Journalist-Novelist Redux

A couple of days ago I wondered out loud if newsrooms were the chief training ground for fiction writers in the first half of the 20th century, in the way MFA programs appear to be now. As if on cue, the Washington Post‘s obituary blog, Post Mortem, has a piece on the late Roy Hoopes, who wrote a well-received biography of crime author and journalist James M. Cain in 1982. The post is largely a reminder that Cain, who died in 1977, grew up in the D.C. area and spent the final years of his life in the Maryland burbs; in between, he took reporting jobs in Baltimore and New York before turning to screenwriting and fiction. He worked for H.L. Mencken at the Baltimore Sun and was briefly the New Yorker‘s managing editor—so briefly that he doesn’t merit a mention in Brendan Gill‘s Here at the New Yorker. “I was the managing editor but all you did was check the budget,” he told the Post in a 1969 interview. I was the 27th Jesus. Ogden Nash had been the 16th. After Thurber. Intramurally, [editor Harold] Ross was an impossible guy to work with. But I liked Ross after 6.”

That John Carmody 1969 profile (PDF), linked to in the blog post, is well worth reading in its entirety—it puts the grizzled newsman on full display, and places his work in its appropriate context: “Jim Cain is one of those rare, faintly sung people who drew, oh, maybe, a crowsfoot on the image that this country held of itself during the 1930’s and all through the 1940’s,” he writes. “As a novelist, he showed us what money could do and a certain kind of mindless love could do and what greed could do and he wasn’t … too social about it (which was significant) in the 1930’s.” It’s pretty well known that it helped to be a Pinkerton if you were going to be a crime novelist in the 30s. Did it help to be a reporter too?

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.

Q&A: Rachel Sherman

Rachel Sherman‘s debut story collection, 2006’s The First Hurt, was one of my favorite books of that year; her focus is on adolescence, and she has a knack for exposing people at their most fragile while remaining sympathetic to them. The list of living writers who can write both unflinchingly and well about suburban American lives seems like a relatively short one to me (Lorrie Moore, maybe Tom Perrotta, who else?), and the list of writers who botch it is long, but Sherman shows why these stories are still worth telling.

Her debut novel, Living Room, extends the themes of The First Hurt, focusing on three women: Abby, a teenager who’s suddenly receiving enough attention to be prone to emotional and physical manipulations; her mother, Livia, who’s attempting to force herself into a state of normalcy by alternately pursuing a career as an interior designer and shutting out the world around her; and Livia’s mother, Headie, whose increasing dementia is counterbalanced by lucid memories of the men in her life.

Sherman currently teaches writing at Rutgers and Columbia University, and she’s currently working on a TV script as well as a new novel. She answered a few questions about Living Room via e-mail.

How long have you been working on Living Room? Did you have a strong ambition to write a novel before you began writing short stories?

I worked on Living Room for about three years. Before writing my short story collection, though, I was less focused on writing a novel. After The First Hurt came out, though, I felt like it was something I wanted to try. It took a while for me to get the structure down, since novel writing was not familiar to me. Eventually, once I figured out the plot and the characters, the story took shape.

Much like the stories in The First Hurt, Living Room focuses on the inner emotional conflicts that tend to lurk behind polite exteriors. How difficult was it to transfer that sensibility into a longer narrative?

I’m not sure that the difficulty was so much transferring the sensibility, since I think that that is what I write, but making it larger, and into an interconnected plot, took me longer than it does for me when I write short stories.

You mentioned in one interview that you first conceived the novel by thinking about getting into the head of an elderly woman. Did you attempt to write an individual story about Headie before coming to make it about three women, or did you dive in knowing you would cover three generations?

Initially it was about two generations: a grandmother and a granddaughter. But it was a much different story. The granddaughter was not a teenager, but a twenty-five year old, getting ready to marry a much older man. As I wrote about her, I realized that the second generation (the mother) was also important. Eventually the story completely changed, but Headie stayed very close to what she was in the beginning.

What distinguishes you from many other writers who write about suburbia and families, in my opinion, is that you take an unflinching approach to the difficulties that your characters go through. As you approach these characters, how much are you revising and rethinking them to test how much you want them to withstand?

I’m not sure I’m thinking in terms of testing them (or at least not consciously). My writing process is dreamy, for lack of a better word. It feels less intellectual and more emotional. When I write, I feel like I lose track of time, and am totally engrossed in what I am doing. I am very in the moment, and rarely think about my characters as separate from myself. In order to know them I have to be inside their heads.

Given that “dreamy” quality you mention, how much revising do you end up doing?

I do do a lot of revising, but my process is pretty organic. Sometimes I don’t know what the story is about until it is done.

It seems that the kind of extremely interior, family-focused stories you write aren’t much in favor in contemporary fiction these days. As a writing teacher, do you find that your students have a strong interest in telling these stories? Do you use your own work to guide them?

No, I don’t teach my own work, but I do teach work that I like. My students seem interested in many of the books I teach, but there are some that I completely strike out with. I’ve been accused of assigning too many ‘sad’ books.

What books you do teach? Do you think the allegedly “sad” books are sad?

Yes, I do think they are sad. But that’s OK with me. I like sad. This semester I taught Revolutionary Road, The Gathering, Unaccustomed Earth, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Jernigan, and a number of short stories.

A Word About Listings

People who read this blog via RSS won’t notice it, but for a little more than a year I’ve maintained a page on this site dedicated to book readings and signings in the Washington, D.C., area. The format is admittedly clumsy, but I’ve tried to make the listings fairly comprehensive, and the page is easily the site’s most-read individual page. However, these days I think more and more about sunsetting it.

I’d miss maintaining the page if I just stopped doing it. It’s a good way to keep up on who’s planning to come to town, and assembling it occasionally tips me to some important changes in the D.C. bookselling scene. If I hadn’t been updating the page this morning, for instance, I wouldn’t have come across the sad news that Lambda Rising, the District’s pioneering GLBT bookseller, is closing its two stores. But there’s no getting around the fact that doing this is fairly time-consuming, and that there are other places that do this sort of thing with a lot more tech-savvy.

So if you like the listings and would like to see them continue, now is the time to speak up and let me know. I’m not (just) fishing for encouragement—I’d like to hear thoughts about what would make the listings better and more useful. Fewer listings with more specific information? Comments and/or brief reviews? More outbound links? If the listings are meaningful to you in any way, please leave a note in the comments or send me an e-mail. Regardless, thank you for taking the time to read this site.

Links: What’s Good for the Country

Detroit receives little care and attention from anybody, including fiction writers. But Brad Leithauser and Susan Messer both have new historical novels set in the city.

Being a midlist author is no way to make money. (While we’re at it, neither is being a midlist rock band.)

Jack Pendarvis‘ always-entertaining blog advent calendar is up and running.

The Atlantic has assembled its literary interviews—with authors like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, and more—in one handy place.

Mark Twain‘s house smells like a haunted house, according to somebody who claims some expertise in these things.

Maybe the New York Times needs a reviewer dedicated to exclusively covering books from independent presses. Though that would imply that books from small presses are somehow inherently different from mainstream books—pursuing such a strategy would wreck the argument that the best small-press books deserve a seat at the adult table, yes?

In the meantime, the Times keeps on crushing the will of debut novelists.

“If [Walt] Whitman wore jeans, he wore them because they were the clothes of the rebellious, not because they were the affordable uniform of the pretty.”

But whatever. These days nobody knows who the hell Ernest Hemingway was anyhow.

The Day Ken Kesey Disappeared

The Village Voice, perhaps in an effort to figure out what the hell happened to the New Journalism it pioneered, trawls through its archives every day and pulls out an entertaining artifact or two. Today’s entry comes from the May 12, 1966 issue of the paper, which includes a fun piece on the disappearance of Ken Kesey, who skipped California for Mexico to avoid arrest on drug charges, hamfistedly faking his death in the process. At that point Kesey’s career had shifted; his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was met with middling reviews, but he was busier with the Merry Pranksters. The Voice story captures the transformation from establishment novelist to goddam hippie in three quick paragraphs:

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published Kesey’s first novel in 1962. “One Flew Over” was well received. Critics found in the plight of a ward of mental patients a parable of the whole human condition. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 performances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cassidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

“Sometimes a Great Notion,” published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — unable, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men…can get together and make a whole life.” Newsweek called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

By the end of the Voice story, Kesey was still on the lam, but he was only able to avoid the authorities for eight months. In 1968 he served five months for marijuana possession in the San Mateo County Jail, an experience he documented in a posthumous book, 2003’s Kesey’s Jail Journal. Apparently you can purchase a copy direct from Kesey’s son Zane.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Pen Pal

Brooks Peters has an fascinating piece on ways that the Leopold and Loeb case has been repurposed as fiction. Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope is probably the best-known interpretation, but Peters notes that there were plenty of others. (F. Scott Fitzgerald considered writing a novel on the case.) Among Peters’ most surprising discoveries was a cache of correspondence between Nathan Leopold, who along with Richard Loeb was convicted for senselessly killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924, and crime novelist Erle Stanley Gardner. Leopold had a sympathetic ear in Gardner, who was a household name in the 50s thanks to the Perry Mason novels and TV series. He would eventually write an introduction to Leopold’s memoir, and make a case for Leopold’s release. Who was using whom here? Brooks figures that the correspondence (archived among Gardner’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center) makes it tough to say:

The symbiosis throughout the correspondence between Gardner and Leopold is revealing too of Leopold’s uncanny people skills. In all his letters, Leopold is a master at flattery and charm. He downplays his talents and paints Gardner as an extremely generous man who risked his reputation to take on Leopold’s case. Leopold constantly criticizes his own prose style and laughingly admits that he only wanted Gardner to write the introduction so that the reader wouldn’t be too disappointed in the final product. It’s a clever ploy to win over the immensely successful author (who never really achieved literary recognition for his immense output, and only won an Edgar award for his non-fiction book The Court of Last Resort). Leopold must have known that by stroking Gardner’s ego he was nudging the door open to his own freedom.

But there’s no denying that the friendship was genuine. Leopold may have seen the advantages of his connection to a famous writer who went out on a limb to help him achieve parole. But the affection seems completely real and definitely mutual. In one letter Leopold offers to put up Gardner in his tiny apartment in Puerto Rico (after his parole) if Gardner were to visit. The idea of Gardner shacking up with this notorious killer is too good to be true. It’s not clear from the correspondence if Gardner ever took him up on his offer.