The Difficult Life of the Novelist-Journalist

I haven’t read any of Pete Hamill‘s novels—I never hear much about them that’s convincingly positive. But I do admire his journalism (Piecework assembles the best of it), and he has plenty to say about the intersection of reporting and fiction in an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard. One secret to succeeding as a reporter-novelist, it appears, is sleep:

As every newspaper man knows, often you hear stories that you can’t prove in court. That’s the essence of fiction. Fiction is an act of the imagination, whereas journalism is an act of witness.

So when I began writing fiction, I tried certain things. I’d learned the tricks of journalism. I don’t mean deception. How to make stories fit into a certain space. How to get a story done before deadline. Those types of things….

I also learned the great value of the nap. If I came back from the newspaper and would work on fiction, I’d take a nap, and just for transition I’d go to sleep thinking about what I’d write, and it would marinate.

I got great things from journalists. I got speed. I got reasonable accuracy. It helped me see instead of just looking at stuff, especially from photographers. That helped train me, just being with them on the scene of something. There was no transition. It was an expansion of what I was doing. Many people write their first novel and leave journalism forever. I didn’t do that. I love the journalism rush of the people. Best people I ever met were newspaper men and women. For whatever reason I needed that. And I never gave it up. I think of myself today as a newspaperman.

It may be impossible to fully think of oneself as both. There are plenty of novelists who started out as reporters, but few, I think, who succeed at doing both at the same time. It’s a strategy that seems to make for fiction that’s earnest but a little clumsy (Mike Sager‘s shaggy-dog D.C. novel, Deviant Behavior springs to mind, as do Kurt Andersen‘s airy Turn of the Century and Heyday)—proof that they’re not nearly the same disciplines. (As usual, of course, I may be forgetting a writer who’s done knockout fiction and journalism simultaneously. Mark Twain may qualify, but does any author born more recently?) Regardless, the entire Q&A is worth reading—Hamill has plenty of commonsensical things to say about the Internet and journalism, and generally avoids get-off-my-lawn lecturing—a rare feature in a reporter of his age and experience. If you happen to be in the Syracuse area, he speaks there Wednesday night.

11 thoughts on “The Difficult Life of the Novelist-Journalist

  1. I like this idea–switch brain tracks in sleep and wake up a different writer.

    I’ve only read one Hamill novel, but that one, The Guns of Heaven, a well-made little thriller, was satisfying.

  2. Thanks for this, Mark. I particularly like Hamill’s line about gaining the ability to “see instead of just looking at stuff.”

    Regarding your caveat: “(As usual, of course, I may be forgetting a writer who’s done knockout fiction and journalism simultaneously…)” I would submit Joan Didion as somehow who fits into this category.

  3. Yeah, Didion… but would anyone claim she was good a fiction writer as she was an essayist? Can we make a distinction between magazine columnists and newspaper journalists? (Are those distinctions even meaningful today?)

    Twain is a special case, but his ‘newspaper journalism’ in California before the age of thirty was voice driven, explicitly humorous and tongue-in-cheek, often a bit loose with facts, and intended primarily to entertain. He wrote “Jumping Frog,” before leaving journalism out West… his work, in other words, was his work long before “The Innocents Abroad.”

    1. Stray thought: In the first half of the 20th century, working as a journalist seemed to be an important credential for novelists—Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck all spent time working as reporters. Was there a particular point in time when this credential stopped mattering? Did MFA programs replace newsrooms as breeding grounds for fiction writers? I’d be curious to hear if “The Program Era,” which I keep meaning to pick up, addresses this.

  4. I’m a mainstream community news journalist and have been one since 1991. Recently, I published my first novel, American Moses, to good reviews. The story has nothing to do with my profession.

    Call me old school, but I’ve long had something of a chip on my shoulder about MFA programs, because firstly, I can’t afford to go, and secondly because the networking of MFA programs controls a lot of the American fiction publishing world. What school you went to and who you met through that goes a long way to getting a deal.

    I owe almost all my story telling techniques, and much of my craft to the journalism grind. I will say with great respect to my newsroom colleagues, that they lack creative fire, which saddens me.

    I am also in debt to the great fiction masters, who I constantly read.

  5. Ignatius seems to be a genre guy. I’m thinking Ward Just. His novels are great. Obviously Tom Wolfe would be on the list, although I’ve always felt his books hewed so closely to reality, and were so rooted in a particular slice of time, that they barely qualified as fiction. I think Ward Just does a better job of addressing timely issues in a profound way. I believe his books will last. Italo Calvino worked as a journalist, which is pretty mind-blowing. Wonder if he got his “facts” right. In general, I wonder if the American tradition of “objectivity” and the anti-intellectualism that goes with it squeezes the life out of writers. I do notice that many of the best journos-turned-novelists are British.

    1. Susan, I usually don’t go very long around here without enthusing about Ward Just—I am genuinely baffled that he’s not put in the same category of American fiction writers as Roth, Updike, and Oates. I too believe his books will last, and he’s written wonderfully on the lives of journalists, particularly in “An Unfinished Season” and his latest, “Exiles in the Garden.”

      Two things, though. I was on the hunt for writers who balanced journalism and fiction simultaneously, and best as I can tell Just abandoned journalism shortly after his fiction career took off. And you lose me when you equate journalistic objectivity with anti-intellectualism. The routines and requirements of everyday journalism, including the (increasingly fluid) obligation to get both sides of the story can certainly lead to he-said-she-said hackwork and tired writing. But you’re not doing your intellect a disservice if you attempt to understand a conflict from multiple angles—I’d argue that it’s especially good training for a fiction writer.

  6. Mark:
    I absolutely believe in getting all sides of the story. What I was referring to was, as you call it, he-said-she-said hackwork — or, to be more specific, the practice of giving outright lies promulgated by pr people the same weight as sincere comments by regular folks or, yes, even those highly suspect “activists” who are, after all, well-intentioned. I’m not saying papers like The New York Times do this, necessarily, but it’s rife at smaller and even mid-size papers. I think the backlash against the New Journalism resulted in de-emphasizing analysis in journalism. This is one reason younger people migrated to blogs. It seemed more honest to put a little bit more of who you are into the story, so the reader can judge for himself or herself if what you’re saying is giving good weight to the subject. The British schtick of letting your intellectual signature pervade your work doesn’t seem to impair logical and often very fair analysis by people like Robert Fisk and Christopher Hitchens. And in any case, because their arguments are so clear, cogent, and well-researched, you really can pick and choose among the points they’re making. This makes the reader a participant in the process of investigating the subject.

    Having said that, I started off with multiple points of view in the novel I’m writing, and had to cut it down to two. But I researched the book as if I were a journalist — and the whole point of the book is that it shows all sides.

    At Columbia, where I suffered through graduate school, we had replaced the term “objectivity” with “fairness.” I still like that word. It’s a universal human value.

    Forgive the pomposity! I am very interested in the subject of MFA programs vs. James M. Cain, up from the streets writing. I’ve tried it both ways.

    The thing I feel most strongly about is that journalists and academics should have more contact. Journalists ceded a lot of territory to the academy when they backed away from New Journalism, and, arguably, lost the ability to move their field forward — I think this was simply caution in the face of the contracting business environment. But it was counter-productive. The academy is an iffy place to teach nonfiction, because it can be so cloistered. So I think journalists should verge a little more into “respectability” (ouch, I know; it’s tedious) and academics should become more raffish, and get out on the street with their writing. In fact, I think this is already happening. We’ll all benefit from literary nonfiction that is more socially engaged.

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