Self-described “aging Celtic scribe”Pete Hamill is, in the argot of our time, an old-school journalist and writer. Born in Brooklyn during the 20th century’s Great Depression, he was a high school dropout whose first interests were in the visual arts. After a stint in the Navy, he spent a year studying painting in Mexico, after which he shifted his interests to writing.
In Hamill’s distinguished career he worked for the New York Daily News, Saturday Evening Post, Village Voice, and New York Newsday and later New York magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and countless other periodicals. Hamill published his first novel, A Killing for Christ, in 1968 and in recent years has added Snow in August (1997), Forever (2003), and North River (2007) to his prodigious bibliography. He has also written a well regarded bestselling memoir, A Drinking Life, as well as a rumination on his life in New York City, Downtown: My Manhattan.
I spoke with Pete at my neighborhood coffee shop, the Keltic Krust, on the occasion of the publication of his 11th novel, Tabloid City, a well crafted thriller taking place in a 24-hour period in NYC, centered on the murder of two women, with an intriguing cast of characters including the churlish, no-nonsense editor-in-chief of the city’s last-and-dying afternoon daily. With his novel as the fulcrum, Pete and I wandered over a host of questions and issues.
To put it succinctly, it was an amiable and delightful chat with a sharp-eyed and genial man of admirable intelligence. I hope you also find it so.
Robert Birnbaum: Say something.
Pete Hamill: This is Pete Hamill, aging Celtic scribe.
RB: Ok. It’s May 18, 2011.
PH: Mas o menos—more or less.
RB: What has been the interesting [news] story of the week for you?
PH: The way the scandals are overriding everything else—at the moment. So we are not even talking about this debt crisis or any of that anymore.
RB: Or global warming.
PH: Yeah, or global warming or some of the important stuff. It’s all about the poor French guy running down the hall after some maid. And then Arnold, you know. My reaction is to laugh out loud at one point. And then I get—
RB: Tired? It’s tiresome.
PH: We are leaving out a few things here.
RB: I was watching Steve Colbert and he did this riff on trying to present the latest news without mentioning the Schwarzenegger scandal. The joke being he couldn’t help himself. He starts talking about the debt crisis and then there is a different camera angle and he is on to the Arnold story.
PH: (Laughs) It’s comical on one level, but it’s an amazing distraction.
RB: You have mentioned or written that when you worked at the New York Post, you worked with people who respected the readers—[Murray] Kempton, [William] Buckley—and I wonder if the character Briscoe, who is the editor of a tabloid in your novel, does he respect his readers?
PH: I think he does, yeah. Which is why his paper is about to fold.
RB: I am not sure I see tabloids in that way. But my experience was with the Chicago American, the Sun Times. Here it’s the Herald. I have always found them less interesting than for example the Daily News in Chicago…
PH: Tabloids were always a supplement to the main paper. But you had a lot of people in New York reading the Times and one of the tabloids. The tabloids by definition when they were founded in 1919 by Joe Patterson (with Chicago money), they were popular initially because you could read them on the subway. You didn’t need a huge desk to open the broadsheets, to be able to read shipping news from Scotland or whatever they were looking for. But the essence of them was always drama. They looked for an angle in whatever the news was that was dramatic. Which by definition meant—
PH: —conflict. It didn’t always have to be mayhem. You didn’t need to have a body in the room all the time. But it was conflict. What it’s gone over or tipped over to in, let’s say the last 25 years, is melodrama. Where they go in and look for stories and play stories that resemble movies rather than stories that have within them a kind of drama going on, if you can get at it. They were never any good for discussing the sisal crop in Singapore. That’s not what they were there for. But the reporting in the news stories was always straightforward. It was very clean. I have looked at the old bound volumes, looking for other stuff—how much did shoes cost in 1934? And the reporting was always straight. The headlines could be sassy, depending on the story. The thing that has bothered me the most is that the standards of gossip columns started floating into the front of the paper where you only have one source for your story, instead of having three or four.
RB: One questionable source.
PH: Yeah, and sometimes unnamed. So I think the moment, right now, because of the Internet, because the Internet is professionalizing its journalism. They are paying people now. They have editors now. On Daily Beast and Charlie Sennet’s Global Post and some others.
RB: Huffington Post.
PH: I don’t know if she is paying yet.
RB: She pays some people—Howard Fineman [formerly of Newsweek].
PH: That’s true—just as Howard Kurtz went to the Daily Beast from the Washington Post. The papers still have a function over the next…at least 10 years. They can never be first again with breaking news, but they have to be the verifying media. They have to be the ones who make three, four, five calls. Who go to the scene to see what the neighbors said—to go out and really do that. On that level, they will still have an audience of people who want this material verified. Instead of just a bulletin on television or some reporter saying, “This is indescribable!” You say, “Schmuck, that’s your job. Describe it.”
RB: (both laugh)
PH: So I am pretty optimistic about journalism surviving but not necessarily of newspapers. I teach at NYU—not a formal class. I am sort of a floater. And I talk about craft. But I am very impressed by the young kids who want to do this. And they don’t want to do this to get famous. Or to get rich. They want to have a meaningful life. Where they can go out and explain the world they are living in.
RB: That’s encouraging.
PH: I was very encouraged. And I was surprised. I had the stereotype of a lot of spoiled kids—you know, they’ll play at this and they’ll go off and work at Goldman Sachs.
RB: That’s at Harvard. At Yale they go to the CIA.
PH: Yeah, exactly. But the kids have the passion. They have the drive. What they need is a place to put it. For the first time, people charging for content, for example, the idea that the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, etc., are charging for the content—it’s not much, but it’s a lot cheaper than buying the paper. But it means they’ll have income beyond advertising—to be able to assign reporters to go Afghanistan if they have to go and tell the truth about it.
RB: Actually, one of the benefits or charging is that you also get access to archives—that’s an incredible benefit.
PH: Yeah, because we all live—the characters in Tabloid City, they live in the present. They have a past. There’s a past. And they also have some notion of the future. Even if it’s just tomorrow. They have a notion of living in the future tense. The archives are indispensable to writing the popular history of the United States. Documents and so on are very helpful, but if you are writing about 1934, you have to tell us how much it cost to go to the movies. And how much did shoes cost?
RB: And how many people went each week.
PH: Yeah and how many went to the ballpark when it was 50 cents.
RB: You are talking about something that has become a murky area. Journalists are writing popular history, turning into historians. And perhaps pressuring historians to become more accessible in their publishing. All that aside, I don’t see that Americans care about history. At best they seem to care about mythology and tradition.
PH: Well, it’s hard to say Americans, but obviously there are some who are interested.
RB: How about most aren’t?
PH: What is awful—I went to see The Social Network. I found it to be the most appalling movie I have seen in a long time. Full of some of the nastiest young people that I have ever looked at. It was inconceivable that any one of them would have cared about helping some guy to get up off the ground that has been knocked down by life or a car or anything. It was about this kind of corporate narcissism.
RB: Speaking of movies, how did you come to write the screenplay for Doc?
PH: I ran into [film director] Frank Perry somewhere. He said, “Do you have any ideas for a movie?” I said, ”Yeah, I’d like to write about Doc Holliday.” And he asked why. And I explained because he was here at one point.
RB: Did he know anything about Holliday?
PH: He knew some of the movies and there had been some good ones. But as you read deeper into the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday it just sounds like Bloods and Crips go west. And I wanted to deal with the myth of the West.
RB: That was in 1971—about the time of McCabe & Mrs. Miller [a Robert Altman film that purported to give a more accurate sense of the West] and Little Big Man?
PH: It was a little before McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There were very few Westerns at the time.
RB: And certainly none that were revisionist.
PH: Yeah. And we were lucky to get Stacey [Keach] and Harris Yulin and some of those people. There were things I didn’t like about it. It was sort of a goofy Western in some parts.
RB: I saw snippets of it, and Holliday doesn’t cough very much for a man afflicted with TB.
PH: He does at certain points. I haven’t seen it in 30 years.
RB: I just read a newly published novel called Doc by Mary Doria Russell.
PH: About Doc Holliday?
RB: Yes. And she picks up the story from the angle of a man who was bereaved for the entirety of his life by the early death of his mother from TB. And her perspective very much differs from anything I knew about Holliday from previous portrayals. In Wyatt Earp, Holliday was [played] by Dennis Quaid and that was close—that film showed him as vulnerable and sickly.
PH: He lived a long time—
RB: —he died at the age of 36.
PH: Wyatt Earp?
PH: Earp lived until 1929. And of course the saga of Katie Elder was part of Holliday’s story.
RB: The Hungarian-born prostitute he took up with. In Frank Perry’s Doc, Holliday is teaching one of the Clantons [the family that was part of the infamous gun fight at O.K. Corral] how to shoot a pistol. That has no basis in fact. (laughs)
PH: Guns I didn’t know much about for sure. But I loved the myth of it. And I had been out west a little bit just wandering around in Santa Fe and places like that.
RB: It’s surprising that there are not many movies that serve the history of the West well. And not many good novels.
PH: That’s true.
RB: Isn’t that surprising—it’s a big piece of what made America.
PH: Mainly, the ones that have been any good like Unforgiven and some of Sam Peckinpah’s—Wild Bunch and some of the others have a sense of it. Particularly Unforgiven, which is dealing with the mythologizing of the West by the pulp fiction guy who is in the movie—who is terrific. It’s a wonderful idea. Life imitates bad art finally, in the end. Of the Doc Holliday stuff, I liked My Darling Clementine by John Ford. But I agree with you about the history not being particularly well served in movies. In fiction, War and Peace is a historical novel. You know what I mean. Wallace Stegner has written some good stuff. I was thinking of it the other day because of the floods down the Mississippi. The great story about that in 1927 is Faulkner—Old Man, that novella which is a spectacular piece of writing. Holy Mackerel! That’s all about that 1927 flood, so that the way you mythologize real events is what fiction is really about, in a way.
RB: Right—Doc is clearly a novel, a work of fiction—
PH: But it should say something new and surprising about the myth(s). Even if you are not sure about some of the facts. Holliday wasn’t keeping a journal and explaining what he felt. He wasn’t on Facebook. (laughs)
RB: I am looking at your CV and wondering how you decided to write this novel, Tabloid City, at this time? I suppose you could have chosen to do any number of other projects.
PH: First of all, the last three novels were set in the past. One in 1947. One across 200 years. And North River was set in 1934. So I wanted to write a contemporary novel. I thought it was this special moment—2009 was the year I am writing about, in which things that had been part of my life seemed to be echoing back. I was born in 1935 in the middle of the [Great] Depression among a generation of adults who never got over the Depression. What they wanted you to do was to get a civil service job. Get a federal civil service job, if possible. And live happily ever after—in case the whole thing collapsed again. They never got over it. It was that wound that doesn’t quite heal. But on the other hand, the generation I was part of was full of optimism and hope. Because of several things—the GI Bill was the number one thing. If your father worked in a factory you could go to Yale, too. All you had to do was to work like hell. And that part of it created a sense that we could do anything. And in the last 4 or 5 years it’s as if we can’t get anything done. We are too big to win—not to fail. We have all the atom bombs we could ever conceive of using.
RB: We have all the iPhones.
PH: But we can’t win in Kandahar. And I also felt about the recession something basic—if you had a job it was a recession. If you didn’t have a job it was a depression, and I knew enough people on the street where I live, which is where people come to get their ID cards for food stamps. And the traffic almost doubled in a couple of months, of people coming from the outer boroughs. And you could see it on that level. Usually women with little kids. To see that and have this empty rhetoric about, ”The recovery is underway.” “The recession is officially over.” Meanwhile, nobody went to jail.
RB: Your hope for journalism puts that situation in bold relief—who is drumming for putting these crooks in jail? Paul Krugman? Chris Hedges? Matt Taibbi? There are maybe five people out there shouting, “Put the crooks in jail.”
PH: There is very little of that—nowhere as much as there should be.
RB: Is that not a function of journalism?
PH: Absolutely. You should get the wrong people out of jail and the right people into jail. As one of the tasks [of journalism] if you do it right. And, people backed off and got bored with the story. Or felt, “There is nothing we can do about this. This is the system—this is the way things work.” The thing that drives me nuts is the culture of impunity. That, “Nothing is going to happen, baby. Don’t worry. Keep the doors shut and don’t talk to the press.” I keep hoping that we’ll have a few guys at least as a symbolic [gesture]. But I keep remembering when I was a kid—the bank robber Willie Sutton was famous. Particularly in my neighborhood, he was from there. Today he’d be working at Goldman Sachs. Why would he have to stick up a bank with a wooden gun?
RB: One could take counsel from that sweet Elmore Leonard book and movie, Out of Sight. Clooney plays a very smooth bank robber. I was tempted to push my son in that direction.
PH: (laughs) You could think of it as a training film.
RB: What did you think when Barack Obama was elected?
PH: I was thrilled. Because I have been around—
RB: —You were thrilled to see a black person elected.
PH: Because of the accident of my age I saw [Jackie] Robinson in 1947 in Ebbetts Field hit by a pitch, steal second and score on a single. And it was that long haul—and then when I was in the Navy I was stationed in Pensacola, which is southern Alabama. And the Klan was still around in those days. The most successful American terrorism group—70 years of existence. And to be able to have a black man elected president—it was a thrill to me. Am I happy with the performance? No. I am not happy that Guantanamo is still there. I am not happy that nobody has made a move about changing the stupidity of gun laws which are killing people in Ciudad Juarez—a little girl goes for milk—bang, in the head, some gun bought in the parking lot of a gun show. That part of it drives me nuts. But I think he is intelligent—
RB: Great speaker.
PH: He is a wonderful speaker. He is certainly a great representative for the country. For the best of the country. But am I disappointed? Yes. Am I going to vote for Newt Gingrich?
RB: That is that old dilemma about even participating in electoral politics when it is always the lesser of evils.
PH: Yeah, inevitable compromise.
RB: Obama’s politics is described as moving towards the center—he is way past the center. We see progressive rhetoric and regressive policies.
PH: Yeah. Look at McCain, he was against increasing the educational benefits of the GI Bill because they wouldn’t re-up. And he should know better. He was in the service.
RB: That should be a news story.
PH: Those are the inconsistencies that concern me the most. I don’t care if some guy has an affair with somebody unless he is talking about sexual purity as the norm for all real Americans.
RB: It’s astounding that Newt Gingrich can even show his face.
PH: Within days they find out he owed Tiffany’s $300,000.
RB: It was reported as $500,000.
PH: (laughs) My thing about him is not the family values thing. He was a lobbyist. And the system has been corrupted. Boss Tweed would love to be a lobbyist right now. It’s corrupted the whole system.
RB: Corrupt and now the Supreme Court decision (Citizens United vs. FEC) is the icing on the cake for politics corrupted by money. That reminds me of—I think it was Joe Conason’s—description of the way former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott ran the US Senate—“like a juke box.”
PH: (both laugh) That’s funny—that’s a good line.
RB: So, where are the muckrakers of today? Are the kids you are teaching capable of that?
PH: I hope. That’s the part that takes money. You can’t be a muckraker and do it in one day. Or one week. You have to be in there, really getting into it. There are some [writers] around that are very good. I love this Mark Mazzetti at the Times who just broke the story with his partner on Blackwater coming back to the Middle East. Back again, like most felons, under an assumed name.
RB: They are in Dubai training mercenaries.
PH: And the United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi. I want to look at the records. I want them called in to answer, “Who put up the money? How much are you getting? Are you getting money from our government?”
RB: Does I.F. Stone come up when you talk to your students?
PH: I do.
RB: Does anyone remember him?
PH: I don’t think many—but people in the business who were around do. Don Guttenplan had a good biography.
RB: As did Myra MacPherson.
PH: So I tell the kids to go to the Strand’s used book section and get anything you can find by I.F. Stone because he shows that you can make yourself more than useful, even with a small circulation. He was read by other newspapermen and by editors. Some of them followed up. He is a good example.
RB: Your chair at NYU is endowed by Arthur Carter.
PH: It must be. The journalism school is called the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
RB: He owned the New York Observer and the Nation before that. He made millions and he funds these gadfly operations. The Observer was fun and lively.
PH: Yeah, very lively.
RB: Why aren’t there more guys like Carter? (laughs)
PH: Why aren’t there more people like Andrew Carnegie? My favorite rich guy from the robber baron era. A miserable rat towards unions, but before he died he opened 1600 libraries including the one I went to when I was a kid and had never heard of Andrew Carnegie. I found my way to Treasure Island and the Château d’If and a lot of other places. He did it partly because, according to the biographies, when he was 11 and an immigrant from Scotland there were no public libraries in Pittsburgh where he was growing up. He went to the library that did exist and they looked at his clothes and the Scotch accent—“Not for you, young man.” And he left. But he didn’t forget. Imagine Donald Trump going into a library, you know. I keep making the argument rich people…All you have to do is look at PBS series credits—people who put some money into this stuff that you couldn’t get it any other way. So the cartoon version we have to be careful with, always. There are exceptions to all things. I just wish that some of these felons that helped to destroy so many people in the last three years would have some kind of guilt and shame and put up money to send some kid to school.
RB: I heard this a while ago—the largest demographic entering the work force today is over 55. That’s people who have lost their pensions and IRAs and such. Reminds me of Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, “Some men rob you with a six gun, some rob you with a pen.”
RB: You said you wanted to write a novel about this particular era—how do you decide if you want to write a novel, or a screenplay or an essay/editorial?
PH: Well, what I wanted to do in this novel, from the beginning it was a novel—I might still write some essay on the whole thing—where we are going, somewhere else. But I didn’t want it to be an essay disguised as a novel. I wanted it to be set in the middle of that moment in journalism that we are all facing right now. When I say “we,” I mean the readers, everybody. But also to make it feel like a newspaper that as you turn the pages you are moving from one event to another event. And another one, and another one. Tied together in an odd way by time.
RB: Which is why there are time markings on most pages.
PH: The clock ticks all the way through. And I wanted it to be laced together by an emotion that is unique to big cities. And that’s this kind of loneliness in the midst of millions of people—and how people deal with it. How they can accept solitude as something rich. You could disappear into Mozart. Disappear into Thelonious Monk. And it’s a rich experience. And those that ache and get angry—when I saw the Underwear Bomber who I quote at beginning of the book, that he had a Facebook page. It’s like Kropotkin having a Facebook page. But he is talking about how he is aching with loneliness and where does he end up? Trying to blow up an airplane.
RB: You dedicated this book to fighter Jose Torres. You were friends?
PH: Yeah, 50 years. One of my oldest friends.
RB: I was watching ESPN classics and a saw a fight between Gene Fulmer and Sugar Ray [Robinson]. Do you remember those guys?
PH: Oh yeah. I knew Robinson. I interviewed him. I covered his last fight—in Pittsburgh. It was in 1963, ’64.
RB: You covered because you thought it might be his swan song?
PH: Everybody felt it might be the end. He was fighting Joey Archer, who was a New Yorker and a kid I knew. He couldn’t break a potato chip with a punch, as they said. But he had a great chin and he was a good boxer and boxed Ray Robinson and knocked Ray down around the 6th round or something. And I was sitting next to Miles Davis who was a friend of Ray’s from Howie Wiley’s gym. He didn’t box, Miles, because of the lip. But he would work out and train.
RB: There was a promotional poster of Miles in boxing shorts in a ring, for one of his albums in the early ‘70s.
PH: That’s true, yeah. And when it was over, Robinson listed the decision—he got knocked down, but Robinson always got up. And it was before the Don King extravaganzas after a fight—we all went and squeezed into the dressing room. And Ray is on a rubbing table, on his back. And Miles leans over to Ray and I am at the other end, trying to hear—because Miles had a very low voice. And he said (Hamill imitates Davis), “Ray, you’re packing it in.” And Ray says, “I guess I am.” And he did. But he was an amazing fighter. And a very interesting and intelligent guy.
RB: Wil Haygood wrote a fine biography of him.
PH: Yeah. He just stayed too long at the ball. And he ended up with Alzheimer’s. A guy who had so much to remember, couldn’t remember any of it. I saw him one final time—I interviewed him out in Compton. He had a foundation out there. And I saw him in Vegas at some big fight. There was no reason he should have remembered me, but he didn’t remember Jake LaMotta [who Robinson had fought 6 times] (both laugh). He had a smile on his face, blissed out. But gone.
RB: It seems like the eternal American city is boxing, tabloids, men in fedoras, street games—
PH: The subway.
RB: Do you have any nostalgia for that?
PH: (pauses) In some ways I do. I loved playing stickball when I was a kid. In those days nobody had money to own a car. So the streets were almost always clear. And I still have a couple of Spaldeens on my dresser. I loved it. I’d get up in the morning on Saturdays. Eight o’clock we’d have a game. And we would be playing that afternoon. It was bizarre. It was before television—which was a crucial thing. Just as the library was. We went to library for entertainment. There were movie houses—small and cheap. Almost every neighborhood had a place called the Itch.
RB: The what?
PH: The Itch, for obvious reasons. You might sit down and come up with visitors. But the library was a place where you went for entertainment. To find out about other worlds. You’d go and see what was out there beyond the tenements. And that was a rich, rich way to grow up. Because reading—it’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about it when I go around talking to kids—it’s active. You take these little symbols and you decode them in to words and then images that fill your head that you’ll remember all your life. Forget the movie, it comes off the page in a way that television can’t do because it’s passive. They give you a soundtrack that tells you when to weep. They give you a laugh track to tell you when to laugh. They don’t trust you as an audience. So I was so lucky to grow up that way.
RB: It seems the whole way narrative is shaped has changed. I don’t notice kids that can tell a long joke or a story. My 13 year old, when he tells a story he is all over the place. The sequence is out of kilter. Quick edits, special effects are now the adhesive of story.
PH: Yeah, headline. What I try to encourage because I use it myself. I use the storyboard that advertising guys use. Like comic book artists—they were such an influence on my life when I was a little kid. The reason they are good, they can block out what is going on—this happens, and this happens and as a result that happens. You know, boom, boom. It can’t be boom, boom—boom. It has to have a structure and a build. And they get it once it is explained to them. But I wonder what they were doing in high school. Did they have any teachers who said, ”This is what we mean by a story. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end.”
RB: I remember Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker writing about helping his son study for a high school history test and concluding the trouble with US history is that there is too much of it—meaning the emphasis was on too many facts and not the narratives and the stories. They don’t teach about Washington sending his junior officers out on missions so he could diddle their wives.
RB: That’s an interesting story. That brings people into a more vivid sense of history. But that’s not how it’s taught.
PH: I guess not, but I think there must be some really good teachers who have that sense of excitement about and make it clear that they [colonial Americans] were doing things without a script and going on to change a country in many ways. The kids don’t—a lot of the kids, not all, don’t recognize a story. They don’t know that a story has a point, that the main character better be different at the end after he or she experienced whatever happened. That there’s a change. Something. It could be subtle like in James Joyce’s The Dead, which is a great, great story. Or Faulkner with Old Man. Where there is a difference at the end of it. It’s not just that something happened to you but it happened to people. What was the meaning? What were the questions? Who cursed God when this was over?
RB: It would seem special effects and super quick edits are the major aspects of the way stories are presented to young people.
PH: My friend Nick Peleggi says, “That’s not a movie, it’s a video game.” It has the depth of video game. But I think that some people are making movies, I hope with—
RB: Yeah, the Coen Bros with True Grit.
PH: I haven’t seen it, but I remember the book so well. And Charlie Portis, who is a wonderful writer.
RB: Apparently, reporters went down to Arkansas and he was very reticent about giving interviews.
PH: I knew him when he was the bureau chief of the Herald Tribune in London. Can you imagine that? And he was going nuts because of the time difference–the deadline for the Herald Tribune pieces was roughly 10 o’clock at night, London time. But as he ran out the door all the bars were closing. (laughs) And literally he gave up the job eventually and wrote his first novel. He is a wonderful writer.
RB: He has not published a novel since The Dog of the South in the mid ’90s.
PH: I don’t know what happened. I hope this gets him to open the portable typewriter and start writing with a feather or something. He is so talented.
RB: Do you know Pete Dexter’s work?
PH: I do.
RB: I know his books sell, but he doesn’t seem to make the conversations about great writers. Have you ever been nominated for a National Book Award, Pulitzer or one of those biggies?
PH: I don’t think so.
RB: Are you taken more seriously as a journalist than a novelist?
PH: I think it is not a question of more seriously or not. There is a whole thing around the creative writing world the last 50 years that if you dirtied yourself with journalism you will never recover. And the guy you mentioned, Pete Dexter, and Carl Hiaasen, who I like very much, though he is kind of the insane Jonathan Swift of our time—because they were newspapermen, it’s some sort of stain in the halls of literature. Which is too bad because it would keep Dickens out of the running. Hemingway.
RB: Mark Twain. It’s okay for writers to do journalism.
PH: To do it backwards. Like Mailer. I think. I don’t mean this about myself —
RB: Tom Wolfe?
PH: Oh yeah.
RB: What do you read?
PH: When I am writing I usually read writers in translation. I don’t want the music of the writer to get into my head and then I have to take it all out the next day. I am impressed with certain people. I love this Chilean writer, Roberto Bolano who died some years ago. He is always surprising. And he has energy, the prose has energy. And when he is writing about something I know about like Mexico City or Barcelona he has it dead on. He is very good.
RB: Did you read 2666?
PH: Not yet. It’s too fat.
RB: The middle section, a couple hundred pages is basically an annotated list of woman murdered in his fictional city which resembles Ciudad Juarez. And after I read it and realized what he had written I was amazed that I read it.
PH: That’s what’s good about him. Somehow you keep reading without taking in the sound in Spanish. The way it would be if I read it in the original. I always read the new books from Hiaasen or Dutch Leonard.
RB: So is it possible that Tabloid City could be a movie?
PH: I don’t know. That’s not why I wrote it obviously. If it is, fine—I’m not saying don’t make a movie out of it, but there was an interview with James M Cain done 60 years ago, some kid went to visit him in Baltimore and he said, “How do you feel about the way Hollywood ruined the Postman Always Rings Twice?” Cain turns around and takes it off the shelf and says, “It’s not ruined, here it is.” (laughs) Some people I know who have had movies made from their work, particularly if they are bad movies, they regret that for at least a generation people are going to think the movie is what the book is about. And it’s not.
RB: Like Scott Spencer and Endless Love.
PH: That’s a classic example of it. Now particularly unless you get a director who can insist on what the story is going to be, there are too many cooks meddling with the broth. Everybody wants to change something. Everybody says, “Why don’t we put a leopard in the third act?”—there is all kinds of other stuff. I did screenwriting early on and learned a lot from it about structure, about storytelling, and met some really smart people, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Because of the process.
RB: Have you noticed the good stuff coming out of HBO and Showtime and FX?
PH: Yeah, the other day I went to see a show of short films six, seven minutes each, put together by the director Bob Giraldi at the school of Visual Arts. There were about 13 or 14, and the level of quality was terrific. What he was saying is that it looks now with Kindle and some of these other things that the short story can have a place to exist. They couldn’t be used in theaters anymore after Birth of a Nation came out—
RB: The DVD and YouTube have helped—both Pixar and whoever made Madagascar have included some great shorts on their discs.
PH: Really, I didn’t know that.
RB: Actually, I think Pixar showed them ahead of Toy Story and Cars in theaters.
PH: That’s good because there ought to be a way that in the sense that the New Yorker could have a short story every week, they’re some things that don’t need two hours—a moment, an epiphany.
RB: Why do publishers maintain that story collections don’t sell but they keep publishing them? People keep writing them. I see more than ever.
PH: I know. They must have an audience somewhere. And certainly for students at NYU I am always urging them to read good short story writers. Because they [short fiction writers] have a problem with space. How do you get the principal on stage? How to establish the dilemma? Of course you learn that from John O’Hara. Frank O’Connor, James Joyce—it’s there. Or Chekhov or some of the other guys.
RB: It would seem the time constraints and diminishing attention spans; there would be more interest. Actually, there is an increase in online short story venues. Lots of sites championing short fiction.
PH: That’s great. Prose or short films?
RB: Prose—like Dave Daley’s 5 Chapters.
PH: That’s great. I am always working, so I don’t have time to troll around on the Net too much. Except when somebody like you or a friend tells me, “You have to check out this.” Just what you are describing is what I am hoping to see happen. And there are a number of places particularly for the young—you can’t get the kind of advance Sarah Palin gets—but they can get a book physically published. When I say published, I mean there will be money to promote it. That will be in addition to all the things they do—editing and designing.
RB: There is also a big movement to self-publishing. And what is catching up with getting a book printed is how and what you do then. I guess that’s a good thing. You are always working, so when you read news how do you read it?
PH: In the morning I get the Times and the Daily News in the paper form. I can’t read them all before starting work. So I scan part of it. I read key things I want to know about. The things I want to read later, I usually print them out and read them later in the john or someplace. And then I read the Daily Beast and Truth Dig and other places, to see where the thoughts are. And the Daily Beast is getting more like a paper in my sense.
RB: It is still aggregating news.
PH: A lot of original stuff, too. How it works out is where I think we are going. If there are enough hits on the original material and not just trying to find out what happened 20 minutes ago—it will be a model for other kinds of forms. Rather than all specialties. Rather than Politico for politics and ESPN for sports and TMZ for gossip and all that.
RB: The return of the general interest magazine.
PH: That’s what I want. I don’t want to troll through five different web sites to find out something. If it’s in one or two places I’ll be all right.
RB: It still calls for trust in the guiding editorial hand—I am not sure I trust Tina Brown’s hand on the rudder. She has that British sensibility that all news has the same valence.
PH: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I don’t know how much she actively participates in the editorial choices.
RB: Have you seen Newsweek under her regime?
PH: I saw one the other day. It looks like the old Newsweek. I don’t know that that will survive or become a website. Who knows? One of the problems in New York and it might be a problem elsewhere—is finding newsstands to carry this stuff.
RB: (laughs) Right.
PH: Unless the guy is selling lottery tickets, he gets no cash.
PH: $13 a pack in New York.
RB: I read a piece somewhere [New Yorker] about people who sell single cigarettes on the street.
PH: That’s out of my youth. We used to call them “loosies.” Two cents apiece. Two for three cents. (laughs)
PH: All taxes.
RB: Any sign that that discourages people from smoking?
PH: I don’t think so. Or they are waiting for deliveries from the South or something.
RB: You still smoke. Is smoking going to be outlawed even outdoors? You’ll have to leave the city to smoke?
PH: The logic of it is they’ll ban salt ’cause it gives you high blood pressure, ban sugar because it makes everybody 265 pounds when they should be 130. I don’t know if you can do that successfully. Force people into being healthy. I don’t pay attention to whether other people are smoking or not. I don’t think it’s a good thing to do.
RB: When you drive past clusters of people smoking outside of a building, it doesn’t look very attractive or appetizing.
PH: In Japan they have actually banned smoking in the street. They have these little pens where smokers can go. I am telling you—it’s just like what you are thinking of—everybody is in here, all in business suits on the way to work.
RB: The Japanese are heavy smokers.
PH: Meanwhile radiation is coming over the rooftops.
RB: The English singer Joe Jackson had a song in which one of the lyrics was, “Everything gives you cancer.”
PH: (laughs) Well, there was a stretch like that. Peanuts gave you cancer. Lifesavers.
RB: You have some period to go out and talk about Tabloid City and then what?
PH: I have a novel kind of figured out. So I will start a new novel—I’ll take a week or two off.
RB: Ever have trouble writing?
PH: Not really. I have told this story before—after Bobby Kennedy was murdered and I was there. I was so distraught that my then wife and two little kids—we went off to Mexico for a month, just to get away from the media and the endless rehashing of it. After the funeral. And we made our way back. All the way to New York. And I am home about two days and I run into Paul O’Dwyer who was a wonderful Irish politician. And he asked, “What are you doing, what are you writing?” I said, “Nothing Paul, I think I have some kind of block.” And he looks at me and says [in an Irish accent], “Ach, you are not important enough to have writer’s block.” And I said, “You know Paul, you’re absolutely right.” And I went back to work the next day and started writing and haven’t stopped since. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’d be hopeless at gardening. Skiing.
RB: You have no hobbies? You like sports.
PH: I still draw and am less [into] sports. For some reason I have finally lost it with baseball.
RB: In Tabloid City you have a character calling it scum ball.
PH: Yeah, the steroids thing just drove me nuts.
RB: Yeah. I still like Major Leagues as background.
PH: The sound of it is great.
RB: My son plays baseball—so that’s great fun.
PH: My brother Dennis is exactly like that—he has a son, 12. The innocence of it, the exuberance, the joy…
RB: Of course, some of the parents. I umpire Little League, that’s an experience every baseball fan might avail themselves of once. It is not easy.
PH: No instant replay in Little League. The sport I finally came to love, which I never played, was basketball. I have come to hate sports where I can’t see the faces of the players. So that leaves out hockey, football. I can’t stand these kids getting their brains pulped. Particularly college kids. I can’t stand boxing anymore. When I was a kid it was baseball and boxing.
RB: Why don’t you like boxing? The promoters?
PH: That and I saw too many kids sitting in the dark, Jerry Quarry, Benitez, who didn’t know their names. And because they didn’t get a union. I really—and my friend Jose–were serious and strong for having a union. So they had a medical plan. It’s the riskiest sport there is. The purpose of the sport is to damage the other guy. And some kid who hits .220 for five years in Major League Baseball has a health plan. And these kids didn’t have health plans—it could have been done. HBO, ESPN, and Showtime all said, “We’ll sign.” Instead they are left with nothing, and the sport has sort of died. There are like three heavyweight champions and nobody can name one of them. But I like basketball. I have come to like tennis because my wife likes watching. Even though I don’t know the rules.
RB: Watching the women play can be unnerving—many of the players emit these odd shrieks when they hit a ball. Well, okay, that’s great.
PH: Thank you very much.