A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen: Part I

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of Tabloid City , we recorded a conversation between old friends Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen. With one of the major plotlines of Tabloid City relating to a terrorist event in New York City, and Pete and Carl speaking on the morning after the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced, the topics of terrorism, journalism, tabloids and reporting could not be avoided.

Carl: It’s hard not to talk about the book without talking about New York City and without talking about terrorism, it is a huge part of Tabloid City. It’s quite timely, given the events. Unpredictable, but timely.

Pete: The unpredictable element for me was: I never imagined crowds outside the White House, crowds in Times Square, chanting “USA, USA” like the soccer team just beat the Russians. That was unpredictable.

Carl: Yes, for me too. One of the many things I enjoyed about the novel was the enduring weight of that tragedy on the city. If you read the book, you come away understanding, for those of us who don’t live in New York. While it changed and shaped all of our lives, but for no one more than the people who live in New York and the journalism in New York as well.

Pete: I agree with that, Carl. It’s not like people get up in the morning and look at the sky to see if there are any planes hovering. It’s not that. But, there’s an unresolved quality of September 11th, starting with Bin Laden. But also that it’s 10 years later coming this fall and we still haven’t  finished re-building the Trade Center.  And these other wars are grinding away, so it’s hard to focus on it, but it’s there.

Carl: The other thing that was a resonant moment was, I was watching the Today show this morning, and they showed the tabloids in New York and one of them had “Rot in Hell” as a headline. Because your book is so much about our dying trade and what will be lost if we lose daily newspapers. You will never have the impact on the internet of any story that you do walking back a newspaper rack in New York City and seeing a giant 60 point headline that says “Rot in Hell.” There is no way to duplicate that moment electronically.

Pete: And I hope it lasts forever, to have that particular take on it, the populist voice in the street. When it’s good. When the headlines are good. Sometimes they’re dumb. But, what the hell.

Carl: Briscoe deals with that in the book, it does harken back to this time when they really were the heartbeat and pulse of the city. But all over the country, newspapers are losing traction and losing readers. It’s not just New York City, but their presence in New York was always so much more visible. The subway writers. It’s much different down here in South Florida where we’re in our cars all the time. But in a commuter city, everybody’s grabbing a paper on their way to or from work.

commutePete: You know the reason tabloids worked in New York, from 1919 when The Daily News started, was they were perfect to read on the subway. Because you could hold the pipe above your head and still read the paper. You couldn’t read The Times that way because it was too big, you had to fold it too many ways. On that level, they were perfect. Now, I count paper, I notice there’s about 6 or 7 papers every morning, including Chinese broadsheets full of gambling information. Most people are thumbing away. Mainly the men. Books are read mainly by women. If you do a quick, absolutely unscientific survey. The papers are still there, but nothing like what it was when I was a kid and I broke into the business.

Carl: Or even 20 years ago. But the one, of many, things I loved about Tabloid City was the obvious affection you have for the business, which we both share. And the sense of loss. But you can’t have that without caring for the place you write about.  So, Tabloid City is not just about the journalists, but there are so many characters. They all share a love for the city, the frustration, the aggravation, all the things that come into play when we care about something so deeply, that sometimes disappoints us. And those are all the ingredients of tabloid journalism. On good days and bad days alike. And that is the thing I think readers are going to relish about this book. You go into the relationship between a newspaper and it s city and those who run a newspaper and its city.

Pete: As you know from reading it, Carl, I tried to evoke that sense of the tabloid itself in all the other stories. A newspaper is never about one thing. It’s not a specialist tract. It’s not only about the latest royal dope to get married. It’s about all kinds of lives. Lives layered. Lives full of passion. Lives surrendering to loneliness. I tried to get that into the novel. It’s not just about the shrinking and death of a newspaper on paper, but about the people who are the subject matter of tabloids, and of all good newspapers. Newspapers go bad when they leave out the stories of the average person or the murder at a bad address or the texture that knits a city together, even sometimes negatively. So, I’m glad you saw that, Carl, because it’s one of the thing I worked very hard at. And when I was finished with the first draft, just paring it down to a tabloid style. I couldn’t go on a Proustian riff for 50 pages, nobody would remember who the next guy is.

The ChairCarl: Tabloid City has a great pace to it, a journalist’s pace. How you absorb information: quickly. And at the same time you have a lot of different lives. The territory you cover from Wall Street, the crooked hedgefund guy, and the Iraqui war veteran who isn’t strictly a denizen of New York. Every city in America has these guys in wheelchairs and on crutches who maybe didn’t get the benefit of Walter Reade and are struggling with demons that you can’t diagnose. And they’re out there. And there are thousands of them. And then the disaffected terrorist, or who imagines himself that way. We see these stories every day. And each one of them needs to be woven in at the pace of a big city tabloid. Which is what makes it such a great, high speed read.

Pete: What I was trying to do is what I could never do in the newspaper, which is to get into the interior lives of people. And that’s why people like you and me and Breslin have turned to the novel. We are permitted because a novel is a work of the imagination, not just of observation, we can do in the novel what we could never do in the newspaper and shouldn’t do in a newspaper. I can’t sit down and imagine what goes on inside Mayor Bloomberg’s skull. Even if I was curious!

Carl: And the other thing that novels do is that the allow us to write our own endings. So often in journalism, the endings are sad and disappointing and unsatisfying. And so, there is a sense of closure that you can imprint. And it’s a selfish pleasure that novelists take, but we spend our lives wishing for happy endings. And very rarely do we have them.

Pete: I remember an editor handing me the short stories of Shalom Aleichem translated into English. And I had never read them. “Fiddler on the Roof” came from one of his stories. And I said, “you know, these are pretty good, Paul. But all of them have happy endings. And Paul, my editor, said, “You schmuck, that’s why they came to America. They wanted a happy ending!” And I think that’s really true in certain ways. We can also do what might be a happy ending from our perspective as writers. The bad guys really do get it. Sometimes they really do get it. But sometimes they don’t.

Carl: This particular morning that we’re speaking, the bad guy did get it. And you can see from the reactions of Americans from one coast to the other, even hardbitten cynical journalists have to say “Okay, that is really for once, a mission accomplished.”

Pete: Not just rhetoric. As long as they show the photographs.

Carl: Where does a guy like Briscoe go? Or a guy like yourself? I don’t know how many of your readers know, they should, but they think of you as a columnist and a novelist. But you ran one of these newspapers.

Pete: I did.

Carl: So where do guys like you and Briscoe go now. Or 5 years from now.

Pete: Where I hope they go, and I don’t mean me or you, necessarily. But, what I hope is the ongoing professionalizing of the internet. Of the journalistic websites will continue. And I mean places like The Daily Beast which is already doing a fairly good job. Charlie Senate’s Global Post, supplying the hole left by the vanishing foreign correspondent. Both are professional because they pay for the contributions. Because it is a way of saying, this is not a hobby. And two, they have editors. And if you don’t have good editors. All of us have learned something from editors, because editors are great teachers. Especially when you’re a young dope wandering around trying to learn the craft. So, journalism will survive even if newspapers don’t. I think the big newspapers will survive, but a lot of smaller ones won’t. So I think the internet is going to have three or four major general sites where you’re going to have news and sports in the same place. Instead of the splintering where you’re going to have TMZ for gossip and Politico for politics that has been going on for four or five years. I’m rooting for the New York Times asking people to pay for access to the web version of the Times, and the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, I’m rooting for that. I want this thing to be professional and powerful. No matter what the delivery system. Part of it, and it’s in the novel too, and this isn’t an essay disguised as a novel. But the delivery system has changed. Seventy percent of the cost of putting out a newspaper is paper, ink and trucks to get it around. So if you can do it another way, you have to spend forty percent of your money on journalism instead of thirty percent, I think we’re in for a wonderful time. And I see these students at NYU, they have the passion. They want to do it. And we’re nuts as a country to turn our backs on good journalism. Or we’re never going to know what’s going on.

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Pete Hamill is a novelist, journalist, editor, and screenwriter. He is the author of 20 previous books including the bestselling novels Forever and Snow in August and the bestselling memoir A Drinking Life. He lives in New York City.

Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida. He is the author of eleven previous novels, including the best-selling Nature Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, and Lucky You, and three best-selling children’s books, Hoot, Flush, and Scat. His most recent work of nonfiction is The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport. He also writes a weekly column for The Miami Herald.