The following interview about MEN AND SPEED: A Wild Ride Through NASCAR's Breakout Season was conducted by e-mail the week of April 21, 2002. The questions were posed by Claire White, editor of Writers Write, The Internet Writing Journal.|
QUESTION: What did you like to read when you were growing up?
ANSWER: Anything I could get my hands on, even the dictionary (OK, not the Baltimore Catechism). I loved encyclopedias - one of the treasures of my youth was the Golden Book Encyclopedia, which my mother purchased, one 99-cent volume at a time, at the local A&P. Itís still up in the attic of her house, next to the model cars and ships I built as a boy. My fiction passion in grammar school was The Hardy Boys, which later spilled over to the Doc Savage series. I occasionally snuck reads of my older sistersí Nancy Drew. Edgar Allan Poe was high on my list starting at about seventh or eighth grade. Then, of course, I discovered the other great writers in high school. And because my parents were newspaper junkies, I was reading the local daily and The Boston Globe early on. We were allowed little TV, which, in retrospect, was a very good thing. All three of our children are great readers today, in part because we have limited their TV.
Q. Is there anyone in your life that you credit with giving you the inspiration to become a professional writer?
A. My parents - my mother especially - were very supportive of my reading and writing. But in terms of the classic mentor, I didnít have one until after I landed my first job at a small newspaper. I got into professional writing because at an impressionable age it struck me as cool that I could actually earn a living at something I loved to do.
Having said that, my freshman English teacher was the one who stood above all others in heading me down the writing road. He encouraged creativity and independent thinking, and opened my eyes to the possibilities - and it was in the school paper, which he oversaw, that my first published piece appeared.
"I knew the sport had become wildly popular, a full-blown national cultural phenomenon, but I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what a qualifying lap was. And I certainly had never heard of Jack Roush or Kurt Busch."
Q. Let's talk about your latest book, Men and Speed. How did this book project come about?
A. It grew out of a brainstorming lunch I had in the fall of 1999 with my longtime editor at Random House, Jon Karp. King of Hearts was soon to be released, and while we thought it was a pretty good book from a literary perspective, we questioned its commercial prospects. And so, to be crass, one of the objectives of our brainstorming was to find a topic that would permit not only a literary approach but also have a good chance of selling with some intensity. I had come up with a list of 20 or so topics, and Jon went through it, stopping on NASCAR. This is it! he said. To our knowledge, few, if any, writers from outside the motorsports press corps had written the type of book we began to develop that day over lunch.
Jon later left Random House (he has since returned) and I went to another publisher, the esteemed PublicAffairs. Meanwhile, I plunged into NASCAR, about which I knew precious little. I recognized a few names (Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt) and
I knew the sport had become wildly popular, a full-blown national cultural phenomenon, but I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what a qualifying lap was. And I certainly had never heard of Jack Roush or Kurt Busch.
Q. How did you manage to get such wide-ranging access to the race world? Wasn't Jack Roush nervous about having you around all the time?
A. To paraphrase one of my good friends who has seen me do this sort of thing with other topics before, I just parachuted in. I read a lot about NASCAR, visited Web sites, and soon enough identified a driver who had a law degree - Jon Karp had suggested that it would be interesting to see if anyone in NASCAR was intellectually accomplished, and could thus possibly help explain the sport on a more sophisticated level. The driver was receptive to my approach, largely because I was an established author and could point to a body of work and say: judge for yourself. That driver had a teammate, and I approached him, too, and soon after that, made contact with executives at Roush Racing. Having gotten a green light all the way, I finally established contact with the top dog, Jack Roush. Freely distributing copies of my previous books helped open the door with everyone, as did my habit of patiently explaining my objectives in letters and calls. I am a very upfront writer, but not pushy or assumptive. Anytime I seek to take up residence in someone elseís world, I understand it is their world, not mine, and I should behave as any polite visitor would. You get more flies with honey than vinegar, to quote my dear mom.
But there is always an element of good fortune and sheer luck in these deals, and I was once again blessed. I could have wound up with a wonderfully receptive but second-rate team, not the largest in all of NASCAR. There are times when you offer up praise to the gods of writing, and this is one of them.
As for Jack, he understood immediately what my involvement would mean because I explained it in detail. He allowed me because he was proud of what he does and at that point in his life - nearing 60 - he felt he had a story worth telling. He is a naturally curious guy, and I think the prospect of watching a writer at work intrigued him - to an extent, he vicariously immersed himself in my craft much as I did in his. And heís a no-b.s. guy, who has lived with risk and death for so long that very little makes him nervous, certainly not a guy with a tape recorder, notebook and pen. The worst that could happen, he probably assumed, was that I would get it wrong. But I established trust from the start; again, having published five books spoke to my legitimacy. So did the c.v. I sent people, and my personal Web site, to which they were referred if they wanted to sicken themselves with detail!
"I guess I expected stereotypical racecar drivers - compelling, to be sure, but rather slow on the uptake. I soon learned this was not true."
Q. What surprised you most about your investigation?
A. To be blunt, that so many in NASCAR are so intelligent. I donít mean that they are college-educated (with his masterís degree in mathematics, Jack is a freak in that world) - I mean just in how their brains work. I guess I expected stereotypical racecar drivers - compelling, to be sure, but rather slow on the uptake. I soon learned this was not true. Racing has grown too complicated at the Winston Cup level for dummies to prevail. And there is a certain base level of smarts needed to keep from getting killed (or killing others) when youíre directing 800 horsepower at 205 miles per hour, even if it is in around and around in circles. And the very best drivers are extremely knowledgeable in chassis, engines, every aspect of a purebred racing machine.
Another big surprise was how thrilling racing is in-person. TV just doesnít do it justice. Also, I was surprised to find that beneath the surface of loud circular motion lies a very complicated strategic game.
Q. Car racing make many demands on its drivers: the grueling scheduling of the Winston Cup season, the danger, having to handle the media etc. And very few drivers actually win races. Describe the ideal temperament for a successful race car driver.
A. He or she is patient, hard-working, competitive, extraordinarily ambitious, and has an almost insane capacity for enduring heartache and disappointment. He or she also craves - and I use that word deliberately -- the thrill of winning at speed. Night and day, these drivers are obsessed with getting to Victory Lane. And some go years without ever getting there, which speaks to the intensity of their addiction.
"While not athletes in the classic, pure sense, racecar drivers are hybrids - athletes of a special kind. I would liken them to sailors or equestrians, even bobsledders, all of whom compete at the Olympic level and are generally considered athletes."
Q. Are race car drivers athletes? What's your opinion on this controversy?
A. I agree with Jeff Burton, who notes that drivers in general do not share all of the skills of a Michael Jordan or a Barry Bonds - but nonetheless they must be strong, must have unusually quick reflexes and hand-eye coordination, and must be able to concentrate under extreme conditions of heat, noise and motion for hours and hours. So while not athletes in the classic, pure sense, racecar drivers are hybrids - athletes of a special kind. I would liken them to sailors or equestrians, even bobsledders, all of whom compete at the Olympic level and are generally considered athletes.
Q. Would you take us through a typical day for a racer?
A. How about a typical week for a top Winston Cup racer: Monday through Thursday is devoted to work at the shop, sponsor appearances and media commitments, and, often, testing - going to an empty track to try out a new car or a new set of tires. Thursday night is spent traveling to the next competition, and Friday is spent at the track practicing, qualifying (time-trial laps that determine the starting order of a race), and fine-tuning the car. Saturday brings more practice and more fine-tuning, and often autograph sessions and more interviews. The driver and his family, meanwhile, during their down moments are all but imprisoned in their motor coach, which serves as a home away from home on race weekends. Motor coaches are parked at the speedway, and drivers rarely venture out, for they canít get three feet without being mobbed.
On race day, usually a Sunday, the driver has breakfast with his family and leaves the motor coach for the garage area, where the cars are serviced and tuned. After checking on his crew, he then visits a sponsorís hospitality tent to greet employees and friends of the sponsor - drug giant Pfizer, for example, primary sponsor of Mark Martinís No. 6 Viagra car. Then itís back to the garage area and into the team trailer (aka hauler) for some last-minute race discussions and a bite to eat. All drivers must attend a driversí meeting about an hour before race time, and that meeting is followed by chapel service. Accompanied by family and other significant others, the driver heads to the start/finish line for introductions and a wave to the crowd. Finally, he buckles himself into his car and powers up!
A winning driver stays at the track for interviews and appearances that can last into the night, but the rest high-tail it home - often by helicopter from the speedway to a nearby jet. Then the week starts all over again. And only three weekends off in a season that lasts from before Valentineís Day to Thanksgiving.
"Jack would certainly have rathered a winning season, but he was a man of his word and he knew starting off that I was in it for the long haul - win, lose, or draw."
Q. 2001 was supposed to be the year for Team Roush, yet not far into the season, it became clear that the season was going to be filled with disappointment. Do you think Jack Roush regretted having allowed an investigative reporter to witness such a painful time for his team?
A. Jack would certainly have rathered a winning season, but he was a man of his word and he knew starting off that I was in it for the long haul - win, lose, or draw. So Iím not sure he regretted his decision so much as lamented it, or wished that fortune had smiled on him. He also knew the epilogue would be the start of the 2002 season, so he had one more chance to show his teamsí stuff (it paid off!). And with their strong start (and, now, with the April 19 plane crash that nearly killed Jack on his 60th birthday), an updated second edition is all but a certainty.
Q. Dale Earnhardt's death was a real shock to racing fans, and it seemed to ignite the controversy about safety in the sport. Does NASCAR bear some responsibility for the crash because of the new aerodynamic rules which allowed more frequent lead changes and bumper-to-bumper racing (which is more exciting to watch on TV)? What changes have come about because of his death?
A. While the aerodynamic rules contributed to many wrecks at the superspeedways (and still contribute, note the big wreck April 21 at Talladega), they were actually not a major factor in Earnhardtís crash. But in my view, and the view of many others in and out of the sport, NASCAR must bear some responsibility for several recent deaths of drivers, including Earnhardt, in this regard: they took far too long to mandate life-saving head and neck restraint devices (one model of which is the so-called HANS device). One of the subplots of MEN AND SPEED is NASCARís slow but eventually laudatory effort to improve driver safety. Changes include mandating the head restraints, black boxes on cars to record crash data, a medical director at races, and more.
Q. One thing that surprised me was finding out that NASCAR is really owned and
controlled basically by one man and his family. I guess I assumed it was a governing body made up of the owners, as in other professional sports. Is there resentment in the industry over the power and secrecy wielded by Bill France, Jr. and NASCAR?
A. I was just as surprised as you, having held the same assumptions. There indeed is some resentment over Franceís power, which is all but absolute - and that power, and the secrecy with which he yields some of it, is constantly criticized. On the other hand, a lot of people have been able to live their passion to the fullest (not to mention become wealthy men and women) because of the France formula. So while the voices of opposition are there, they hardly constitute a roar.
Q. Given the dangerous nature of car racing, it seems that there would be some federal regulation, as there is in boxing. Do you see increasing regulation in the future for car racing?
A. I donít, given NASCARís recent changes on safety matters - and also given that there is no groundswell of support with a Republican president and House to get the federal fingers into the pie. However, that could change: a major lawsuit, for example, on behalf of a dead driver could be an impetus. But in the present climate, with the sport so popular and the top participants so relatively satisfied, I foresee nothing but status quo.
Q. Why are there so few women in racing? What special challenges do they face?
A. Two main factors: despite the advances women have made in our culture in the past quarter century, few parents (for a multitude of reasons) steer their young daughters into go-carting, quarter midgets, or the other forms of kidsí racing. And if you look at the top drivers, all, virtually without exception, got started in racing by the time they were seven or eight. The other reason is that automobile racing remains one of the last bastions of male chauvinism. There are exceptions, but in general, a nearly all-male world does not open its arms to women. Which is a shame.
Q. Did you feel the addiction, the thrill of speed yourself at any time? What was it like for you?
A. Just once, while driving one of Jack Roushís supercharged Stage 3 Mustangs. My account of my day behind the wheel of that super-fast machine comprises the bookís preface, and it was one hell of a day! (Folks can read it online at the official book site. Driving a Volvo sedan has never been the sameÖ
"A funny thing happened hanging around racers and watching races up-close for two years: I started to drive with a bit more, shall we say, resolve. I now view others on the road more as opponents than fellow travelers. Not good."
Q. Is your family scared to get into a car with you now? :)
A. To be honest, yes! A funny thing happened hanging around racers and watching races up-close for two years: I started to drive with a bit more, shall we say, resolve. I now view others on the road more as opponents than fellow travelers. Not good. Iím becoming like the guys in those ``How Bad Have You Got It?Ē NASCAR commercials! And Iím not alone, I have found: Many otherwise calm and rational beings lean into the gas a little heavier once exposed to NASCAR. Damn, I wish I owned a Stage 3Ö
Q. I'd like to talk a bit about the practical side of your profession. A project such as this must involve a massive amount of interviews, research and note taking. How do you keep it all organized? How did you arrange your work schedule?
A. It did involve all of that. A laptop was invaluable, and I used it everywhere: speedway media centers, hotels rooms, airplanes and airports, even waiting in my car in the heavy post-race traffic. Transcribing tapes and organizing notes immediately and religiously helped. During the season I chronicled, 2001, I worked virtually every weekend and of course most weekdays. It was a crazy, crazy work schedule, necessitated by the deadline: I had to turn in the complete manuscript in early January, after having sent chapters as I went along. I have never written on such tight deadlines (and hope never to have to again). Last year exhausted me.
Q. Our last interview was in 1998, when the Internet was just making itself felt in the newsroom. Since then, we've had the dot com crash, a recession and the war on terrorism. How have these events affected the newspaper industry, in terms of either security issues and/or economics?
A. This is a topic on which we could go on endlessly. I promise I wonít. The recent recession, to which the dot come crash is related, hurt newspaper advertising revenues, which in turn affected staffing and quality. At many papers, positions went unfilled, journalists were laid off or fired or bought out, and the industry all but completed its transition from family ownership to out-of-town, corporate ownership. All of this has affected the quality of journalism, at many, many places. Itís a shame. I hate it.
Conversely, the war on terrorism stoked the appetite for news - and circulation at many papers has stabilized or even increased, and hits to many newspaper Web sites have shot up. This is good. One of the best bargains around remains a newspaper Web site. Most are excellent, and some are truly great.
Q. Where were you on September 11, 2001? What thoughts went through your head then? How did you discuss the attack with your children?
A. I was at home, working on MEN AND SPEED and planning for the next weekend, when the Cup circuit was supposed to move to New Hampshire. When I went online to check my e-mail, I found an AP bulletin on The Providence Journal Web site () and ran immediately to the TV, where the first images of the first tower being hit were airing on The Today Show. I was horrified, saddened, and scared - like many, especially as the morning unfolded, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Perhaps because I have a morbid imagination, I began to think of bioterrorism being the next shoe to drop. I thought that life would never be the same in America. At some point, anger crept in. I realized that the book would have to be put on hold, and I came into The Providence Journal to join the reporting effort. God, itís painful remembering that day.
Children - well, I told Cal, our 8-year-old, that bad people had done a bad thing in New York. He had just been to the city the month before with me, a friend, and Alexis - and he had been before that, so he knew about the World Trade Center. But we shielded him from the TV images. Rachel and Katy, 20 and 16 respectively, were different, of course. I could not calm their fears that day - who knew what would come next. But I did assure them that ultimately those responsible would be found, and no matter how bad things got, eventually the U.S. would prevail and justice would be served. But we all cried, I must tell you. We knew none of the direct victims, thank God, and yet we felt such deep sorrow for all those who died and their families and friends. All a very typical reaction, you see.
Q. Tell us about The Cambridge Company.
Itís our small writing and editing company. We have done some select projects, and will continue to, but MEN AND SPEED has consumed most of my time for the last year so we have not marketed ourselves aggressively. As suitable work comes our way, we take it on. The site is The Cambridge Company.
"The story of the men in MEN AND SPEED is compelling, for they are truly a breed apart, and my two years with them was exciting - two years I wouldnít trade for the world. But the sport is just too dangerous to want to risk my only son - or my daughters, for that matter."
Q. How would you feel if your son were to inform you that he wants to be a Winston Cup driver?
A. I would strongly discourage him. The story of the men in MEN AND SPEED is compelling, for they are truly a breed apart, and my two years with them was exciting - two years I wouldnít trade for the world. But the sport is just too dangerous to want to risk my only son - or my daughters, for that matter. There will be no Miller racing dynasty, if I have any say in the matter.
Thanks for the interview. It was fun!
The following interview about KING OF HEARTS was conducted by e-mail the week of February 21, 2000. The questions were posed by Will Weisser of Random House:
QUESTION. What drew you to Walt Lillehei as a subject for your new book?
ANSWER. I'd never heard of Lillehei when he spoke at the Harvard Medical
School several years ago, when I was writing an earlier book. He talked
of how when he was first a doctor, in the 1940s, many thought complex
cardiac surgery would never be possible because there was no way to
safely detour blood past the heart while a surgeon opened and fixed it.
When he described his first solution to the problem -- connecting the
circulatory systems of a parent and child with a length of hose and a
plain old dairy pump, the first operation in history with the potential
to kill two people -- I nearly fell off my chair.
And that was only the beginning of the great material I found in the
Lillehei story as I dug deeper.
"Surgeons like Lillehei had returned from World War II with burning
ambition - and a disregard for risk, in both their professional and
personal lives, that bordered on recklessness."
Q. Why do you compare the surgeons featured in your book with the
astronauts in The Right Stuff?
A. Surgeons like Lillehei had returned from World War II with burning
ambition - and a disregard for risk, in both their professional and
personal lives, that bordered on recklessness. Of course, it was taking
these risks that ultimately advanced the science of both rocketry and
Q. Why do you think these men are relatively anonymous to the general
A. Part is that in today's e-world, events of forty or fifty years ago
can seem like ancient history. Part is that open-heart surgery is
universal today, and while still risky, far safer than when it began.
And part is that with few exceptions, doctors of Lillehei's era wrote
prolifically in the scientific literature -- and had nothing but great
disdain for the popular press and the writers who might have given life
to their great stories. The real action took place in near-secrecy
inside the closed world of operating rooms, not in public, and very few
outsiders penetrated that veil. I'm just lucky I came along in time to
get to these doctors and nurses before they're all gone.
Q. How did Lillehei deal with the many patients he lost while trying new
A. By pushing forward. Even while some were calling him a murderer and
others considered him mad, he believed that he was on the right course
and eventually would succeed -- with humanity the ultimate beneficiary.
He learned from his mistakes, and always made a point of carefully
reviewing every operation. Which is not to say he wasn't torn up --
losing babies and young children deeply disturbed him, and he would go
home and withdraw into himself; he was not openly emotional, but he hurt
inside. And, yes, there were times he almost gave up. Thank God he and
the other heart surgery pioneers didn't.
"This was not some stereotypical godlike doctor on his lofty pedestal,
but a real, complex, unpredictable flesh-and-blood person."
Q. What would you say was Lillehei's greatest triumph?
A. While he was inventor or co-inventor of many techniques and
technologies, including the first practical pacemaker and first widely
used heart-lung machine, Lillehei will go down in history as the man who
proved that complicated open-heart surgery could become an everyday
reality. He did this not only with his own work, but the small army of
open-heart disciples he trained and sent forth to practice all over the
Q. How would Lillehei have fared in today's climate of managed care and
rampant malpractice litigation?
A. That's an excellent question - I wish I'd asked Walt before he died.
My guess is that he would have hated a climate of lawyers and
pointy-headed bureaucrats in the driver's seat. I wonder if he wouldn't
have dropped out of medicine altogether, and gone in some totally
different direction -- maybe racing cars, or flying space shuttles.
Q. How did Lillehei get in trouble with the IRS, and what did that do to
He stupidly failed to file tax returns for several years, and when he
finally did, the government claimed he'd grossly underpaid his taxes.
After a long, humiliating trial in his hometown, Lillehei was convicted.
Spared prison, he nonetheless was stripped of his medical license for a
time, lost his professorship, was shunned by most of his colleagues, and
was driven out of the operating room altogether when he developed
cataracts -- a late side effect of radiation treatment for the cancer
that had almost killed him as a young man. After such spectacular
success, a horrible Greek tragedy -- all in just a few months.
But Walt was able to redeem himself before he died. I think his place in
history is now secure. He was one of the giants -- and a true American
Q. When you learned about Lillehei's personal failings, did he seem less
heroic to you?
A. No, he seemed more human. This was not some stereotypical godlike
doctor on his lofty pedestal, but a real, complex, unpredictable
flesh-and-blood person. While I obviously disapproved of some of what
Walt did in his personal life, I deeply admire his many contributions --
and the many patients he fixed (i.e., gave a life to) for free. Walt was
a good man at heart, and also a genius who lived way out on the edge.
Geniuses march to a different drummer, and that ultimately makes for
Q. Did Lillehei cooperate with you on the book? Did he have control over
what you could and couldn't write?
A. Walt cooperated from the very start -- and continued through
literally years of interviews and five trips to Minnesota. He never
asked for any type of control whatsoever, but I let him read an early
manuscript, which he did just before he got very sick (and then died). I
offered Walt only the opportunity to correct factual errors (not change
style, tone, characterization, etc.), and he caught a few mistakes.
Overall, he was very pleased with that early manuscript, his personal
failings and all, and I think he died knowing he'd been the protagonist
in a fine real-life drama that would appeal to people in his profession
- and the rest of us as well.
This interview was conducted by Providence Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer Brian C. Jones in the kitchen of my house on Nov. 11, 1997. It has been edited, in only a handful of places, mainly for clarity.
QUESTION: You are a reporter and author. Where do you work?
ANSWER: My place of employment is The Providence Journal. And I often work at home; I divide my time between my study and the paper.
Q. Where is The Providence Journal?
A. The Providence Journal is in lovely downtown Providence, Rhode Island. A great newspaper. I've been there 16 years. I've been fortunate with the people there, and the quality of the work. So I'm quite happy there.
Q. How many books have you written? What are they about?
A. I've written -- it's a good question. I really don't know how many I have written. I have two or three in the proverbial writer's trunk -- pretty lousy, basically. Snippets and outlines, and pieces for another two or three. But published, I've had three published. TOY WARS will be number four. And Random House has bought number five, which I'm now doing the reporting on.
Q. What is TOY WARS?
A. TOY WARS is a fairly unusual work, behind the scenes of a major corporation. It's a $3 billion company, Hasbro Inc., a toy company; it makes G.I. Joe, and Star Wars, and Batman and Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, and on and on.
The original idea -- and I approached the chairman with this in mind -- was to write about the design, the making, the manufacture, the marketing of a toy. The model for that was probably Tracy Kidder's SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE, where he did the same thing for a computer. I thought it would be neat to do it with a toy. And I thought it would be neat to do it with G.I. Joe, because that is kind of the boys' toy icon, it's been around for 30 some years, with instant name recognition.
And that is how I started, about halfway through 1992. I went to meetings. And Alan was very good. He gave me unlimited time.
Q. Who is Alan?
A. Alan Hassenfeld, the chairman and CEO of the company.
As I spent more and more time there -- I really had pretty much free reign within that company, which is what I describe as the rare opportunity -- it began to be much more than the story of the birth of a toy. It is, in fact, partly that. But it became more a story of corporate politics, more a story of the company surviving, and beholden to Wall Street as well as to consumers. It became the story of the Hassenfeld family, which is both a tragic and sort of an inspirational story. The company, when I was there, went through a "restructuring," which was a very painful experience for all involved. That's very graphically described, as well.
Q. What kind of a restructuring?
A. They took half of their business, about one-and-a-half billion of their business, and got rid of people they felt were no longer contributing; they combined divisions; they changed the way toys were marketed.
I use the word pain, and that word really applies to a number of those 100-plus people, who had been there a very long time. They brought in the consultants. They did the whole true downsizing, although the raw numbers were not that great. But they did the whole consulting, the whole look-at-what-we-are-doing, the whole strategy, the look forward at where-we-want-to-be. And there were a number of victims of that. And the pain, as I said, was the long-time people who had been, who went back to the very early days of the company, at least back to the `60s and `70s in many cases, and they were dismissed.
And I was there the day they did the restructuring and people were notified. It was one of the worst times I've had in journalism, because I had gotten to know a lot of these people quite well, and there was almost no one I had met in this five-year period that I didn't like on some level.
Q. Is that what the book is about then, about the corporate reorganization?
A. No. The book is about surviving as a corporation in contemporary America, and within that context, of trying to remain a moral human being, which is Alan Hassenfeld's ultimate battle.
On the one hand, he has to answer to Wall Street, which is driving the kinds of restructurings and downsizings that we see. On the other hand, his record is very clear on this: he has been a leader in a lot of humanitarian causes, both locally and nationally. And I've had enough opportunity to get to know the man, as much as you can know someone in this context, and I think his heart really is in those causes. And yet at the same time, you have the dilemma of answering to Wall Street. And I'm not sure that you ever win that battle.
Q. Given the fact that this company -- which we might mention is located in Rhode Island, where you are a reporter -- is a toy company, why do questions of morality arise in that context? It's not a defense or chemical manufacturer.
A. Well, there is the individual morality of an Alan Hassenfeld and what he wants his company to be, in the sense of philanthropic. They sponsored -- sponsored is not the right word -- they were leaders in building a children's hospital here; they contribute to many different causes. It's what Alan calls "social responsibility." That's part of the picture. And again, you can see where the conflict is, because when you have to terminate 105 people, one question is how benevolent you are. On the other hand, Wall Street demands the kind of numbers and responses, performance they think requires laying people off like that.
The larger moral issue, I guess, is: What is the product that they produce, and is it a good force in peoples' lives and kids' lives, or isn't it? I would argue that much of their product is probably benign, much of it is educational and a good thing.
But you know, what troubled me, if anything did, was the role brands are playing now in the toy industry: It's all about name recognition and brands.
Q. What's wrong with that?
A. What's wrong with that is you discourage, on some level, the invention and creativity of people who, whether they employed by the company, or independent inventors, who just have a great idea. The great idea, whether or not it pans out in the market place ultimately, gets less of a showing now. There's a homogenization that is going on here.
It's not malevolent, but I think it's something that parents have to pay attention to. There's nothing wrong with having a Batman toy -- or a Barbie, for that matter, frankly. But I think parents have to watch fairly carefully what their kids play with. I think they have to make more of an effort in the age of TV and movies to channel or direct their kids into creative pursuits that don't fit within what you see at McDonald's, and what you see on the screen, and what you see on TV, and what sells.
Alan approved the marketing and sale of a line of toys called Mortal Kombat. And he was advised by some people that that perhaps was not a great idea.
Q. What is Mortal Kombat?
A. Mortal Kombat is based on a video game, wildly popular, very graphically gory and bloody, it's the one that the buzz word is "ripping spines out." And, in fact, these so-called finishing moves, where you end a game, include such things as being able to have one of the characters rip a spine out, and on the screen, you see blood spurting. It's not an admirable toy, again; In fact, it's rather a disgusting one.
And I think Alan made the wrong choice there. Now the toy he did doesn't actually -- the figures don't actually spurt blood. And you can't rip spines out. And it's tied to a movie that was rated PG-13, had some violence, but wasn't perhaps -- I never saw it, frankly -- I'm told was not excessively gory. It was one of those decisions where he didn't have to do it. And I think people were disappointed that he did.
Q. Was he disappointed?
A. He was faced -- that came at a time when the toy half of his business, and when I say the toy half, the other half is the games, the Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Yahtzee, Battleship, etc. -- when the toy half was doing very poorly. They were in serious trouble. It was originally thought it would be part of the G.I. Joe line, and they decided not to do that. He was looking for a hot license. And Mortal Kombat at the time was a hot license. So he made a business decision. He wanted and received assurances that the movie would not be excessively violent. So it wasn't as if he was cavalier. He did think about it. I just think, in that case, he made the wrong decision.
But this gets back to the morality of toys. And I think, the issue is not, for the most part, that kind of toy. That was an exception. Most of the toys that Hasbro makes -- Mattel, for that matter -- Tyco, for that matter, which is now part of Mattel -- are not in that genre. It isn't as if toy companies at that level are doing hundreds of hideous products. But there are some. And certainly there are other companies, small companies, that do that.
Q. So what makes this book different?
A. Let me just come back, because I've thought a lot about this, obviously. It really is the dominance of brands that you need to keep a careful eye on, I think, as a parent. And that is not to say that brands are bad. But you need to provide -- as you do with children watching TV -- you need to provide a degree of supervision. The imagination of a child is a very precious thing; it's a very important part of development and growth; it probably is the most important part, the imagination, the creativity. And I don't think kids should be channeled and dictated to, as some kids are.
The Power Rangers craze, for example. Some kids are totally absorbed in that. And it's all they want to do at birthday parties; on Halloween, they want to wear the masks; they want to buy the toys. And that's all well and good, to a certain extent, although I have some problems with the violence in Power Rangers. But if it becomes an obsession with the kid, I think parents need to step in and say, "Hey, there are other ways we can feed your imagination, in following these good-versus-bad roles or patterns that we see in Power Rangers, there are other things you can do."
It boils down to parents spending time with their kids. I think that is the jeopardy of parenting in the `90s. You really have to make an effort to be with your kids. We have very busy lives; it's very easy to park the kid in front of the TV, and buy the kid the toy and be done with it. It's more difficult to say: "Let's today plant a garden," which is what I do with my son. We spend a lot of time outside doing the garden; or sitting at the table, and we are just going to have crayon and paper and pencil and scissors and have a good time; or we are going to read.
Q. Is Alan Hassenfeld raising our children?
A. No, Alan is not raising our children. Alan is part of a marketing continuum, I guess is probably the best way to describe it. It has some influence on our children. But ultimately, as I've been saying here, I think it is the parents' obligation, responsibility and right to decide how much of that outside world comes into the mind of the child. And you can control it. You have to be careful in how you do that. Cal has a Batman figure.
Q. Who is Cal?
A. Cal is my 3 1/2-year-old son, my lovely little boy.
Q. Does Alan Hassenfeld have any children?
A. Alan does not have children. And it is one of the regrets in his life. He would like to have children. He is good with children, in the few contexts I have seen. But he doesn't have children, and the reason he doesn't is that he married a bit later in life than many people do, and he married a woman who already had children and who was not willing or interested in having more. So he had to make a choice: Does he marry the woman he loves and not have children, or does he not marry the woman he loves and perhaps try elsewhere?
Q. What makes this book TOY WARS different from other books about business?
A. It's written, and I hope it succeeds on this level, like a novel. The opening scene is a powerful inside, unusual look at a powerful, influential man at a moment of vulnerability and crisis. And I think it's a good scene.
Q. What is that moment?
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| ||I tried to use the techniques of the novel to tell this story. There is a very strong narrative. We have characters that are colorful, that are facing conflict, that we flesh out as real people. |
A. It's a moment when, mere days after his company has almost been gobbled up by Mattel -- the arch rival, now the largest toy company in the world, but at the time I began the book, about the same size, actually a little smaller than Hasbro. They have fended off Mattel in this gruesome, two-plus weeks of meetings in New York and negotiating and lawyers and the whole thing of it -- it was not technically a hostile takeover attempt, but it certainly was never friendly -- and now Wall Street wants to know: "What the hell are you going to do, Alan, to give us a return on our money?"
And he's very nervous. He doesn't like public speaking, he never has, under the best of circumstances. He has to stand up in front of a hundred or more bankers, analysts, investors and, in the back of the room, the heads of Mattel, and talk about how he's going to rebound from this devastating take-over attempt and return more money, in the year ahead, to the shareholders. And as he's getting into his speech, he almost faints. And hopefully, to get back to what makes this book different, hopefully you become engaged by his personality, that scene, and you get dragged -- not dragged -- you get pulled pleasantly through the book.
I tried to use the techniques of the novel to tell this story. There is a very strong narrative. We have characters that are colorful, that are facing conflict, that we flesh out as real people. And there's an element of suspense throughout.
Q. Your byline and author's name is G. Wayne Miller. What does the "G" stand for?
A. George. My grandfather was George, so I was named after him, and my son's first name is George, so it's like a family name.
Q. When and where were you born?
A. June 12, 1954 -- baby-boomer -- in Melrose, Mass., which is a couple of towns north of Boston.
Q. Who were your parents?
A. My father was an airplane mechanic, Roger Miller. He was an airplane mechanic. He was 16 years of age when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, and he became totally infatuated with flight and flying. He never flew, and actually, I don't know why: I'll have to ask him.
My mother was at home for much of our childhoods, and then went to work. She had a job in a department store for a while and then she went to work for the state child welfare agency as the executive secretary for the director. Mary Maraghey: second-generation Irish Catholic in Boston. And Dad's family came in the 1630s. So it was old-fashioned Yankee meets Irish Catholic, and of course Irish Catholic won, he had to convert.
Q. Do you have brothers and sisters?
A. Two sisters. One is a registered nurse, MaryLynne Wright. And Lynda Twombly. She's had a number of different careers and currently is, of all things, a school photographer. She does like school portraits. She's been at home mostly. She has two young kids. She lives in New Hampshire; I won't hold that against her!
Q. Is that where you grew up?
A. I grew up in Wakefield, which is right next to Melrose, a suburb of Boston, a bedroom community. My parents still live there. It's become hideously yuppified, I can't stand going back there, expect to see my family. On Sunday mornings at 8 o'clock, there is an army of joggers around the lake. It's despicable and lowly.
Q. Is that where you went to school?
A. I went to parochial school for eight years, and then I went to St. John's Prep, which is a very, very fine Catholic preparatory school in Danvers (Mass.); big hockey, it's kind of a jock school. But that really isn't the full story; it's also very, very mindful of academics. A lot of people in my class got into Harvard.
Q. Is it a boarding school?
A. It was, and it transitioned -- I hate that word, I don't know why I used it -- it became a day school during the time I was there. But when I went, it was a boarding school with some day students, and then that balance shifted. By the time I left, it no longer had any boarding students.
Q. How did your experience at St. John's shape you?
A. Well, I went in thinking I was going to play for the Boston Bruins, as a hockey center. I played jayvee for a couple of years, and then I didn't get on the varsity team my junior year, and it was a devastating blow. When you are 15, that kind of thing really is devastating, and that's why I don't ever take lightly kids in high school who don't make teams. Anyway, I also was interested in writing.
Q. How did you get interested in that?
A. I just started writing in grammar school, in parochial school, just little snippets. Reading was very important in my family. And my mother used to, I recall quite vividly, used to sit with me -- and this was like in about third and fourth grade -- and we would go through the dictionary. I was always amazed at the number of words and the sheer variety. And we would go through word by word -- I don't know whether we made it all through the dictionary. So there was a love of writing and words in the family. It was not a big TV family, it was not a big movie family.
Q. What was the first story you ever wrote?
A. I don't remember. I have a memory of a story -- I probably was in fifth grade -- of a story set under the ocean with sea creatures, who had a little community, a little home, it was a fantasy; it was an octopus, it was a fish. That's a vague memory, it could be totally made up.
Q. Did you start writing regularly when you were in grammar school?
A. Not in grammar school. I did when I got to St. John's Prep. I had an English teacher, ninth grade, who was just a fabulous person: John Farragher. I have a very strong mental picture of him. He was a colorful person, he was very outgoing, he was animated, he was exciting, he got me very excited about writing. We did a lot of creative writing in his class. We did fiction, we did non-fiction, we did essays, we just wrote. I haven't thought of this in 20 years, but he's probably the one who got me past "I like writing," to "I really like writing."
I went on to become co-editor of the school newspaper, I wrote for them. We used to have literary arts festivals. I did poems, which were the most hideous, God-forsaken awful pieces of writing; high school poetry, for the most part, is terrible. But I went through different genres and tried some humorous essays, which weren't terribly funny, although they seemed so at the time. What I really liked to do, and it's still my first love, is fiction. I did a number of short stories at that time, continued in college and after college.
Q. What happened to hockey?
A. Hockey disappeared. I didn't make the varsity team. You can play jayvee for two years, freshman and sophomore, and, there, you couldn't in junior year. I'm still mad at the coach, because I just think he didn't like me, although I'm sure I wasn't good enough, objectively speaking. But if I ever ran into him, I think I would give him a piece of my mind. Isn't that ridiculous?
Q. Did you trade writing for sports?
A. There was sort of a trade-off. I ran track in my junior year. And I also developed an interest in medicine, which now, many years later, is still with me, because I do a lot of medical writing, although I don't consider myself a medical writer. I left St. John's thinking I would become a neurosurgeon, that was my plan, not to be a writer, although writing occupied more of my time than anything medically-related.
Q. When did you graduate?
A. In 1972.
Q. And then what did you do?
A. Went to Harvard that fall.
Q. How did you come to go to Harvard?
A. I was interested in Harvard after looking at a number of other schools, including Bowdoin and Notre Dame. I got early admission at Harvard. I applied and I was in by Christmas. I got scholarship money, and a number of my friends were going. Five of us went: Three of those five were good friends, they were kind of the artist-writer types.
What got me out of medicine -- my first week there I applied to and was accepted into a creative writing course that accepted two, or three, or four at most, freshmen. And I was thrilled. It was like, wow, this is pretty cool! And then I looked at what it required to become a pre-med student and the time in a classroom, the classes and the statistics and the bio-chemistry and I just said: "Forget it. I'm not that committed. I want to do things at this great school." And I did many things. I had a great time. It's a wonderful school. But if I had been so committed to pre-med, I would have missed out on many experiences, and friendships and people and endeavors that in life have served me very well. So I have no regrets.
But that interest in medicine lingers. The book that I've just sold to Random House, which will also be a series at The Journal, that you know about, which I'm not widely publicizing, is a medical pioneer kind of series, a great story.
Q. Was the Harvard experience formative?
A. Oh, yes.
Q. As St. John's?
A. It was more formative because I went in, and I think this is not anything usual to Harvard or to me, I went in as an 18-year-old kid who knows what I was going to be -- I thought I knew what I was going to be, but you don't ultimately know -- I came out a very different person, I came out with a very different direction, I came out thinking I wanted to get into something artistic, writing or film-making. I developed later at Harvard a strong interest in film: film-making, not the study of film. It was very formative. Many of my philosophies and politics came out of, or were melded at, Harvard.
Q. When did you graduate?
Q. What did you do after college? Did you go into the military?
A. No, I did not go into the military. I was in the last draft year. They didn't actually draft, but they assigned numbers. I forget what mine was, but it was pretty high. Saigon fell in 1975. I had no interest in the military. I worked kind of pickup jobs.
Q. Like, for instance?
A. I worked for a time as a receptionist at WBZ-TV in Boston. I was intent at that point more in film-making than writing, although I was doing a lot of writing on my own. And I thought this would be my entre into the world of TV. And of course it wasn't. Nobody paid any attention to me: the little jaboney sitting in the booth. Everyone was polite, but it didn't open any doors.
And then I went to Europe for a few months and kind of kicked around, toured and traveled and had a grand time. And did writing, I did a lot of writing. I did short stories, which, when I came back, I submitted to The New Yorker magazine and got polite rejections. The were terrible stories, they were just embarrassing. But you can see that the interest was still there, I was writing for my own edification and enjoyment, thinking, actually, that I would be published in The New Yorker, and what a silly idea, knowing what I know now.
I went to Harvard and came out all gung-ho for all these different things, but like, on a practical level, was like totally incompetent. If I had been smart about film-making, I would have just packed up my bags and gone to California. It never even occurred to me, which is pretty stupid.
I was giving some thought to maybe doing graduate school in film. Anyway, as I wrote, it occurred to me that if The New Yorker wasn't going to buy my material, then maybe there were markets closer to home that would. And I did. I considered The Boston Globe, and I considered my hometown newspaper. It wasn't that I had a burning desire to be a journalist, but it was a vehicle to have my writing published, some place that I probably had a better shot at than The New Yorker.
The Globe and The Wakefield Daily Item and another even smaller publication weren't buying fiction, but they were buying non-fiction. So I did some essays, and I had them published. And I had a story published which became a cover story in The Boston Sunday Globe magazine, which was really cool.
Q. What was that about?
A. It was about: Can you build a home atomic bomb? There subsequently were movies about this, and actually, one of the people I wrote about became the subject of a movie. Again, if I had been smart, I would have rushed to California with the story, but I wasn't that smart. It was a great story. I was 23 years old, I was an unknown, and they just bought it. As an editor, were I an editor today, I sure wouldn't have bought it, although it was a solid piece of journalism; it wasn't as if there were a lot of mistakes or inaccuracies in it.
|I was working, by the way, at that point, at Delta Airlines, living in Boston. I was smashing bags for a living, and I'm sure my mother was thinking at this point: "Boy, all the sweat for an Ivy League education, and Delta Airlines." || |
Right around the time that was published, I took my thinking one step further and said, "Hey, if I can sell pieces like this, why wouldn't I be able to get a job with a paper?" And I applied to just about every paper in New England. The Fall River Herald: turned down. The Attleboro Sun: turned down. Weeklies: turned down.
I was working, by the way, at that point, at Delta Airlines, living in Boston. I was smashing bags for a living, and I'm sure my mother was thinking at this point: "Boy, all the sweat for an Ivy League education, and Delta Airlines." I actually liked it. I liked to drive the tugs around. And the jets were cool.
And I finally got an interview at The North Adams Transcript, and was hired by Rod Doherty, who is one of the great editors in New England newspapers. Real character, wonderful guy, hard, hard task-master. I had no credentials. I had had one story in The Boston Globe, a couple in The Wakefield Daily Item; not a lick of experience; had never taken a course. And I was there for nine months, and in that nine months, I had an extraordinary education in journalism; I learned the fundamentals.
Q. Where did you go next?
A. The Cape Cod Times, for 2 1/2 years.
Q. Is that a small paper, too?
A. Small, but bigger than The North Adams Transcript. I think it has a circulation of 50,000. Very fine editor there: Bill Breisky. Excellent city editor: Jim Concannon. Bill is now retired; Jim is now an editor at The Boston Globe. And I really broadened my journalistic interests there. I did some military writing. I did some political writing. I did a lot of feature writing.
And concurrently I started writing fiction again. I had taken a break from short stories. And that was sort of a parallel track, which I won't get into, because it's boring. But I eventually sold a number of short stories in the mystery/horror genre.
Q. You sold them to who?
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| ||You cannot get discouraged in this business, or you're dead. |
A. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; a magazine called American Fantasy. They were published. And I've had stories in hardcover collections of short stories and paperback collections. I don't now write much in the way of mystery or horror. But it encouraged me to start a novel. It's never been published. I showed it to the person who became my agent, and it wasn't quite up to her standards. I was not discouraged. You cannot get discouraged in this business, or you're dead.
Q. It's a novel about what?
A. The one that didn't sell? It was a horror novel, about a character who comes back from the dead and terrorizes this little island, which happened to be modeled after Jamestown, an island where I was living at the time.
But the second novel sold, I sold it to William Morrow, to an editor, Alan Williams -- an editor who had edited a number of Stephen King's works, and he was probably the top horror editor in the country, and it was like such a thrill.
Q. What was the name of that book?
A. Thunder Rise. Which went onto become a paperback, both in England and here, and I was sure that I was like the second coming of Stephen King.
Q. What year was that?
A. That was published in `89, and that also happens to be the very year that the bottom fell out of the horror market. And people such as myself just perished. They were gone.
Q. You were at the, when did you leave The Cape Cod Times?
A. I left The Cape Cod Times in 1981 and came to The Providence Journal.
Q. How did you happen to come to The Providence Journal?
A. Well, I was aware of the reputation of The Providence Journal. Peter Gosselin, who is now at The Boston Globe, had been one of my colleagues at The North Adams Transcript, he had gone from The Transcript to the Pro-Jo. Jack White, who is now doing TV in Providence, was at The Cape Cod Times when I was there -- he had been at the Pro-Jo and won a Pulitzer for them. He was a good friend of Randy Richard. Randy was one of the big reasons I came here.
Q. Who is Randy Richard?
A. Randy Richard is an extraordinary writer-reporter, still at The Journal. I read some of his early work and was just blown away. I read some of his work that either Jack White had sent me or that I found somehow.
And Peter was there and I called Peter, and he said: "Do you want to talk to this guy, Larry Howard (now deceased), who does hiring?" And I had an interview, and I was hired, and it was great.
Q. What is The Providence Journal like as a newspaper?
A. The Journal's reputation, and it's deserved, is as a writers' newspaper. It's the kind of place where you can make a mark with writing, where writing -- the craft of telling stories -- is valued.
Q. What have you done in the time you've been at the paper?
A. For a number of years I was a beat reporter, covering mental health, retardation, the prison system and the child welfare system. During then and after that, mostly after, I got into doing sort of long-term series and projects, spending a fairly significant amount of time getting behind the scenes, or into an area or a world or a person we don't ordinarily see in the newspaper, and then writing a series -- again, sort of using the technique of the novel to tell stories. I think that's probably been sort of my hallmark there: the multi-part series, where each part roughly corresponds to a chapter in a novel.
Q. Is your role in the newspaper unusual in terms of what the ordinary reporter does?
A. Yes, it is. But I would note that there are others that do this as well. Randy Richard, for example, is still doing that kind of work. We have some younger members of the staff who are doing that as well. Maria Johnson. So yes, it's unusual in the sense that not everyone does it, and a smaller number do than don't. But it's not unusual in the sense that I'm the only one doing it, because I'm not. Nor should I be; more people should be doing it.
Q. Who is your wife?
A. My wife is Alexis Magner Miller.
Q. Where did you meet her?
A. I met her one evening when I was at The Transcript. I was covering the town of Williamstown, and the demand for copy was ferocious. I and a colleague had to fill two pages, which had little advertising, every day: the Williamstown pages. And on this particular night, it was a Thursday night, I pretty much had my stories wrapped up for the next day, but you could always use another story. A state rep was having sort of open office hours in Williamstown, and I figured, "What the hell, I'll go, I can get 10 inches out of this." I had already learned the tricks of the trade! "Even if nothing happens, I can get 10 inches out of this." And his assistant was this beautiful redhead, who sat across the table from me. And we went out after this office hours as a group and had a couple of drinks, and I became interested in her, and the rest is history.
Q. Where did you get married?
A. We were married on Cape Cod, while I was working at The Cape Cod Times, and Rachel came along... Rachel is our first born. And we had moved to Rhode Island by the time Katy came along. Katy is now 12. And Cal came along in 1993.
Q. What was your wife's background?
A. She grew up in Pittsfield, which is the county seat for Berkshire County. She went to Smith College. She came out of college not knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and got this job with her state rep, either right on graduation or before graduation. She sort of has an interest in politics and the political world -- not in the sense of being a candidate, but within the bureaucracy and the political system.
And she has since developed an interest in writing and is now a very fine feature writer and has been a columnist for The Providence Journal. And also has two books to her credit.
Q. What are they?
A. One is about newlyweds, sort of a humorous book, and another in the same genre is about turning 30, which obviously happened a number of years ago! And she is working now on a book idea.
Q. Where do you live?
A. We live in the town of Burrillville, in the village of Pascoag, which is in northwest Rhode Island, kind of out in the woods, which is why we were attracted here.
Q. How big a town is Burrillville?
A. Population-wise, I think we are around 18,000 people. In terms of area, I think it's 56 square miles -- I mean it's a big town, second or third biggest in this little, tiny state. There is a lot of land here, a lot of it is wooded, a lot of fields.
Q. Why did you come here?
A. Because we liked the quiet and the peace out here. And also, because when we were finally able to buy a house, we were in the middle of a boom market and parts of the state that we had as our first choice were simply too expensive -- this was in 1987. We could afford it here. We found a nice old house, with a bit of land, backing up to a whole bunch of woods and it was reasonable. So we snapped it up.
I remember that market vividly. We would get the real estate section from the paper the day before, the Sunday paper on a Saturday, so we could place the first calls, because property was going by noon of Sunday in that market, it was just a crazy market. And then, of course, it collapsed.
Q. What kind of a house is it?
A. It's an old farmhouse. It has four bedrooms, and I have added on a little wing with a bathroom and a sunroom, with a wood stove, and also on the other side, I've added on a library, which is now my study.
Q. You added on: do you mean you built it yourself?
A. I built it myself.
Q. Where did you learn to do that?
A. I learned it myself. From books and just doing it. When we moved in here, the first thing I built was a tool bench in the cellar. My father had always done carpentry. So I guess it's not entirely correct to say that I learned it myself. He wasn't a carpenter, but he was handy; obviously, a mechanic is handy with his hands. So I knew tools and what the gross applications were. So I built a bench, then I built a little playhouse for the kids. Emboldened by that, I said: "Why can't I just do an addition?" I did not do certain parts of it. I did not do the plumbing, the electricity and I didn't tackle the drywall. But I did everything else: the rough carpentry, the finish work, the roof.
Q. With two writers in the house, working for the same paper and both writing books, how do you balance those? And do you compete?
A. We don't really complete, because we do very different things. I don't think Alexis would mind me saying this. My passion is writing, and it's like so boring. You know, I don't golf, I don't have any other interests, really, but my family. I don't go to the theater a whole lot. I'm not really into cars. So that remains my passion. And she is less passionate about that. She likes writing, but is not driven in the way I am. So there really has never been much of that. We critique each other's works. She is one of probably two people who serve that function of: "Hey, give this a read. What do you think?"
Q. What's your relationship with the town? Are you active in the town?
A. Yeah, I am. I believe that community service is an important thing.
Before I get into the town -- and I'm very proud of this, God knows why, because it's hardly like a big deal -- I'm a blood donor. I give blood as often as I can. And I've just registered to become a bone marrow donor. Which is tied to a story I'm working on, but I think you literally can give someone a shot at life.
Here, locally, I'm the chairman of the library board, the Jesse Smith Memorial Library. We just met last night.
Q. Is that the town library?
A. There are two libraries in town. We are by far the biggest. There is another little, tiny library. We are the biggest. We are Internet savvy. We have computers. I really like it.
Q. How many books?
A. That is a good question. I think we have about 15,000 books.
Q. Are any of your books in the library?
A. Yeah, they all are. They better be! We have a $180,000 budget. And in the two years, the two-plus I've been on, we have worked very hard to increase hours of operation, which we have done successfully. So we have a neat library. I mean, it's up to date; it's modern; the staff is very good. Our head librarian is highly competent. I like it. It is kind of fun to be chairman of the board.
Q. Your non-fiction writing is kind of intense, in terms of long-term, some people call it immersion writing. How do you describe it?
A. That's a good description. It means you have to insert yourself into places you don't belong, is really what it means. As an outsider, I don't belong in a Fortune 500 company, I don't belong in the personal life of a teenage boy, I don't belong inside an operating room in the Children's Hospital in Boston.
Q. When you say you "belong there," what do you mean?
A. I don't belong there. I have to wage a campaign to get in there, to find out what's really going on.
Q. When you say "get in there," do you mean spend a lot of time?
A. Absolutely. In the case of the hospital, I spent the better part of two years with the chief of surgery. Children's Hospital in Boston, which is a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital.
Q. What was the story you were doing there?
A. I was writing about the chief of surgery, who does reconstructive surgery on badly birth-defective kids, kids who are hideously configured when they arrive: Hardy Hendren, in (a book entitled) The Work of Human Hands. It has actually been my only good success in books. We sold every copy.
Q. How many?
A. About 11,000, I believe, is the number.
Q. What did that book show? What was it about?
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| ||It was about a kid who was born with just about every problem imaginable, from her heart, to the way her intestines, genital and urinary systems were configured. Hendren and a heart surgeon put her back together again, gave her a normal life. |
A. It was a story of "suffering and redemption," to quote the L.A. Times. It was about a kid who was born with just about every problem imaginable, from her heart, to the way her intestines, genital and urinary systems were configured. Hendren and a heart surgeon put her back together again, gave her a normal life. The narrative spine of the book was an operation that was some 16 hours long. I did that to both tell the story of this kid, and the surgery, but also the story of Hendren, who is a pretty remarkable figure.
Q. How long did it take you to do that?
A. Well, I approached him in 1990, and the book was in print in 1993. So two, two-and-a-half years. Most of it full time, but I was doing a few other things through some of that.
Q. Did some of that appear in The Providence Journal?
A. Yes. It was a series that ran in 1991, and that has been the format I have followed. The paper has been very good to me in that sense. They have allowed me to both do a series and then do a book. Now, I've done the books on my own time, and the paper has given me, in the case of the toy book, a substantial unpaid leave of absence. But they understand I will do a series and then will do a book. I think they get something out of it as well. It adds a certain prestige. They have a Random House author.
Q. In the period of time you were doing this, the Boston Children's Hospital story, how much time did you spend in the hospital?
A. I would leave here every morning at 5:30, which would get me to the hospital at 7 a.m. And this guy Hendren is a total demon in terms of work. Many nights, I would not leave there until 10 or 11. And there were times when I spent the entire night, because he was operating. This was intensive. The only down time I had during that whole period, I would occasionally take a day or two to transcribe my notes, so that I would have them in my computer, I wouldn't lose track of what was going on. For about a year-and-a-half, I was there full-time, and then some. It was an extraordinary opportunity. It got to the point where I was so well known that everyone knew me. It was like "Hi!" And when I go back there now, as I do two or three times a year -- which I do because I'm still enchanted by the place -- people greet me. It's kind of like a second home.
Q. What's it like spending so much time in the areas that you are doing your non-fiction?
A. The downside is that you almost get lost. It sounds ridiculous, but you get so involved in this that you almost forget why you are there. Does that make any sense?
Q. Why is it necessary to do that?
A. Because there is no other way to do that. I shouldn't say there is no other way. But it is extremely difficult to truly approximate the reality of the truth of what it is you are writing about.
|The kind of work I like reading -- and doing -- best is immersion reporting. Which is why this current project is a total departure for me. And it's fraught with peril. I may get it wrong. || |
The book I'm working on now, on this pioneering surgeon, he did his work 40 years ago, 40-plus years ago -- his pivotal, revolutionary, work that I'm writing about. And I wasn't there, obviously. I now have to reconstruct all that. And memories, even when they are precise, are not one hundred-percent precise. People have agendas; people are subjective; documents, even scientific literature, is not always entirely correct, interestingly enough. Two people who witness the same event see it totally differently in some cases. So it is a much harder process, to independently draw conclusions and approximate the truth. It can be done. It's much more difficult. You lose, or never see, or have to make a tremendous effort to get the kinds of color and detail that make a story rich. And I'm driving myself crazy on the most minute details, on this project, and probably obsessing ridiculously so. And I could give you examples, but they would be boring, because they are so minute.
So being there, being able to independently judge, being a first-hand witness to events is the preferred way. And if you look at any of the great pieces of nonfiction -- Jonathan Harr, Kidder's work, Buzz Bissinger's work, those kinds of people -- they are all observing first and writing, and it's by far the preferred way to go. You can do it the other way. J. Anthony Lukas certainly did on his two big books, Big Trouble and Common Ground. You can reconstruct and approximate, but the kind of work I like reading -- and doing -- best is immersion reporting. Which is why this current project is a total departure for me. And it's fraught with peril. I may get it wrong.
Q. Where do you do your writing, and how often do you write?
A. I try to write daily. It's difficult. I don't every single day, any longer, for a lot of reasons. But almost every day. And I split my time between my study and the paper. And each has certain advantages. My attention span is so abysmally short that being able to go back and forth is important to me. Writing the toy book, I was cloistered in my study and I nearly went mad. There were days when I would look at my screen for a half an hour debating whether a comma belonged at that particular part. I'm very serious about this. It was crazy.
When I'm not writing, I'm thinking. A lot of the writing process is not actually pen to paper, as any writing coach or writer will tell you. A lot of it is thinking, trying to get to the truth of the matter.
Q. Do you enjoy writing?
A. I like writing. There's some writing that I don't like, but I've been very fortunate. I don't have to do a lot of scut work. I'm blessed.
Q. What do you mean by scut work?
A. ...like advances, like stuff to fill...
Q. For the newspaper?
A. Yeah. So on that end, I don't have to do any of that. And on my end, here, I've been able to pick and choose. These books have been all my ideas, nobody has assigned any of this stuff. My fiction, which I still work at, obviously is my stuff.
Q. You still write fiction?
A. I spent the summer reworking a novel. I just got my rejection notice from Random House, from my editor, who liked much of the book, but not enough to buy it. He was absolutely correct: New novelists, which essentially is what I would be because nobody remembers something published eight years ago, are tough. It is a tough market out there.
Q. After so many years of being a journalist, and having published more non-fiction books, why do you still write fiction?
A. Because it is my true love. I'm a novelist-in-waiting. I'm 43-years old. And it gives me the greatest satisfaction. It truly does.
Q. Why is that?
A. It's all from my imagination. It's all make-believe. Every little bit of it, even though much of it is drawn from the real world.
Q. What is the advantage?
A. I can be cloistered in my little study and shut everyone else out and go into these imaginary worlds. And I guess I probably, on some level, just want to escape, just go away. Never come back.
Interview Copyright © 1997 Brian C. Jones.