Author Talk: May 6, 2011
Pete Hamill is an American journalist, novelist, essayist, editor and educator. Born in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, NY, most of his novels perfectly capture the Big Apple --- and his latest, TABLOID CITY, is no exception. In a stately West Village town house, a wealthy socialite and her secretary are murdered; in the 24 hours that follow, a flurry of activity surrounds their shocking deaths. In this interview, Hamill discusses his journey from journalist to novelist and how the two genres of writing go hand in hand. He also talks about his favorite writers, his personal work habits, and his optimistic hopes for the future of both journalism and literature.
Question: Why did you write this book?
Pete Hamill: I wanted to tell a story that evoked the world of tabloid newspapers --- along with the people who are essential to the content of those newspapers. I went to work as a reporter on the New York Post on June 1, 1960. That job gave me my life. Newspapers were the university from which I could never graduate. Places where I learned something new every single day, and tried to convey what I had learned to readers. TABLOID CITY is my version of what a day in that life could be, even now. Perhaps especially now.
Q: That all sounds pretty romantic, right?
PH: Yes. I assume the romantic version still lives among the younger journalists. At least I hope it does. That notion of a quixotic figure saddling Rosinante and going forth to do battle with the forces of darkness… Yes, sometimes dragons turn out to be windmills. But the good reporter understands that risk, and makes the attempt anyway.
Q: So is this a newspaper novel?
PH: Not exactly. I hope it's more than that, although my imaginary afternoon newspaper, the New York World, is the basic novelistic frame for what happens to some New Yorkers across almost 24 hours. Novels are works of the imagination. The novelist is always asking one question that goes beyond journalistic basics: what if?
But many novelists use some form of reporting. Charles Dickens walked the dark streets of night-time London, looking at places and people, letting them seep into his imagination, to marinate into fiction, after struggling with What if? Hemingway had been a reporter. Mailer became one, after starting as a novelist. Long before them, Stephen Crane worked for those Park Row newspapers that established the tabloid style (although not the shape of the tabloid newspaper) before going on to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage. There are many, many others…
In this novel, I try to do what I did in much of my journalistic work: deal with human beings one at a time. There is a double homicide early in the book, and one of the two dead women is the long-time love of the newspaper editor, while the other is the wife of a detective in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. I have an Iraqi vet who has lost his legs and wants payback. There's a gossip blogger, a woman cartoonist, a young reporter, and a young amateur jihadist. They share the same geography --- the big, bad city --- but they share it in very different ways.
Except for one binding element. All are touched by one connecting reality of life in the largest American city: loneliness. And what it can do to people. >From all my reporting years, that was a presence in many, many stories because loneliness was so common. Take the subway any morning, or any midnight, and you can see what I mean.
Q: Was the transition from journalism to fiction a difficult one?
PH: On some levels, yes. When I started writing my first novel in 1967, the longest piece I'd ever written was about 3,000 words. A novel would be about 100,000 words. The challenge made me nervous. So I chose to write a thriller about a plot to assassinate the Pope. In Rome. To be called A KILLING FOR CHRIST. The reason for the choice: all good thrillers have a basic form. If you read Graham Greene, John le Carré, Alan Furst, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, or Ross Macdonald you can see what I mean (and I don't mean to compare myself with them). So I blocked out a time frame, over the four days of Easter. That was the basic form. And then listed all the action, changes, shifts for each of the four days, culminating in the attempt on the Pope in St. Peter's Square, during mass. In 1981, Pope John Paul was critically wounded in an assassination attempt at that same site.
And reporting was part of the preparation. I went to Rome for weeks, walking the city, standing around in the Vatican, making notes, a combination of reporter and assassin.
In the short version, I learned how to write a novel by writing one.
Q: Did you change your work habits when writing fiction?
PH: Yes. But slowly. All my journalism had been written on typewriters, hammering away under the pressure of a deadline. Slowly, I understood that I had acquired certain journalistic tricks that helped me to make the deadlines, within the specified (tabloid) word count. When I say "tricks" I don't mean deceptions. I mean tricks of craft.
To get them out of my hands I started writing longhand on yellow pads. I still do. I didn't write out the entire novel and send it to a typist. I'd write four or five pages, then go to the typewriter, typing the words, and editing as I went along. It was a kind of instant second draft. I still work that way. Except I move to a computer, not a typewriter. And I trust momentum more now. When I finish typing the hand-written pages, I often just keep going. For as many as ten pages, as few as two.
Q: After those first works of fiction, why did you keep doing journalism?
PH: Because I loved it. And because it kept me aware of what we laughingly call the real world. I was not a candidate for any ivory tower. But by practicing both crafts, I made one more discovery about separating the two forms of writing. If I had spent hours writing a column, I'd go home and then indulge in another great tool of any writer: the nap.
Before napping, I'd think about the next scene in a novel, allowing it to seep into my groggy brainpan. If there was a choice to make among several possible moves, the sub-conscious often did the work. I woke up and knew where to go. The nap should be added to every creative writing program in the world.
Q: At one point in TABLOID CITY, your imaginary newspaper stops publishing as a paper and becomes a website. Are you pessimistic about the future of journalism?
PH: No. Obviously, newspapers are shrinking around the United States, and some might disappear. But my experiences at NYU, at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, have made me far more optimistic about journalism itself. The young people there have passion about the craft. They want to do it. And the timing is getting better. Internet journalism is rapidly becoming professional. That is, there are sites --- from the Daily Beast to GlobalPost.com --- that pay for contributions and have editors. They acknowledge that journalism is not a hobby.
I'm also encouraged by the decisions by The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times to charge for access to reporting. They are helping to create the future of journalism.
Q: What about the future of fiction?
PH: In a time of information overload, good fiction might provide a kind of vital center to the way we live now. Sooner or later, the younger generation will understand that much of life can't be reduced to 140 characters. I suspect they will discover books again, even if reading them on Kindle or Nook instead of paper. If they don't make that ascent, I pity them. They'll be turning their backs on the richest trove of human wisdom.
© Copyright 2011, Pete Hamill. All rights reserved.
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