DS: Pete Hamill, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for The Dan Schneider Interview series. The very purpose of this series is to combat what I call the ‘deliteracy’ of current and common culture, i.e.- the active dumbing down of art and discourse. Nowadays, many magazines that used to interview people of substance and ideas would rather speak with the latest pop babe of the month, or the current politician whose garbage is grabbing the most headlines. Additionally, even though most of this world’s information sharing is done online- not via tv nor radio, the Internet has become the largest haven to the Lowest Common Denominator- and a Lite version of the LCD, at that. Most websites, if they want articles on any subject, demand that the articles be about five or six hundred words, claiming that web surfers will not read longer pieces. I disagree with that claim, and cite my own popular personal and non-commercial website, Cosmoetica, as proof that it is wrong.
We seek to raise discourse back to the level it was, in the days when figures as diverse as Phil Donahue and William F. Buckley were on the air, not the Tucker Carlsons nor Oprah Winfreys. Before you, we have interviewed National Book Award-winning fictionist Charles Johnson, philosopher Daniel Dennett and this month we turn to you, Pete Hamill, a reporter, newspaper editor, and fiction writer. But, before we delve into the recesses of your mind and memory, there will be people who stumble upon this website and page, and click to check out what you have to say. Could you please give a brief syllabus of who you are, what you do, and what your goals as an artist and journalist are?
PH: That’s almost impossible to do in any brief way. I’m a son of immigrants (Catholics from Northern Ireland). I’m the oldest of their seven children. I’ve been a professional writer since June 1, 1960, when I first went to work as a newspaperman. I’ve published 20 books, including ten novels. I’ve covered wars and politics and murders and sports. Stating a goal would sound pompous, and I have no slogan posted above my desk. As any writer grows older the goals are always shifting. But I suppose that in my journalism and my fiction, I’ve tried hard to make the world more human.
DS: Unlike many published writers today, who are mere assembly-line writers, cranked out by the MFA mills, you are one of the few published novelists who’s actually done ‘real work,’ where one gets one’s hands dirty. You have blue collar beginnings. What jobs did you do, and do you think that has given you a grounding in realities that today’s young published writers lack? If so, what areas of your writing have benefited most- dialogue, character development, etc.? What books did you read when young? What films did you watch? How about the films of Jimmy Cagney, John Garfield, or the Bowery Boys? My dad was a big fan of Leo Gorcey.
PH: Growing up in blue collar Brooklyn, work was always part of the deal. I don’t mean it was an activity to be endured, but the people who shaped me – starting with my parents – were survivors of the Great Depression, and firmly believed in the absolute necessity of work. I left high school after two years and went to work as an apprentice sheet metal worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I learned many things there, working in the company of men (I was 16). One was HOW to work. That is, to get up, go to a place at a certain time, and do work that you were not in love with doing. More important, I learned at the Navy Yard to see people more clearly (those who were not the neighbors I grew up with). That is, to see each of them as individuals, to ask them questions beyond the craft of sheet metal work, about their lives and their children and their neighborhoods. They were also survivors of the Depression (and many, of the War). Most were generous and funny and kind to a kid. There were Jews among them and Italians and Irishmen (many of them immigrants themselves) and African-Americans. The tough New York alloy. In memory, all stressed to me the need for an education. It was from them that I first heard about the GI Bill, which would transform so many lives in blue-collar America, including mine.
DS: You are also a veteran. What branch of the military did you serve in, and when? Have you used any of these experience sin your writing- be it reportage or fiction? Your brother Denis is also a writer- mainly a journalist. Are there other members of your clan that are involved in the arts? And any besides writing?
PH: I went into the US Navy in September 1952, after a year at the Navy Yard as a civilian. My grandfather (Peter Devlin) had been an engineer who went to sea for decades, to be free of the bigotry of Northern Ireland. The sea was free. He was killed in an accident on the Brooklyn waterfront in 1916, and so I never knew him. But he existed in the family tale. One of his relics was a deck of playing cards adorned with photographs of the construction of the Panama Canal. They went from him to my mother and eventually to me. So I joined the Navy after a year of working on ships at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn (converting aircraft carriers for use by jet aircraft). I was filled with romantic notions of Seeing The World. I wanted to go to the Korean War, and see Asia; and if that was not possible, then to Port Lyautey in North Africa or other ports in the Mediterranean. The Korean War came to a sudden end in early 1953, and I was assigned to Pensacola. It had a great small library on the base, and there I first read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and others. That’s where I started moving on a road that would lead to becoming a writer (that road always begins with reading). The tale is told more fully in my memoir: A Drinking Life.
I used the Navy time in a novel called “Loving Women”, which explores (among many other things) a Brooklyn kid’s confrontation with race (beyond the more abstract and partisan stirrings caused by the arrival of Jackie Robinson in Ebbets Field in 1947).
My brother Denis is a fine writer, who has published ten excellent novels and writes a column for the New York Daily News. My brother John worked as a newspaperman for about ten years and has worked on many movie scripts. My sister Kathleen also wrote for newspapers in the New York area. My late brother Joe worked for many years as a TV news producer. My daughter Deirdre will celebrate 20 years as a newspaper photographer in September, 2007. My brother Brian is a well-known photographer, who worked as a still man on about 25 Woody Allen movies, along with those of many other top directors. A collection of his photographs was published by Harry Abrams in TK, and his work continues to be exhibited in various galleries around the country.
DS: Before settling on the written word, you studied painting, and years later even wrote a book on Diego Rivera- the famed Mexican painter, whose wife was Frida Kahlo, also a painter. What was the book about? What do you think of his politics? Why are so many Latino writers still enamored of simplistic, naïve, and failed Marxist politics? I posit that most ‘political art’ fails because the politics is always made primary over the art. Do you agree?
PH: The book on Diego was a re-introduction to his work and his life, after a period when he seemed to be a mere addendum to the life of Frida Kahlo. When I went to Mexico in 1956, Diego was still alive, but I didn’t care much for his work. I was an Orozco man, with his big bold draftsmanship, his avoidance (with some exceptions) of mere political cartoons. I also liked Tamayo, who had returned to Mexico a few years earlier, after a long time in New York. But years later, I began to see more in Diego, his earliest murals, and above all his portraits and self-portraits. In the book, I deal with his politics too, his split from the Stalinists, his dilettante embrace of Trotskyism, his craven campaign to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party. There’s no point telling here what I’ve already told in the book, which is still in print.
On a personal note, I moved from painting to writing during the time I was in Mexico, because I had a need for narrative. Surely this need came from my earlier immersion in comic strips (esp. Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff) and some comic books. I could draw, attended Cartoonists and Illustrators School at night --after a day’s work at the Navy Yard -- and began thinking about becoming a painter while I was in the Navy, through the influence of a fellow enlisted man, Henry Whiddon, from Marietta, Ga., a fine painter. I wanted to make art in which This happens, and This happens, and AS A RESULT, this happens. Later, I couldn’t figure out how to do that in painting and that turned me towards literature. I do still paint and draw, sometimes to find the faces of my imaginary characters. And Diego’s great mural, “Sunday in the Alameda Park”, was an inspiration for my novel, “Forever.” Diego made clear in that painting that in order to have great heroes you must also have great villains. They are all part of the human tale.
I agree that most “political” art allows the ideology to get in the way of the art. And all ideology is a substitute for thinking, not a form of actual thinking (imagine a painting commissioned by Dick Cheney!). But some painters manage to avoid that trap. Among Europeans, think of Goya or Delacroix, Otto Dix or George Grosz or Kathe Kollwitz, to name a few. Among American, there is Jack Levine, for example, whose political paintings still brim with felt life. Or Francis Bacon. Or Harvey Dinnerstein. For sure, you can’t understand the American 1930s without looking at the art it provoked, “good” and “bad.” And for many centuries, European art served a rigid Christian ideology but much of that art can be examined now in all its human glory without embracing the subject matter. That is, if we think “men made this.” The notion that paintings from a given time should be hidden in the basement, or burned, because the ideas behind them have faded or died – that’s stupid. I include even the worst examples of Soviet Realism or the work of Hitler’s artistic followers. I say: hold on to them. See what they are telling us, even if it’s evil. To this day, I love Franz Kline and De Kooning and Pollock, but never felt a need in their heyday to shove Picasso’s Guernica into the oven. Even kitsch has its delights. You can love Mozart and Dean Martin in the same lifetime, without apology. As long as you truly love each.
As for the continuing taste of Latin American writers for romantic revolution: I don’t think it’s as general as it once was, in spite of an outbreak of the virus in Oaxaca last year. There is a generation of younger writers – Jorge Volpi and others – who are writing novels that never deal with the tired subject. Most of those I meet laugh at Hugo Chavez as a kind of buffoon, embracing an ideology that has clearly failed, in Cuba, the Soviet Union, even China (for reasons that are quite varied). To insist that the Che Guevara myth still has value is a form of sentimentality. The intellectual example of Octavio Paz, in his essays and in his magazine Vuelta, was an important tempering factor in Mexican life, and the emergence of Letras Libres after the death of Paz – directed by the fine historian Enrique Krauze -- is a continuation of that process.
DS: Like our first interviewee, novelist Charles Johnson, you had an interest in cartooning. Why did you give that up? Lack of talent? Did you also give up painting because you felt you lacked real talent in that area? I feel the creative arts are higher than the performing or interpretive arts, because you are basically starting with less to work with. In short, an actor interpreting Shakespeare or O’Neill has it easier than the two playwrights did in conjuring the drama. Similarly, I posit that writing and poetry are the two highest general and specific art forms, for writing is wholly abstract- black squiggles on white that merely represent and must be decoded, whereas the visual arts are inbred, and one can instantly be moved by a great photo or painting, while even the greatest haiku will take five or ten seconds to read and digest. Poetry is the highest form of writing because, unlike fiction, it needs no narrative spine to drape its art over- it can be a moment captured, and wholly abstractly, unlike a photo. Do you agree with these views? If so, why do you think this is so? I would bet that since language (at least written) is only a six or so thousand year old phenomenon, while sight has been around for 600 million years or more, that’s a good head start the visual arts have over writing.
PH: Obviously, I could write a book on this subject. Here’s the brief version. I think music is the most powerful of all arts, the most mysterious, and I rise each morning in Mexico to the sound of birdsong, made by the planet’s first musicians.
When I was still working in the graphic arts, as a designer, I used to work through the nights listening to Symphony Sid’s jazz show on WEVD, the only station in America named for a socialist (Debs). In the mornings, when I would wake up, it was usually to hear the Hungarian hour. The station was run by the Workman’s Circle, that great organization of Jewish socialists, and it spoke to many Jewish immigrants, including, of course, those who still spoke Yiddish. What stayed with me was the music, since I didn’t know the languages.
In the sense that great poetry is the use of language closest to music, I agree with your thesis. I am not a believer in any supernatural faith (they have all created too many corpses), but I try to read a poem each night as if it were a prayer. Just to pass some music into my mind before sleep. Some holy words. NOT to use the phrases of the language in my own work, but to push some of them into my sub-conscious, as gifts sent to me by far greater writers, ones that make me a richer human being. I never “study” poetry. I try to hear it, to feel it, to live it. For me it doesn’t matter who is fashionable, or current, or hip (in the debased current use of an honorable world). To eat it. (Robert Louis Stevenson urged young writers to “read like predators”)
I also vary the poets. I can read Lord Byron and Charles Simic on different nights, Swinburne and Billy Collins, Whitman and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’m not trying to rank them. I’m trying to inhale them.
I’m not sure about your remarks re: poetry vs. fiction. Certainly bad or mediocre poetry isn’t better than great fiction. Faulkner IS greater than Edna St. Vincent Millay. And some great poetry does have a narrative spine… what, after all, is the Odyssey?
DS: Your first in to the newspaper business was in 1960, with the New York Post- which you later edited, along with the New York Daily News. You’ve also written for New York Newsday, the New York Times, the Village Voice, the New Yorker, New York magazine and Esquire. Did you prefer editing to reporting, or is there some elemental sense of the streets that a reporter has that cannot be replaced?
PH: Reporting is the heart of the matter. The great Murray Kempton called it “going around”. Journalism is, as the cliché goes, history in a hurry. But it can be more. American reporting, in its great phase, starts (I believe) with Stephen Crane. Many of his early pieces are in “The New York Sketches of Stephen Crane” You can see later how he moved past journalism by looking at the newspaper story he wrote that was later turned in “The Open Boat”. Even newspaper columns, at their best, use reporting as the authority for their opinions. The great editors recognize reporting talent and try to sharpen it, improve it. No newspaper editor would ever say to a youngster: “There’s too much reporting in this piece.” When the work is at its best, it also become “literature in a hurry.” I always think of the line of Ezra Pound (dreadful, of course, on politics and society but smart about writing). In “The ABC of Reading” he wrote “Literature is news that stays news.”
DS: I mentioned earlier your book on the painter Diego Rivera, but he’s not the only artist whom you’ve written extensively about. You also wrote a book called Why Sinatra Matters. What was its premise? I earlier mentioned my idea on the ranking of arts, and since Sinatra was not a songwriter, merely an interpretive artist, why do you think he’s a great artist? Where would you rank him in the pantheon of great American pop singers, from Nat King Cole to Tony Bennett to Elvis Presley to Johnny Mathis; even to some of today’s top singers?
PH: Again, the book stands for itself. If I could have presented my argument in one paragraph, I wouldn’t have written the book. But I wanted to look at Sinatra for the several things that he accomplished, above all as a musician. Yes, he was an interpreter of other peoples’ songs, just as Pavarotti is, or Billie Holiday was. I’ve heard much music sung by people who wrote their own music, and not all of it is good. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones: these are superb artists. But when I listen to hip-hop, I don’t decide to consign Sinatra, Lady Day, Nat Cole and others to the trash bin. Sinatra brought to pop music a distinctly urban voice, from the cities where the children of immigrants were making their presence known. In roughly the same period, Fiorello LaGuardia, Joe DiMaggio and Sinatra drove the Italian organ grinder and his monkey off the American stage forever. When Sinatra teamed with Nelson Riddle in the early 1950s, that form of music reached its perfect state. Sinatra made other people’s music into autobiography, as Billie Holiday had done earlier, and found in American popular song levels of attitude – most of them stoic – that its creators hadn’t imagined. There was something else to the tale: Sinatra’s audience at the beginning was primarily female; it ended up primarily male. He helped humans trained to silence – or emotional numbness -- to express some of their deepest emotions.
And I don’t think very often about ranking artists. Music and literature are not the NBA. All such discussions are (and should be) subjective. For me, Sinatra was the best. But I could understand if some people had other ideas.
DS: Does your book explore any of the man’s ties to organized crime? One of the influences I used to set forth this interview series was the classic extended Playboy interviews of yore- including one with Sinatra. I earlier mentioned how discourse in this nation has declined, yet when I read the Playboy interview with Sinatra, it was amazing to read that this was not one of today’s manufactured and sold pop icons. Love him or hate him, Sinatra spoke his mind. Why do so many of today’s celebrities seem so vapid, by comparison? And why has discourse been soundbitten?
PH: I touch on the Mob, and quote Sinatra on the subject (he wanted me, at one time, to write his autobiography) but the hoodlums didn’t make him a great popular artist. (And by the way, the book is not a biography, but a biographical essay. I don’t get into much of his love life, except for Ava Gardner, whose presence in his life DID deepen and alter the music). If the hoods could have made him a star, there would have been a hundred Sinatras, because the Mob’s overriding concern is (or was) making money. The old hoodlums are now forgotten, except by Mob buffs. Almost all of Sinatra’s music is still available, still a marvel. Which is why the title of my book is in the present tense. (He makes an unbilled cameo appearance as a young man in my new novel, “North River”).
The problem with today’s celebrity interviews is the triumph of the press agent. The interviews are too controlled, the agendas too circumscribed, with too many such agreements made with editors. (Look at the Rolling Stone interviews during the magazine’s first ten years, when everything was open, and look at today’s controlled interviews in almost any magazine). Another problem: young pop artists read each other’s interviews. They adopt scripts for their own interviews. As a result, they perform their own interviews, echoing the reading they’ve done of others. There’s very little spontaneity, and all do variations on the same endless bullshit. Interviews are usually just part of the packaging. There are some superb exceptions, of course: Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, some of the people on 60 Minutes. Young Anderson Cooper is trying to avoid the traps of celebrity publicity disguised as journalism. Certainly the subject of the decline in interviewing is worth intelligent scrutiny. In general, it just needs more toughness, more rigorous preparation (by the journalists), a refusal to collaborate with the publicity machines (by editors), more interviews with friends and foes to make the subjects more round, more dimensional.
DS: In researching this interview, I watched many of your appearances on the PBS Charlie Rose interview show. That seems like one of the last true bastions of honest and intellectual discourse around. I recall, some years back, being amazed at how intelligent Sylvester Stallone was- on the world and the arts, from an hour long show he did with Rose. In your years of reportage, have you noticed this decline in true dialectic? What reasons do you posit for it? Any remedies?
PH: See reply just above.
DS: Before we touch on your creative writing, let’s discuss some of your career as a journalist. Writer Charles Johnson, in my interview with him, cited MFA programs as a sort of modern equivalent to the old strictures that journalists used to have, in order to learn the basics of how to tell a story. Since you are a journalist, is there a divide between reporting, commentary, and analysis, and the approach to write a short story or novel? If so, define those differences. In another interview you are quoted as stating, ‘Journalism keeps a writer in touch with the actual world- it also teaches speed and accuracy. There is much [more] overlap than known. Academics are who made this artificial separation.’ What are your views on Academics? And where have folk like a Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce or Upton Sinclair gone? These men, like you, wrote both journalism and fiction. Today, that’s rare. And what do you think of other writers who’ve done both- such as William Kennedy or Anna Quindlen?
PH: In my work at NYU, I’ve met academics who are more open, less inclined to fit writers into need little boxes, as if they were literary counterparts of the Elias Sports Bureau. Most of them are young. They don’t stand in such rigid judgment over those who work at both journalism and fiction (the way Dickens did, and Zola, and Twain, and London, and… ah, hell, the list goes on and on). They are also concerned about the clotting of academic language with jargon derived from Foucault, Derrida & Co. On the other hand, based on my own unsystematic reading, I think that too many academics still feel a need to enforce an Overriding Theory (usually derived from French academics, but not always) to explain every goddamned thing in view, from Iraq to the World Series – not to mention novels and poetry. That is, they are caged into an ideology. Not usually Marxism these days, but feminism or post-colonialism or structuralism. I always urge young writers to see the world plain, without any intellectual assumptions. When theory is disproved by observation, then a work of the imagination can give us something very valuable. Bill Kennedy has done that in an excellent way, but I haven’s read the Quindlen novels.
.So have many others. Fiction is about human beings one at a time. If fictions are meant to illustrate some larger philosophy, the characters usually come out as marionettes. That’s why books on acting are sometimes more useful to aspiring novelists than books on literature (with their emphasis on Theory, and rankings). Stanislavski, Michael Chekhov, Uta Hagen, others, are all about making emotion visible. Better to read novels and short stories than to read about them. The great Italian writer Italo Calvino once wrote: “No book about a book is better than the book itself.” Most writers I know would agree.
DS: The mantra in today’s MFA programs is the noxious, ‘Art is truth’ canard. Yet, manifestly this is false. Where do you think such a notion got started? And in my view the only provinces for truth are in science and journalism. Truth only matters if you are speaking of real world people and incidents, and need to be accurate. Last year there was the infamous Oprah Winfrey blowup with the James Frey memoir, and I found myself in the unfortunate position of defending Frey. I term it unfortunate since he is a horribly unskilled writer, yet I was one of the few online voices defending his write to confabulate in a memoir. After all, the very reason memoir exists- apart from autobiography, is because one can change facts for dramatic rendering. Edmund Morris’s Dutch, about the life of President Reagan was, before Frey’s crap, the best (or worst) example of that verity. What are your views on art, truth, memoir, journalism, etc.?
PH: In some ways, Art and Truth are part of what James Joyce once called “those big words that get us into so much trouble.” I don’t know a single writer who sits down at his or her desk muttering: “I make Art. I record Truth.” You’d never finish a sentence. I don’t agree that only science and journalism are the provinces of truth. Garcia Marquez expresses truths in his journalism (and he was a superb journalist) but the deeper truths are in his fictions. Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” expresses truths about journalism (and gossip) that remain true. There were many psychologically accurate novels before Freud or Jung were born.
I haven’t read the Frey book or the Edmund Morris book. I do think that memoir should be as accurate as possible, but in my own experience with “A Drinking Life” I had to use various means to trigger memory (the most powerful device, for me, was listening to popular music that I heard as a boy on the radio). I left quote marks off the dialogue too, since I wasn’t recording my life at eight years old, I was living it. The remembered life was as I remembered it, subject to all the distortions of time itself. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography, although both are essentially briefs for the defense. I once said that everybody’s autobiography could be called “Guilty With An Explanation.”
DS: When do you think PC Elitists and multiculturalists will tire of trying to replace the Old Boys Network in the arts with a New Network? When will they tire of reading simplistic ‘bumper sticker books,’ based on the novelty of exotica and demand artistic excellence, and not just that the writers respect their culture/religion/sex/beliefs?
PH: Ah, hell, I don’t know much about any of this. It’s like discussing the morality of the designated hitter. Great books exist. Who cares if they were written by Dead White Males? You cheat yourself if you don’t try to read most of them during the only life you will ever have. If you are reading “Madame Bovary” (that tale of the original desperate housewife) for the first time, it’s a new book. In general, writers should embrace what E.M. Forster once said: “I do not believe in belief.”
DS: Which do you think you do better at- reportage or fiction? Short stories or novels? And, how has your training as a journalist affected any of those relative strengths and weaknesses? While growing up in New York, I read many of your column pieces over the years, your essays and nonfiction, but to date, of your fiction, I’ve only read your novel Forever and your shamefully neglected short story collection, Tokyo Sketches. While I thought Forever had brilliant moments (especially in the first quarter’s set up of the characters and plot) and was a good book, I felt it went on too long and dragged in the middle. There was also a bit too much melodrama in some of the love scenes and those supernatural moments. You have stated that Forever was finished the day before 9/11, and then you re-did it afterwards. What things were added or changed? However, I thought Tokyo Sketches used all the who, what, when, and why aspects of reportage that you had honed, and since the tales were brief, they painted indelible portraits. Do you feel more comfortable (or natural?) in one form or the other? If so, why do you think that is? Do you plan to write more short fiction?
PH: “Forever” was a very hard book to write, and demanded a broad, deep use of my imagination. Other people’s judgments (including yours) are free to be made. Judging from a steady flow of e-mails, many people love it. So do I, in the way I love my daughters and my grandson. But it’s written, published, done. I think more of what I’m writing now than I do about what I’ve written already.
I love the short story, and it feels natural to me when I’m writing one (probably because the length is so much like the length of most journalistic pieces). I admire so many masters of the form: Joyce, Chekhov, Irwin Shaw, Kafka, Turgenev, William Trevor, John O’Hara, Alice Munro, John McGahern, Ian McEwan, Hemingway, Faulkner, Maupassant. Another list that could go on and on… The story is different from the novel, of course, the way chamber music is different from a symphony. The sense of time is different. But their lesson for young writers is based on the way the tellers of the tale get the characters on stage quickly, and suggest the dilemma. All must be done swiftly. Think of Frank O’Connor’s “Guest of the Nation”.
But when I get into a novel, my imagination shifts. I keep making notes for short stories (on 3x5 index cards) and keep intending to take a second look at the more than 130 stories I wrote for newspapers, back in the day. But a novel is consuming, at least for me. As noted, “Forever” was suggested by Diego Rivera’s mural in Mexico City. One basic part of the design was to cover much of the history of Manhattan through a single character’s experiences, and when Sept 11 happened, I knew I couldn’t leave out the worst calamity of the city’s history. So I took another year….I was there when the towers fell, and spent days in the smoke and rubble. But I couldn’t truly use my own experience. I had to make it into Cormac’s experience, and that’s where imagination came in.
DS: I’m well known online for my decrying of the current state of the arts world. I see all of the major arts in down cycles, but it’s important to recognize the cyclic nature, and not fall into the Chicken Little trap. As example, published poetry’s last gasp of greatness was over three decades ago, and fiction has devolved into genre crap- be it sci fi or Chick Lit. Even ‘literary fiction’ has become a genre, with writers such as a T.C. Boyle or David Foster Wallace getting manifestly bad writing published. Painting has stagnated since the advent of Abstract Expressionism and Warholian Pop Art, while photography has not caused a stir since the heyday of Diane Arbus. Even an Annie Liebovitz is merely a photographer to the stars. Classical music and jazz have withered away, and even Classic Rock is decades old. Rap, country, and saccharine pop rule the charts. Hollywood has wholly given up on adult films- the few made today are either Woody Allen films, or independent features seen by a few thousand people, while television- despite hundreds of cable channels, has never matured past former FCC Chairman Newt Minnow’s famed 1961 denunciation of it as a ‘vast wasteland.’ The Internet is even worse. Perhaps only the writing in popular science books is an exception. So, my question is, how do you, Pete Hamill, as a serious artist- presumably one who wants his novels read decades after his death, view this abysmal sea of pop culture as it wears away the shorelines of deeper culture and art? And, are you a Chicken Little sort, or a believer in cycles?
PH: The truth? I don’t care much about any of this. It’s hard enough to get your own work done. I think the world is in dreadful shape, with religious crackpots everywhere (including the US), and not enough mocking laughter. But I am essentially an optimist, shaped by the people who honorable survived the Depression (including my parents) and the war, and by the great unleashing of joy and possibility that came with the end of World War Two. A fifteen-year period of austerity and self-denial had come to an end, and the GI Bill offered visions of the future to all of us who were the children of Irish factory workers, Italian sanitation men, Jewish cab drivers, and African-American barbers. It took a bit longer for African-Americans to feel the same sense of possibility, and that came with Robinson, who started the modern civil rights movement.
I don’t delude myself. I wonder what will happen when the crackpots get nuclear weapons after killing Musharraf? Or what happens with all those weapons when fanatics machine gun the Saudi royal family? I have a nine-year-old grandson. He should have a chance at the same kind of life I had, when it was possible to imagine a future. I want him to read the Odyssey too. I want him to gaze at Rubens in wonder, or be stirred by Charlie Parker or Ludwig van Beethoven. Maybe your analysis of the culture is accurate. But there are far worse things in existence now than self-appointed cultural commissars. And yes, in spite of everything, I’m not yet a Chicken Little. It’s impossible to live in fear.
DS: As a journalist, you are certainly familiar with politics as a business, but what of politics in the arts? You are manifestly, on the liberal spectrum of the fence, but not the Loony Left. How do you view the rise of Political Correctness over the last quarter century, and what effect do you feel it has had on the arts? Personally, I’m against the NEA, because nitwit politicians have no clue as to what art nor artist is deserving, so the money is usually wasted on programs that do nothing at all. Do you agree? Do you think there is a better model for bettering the arts? Perhaps one that merely grants greater access to better artists, and does not stack the deck for a bunch of cronies and against those who pursue art for art’s sake?
PH: Again, I don’t know much about any of this, either. I believe in work, and have never received a grant of any kind. I’m, in general, against the artist who says, “I’m so pure, you must support me.” Somehow many great, impoverished artists of the past were able to make art without government grants. In the case of theater or huge orchestras, I can see the point. But to write a novel? Or poetry? William Carlos Williams worked as a doctor. Wallace Stevens as an insurance man. TS Eliot as an editor. If you choose to be a poet, make sure you know how to do something in order to eat.
Political Correctness, in general, is stupid, as practiced here, as practiced around the world. I’m against limits about what can be said, even when I disagree with what is said. There must be room in the public libraries for Mein Kampf too, or we have no way of knowing as much as possible about Hitler’s evil. You’re offended? Stop reading, or looking, or listening. And I’m against all forms of fatwas called down on people who offend. I wish Islam would develop its own Lenny Bruce, its own Voltaire. I wish more of television and radio would mock the current American regime, and its own faith-based nonsense.
DS: In a similar vein, in real world politics, I (born in 1965) have never known a remotely great American President. Four were utter disasters: LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 2. Two were mediocrities- Carter and Bush 1. One was irrelevant- Ford, for his too little time in office. So, that leaves old Slick Willy as probably the best President I’ve known, and I really thought he wasted all his potential. Do you think this lowering of the bar on Presidents has to do with the primary system? Would this nation be better off going back to the Buddhas of the smoke filled rooms to pick candidates? Before the primaries, we had guys with vision, like Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK (however flawed they may have been). Even Eisenhower was a better leader than any President in my lifetime; even if they were not appreciated in their day. Similarly, has this same demotic ideal done as much damage to the arts, in your view? After all, this Great Depression in the arts world neatly dovetails with the rise of the NEA. I’m not arguing that funding artists is wrong, only funding the bad and mediocre, which are 99.99%. Government bureaucrats simply have no ability to discern artistic merit, when so many cannot even competently handle far more common sense matters. So, how to get the money to the people who can really use it- the budding Michelangelos or Twains who work in factories or warehouses, rather than effete wannabe artistes?
PH: See above, but I’m not a person who thinks all problems can be solved with a government program. I say that even though I grew up with the radio voice of Franklin Roosevelt in our kitchen. His portrait, from the Daily News Sunday supplement, was on one wall, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus was on the other. For a while, I thought FDR’s voice was the voice of God. Maybe I was right. But some government programs do work. All the reforms of the New Deal made a true difference to millions of people. And the GI Bill changed the post-war United States. I don’t believe a dime of taxpayer money should be spent on the “faith-based initiative”, to garner votes. Let the preachers work by day as hard as Mexican immigrants do, and tend to their flocks after work. It’s hard to imagine Jesus of Nazareth driving an SUV.
On the other hand…In general, most right-wingers see every problem in the country, or the world, as a nail that must be hit with a hammer. A little thinking about consequences would surely help us all. In my time on the planet, most rich kids (not all) have had little regard for consequences. Pulled over drunk on the side of some road, Momma makes a fast phone call…
DS: I posit: the failure of ‘published’ literature today lies more with the failings of publishers, editors, and critics to do their jobs well, more so than the bad and generic writers who are published. My point is that bad writers have always been with us, but the cronyism, favoritism, and grants giving NEA cash cow has led to a system of writers and editors who dare not say negative things about another writer’s work lest find their own publication chances minimized, if not extirpated. Do you agree, and if so, what observations can you add? And, is not the MFA writing workshop archipelago merely a vast networking tool for the bad writers who are gulled out of their money? Is not the NEA a cronyists’ dream, one that dashes any real hope of funding for the best writers, ones who challenge orthodoxies as those the very concept (much less reality) of the NEA represents? Is it not far too politicized to the Left?
PH: As noted, I don’t know much about MFA programs or the NEA, and attendant cronyism. I have some writer friends, along with non-writer friends, both in New York and in Mexico. None of them lives off grants.
DS: Let’s speak about your latest book, North River. On your own website the book is described in this manner: ‘It is 1934, and New York City is in the icy grip of the Great Depression. With enormous compassion, Dr. James Delaney tends to his hurt, sick, and poor neighbors. His patients include gangsters and Tammany chieftains, veterans and day laborers, prostitutes and housewives. If they can’t pay, he treats them anyway. He is a good man in a bad time.
But in his own life, Delaney inhabits the country of numbness. He is haunted by the slaughters of the Great War. His only daughter has left for Mexico to pursue revolutionary dreams. And his wife Molly vanished many months before, leaving him to wonder if she is alive or dead. Now living alone in the far west of Greenwich Village, hard by the Hudson, which New Yorkers still call the North River, Delaney submerges his own pain in the pain of his patients.
Then, on a snowy New Year’s Day, the doctor returns home to find his three-year-old grandson on his doorstep, left by his mother in Delaney’s care. Coping with this unexpected arrival, Delaney hires Rose, a tough, decent Sicilian woman with a secret in her past. Slowly, as the ice in the North River begins to break up, Rose and the boy begin to care for the good doctor, and the numbness in Delaney begins to melt.’ Your fiction has made use of history in the past, but also it has had a supernatural bent. From this teaser, is that so with this novel? And, can you expound a bit more on what it deals with? Is it more a character study, or a cross-section of the times?
PH: It’s a love story for grown-ups, set in a time when many people dealt with great adversity with invincible decency. Again, it’s difficult to explain a book in a few sentences. The best answer is: read it.
DS: There are so many books published that are poorly edited- from novels that meander or have fundamentally shallow stereotypes masquerading as characters (Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle), to books that have some potential (Toni Morrison’s fiction or Frank McCourt’s memoirs) but are poorly constructed, to the work of people who simply cannot write (David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers). Which came first- the chicken of poor editing or the egg of deliterate readership. And by deliterate I mean the willful choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor of reading blogs. To write in emailese rather than proper grammar. What have been your experiences with editors of books? And, as an editor of others’ prose- in your capacity as editor of journalism, do you have more or les tolerance for editors that neglect the very basics of their job?
PH: I’ve had good luck with my book editors: Peter Gethers at Bantam; Jason Epstein at Random House; and for the past six books, Bill Phillips at Little, Brown. All have worked to make the book better, and I learned from each of them. They don’t think the use of Spell Check is editing. Jason, early on, insisted that a book should not make the reader dumber. Both Jason and Bill are fine readers of the broad structure of novels, (or non-fiction works), and at the same time can be fine line editors. Little, Brown, at the old offices in Boston, also employs rigorous copy-editors. All want the book to be as good as it can be, including me. These editors never asked me to write the book they would have written. Or a book that fit into some current fashion. They were trying to sharpen my own vision, my own intentions.
As an editor, I tried to do the same for other writers, particularly the young. That sometimes meant small lessons in craft. Often suggestions for follow-up. And always urging reporters to read, read, read. Not junk. But the great stuff. And for the rest of their lives.
DS: And what do you believe of the outsourcing of the publishing industry’s task of finding and promoting new quality writers? Most literary agents today are simply not equipped to evaluate good writing, as evidenced by the utter lack of quality writing that is published. Even worse, most literary agents do not even read the work submitted to them. They pass the buck down to college aged new hires or coed interns seeking college credits. Simply put, no twenty year old is qualified enough to discern the quality if a Huckleberry Finn or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn comes across their desk. This is how hacks like a Chuck Palahniuk get an ‘in,’ because their deliterate prose is no better nor worse than that the college aged readers of manuscripts can produce. Some complain that the reason for literature’s decline the last few decades is the consolidation of the publishing industry into a handful of corporate giants, yet small independent presses are publishing writing every bit as bad as the big presses, so there is something more fundamentally wrong than runaway corporatism. These are the symptoms, Pete. What is your diagnosis, since you were around when writers like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Saul Bellow were lauded with fame, which is earned, as opposed to the mere celebrity of the latest hack writer who’s being pushed merely because he poses as a badass, or she preens like a harlot?
PH: Again, I don’t know this world well enough to speak about it. For many years, I’ve had an agent who does read. Esther Newberg. I take her judgments seriously. But I don’t have time in my life to go to lunch in places where such talk is common. You might be right. I don’t know. (I think the triumph of television might have more to do with the proliferation of dreck. In most of my novels, I try to write about the world before television).
DS: Let’s change gears back to journalism. You are a native New Yorker, as am I. How has coverage of the city changed in your years on the job? And, other than yourself, who are the old sultans of journalism- both in New York City and nationwide? Mike Royko is dead and Jimmy Breslin is part of the old guard. Even Molly Ivins is no longer around. Do you still look to contemporaries in the business, as role models, or do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer and reporter? What things have you learned in the last few years, on the beat, that you wish you had known decades ago?
PH: I haven’t written a regular column for more than three years. And it’s been a long time since I looked for role models (I’m too old, and anyway I hate the phrase). But I admire Frank Rich, Clyde Haberman, Dan Barry and Jim Dwyer at the Times. At the Post, the sports and business guys do terrific work. I admire Mike Lupica, Juan Gonzalez, Albor Ruiz, Michael Daly – along with my brother, Denis – at the Daily News. Reading them, I always look for two reactions in myself, those I wanted to provoke in my own readers: 1) I didn’t know that. 2) I never thought about it that way.
There are many talented people around now, beyond the names listed above. I hope they are all having a good time.
DS: Who are the young guns in New York journalism today? I read a book a few years ago, by a reporter named Charlie LeDuff, called Work And Other Sins, which had a Hamillian feel and flair to it. Yet, latest I heard, he was embroiled in some plagiarism claim that sidetracked his career, as well as claims that he fabricated parts of his reportage. Manifestly, the last ten or fifteen years have seen many reporters- as well as some famed historians, fall into the trap of ‘accidental’ borrowing. Even creative writers have had novels pulled. Then there was the Oprah-Winfrey-James Frey dust-up over his horribly written memoir. What is going on? Putting aside a moral high horse, this is just ridiculous. Emulating someone’s style is a different beast from appropriating their words, so why have so many fictionists, historians, and reporters chosen this tack? (Note: I avoid the term ‘fallen into this trap’ because to steal words is manifestly a conscious choice.)
PH: All writers, like painters, musicians, sculptors, go through four stages (as explained to me long ago by a brilliant teacher at art school named Burne Hogarth): Imitate, Emulate, Equal, Surpass. That seems a natural part of an apprenticeship, and if a kid picks up some of another writer’s music for a while, then the editor should tell him to stop. Kids who plagiarize are fools. It takes too much time, and you learn nothing. I’d like to see the book publishers create a kind of Price Waterhouse of Fact Checking. Have it run by some graduate of the New Yorker. Have each book be subjected to the in-house fact-checking standards of major magazines. Do this BEFORE accepting the book for publication.
Alas, at newspapers, there’s no time to do this on breaking news stories. But it could be done on features.
DS: I mentioned Jimmy Breslin, and- other than yourself, he’s probably what most non-New Yorkers stereotypically envision as a hard drinking New York newspaperman. He’s also a fellow Irishman. What has been your relationship with the man? Are you friends or rivals? What scoops has he beaten you to, and vice versa? In your memoir, A Drinking Life, you speak of your battle with booze. Is this vice even more pervasive in the journalism biz, or is it the ‘curse of the Irish’?
PH: Jimmy and I are friends for 40 years, but I don’t see him much, because I don’t see many people very much anymore, particularly from the old days on newspapers. He was a great columnist, who re-invented the form at the old Herald-Tribune while I was still a daily reporter at the Post. In my mind, we were never rivals. I didn’t think about “scoops” much, so who the hell can remember now? But when one of the young guys attacked him 20 years ago in print, I went to the man and said: “When Breslin is gone, it will be like 300 people left the room.” Now, Breslin too has given up his daily column, and it’s like 300 people have left the room.
By the way, I have been off the booze for 34 years now and for the past fifteen, at least, Breslin hasn’t been drinking either. Neither of us could have done as much work as we did if we were Stage Irishmen. In our early days, the culture of drink was part of newspapers, a leftover from Prohibition and the Depression. Newspapermen (and women) then were paid very little money, and lived bohemian life-styles. Then in the 1970s, the Newspaper Guild finally got reporters the money they deserved. One result: they became middle class. Many moved to the suburbs, and a lot of laughter came to an end.
DS: Recently, I watched an episode of Texas Monthly Talks. In it, the writer and art and literary critic Dave Hickey spoke at length of several things that made me think of this upcoming interview with you. First, on a journalistic note, he spoke of how he loathed the New York press scene of the 1960s and 1970s- including such folk as you and Breslin. He said that the circle was insular, and more concerned with worrying over the high price of veal in Connecticut restaurants than doing real reportage. Is this an accurate assessment of the milieu back then? How much does ego, reputation, and position play in the media business? I don’t feel ego in any profession- including the arts, is a bad thing, as long as the ego is commensurate with the talent and output of the egoist. Otherwise, all you’d get is false humility, which is a nice way of saying someone’s a bullshitter. Agree or not?
PH: Hmmm. I’ve never ordered veal in a Connecticut restaurant. Neither, I’m sure, has Breslin. I learned to drive when I was 36. Breslin still can’t drive. How would we get to Connecticut? And why would we go all the way up there when each of us knows 49 restaurants in New York that might do the veal better? I haven’t read Hickey’s piece, so I’m not sure what he is talking about. Insular certainly wasn’t right. My closest friend then (and now) was a prizefighter named Jose Torres, a former light-heavyweight champion of the world, who after retirement from the ring became a newspaper columnist. Two other friends (then and now) were guys I grew up with in Brooklyn. I had painter friends, too, and actors. In the 1960s and ‘70s, a lot of us went to the Lion’s Head, where there were stockbrokers in attendance, old Communists, several poets, a few jazz musicians, several cops, two firemen. We were all friends and I suppose all groups of friends are by definition insular. I learned much from all of them. I miss the ones who are gone, and cherish the living. I don’t know how “ego” is defined in this context. But if you bragged about the greatness of your new column, your new book, your new poem, or your latest sexual conquest, you’d have been laughed out of the bar.
I distrust the assumptions of some of this discussion, that there was some nasty, self-absorbed, conniving conspiracy to make ourselves important. There are ways to be human, and good at what you do, that do not start with ego, reputation and position.
DS: Hickey also raised an interesting point in regards to art and literary critics. He actually admitted that, when he was a young critic, he actually used to make decisions over whether he ‘like’ or ‘disliked’ something (as opposed to any objective criteria for excellence) based upon whether or not his career could benefit from either trashing a work or boostering it (regardless if he thought it good or bad). Now, manifestly, we both know that this is the way things have worked for a long time, and this ‘corruption’ is similar to cronyism, but I had to give Hickey some credit for actually admitting he acted as a shill. Given the book blurbery that abounds these days, are you scrupulous about what works or writers you will blurb for? Have you ever had an instance where you knew a critic trashed a work of yours simply because of some personal reason or kerfuffle? And why do so many published critics display such an utter lack of professional ethics by reviewing the books of friends and associates?
PH: I never write a blurb without reading the book. My friends know better than to ask me for blurbs, and when I do write something nice about a friend, I always try to declare my relationship. Writing a blurb is hard work, like writing haiku. And if you read the book, there go three or four days of your life. You seem obsessed with the politics of the publishing world, and I’m sure you’re not. But again, this is stuff I don’t give a rat’s ass about.
DS: What do you think of some of the big name literary critics of today: Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, Marj Perloff? To me, they are walking, talking reminders of all that is wrong with literature and criticism today, and the great need for Mark Twains, Ambrose Bierces, Oscar Wildes, H.L. Menckens, and Dorothy Parkers. I contend that America’s current collective Attention Deficit Disorder makes a critic’s job all the more important, especially to save good books from a swift oblivion. Thoughts?
PH: I’ve read some of Bloom, and found it a bit self-important. I learned from Vendler some things that had not occurred to me about Seamus Heaney, a poet (and man) I admire. I’ve never heard of Marj Perloff. Again, to quote Italo Calvino…
DS: What are your views of Postmodern criticisms of art? What or such political criticism, such as Feminist or Politically Correct ideologies? What do you think of the dictates of New Criticism? And, even if you agree with one or more of these approaches, since they all devolve away from their central tenets, is there any real purpose to the relentless construction of schools and –isms in the arts?
PH: All of this, as I’ve said in different ways above, seems like a parlor game for adepts, largely written in code, generally useless to writers. The ideas are banal, the writing turgid. Maybe it’s what we have now instead of the WPA?
DS: Hickey reserved a particular venom for the criticism and management of the painting and visual arts world of the last thirty or so years. He said that there was a time, when a movement would come, crest, and go in less than a decade, so even if a movement was effete, it would soon be displaced. He claimed the very idea of revolution in the arts, these days, is dead. Now, I think the idea of ‘revolution’ in the arts tends to lead to fifth rate Beatnik poetry. But, he had a point, in that he says that there is no longer any objective judgment made over whether some work of art- whether it’s the shit art (literally) of a Chris Ofili or the simplistic graffiti of a Keith Haring or the silly body smearings of Karen Finley. It’s all accepted as ‘art,’ simply because the artist declares it so. Critics seem to have become mere marketers. The same is true in literature. Hacks like Bloom and company merely mouth the same old same old about Shakespeare, get declared out of touch by ‘rebel’ artists, and the real artists who will be read and appreciated in a century are ignored by the Dead White Males like Bloom, and scorned by the pseudo-artiste hipsters. Yet, this cycle has always been. Think of the Salonistas and the Impressionists. A few years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica. On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Do you agree?
PH: In general, yes. Most art criticism is written in such purposefully obscure language that it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s part of the fuck-you-try-to-read-me school. Then there’s the school that believes that nothing matters, or everything matters, so why not embrace it all, or reject it all? Goya and Jeff Koons have the same weight. What we know is this: there’s no need to read most of it. If you’re an artist, go to work. Think about it later. The great champion Joe Louis said once, “When I had to think about throwing the right hand, I knew I was done.”
DS: To turn the focus more inward, in some ways, you seem to treat New York City the way William Kennedy does Albany, New York, and the way James Joyce did Dublin, Ireland. It seems to be home base for your fictive universe. Is this just coincidence, or is there some something utterly Irish about memories of the hometown? You mentioned, while promoting Forever, that you did not feel that any novel had done justice to New York City- at least in the sense that Ulysses did Dublin. First, do you really think Ulysses is a Dublin novel? It’s so interior that its exterior location seems almost inconsequential. And, what do you think of Joyce as a writer? I think he was a great writer, but not a great novelist. His best work was Dubliners, and each succeeding book went downhill, to the ridiculously bad Finnegans Wake. Joyce has moments or great poesy and clarity, but then follows it up with pages of verbose, witless pap. In structure, Ulysses most reminds me of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen- a huge work with moments of emergence onto a bright, sunny knoll, then a long, lost sojourn into the dark canopy of a forest. Any thoughts?
PH: I read “The Dead” at least twice a year. It’s one of the greatest short stories of the 20th century, certainly the greatest love story. I disagree about “Ulysses”. To me it’s saturated with Dublin. I agree about “Finnegan’s Wake”, but last Bloomsday I was with a group of people reading Joyce in celebration of the great man. One was an actress, and she essentially sang a short piece of the book, and for the first time I understood that Joyce must have thought he was writing music, specifically opera. But it will remain a book I never finish before they cart me off to the Greenwood.
DS: I also have had a running argument with people regarding Joyce. Having read several bios of him- including those by intimates, I’m convinced that Joyce’s breakdown as an artist, and is increasing loss of an ability to write well, was a result of the syphilis that also blinded him. Any ideas?
PH: About syphilis and Joyce, I don’t have a clue. There is, however, a statue of him in Dublin that is referred to by locals as “The Prick With the Stick”. Maybe they knew something…
DS: Speaking of Irish, about a decade ago, riding the popularity of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Riverdance, all things green were in. Did your career or work benefit from any of that?
PH: Not that I know of. My own memoir was published before Frank finished writing “Angela’s Ashes”. His book takes place in Ireland, and only parts of my work have taken place there. I’m an American writer, of the New York School. I always say I’m part Irish, part Jewish, part Mexican, part French, and part Jesuit.
DS: Getting back to New York. What novels would you rank in the pantheon of New York literature? And do you consider than merely to be Manhattan? As a born and raised Queens resident, that would be too provincial. What of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn? I think its one of the supreme works of fiction in human history.
PH: Where to start? I read Betty Smith’s novel more than 40 years ago and I should read it again. I go back often to Stephen Crane and Melville (Bartleby still lives among us) and, of course, Whitman. The last only wrote one novel, and it was pretty bad. But he inspired novelists as varied at Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, and Jack Kerouac. “Gatsby” remains one of the greatest works of literature about New York, worth reading every few years. I admire the work of Daniel Fuchs, too, and the stories of Jerome Weidman, and the Brownsville memoir by Alfred Kazin. Abraham Cahan”s “The Rise of David Levinsky” is essential to understanding New York’s past and present. I admire too the novels of my brother Denis, and the way he enters the minds of people formed by the Sixties… I still read parts of “Manhattan Transfer” by Dos Passos… John O’Hara wrote brilliantly about New York in many of his short stories (the New York stories should be collected in a separate volume), as did Irwin Shaw (who was from Brooklyn, and captured certain aspects of the city better than anyone else in the 1930s and 1940s. I still see the girls in their summer dresses crossing Washington Square…) When young I liked “The Amboy Dukes” by Irving Shulman, and Harold Robbins “A Stone for Danny Fisher” (I know, I know…). They portrayed a recognizable New York, esp. Brooklyn…Sol Yurick has written well about New York and so has Harvey Swados. Hubert Selby added a different layer to the examination of the city. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a great novel about New York. Essays by James Agee and Truman Capote remain fresh as do the best films and short stories of Woody Allen. Forgive me for going on: I’m sure I’ll think of more books in a day or too..
Among younger writers, I very much liked “The Fortress of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem. It’s not my Brooklyn, but it’s a Brooklyn I recognize.
DS: Do you think New York’s uniqueness, as the most diverse and cosmopolitan place on earth, has any part in why artists are drawn to it, yet why there are not as many great works of fiction about it as other places? After all, New York is a patchwork of integrated segregated neighborhoods (nabes, not hoods) just a few blocks wide. You also grew up during the last century’s great shift and resegregation by men like Robert Moses (a figure you may want to do a book- fiction or nonfiction- about), where public projects destroyed many neighborhoods and led to redlining. I left the city in 1991, when my family still got threats if we were to sell to a minority family. Have things changed any in the years since?
PH: The challenge of New York (and of all great cities) is that its size, density, layered reality makes it difficult to do what novels do best: tell us about people one at a time. The velocity of change plays a part too. As soon as you think you understand the city, it changes again. It’s easier to write about Winesburg, Ohio, than any immense metropolis (name the great Los Angeles novels). It’s true that most New Yorkers live in hamlets, some shaped ethnically, some economically, some defensively (against threats from outside). If a writer has any luck, he or she will so define one of the hamlets that it will stand for many others of its time and place. New York is not now the city where I grew up or the one that you left in 1991. It’s not the city mauled by the grandiosity of Robert Moses. It is ALWAYS evolving. I believe it’s better now than at any time since I was a boy, helped immensely by the social cement provided by the new immigrants (who were arriving when you left). You saw it on September 12, 2001. Nobody fled to Nebraska. Almost everybody got up and tried to go to work.
There have been some changes too in the way people settle into the city. In one small part of Brooklyn, Chinese immigrants and Pakistani immigrants are settling on the same streets. Imagine the food that will come from THAT? Or the literature? Already we are receiving the gifts of the new immigrants, in the fiction of Junot Diaz, or Edwidge Danticat. More will surely come.
The worst problem is that New York is becoming more and more difficult for the artistic young to find a place for themselves, even if that place will lead to failure. The real estate thing is out of control, and all those kids who used to arrive at the Port Authority bus station, dreaming of being painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, performers are finding New York a hard place to live in. It’s one thing to have four airline stewardesses share an apartment. But four lyric poets would end their stay with a homicide. Decent people are thinking hard about this problem. I hope they solve it or the city’s artistic essence is certain to be depleted.
As for Robert Moses: the great book remains Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker”. Perhaps some new Balzac will find a way to make a novel that gets us to see him in other ways. But when I make a choice for a novel, I almost never choose someone whose company I can’t sustain for two or more years. I’m not like those novelists who can write a dark, corrosive exploration of the secret life of a prick. I don’t want to live with that person, day and night (especially at night). I don’t see the world that way either. I’ve met far more decent people in a long life than heartless villains (though I’ve met my share of those too). That has led to occasional accusations of sentimentality, esp. since I come from Irish parents. This is often just critical laziness, and ethnic stereotyping. So be it. In my fiction, I write about the human beings I have known.
DS: Yet, despite your New York roots and fictive world, I first came upon your fictive side (I’d read you for years in the New York tabloids) when a friend of mine sent me a copy of your aforementioned short story collection, Tokyo Sketches. I thought it was an excellent book, yet it got virtually no publicity on this side of the Pacific. Why wasn’t Tokyo Sketches given more of a chance to find a stateside audience?
PH: I don’t know why. You write a book and hope for the best. My wife is Japanese, and a fine writer of non-fiction, but none of her books are available in English. They don’t fit into easy categories: atrocity stories, Chick Lit, Asian exotica. But she reads them to me, and they are very good.
DS: What influence did your wife have on the collection? She, Fukiko Aoki, is also a journalist. How did you meet? Not too long ago I watched the Akira Kurosawa film The Bad Sleep Well (Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru) and it contains a devastating portrait of the Japanese press in the 1960s. I earlier mentioned Dave Hickey’s assessment of the New York press of that era. What similarities and differences were there between your two groups’ approaches to the craft? Has the Japanese media become as lazy and star-struck as the American media?
PH: I can’t answer much of that series of questions. I loved that Kurosawa film too, and saw similarities to our own press, but I see them in Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” too. In general, the press/media will always be imperfect, because it is made by human beings. Those who practice the craft are susceptible to all the human weaknesses: flattery, egotism, nasty ambitions, the need to reward friends and punish enemies. The best avoid those sins and try hard to keep it straight. No hidden agendas. No contracts. No lies. In short, no need for apologies.
DS: Let me digress for a moment. In the Introduction to Tokyo Sketches, you wrote, ‘When I first saw that amazing city, I was overwhelmed by an odd tangle of emotions….At the same time, I felt oddly at home. For a New Yorker, Tokyo has the familiar dense vastness of a great city. The basic structures and components are there: rivers, bridges, skyscrapers, traffic, markets, movie houses, parks and subways and bookstores. The streets are as thick with people as the avenues of Manhattan. Most of these stories originated in some form during those brief encounters late at night. Sometimes the tellers of the tales were Japanese. Sometimes the stories were told about other people. But they often shared some common trait: a broken communication, a misunderstood word, a clash of myths, the enormous, unforgiving power of the past, I thank all those who gave them to me.’ When you claim the stories came from others, are you being literal, hyperbolic, or metaphoric?
PH: All three. In other words, I could be with a group in Tokyo or Rome or New York and hear a tale and begin to imagine it. Usually I slip into the men’s room, and make a few notes on an index card. In his own way, that’s what Henry James did too (see his Notebooks, in the F.O. Matthiessen edition). One reason I stopped drinking was to try to become a better rememberer, one of those people, as James said, upon whom nothing is missed. I certainly still miss many things, but I know a good story when I hear one or witness one in fragments. Any writer should try to live a fully conscious life, without anesthesia. Let the laughs be really laughs; let the pain be pain. My friends who thought drugs led to expanded consciousness burned out young. The drunks slobbered at the end, and they too died. The lessons were obvious for any writer. Stay straight, Look. Get the details right. Then imagine.
I once had lunch with the great critic and short story writer, V.S. Pritchett, and asked him how he knew so many things. His stories were filled with the details of work and domestic lives. He said, I like to walk around London. When I see an interesting shop, or a person filled with unease, I stop and watch. I go into a doorway. I watch some more. That’s all.
It was never, of course, all. Pritchett was a modest man, as are most good writers who know how difficult their task is. There was more to the process than what he told me that day. But he was on to something.
DS: I ask because many artists seem to deny their own creativity, pawning it off on others, or worse….God, or some other force or demiurge. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all me, or you, or any artist. Do you agree? I think that the Divine Inspiration Fallacy is also the underlying root of why so many artists- especially those of quality, feel a rivalry with other quality artists. Were they to realize or acknowledge their creative force as a part of their own nature then there would be no reason to be envious. As example, I look at a great artwork as a new way to Nirvana- so to speak, and seek to know how that path was blazed, how it can be recreated, or adumbrated. Yet, those who believe in the Divine Inspiration Fallacy, and view creativity as something apart and above them, see any success by others as somehow their rival’s plucking down something from the ether that could have been theirs, and now is one less great insight, work, or idea that they can never have. Surely you’ve known such patterns of artistic envy from history. Have you any personal tales in that regard? And, do you think that the DIF is an answer to why so many artists are insecure, especially in comparison to other artists?
PH: I’d never heard of the Divine Inspiration Fallacy until now (with that title) but by any name it remains absurd. Surely, writers and other artists can have a variety of motives for making a specific work. But if they wait for the divine to come floating through the universe, they are doomed to silence. I’ve known writers who were eaten up by envy, who measured themselves always in regard to others, who saw conspiracies at every turn. Such thinking is exhausting and leads to silence and bitterness. Their energies should have gone into doing the work, with or without divine intervention and regardless of who else was in the room. I like reading about the Renaissance workshops and how artists were trained to master their various crafts. Not much chatter there about the Muse. And though craft is not everything, in most cases art is not possible without it. Yeats once urged Irish writers to learn their craft. He was speaking to all poets. And all writers.
In my own work, I was generally free of envy, certainly about my contemporaries I wasn’t trying to be better than anyone else, or refute their aesthetic positions. I just wanted to be the best Pete Hamill who ever lived. When a friend or acquaintance had a huge success, I cheered.
DS: Re: short stories vs. novels. What is this nonsense that people will not read short story collections? Most of the people I know disagree with that. After all, if there are ten stories, and just two or three are good, the book is worth its price, but one has far less than a twenty percent chance that any given novel will be good. This seems to violate the precepts that most magazines now offer- that people have short attention spans. Were that true, the novel would be passé, and short stories the rage- no? This suggests, to me, that these claims are all just pulled out of the asses of agents, editors, and publishers as excuses, when they simply do not ‘like’ a manuscript. And why do you think that the like-dislike axis has supplanted the good-bad axis. After all, while one’s likes are subjective, quality is not. One can argue over which of two great artists was better, but there will always be a chasm between the rare greats and the all too common bad artists.
PH: I don’t see the world that way. If I read ten pages of a novel – new or old – and don’t hear the music, I put it aside and read something else. You bring your own life to reading a book, and sometimes that gets in the way of appreciating a classic, and sometimes it allows you to delve deep into the lives of others. For example, I have never been able to “get” Jane Austen. That doesn’t mean she was not a great writer (many of my friends love her work). It simply means that the circumstances of my own life got in the way. My mother worked, full or part-time, all of her life. It has been hard for me to connect with those young women in Jane Austen who would do almost anything except take a job. That’s a narrowness, but of no consequence to the world. I never think of myself as a judge when I sit down to read, and absolutely never as some sort of literary prosecutor. Life is too short for the vehemence demanded by both roles. One unfortunate remainder from the Sixties, is a judgmental vehemence that is ugly and unforgiving.
DS: Back to Tokyo Sketches. A few years after I read some of the tales, I started watching foreign films, and some by the Japanese masters like Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. Yet, without a doubt, after having watched some of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, I have to believe that he was a great influence on those stories. When I think of the Noriko Trilogy (Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story) I sense the same pacing and contemplativeness as you had in those tales. Is this just coincidence, the effects of Tokyo, your wife, all of the above, or did Ozu and his films play a part?
PH: It must be coincidence, because the only Ozu film I’ve seen is Tokyo Story and I don’t remember thinking: “Ah, I must try to emulate that mood.” When I go anywhere, I go with the eyes of a New Yorker. I was a New Yorker when I went to school in Mexico, when I lived in Rome and Barcelona and Dublin and San Juan, when I spent time in Saigon and Beirut and the Belfast of the Troubles. That doesn’t mean I was immune to what was in front of me. All of those places were part of my education. But I wanted to answer the same questions that New York had suggested. Why is this place here? Who owns it? Why are they killing each other? Most writers do the same thing. Malamud goes to Italy as a New Yorker. Dickens visited the Five Points in New York as a Londoner. Kafu Nagai looked at the US as a man from Tokyo. We all carry baggage. It’s the mixture of viewpoints, the old, the fresh, that makes for something interesting, even new.
DS: Aside from Ozu, I recently became acquainted with the writings of the neglected Lafcadio Hearn. Are you familiar with his work? I think his cultural essays on Japan, at the turn of the 20th Century, are even better than his fictive work- the most famous being Kwaidan. What has happened to journalists who are also fictive writers- the Hearns, Twains, Bierces, Wildes? You seem to be the lone exception that has been able to succeed at both- and don’t even get me started on the crap of Anna Quindlen. Why do you think that is? Is it something unique on your part, or just random chance? Do you think that literature in America could be bettered by the fictive work of trained journalists who could provided a grittier, more realistic counterbalance to MFA acolytes? And, since journalism used to provide time for tyros and apprentices to learn their craft, is that still true? And, why are there no such parallels in the creative writing world? There are rafts of twentysomething hacks who get a book or two published, are massively hyped, then they fade into the obscurity they deserve. Even if they have talent, they have no real incentive to improve, since most only care for the attention and not the grace of communicating. Do you agree?
PH: I also like Lafcadio Hearn, but again, I’m not sure how to answer. I never formally studied journalism or “creative writing” but it’s possible that such study gets in the way of exploring all the possibilities of an individual’s talent (and certainly some good writers have come out of Wallace Stegner’s programs and out of Iowa). Perhaps they make writers too self-conscious to really go on a roll. Perhaps they feel the crushing presence of giants. I just don’t know. About 20 years ago I read an excellent book called “Ways of the Hand”, by David Sudnow. He was a classically-trained musician who couldn’t play jazz and the book was an intellectual exploration of why. His conclusion: he didn’t trust his hands. And hands contain memory. (This is a crude short version of the book). I thought: that applies to writers too. When writing fiction I almost always begin by writing longhand on yellow pads, to get the tricks of journalism out of my hands (those that make for speed and compression), and to recover a certain innocence that I had before I learned how to type. The words flow in a different way.
I do think that journalism remains a good place for fiction writers to begin, because it provides a broad experience of human life beyond the confines of the places where you were young. It says: there are many people who are not like you. It also demands speed and accuracy. You don’t have three weeks to write the lead graf. You can’t wait for the bluebird of inspiration to fly into the city room. Journalism can also have a blunting effect, if you let it. There are ways to get around that, to avoid cynicism (while embracing a healthy skepticism). Keeping journals, for example. And reading, reading…But I also think there are other ways to serve an apprenticeship. Driving a taxicab, for example, can be a great way to learn about the city and its people. Teaching doesn’t seem to me to be a good way for a young writer to find the way. It creates too much self-consciousness, which can be paralyzing.
DS: And, as an aside, sometimes I’m asked why do I write, and I usually say that in ten thousand years, on some starship ten thousand light years away, I want some sentient being, human or not, who may be lonely on some interstellar freighter, to seek to alleviate his tedium by searching the Encyclopedia Galactica, to stumble across my work- read a poem or story or essay, and say to himself, ‘Ah, that ancient earthling- he knew!’ What it was I knew is no matter, but I want that power to awaken. To me, there’s no other reason to write, save to bring pieces of your life and knowledge to others, so they can benefit intellectually or emotionally. Can there be a deeper or more profound concept of immortality? After all, when we speak of Shakespeare, we do not usually refer to the guy stiff under Avon, but to the ideas and feelings his art ushers forth.
PH: I thought a lot about actual immortality when writing “Forever” and concluded it would be a terrible fate. If it were granted only to you. Everyone you loved would die. Your friends would die. Your dogs would die. Ooof.
I’m not sure that the men (or, more likely, the women) who made those paintings on the walls of Lascaux were thinking of immortality. Or whether it was even a goal of Shakespeare. In my own work, I wrote “Downtown: My Manhattan” so that my grandson, seven at the time, might better understand at 20 the bearded old guy named Grandpa, and his passion for that big city he kept taking him to when young. (The boy lives near New Paltz). It’s hard for me to conceive of immortality beyond that, most particularly in this world of too many people, not enough resources, and millions of lunatics devoted to imagined ghosts.
DS: Yet, so few artists, in any field, ever think that way. It’s all hype and commoditization. Why do you think so many writers write junk fiction? Do you think it be ‘cause they can’t write anything of complexity or do they just want the money and choose not to want to write anything of depth? Or are they just incapable of depth? Any thoughts?
PH: Again, I don’t know. I don’t know any of these writers and can’t speak about their motives. They might be writing at the top of their talents. They might think their audience is dumb. They might be dreaming of a Big Score. They might be part of the America I don’t know anymore, the land of NASCAR and too many guns and fat Minutemen squatting on the border, aiming carbines at young men named Jesus. I have no time left to read their books (I’m 72). I’d rather read Melville again or Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
DS: I note that the characters in your tales are believable- they seem to be people one might really meet and dialogue with. Yet, when I read the stories written by MFA writers, inevitably their characters are stock, at best, and stereotypes, at worst. I think of a book of stories I read by Annie Proulx, Close Range. It was larded with the worst sorts of city slicker stereotypes about Westerners, and the worst tale of the bunch, Brokeback Mountain, gets overpraised, then bloated into that horrid film of a couple years ago, and yet it’s praised for all the wrong reasons- not because it’s well written or a well made film, but because its two lead characters are homosexuals with boners for each other, Yet, had they been heterosexual characters cheating on their wives, there’d be no film, and the story would never have attracted attention. Every story in Tokyo Sketches was better than Brokeback Mountain, especially in characterization, but people seem to want hollow characters to relate to. Let’s be real- and this has nothing to do with envy, but you have to read shit like that, and say to yourself, ‘How the hell can this crap be so praised, when my own work is demonstrably better?’ What does this state about America, or at least its reading public? And, what will happen, is that reams of even worse knockoffs of that bad story will be published, and the downward spiral is in full descent. Your characters have real grit. Is this something that only a good observer- or a trained one- a reporter, can have?
PH: Thanks for the kind words. I haven’t read Brokeback Mountain nor have I seen the movie. And again, for me envy is too exhausting and doesn’t help me write better.
DS: Let me turn to some of the short stories in Tokyo Sketches. A few years ago I wrote a review of your book, and let me just reiterate my comments on some of the tales, and let you opine, as you will, on the tale’s provenance, meaning, etc. Of the first story, I wrote, ‘A Blues For Yukiko details a young, insecure female reporter’s meeting up with a blind, black American blues legend for an interview. Genuine kindnesses are exchanged in their brief encounter & the woman has a brief fantasy which ends the story. Yet, the fantasy is never enacted- the tale ends with its unfulfilled rapture. A lesser writer would have taken the story beyond Hamill’s closing moment with alot of preening exposition. But, any reader of breadth will appreciate that Hamill knows when to pull back. Logically, we know the reporter’s brief revery will be something that will not likely stick in her own mind years hence. The question posed is- just because something is brief &/or ultimately forgettable, are the feelings it produces any less powerful or real than those produced by traumas?’ This story is a good example of where your reportorial skills come in, and your knowing when to end a tale before an extraneous explaining of what it all means, of the sort that inflicts so much published MFA garbage nowadays. What of this tale?
PH: The emotional moment, the epiphany, if you will, is about the importance of having an imagined intimacy. That’s the great lesson of Chekhov. When he finally started writing his best stories, he lopped off beginnings and endings, and focused on the moment. He trusted the imagination of the reader to supply what came before, and what came after; that is, he trusted in the reader’s imagination too. Some of the worst academic writing tells us what we are going to be told, then tells it in detail, then tells us what we were just told, in summary. They should all read more Chekhov. In journalism, we called such extraneous beginnings and endings “bicycle riding”. The great journalists of the New Yorker (Joe Liebling, above all) found many ways into a story, but they always knew how to pare down the stories to some essence. (That doesn’t mean spare, lean Hemingwayesque writing either; Liebling grew increasingly baroque as he grew older). When I write stories now, I don’t think about such lessons but they have become a habit, part of a method.
DS: Here is another, ‘The Opponent is not the best tale in the book, but a good 1, & the piece that most shows off Hamill’s chops. This tale of the redemption of a down & out pug boxer begs the oldest of journalist-cum-Great American Novelist clichés. There are corrupt promoters, an up & comer opponent, a fix, & organized criminals. But, this tale is set in Japan, & the ending shows why.’ Ring Lardner, eat your heart out. As I state, this is an old premise. Were you consciously reworking a trite idea, or was there a real incident, which this was based on, which you though to put a Japanized spin on?
PH: I went to some fights in Tokyo and visited some gyms and was struck by the similarities, and the differences. Sicilian mob guys were not on the premises but the Yakuza were. I was also aware of the clichés of writing about fighters. I had written a novel about a fighter named “Flesh and Blood” and agreed with somebody’s remark that there are only two boxing stories: the one about the fighter on the way up, and the one about the fighter on the way down. I wanted to see if I could make such familiar tales into something fresh. Not new. Fresh. (The best boxing novel remains “The Professional” by W.C. Heinz, a great newspaperman, followed by Edward Hoagland’s “The Circle Home” and Nelson Algren’s “Never Come Morning”. I also liked the stories of the late F.X.Toole). I poured everything I knew about boxing into that novel (and I knew a lot), and when it was finished I lost interest in the sport.
DS: You deal with doomed love in several of the tales, but this tale is, to me, the most interesting, because every young man has been in the position the lead character in this tale is. I wrote, ‘Samurai is even a better tale about love & fantasy. An American teenager becomes obsessed with Japan, at least that he’s seen in Japanese films. He builds up a fantasy image for himself, then loses his virginity to an older Japanese exchange student. Following the lead of a famed Japanese actor’s character, he pursues his Lady Love across the Pacific, swelled on that only youth can suckle, to find out that what he thought was real was not, & reality can be too much.’ What of this tale? And, were any of the love tales in the book based upon the wooing of your wife? If so, which one?
PH: You’re right. There are various things at play, some personal, although I never had visions of myself as a young Mifune. I didn’t draw on anything involving Fukiko either, although she read each of the stories for me to make certain I avoided bone-headed mistakes.
DS: I wrote this of what is probably the best tale in the book: ‘Missing In Action is a truly great short story, about 2 American Vietnam veterans who meet up in a Tokyo bar decades after the war. Both have deep psychic wounds from the war, & intractable personal enmity. Their final clash seems what may be expected, but how it plays out subverts every expectation that a reader drags in from Hollywood & hard-boiled fiction. The backdrop of Vietnam dovetails perfectly with the denouement.’ Oddly enough, I knew many such men, growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and you really nail their psyche. Yet, the setting and the personal situations evoked are universal. Is this tale based on a real incident, or people that you knew? Regardless, it shows off your journalistic skill at sketching characters. Thoughts?
PH: It comes from a casual conversation I had with a man I’d met in Vietnam, when I was there as a correspondent. The rest is imagined.
DS: And this ability to fix indelible portraits in the minds-eye goes into the book’s title. Tokyo Sketches is character driven, not plot driven, like so much interchangeable lowest Common Denominator fiction today. You do not overdescribe, nor do you waste much time on non-essentials. It’s like a Matisse figure- a few flicks of the wrist, and then you put the characters in motion. I described your short fictive style thus: ‘What makes the book & its tales so good is how they unfold. The little details- their descriptions, & usage within- separate Hamill from hack tale tellers. The way he so realistically describes Tokyo- sans mythology- reveals human bonds in ways that PC Elitist writing utterly fails to. Hamill does not ram these similarities down the readers’ throats. Notably, most of the similarities are in the negative vein. The prose is poetic, but never floral. There are no wasted sentences, nor descriptions….Would-be fictionists in creative writing classes should be forced to read these tales for their economy, subversion of the expected, & the power of detail, rather than the pabulum that is spewn out now, which wins award after award, yet leave nary a fraction of the emotional impact of these tales.’ Do your fictive stories spawn from an idea of a person, or an event? And, how do you think this is related to your training as a journalist, if at all?
PH: Both, but then they evolve into tales of people. They do relate to my journalism, but then the journalism was often the result of the study of great fiction. Particularly the short story writers, since they too had limits of space. The best ones gave me a standard of concision to emulate, and helped me to see. But they weren’t the only influences. My training as an artist helped that process, and so did the press photographers I worked with as a young reporter (they were, after all, paid to see.) I always tried hard to make the result look easy. I wanted the prose to be like looking at Matisse (you were right!) or like Fred Astaire (where you never saw the sweat and strain of rehearsal).
DS: Speaking of journalism, what is the biggest story, as a journalist or editor, that you’ve ever been involved with? Obviously 9/11, in terms of sheer scope, but have there been investigations that you felt would have Watergate like repercussions, but just fizzled? How about the Son of Sam Killings, or the Frank Serpico saga? And, despite the hagiography of 9/11, is the NYPD still as corrupt as it was in the Serpico days?
PH: I suppose the biggest story was the shooting of Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in 1968. We were friends (and after the killing I was never a friend of any other politician). I wrote the story for the Village Voice. I had no talent as an investigative reporter, nor any ambition to become one, although I think such journalists are absolutely essential to the craft (the Walter Reed exposes in the Washington Post are a good example). And Breslin owned the Son of Sam story, received letters from Berkowitz, and won a Pulitzer (much deserved) for what he did. Ironically, he was on vacation when Berkowitz was caught and I went out to cover that part of the story.
Are cops still corrupt? As noted, I’m not working for a daily anymore, but I suppose there are still a few corruptos around. It is nothing like the Serpico era, because the New Immigrants have changed so many things for the better in the city, replacing drug deals with honest work. But starting with Bratton and now with Ray Kelly, the force itself has been vigilant. The pay remains low, the temptations grand (from the active drug dealers) and corruption is a New York tradition going back to the 19th century. If it erupts again, I’ll be sad, but not surprised.
DS: What do you see on the horizon in the 2008 Presidential race? Is a Rudy-Hillary rematch a foregone conclusion? Will the Democrats ever take back Gracie Mansion? And what of Michael Bloomberg taking an independent run at the White House? Has he been a distinct improvement over Rudy? And, do you think Rudy’s, and his former law firm’s, shady financial dealings in pre-apartheid South Africa will come back to haunt him?
PH: Ah, hell, this could be an essay. And it’s too early to even think about. A few weeks ago I briefly turned on the Republican debate. They looked like they had been assembled after a RICO indictment. And they were discussing EVOLUTION! Eighty years after the Scopes Trial? Where the hell was Mencken when we needed him? I turned the TV off and started reading a book of essays by Michel Leiris. I AM uneasy about Giuliani with nuclear weapons…
DS: On a more expansive note, why do you think political discourse in America is so low? I say that fully knowing that the putative ‘Good Old Days’ never were. FDR was demonized by the Right, and with some justification- his attempt to stack the Supreme Court, his internment of Japanese-Americans, and his early refusal to do more for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. And the 19th Century was a cesspool- as you well know, having knowledge of the days of Yellow Journalism and Boss Tweed. Is politics simply a base occupation- the divvying up of power by the elites to control the masses? If so, are we ever stuck with the noxious ‘lesser of two (or three or more) evils’ paradigm?
PH: Again, this subject requires a full-scale essay. I just don’t have the time. I’ve known politicians who were not base. But most of the current crop is dominated by the need to present an image, not an idea, and surely goes back to the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. These people actually want to be celebrities.
DS: Yet, if politics is a lowly form of human endeavor, many people see journalists in an even lesser light. The 21st Century’s nonstop news cycle produces an endless stream of ‘scandals’- be it Anna Nicole Smith, Don Imus, the Virginia Tech killings, the latest little blond girl lost- the latest being that child from the U.K., to the war in Iraq. Then there are the news mannekins- Brian Williams, Katie Coutic, the tabloid tv shows- Inside Edition, Dateline, Entertainment Tonight, and the lowest of all- the political and news blogs. Why has serious discourse- political or otherwise, died in this nation? I grew up watching the old Firing Line debates, yet there is nothing like that now- save for PBS’s Charlie Rose.
PH: Same as above.
DS: There is a prescient column on your website, written not long after President Bush assumed office, in which you write the following: ‘The bizarre circumstances that brought Bush to the White House will be examined by historians for many years. But we should all be worried right now, in present time. Here is the basic problem: Bush will try to be president in circumstances that make almost all domestic movement impossible. The Congress is split almost exactly in half. The Republicans- the only true ideologues in the 21st century United States- will be frustrated in their attempts to impose fundamentalist Christian beliefs on a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation. The Democrats – who still believe in the ability of a nation to repair its social inequities -- will be unable to move any of their own mildly liberal agenda. The imams of the Republican Party from the South and Midwest will continue to see the presence of the Great Satan among the Democrats. And many Democrats will continue to be unforgiving for the vicious Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton. The result: impasse.
Bush will then be tempted to do what most American presidents do when they can’t make anything happen at home. He will look beyond the borders of the United States. That is, he will try to find some small nation to beat up, wrap the assault in flowery idealistic language, and thus try to look presidential. He will talk about sacrifice and honor, and the brave American fighting man. He will try to force unity upon the fractious Congress. He will cite his rise in public opinion polls as proof of his wisdom and his “courage”. In that spirit, John F. Kennedy – who won his 1960 election by a mere 100,000 popular votes – allowed the Bay of Pigs operation to go forward, and sent the first substantial numbers of troops into Vietnam. Ronald Reagan was content to beat up Grenada while creating and funding (illegally) the Contra War in Nicaragua. Bush the Father went after Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and killed 2000 human beings in Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega in the bloodiest drug bust in world history.
It’s unlikely that George W. Bush will be more prudent than his predecessors.’
Is this just one of those inexplicable Nostradamus moments, or did you see something other political pundits did not?
PH: No, I’ve been writing about bullshit tough guys for most of my life. Bush and Cheney both ducked Vietnam, which meant that they were part of the League of Frightened White Guys. And such men are always dangerous when they get power. They want to show how they really DID have big dicks when they were young. They almost never examine themselves or offer themselves to the ideal of sacrifice (they live well-defended lives). But they are willing to send young men and women off to die, out of fear, or to defend their own pathetic “legacies”. Uck. If either Bush or Cheney had ever been shot at in a place where they didn’t know the language, they’d have been more prudent.
I grew up admiring true tough guys (they included women, and I celebrate such toughness in “North River”). They didn’t talk tough. They were tough.
DS: Will you speak out on your own views re: politics, religion, etc.? Do you consider yourself a moderate? Are you a Roman Catholic?
PH: I suppose I’m a chastened liberal, but still a liberal. I’m not a moderate about the preservation of individual freedoms, which are being eroded by this lot in Washington. I believe budgets should be balanced, which used to be a conservative value. I don’t believe in the perfectibility of man, another discarded conservative value. (I wish these right-wingers would read Edmund Burke). As noted, I have no regard for ideology. I was raised a Catholic, and love the music and architecture and art that Christianity brought to the world before the Reformation, and many of the enduring human values of charity and forgiveness. I think monotheism is the worst idea ever dreamed up by human beings, but I recognize the power of faith to provide consolation to many, many people, including my mother. I’m just not a believer. And as a child of Belfast parents, I realize how bloody and disgusting the history of religious conflict has been (including Christian campaigns against Islam). I wish all these goddamned religions would go away but they won’t. Many of them are death cults, and many human beings are dominated by the fear of death. I cherish life. Diego Rivera was once asked if he believed in God. He answered: “I believe in Picasso.”
I do have a recurring vision of Heaven. God looks like the late Marcello Mastroanni, hunched, smoking a Gaoulois, sipping a cognac, shrugging away all sin except cruelty. At the table are some of my friends, along with Ben Webster and Giotto and Miles Davis and Picasso and Sugar Ray Robinson. They expect that Boss Tweed will arrive soon, full of mocking laughter, along with Mencken and my old editor Paul Sann, and Rebecca West, and Colette and Edith Piaf. God says, Go and wake up John Lennon, please, and that Sinatra guy. And wait: here comes Fellini….
DS: Let me wrap up this interview with a few questions that ping pong about: You have never been a New York Yankees fan. Are you reveling in their struggles this year? And, heaven forfend, don’t tell me you could ever root for the Boston Red Sox? The Mets, ok; but never the whiny Red Sox! And let’s not even mention the Knicks!
PH: Nah, but I do like some of the Yankees. I love Jeter, and Matsui (my wife and I interviewed him during his first year) and Posada. And Torre is fine fellow, with a National League Face, somewhat stepped upon. But I’m a Mets fan. How could I not be? Willie Randolph is from Brooklyn! And Glavine, in the age of steroids, remains a marvel. And does anybody play with more joy than Reyes?
DS: Do you feel that celebrities or public intellectuals have a responsibility to the working Joe to not be so loony? I mean, one need only look at the crazy causes Hollywood celebrities swoon over, or that artists and intellectuals like a T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound (pro-Fascists) or Noam Chomsky (pro-Communist) shill for, and it’s ridiculous?
PH: No, they don’t have any more responsibility than people who join the NRA. I certainly don’t think they should be silenced. Before they are condemned, they should be scrutinized carefully, admitting the good with the bad (or the stupid). I’m a strict fundamentalist when it comes to the First Amendment. The cliché is that people don’t give up their rights when they become famous, and I agree. We should argue against their dumb ideas but not silence them.
DS: Many celebrities also shill for pet causes, or voice their support for criminals they dubiously claim as ‘political prisoners,’ such as Kathleen Soliah, Eric Rudolph, Mumia Abu-Jamal, or Leonard Peltier. Yet, aside from Guantanamo Bay, and perhaps a few drug users under the Three Strikes nonsense laws, the only political prisoner I can really think of deserving of any support was the recently released Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was jailed for mocking the hypocrisy of the political system. Any thoughts?
PH: I agree. Most of these are cartoon causes. Not Guantanamo. Not torture.
DS: Let’s end this interview back on writing and art. Whither imagination? Why is so much of current literature ill-wrought, dull, and idea-less? Why do you think clichés like ‘write what you know’ has replaced good honest criticism?
PH: Again, I think “good honest criticism” can play an important role in the wider culture. But too much reading of it is not healthy for the writer, because it too often works against the very thing it bemoans: the impoverishment of imagination. You can’t dream if you’re trying to figure out how your dreams rate in the company of others, dead or alive. I suppose the rebuttal to that would be that good, honest criticism can educate readers, or create more of them. I hope so.
DS: Jonas Salk once said something to the effect that our greatest duty is to be good ancestors for future generations, and this is especially true in the arts, because art is communication, and if we want future people to understand their human past, we need to produce as good and great art as we can. Artists should always create looking upwards, towards that future, and smarter generations, rather than looking downwards at the current morass, for those artists that have done so in the past are no longer recalled. Do you agree?
PH: Not exactly. Looking to a future that might not happen can lead to bad habits, humbug, pretentiousness. The future, if there is one, might mock what you’ve sent to its inhabitants. In general, human beings don’t change much, no matter the cut of their clothes, their means of transportation, their fashions. Reading the classics teaches us that. Auden famously said, Poetry changes nothing. When I was in my 20s, not yet a newspaperman, I lived on Ninth Street and Second Avenue. I would occasionally see Auden going to or coming from St Mark’s Place, where he lived (one block away). I wanted to ask him what he meant, but never had the nerve. I wish I had. I’ve lived a lifetime since those brief encounters, and Auden is still in print. I still wonder what he meant, but far more important, I have the poetry.
DS: I feel that philosophy is ideas, but art is ideas in motion- and writing is wholly abstract art, unlike visual or aural arts, so it’s the greater pursuit, yet art has no correlation with truth- another recent noxious nostrum. Science and journalism are the provinces of truth, not art. Do you agree with these ideas?
PH: It depends upon what truths you are searching for. The truth of the flesh, for example, can’t be discovered by science or journalism, except in the most limited way. The truth of man’s capacity for evil is also beyond the framework of science, or the limited tools of journalism. Professional philosophy also has its limitations. You keep hearing the professor clearing his throat. But literature can get close to such truths, along with some films. Not about Man, but about men, and about women, and about those who lurk in the shadows, carrying flags. So it has been since the time of the Greeks.
DS: Thanks for doing this interview, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like. Hopefully we’ll read many more words from you in the coming years.
PH: Live your life. Don’t perform it.
*The text of this interview is copyrighted. Questions are © Dan Schneider; answers are © Pete Hamill.
(originally posted 8/8/07)