at the News, I would have more space, a larger audience. I wrote more than a hundred stories across two years, and for this collection I culled the Brooklyn stories.
BRC: Most newspaper writing has to be immediate, in the ever present now. As you revisited them now after 30 years, what was your reaction to them across the vista of time?
PH: As I read them for the first time in three decades, I was aware again that the themes and sense of place remained relevant. And fresh. Because it was a "family" newspaper, I couldn't use Dirty Words. The readers could easily supply them. I had also learned one --- among many --- lesson from Hemingway: don't use contemporary slang because nothing dates more quickly. And from John O'Hara: don't overload dialogue with absolute phonetical exactness. It can become impenetrable. Rhythm is more important, along with a few scattered words that are exact, often in their misuse. But I loved the way people talked then. These days when I hear somebody talking in the old Brooklyn accent, I want to hug them.
BRC: You were doing a column at the time these stories were written. Was it difficult to be switching gears between short fiction and journalism?
PH: No. I had learned to trust the wonders of The Nap. I'd come home from covering a trial or a political gathering, and then think about the short story I was mulling. I'd take a nap. When I woke up, I had a second morning, and somehow the sub-conscious had worked on the story while it was marinating. And I knew the tone. And saw and heard the people.
BRC: Has writing become too specialized today? Is there a danger of writers getting lost in their own niche or blogs and not pushing themselves out of their comfort zones to learn the craft of short stories, or novels?
PH: My ambition was always to be a generalist. As a sportswriter, I might be covering my 27th World Series, which is not exactly a thrill. So I would cover a murder on Monday and the Rolling Stones on Wednesday, and learn from both. Since I was a columnist, I could choose my subjects, and sometimes I'd choose a subject about which I knew nothing, to force myself to learn about it, even superficially. Part of this was due to a dumb move I made when I was 16: dropping out of high school and going to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while trying to be a cartoonist. I've been playing catch-up ball ever since. Even now. Although I know that I could never bring myself to read the 2,700 pages of the health care bill!
BRC: Do you worry about the future of short fiction? People have been predicting the death of the short story since the advent of television and the fall of the great general interest magazines, but it has not happened yet.
PH: On the contrary, I think the short story is due for a serious revival. The reason: the shortening of the attention span in developed nations, including our own. This is, of course, caused by the ever-present technology. On subways, in the streets, in parks, iPhones and iPads are ever-present. You can read a masterly story by Chekhov or Raymond Carver or VS Pritchett or Anne Enright (not to mention O'Hara and Hemingway) in the time it takes to get from home to work. Or vice versa. I hope the Internet develops a go-to site devoted to short fiction, one that is professional, i.e. they pay and they edit. Hell, even I would read it. And write for it.
BRC: One of the things you really captured beautifully in many of the stories was the impact of what was happening in the world then and its link to both the past and future. Were you trying to do that?
PH: I was trying to suggest without saying it directly what I still believe: whenever we Americans go against our own best instincts and our ideals, we lose something. I had been to Vietnam and Nicaragua as a journalist. And I was trying to show in a few of these stories that we were transforming ourselves into a permanent warrior nation. Not in essay form. But as it affected individuals. I was 10 when the war ended in 1945, and we truly believed, adults and veterans and grown-ups, that all the wars were over. We were all wrong. The Korean War was crucial in my neighborhood, because some of the older guys went off to die in a place they'd never heard of. They were not the last. As I write, some poor kid from Brooklyn, who never got to read William Butler Yeats, could be stopping a bullet with his body in Afghanistan.
BRC: Another thing you capture perfectly in some of these stories I saw resonate in your last novel, TABLOID CITY, and that is despite living in a crowded, densely populated neighborhood, there can be a real loneliness in the city. So loneliness also played a role in Brooklyn, didn’t it?
PH: Yes. And not just in Brooklyn. Loneliness is a corrosive emotion. In a huge, crowded city like New York, it can be the most corrosive emotion, leading to death, the obliteration of others, suicide-by-cop. Even to terrorism. In a country with 200,000,000 guns available, we see the consequences every few weeks. But loneliness is not the same as solitude, which can be a deep, rich condition. How can you glibly give in to loneliness if you have Dickens in your hands in a nice comfortable chair? Or Dostoyevsky, Flann O'Brien, Faulkner, or James Joyce? While volumes of great poetry await you? Or even “Downtown Abbey”?
BRC: In the New York you grew up in the “most important four letter word was work.” That is still true in New York, especially among the immigrants, correct? But given the mess of an immigration policy and the destruction of our manufacturing base, I get a sense that their journey to the American Dream is going to be much tougher than it was for our Irish parents and grandparents. What do you think?
PH: I agree. One reason is the collapse of service-oriented political parties, the most maligned of which fell under the phrase Tammany Hall. The old pols, including Republicans, took care of immigrants for one simple reason: they could count. You help a man who has lost a job, and the family might be evicted from some tenement, that family will vote for you for the rest of their lives. Even the kids who only heard about it at the dinner table. But I think the new immigrants are not all that different from the old. They are not here in pursuit of something as grandiose as a "career." That is for their kids. They do the worst jobs available so that their kids will never have to do those jobs. And New York remains a welcoming city. It is, after all, the capital of people who are not like you. Most of us still celebrate that notion. Most of us still remember where we came from.
BRC: What are you reading now?
PH: Right now I'm reading another superb novel by Benjamin Black (the pseudonym of John Banville of Dublin). The title is VENGEANCE. Absorbing, beautifully written.
BRC: Finally, what are you working on next?
PH: I'm working on a novel set partially in Brooklyn and partially in Sicily.