A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen: Part II

read all about it.In our ongoing celebration of the publication of Tabloid City , we recorded a conversation between old friends Pete Hamill and Carl Hiaasen.If you missed Part I of the conversation, read it here. In Part II, they discuss local reporting, the future of journalism and the joy of being a novelist.

Carl: There’s a character in Tabloid City who I really loved. She reminded me of police reporters I’ve known, Helen Loomis is her name. All of us who grew up in a newsroom remember the Helen Loomis-es of the world. The best cop reporters of all time. They’re just wonderful, the best reporters, the fastest and the best writers on deadline.

Pete: And the least diva-like.

Carl: Because they’re dealing with the most horrible of human conditions every day of their lives. The most horrible crimes. The victim is a child or someone who is helpless. I mean, the stuff that most of us wake up with nightmares about. She’s a great character.

Pete: She’s obviously based on a couple of real life people I’ve known in the past. And I hope we keep getting people like that.

Carl: How do we do local reporting now? It’s one thing if you’re the Wall Street Journal or the Times. But what happens if you live in Rockledge, Florida. And you don’t have a local paper covering the city council, covering the police beat. How do you get your news without the Helen Loomis-es.

Pete: If you have a hyper-local site, as they now call them, dealing specifically with the local. It’s not the site that writes the stories, it’s reporters. And I think all these newspapers laying off people all over the place: that that is one of the greatest recruiting grounds for talent that is also a teaching talent. That these older people who are getting laid off—copyeditors and beat reporters. They should instruct the young in the craft. They don’t have to have big long airy sermons about ethics and all that. But the craft. Like how they instructed people in 15th century Florence by having them paint clouds for a year and a half and maybe getting up to eyelashes in the second year. To pass that craft on, it can’t be completely taught in journalism schools. How to create something that is right and accurate in 20 minutes because the deadline is looming. I think we’re crazy as a people, not just because I loved the life I had as a newspaperman, we’re crazy to let those people go sit in the sun in Sarasota. I think they should be working somewhere as a post-graduate school for a lot of kids. And making the internet professional.

Carl: I’m guessing that, not being in New York today, but I’m guessing that people are snatching up newspapers. That the tabloids of New York City, the surviving ones, are having a banner day. People want information and they want to hold it in their hands. They want to have that paper and say “this is where I was on that day.”

Pete: I think in that sense, the newspaper remains a verifying medium. Although they can’t be first on every story. They can be first on stories like the scandal at Walter Reed. But they can’t be first on a breaking news story, television and the internet are going to be ahead of them. But they have to be the verifier. The people who make 2,3, 4, 10 calls before going to print. And I think people recognize that. I was down at my newsstand, Mike’s newsstand, getting my tabloids because I get the Times delivered, and I was lucky to get there at 8:30. There were only a few left.

Carl: This is the pulse and the heartbeat. This is our impulse. The idea that it lands on your doorstep or appears on a newsstand on a street and you can hold it in your hands and say “Yes, this is what happened.” There is something affirming about that. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I don’t think so. Look at the crowds that were outside the White House last night. They were young.

Pete: They were people who were ten when September 11th happened.

Carl: If they got the information from Twitter, fine. But the currency is the information. It was then and it is now. It’s always going to be the information and how you get it to people. And you realize reading this novel that the people who are slaving away getting the information to people are doing it because it’s their duty. Yes, it’s fun, it’s terrific to write a great headline. There’s a real kick to it. But the bottom line is getting information in the hands of people as quickly and accurately as possible.  I don’t think that can ever change if the democracy is going to survive.

Pete: I absolutely agree, Carl. And that’s why in this novel, there really is a deep feeling about it, from my point of view, as a man who spent half a century in the newspaper business that it wasn’t just because it gave me a life that I cared about. It’s because I’m an American. And I have a grandson who’s 11 and I want him to have a country that’s not about stupidity and uselessness and the marginal. But somehow he’ll learn about this world the way I learned about geography in the 3rd grade because a good teacher had us copy the war maps from The Daily News once a week. So we knew where France was, where London was, where Guadalcanal was. The big guys from the neighborhood were out fighting a war, while we kids were in classrooms. And, the newspapers can be a vehicle for understanding this world better. If we choose stupidity, then we die.

Carl: The character in your novel, the misguided jihadist, Malik. You get the sense that in a city the size of New York, you can’t really rest. You can’t stop being vigilant. Because they’re out there. And because we live in a free and open society, they move around. They make phone calls. They can get bomb materials. They can park an SUV in Times Square. And not all of them are putzes. The vein of hate is there, we wish it wasn’t but it is. And a city like new York is a target. And some of the tension in the novel is: in a city of eight million souls, how do you get to these people before they get to us?

The PressPete: In the novel, the mother of the kid who embraces the jihad vision of the world, even points out: how come this rich guy, Osama bin Laden is telling people to go out and kill themselves in a crowd when he wouldn’t do it himself? Who is this “leader” to tell young people to go and die if he’s not prepared to do it himself. So even in the novel, which is a work of the imagination, there are ways, as you do so often in your novels, Carl, which is why I always call you our Jonathan Swift. Not of Gulliver’s Travels but of A Modest Proposal where Swift urged the Irish to eat their children to, you know, get a little protein. But there’s ways you can provide a perspective to the real world through fiction, if you do it right.

Carl: It’s very difficult to do. When you’re putting out a newspaper every day, you’re mostly just putting out fires. So in terms of seeing the larger perspective, how it all weaves together, it’s very difficult to do in a daily newspaper, because of the time constraints and the space constraints. I write a column that’s maybe 800 words. You can get in and out of a story and make a point in 800 words, but you can’t weave a whole tapestry. Selfishly as a novelist, you can do that. We can go places and down alleys and into penthouses where we could never set foot.

Pete: And also what we learn over the years is that even if people talk to you as a reporter, people sometimes lie. There’s a classic story about Breslin, covering a fire in East Harlem somewhere and there’s one guy who helped people get out of the top floor and Jimmy interviews him and writes a story about him in the paper as being a neighborhood hero. And the next day the paper comes out and they arrest him for starting the fire. So, Jimmy, of course, being Jimmy, attacks him about how he should burn forever in hell. But that’s the kind of thing that the streets teach you. Be careful! Some people have agendas that you’re not aware of.

Carl: It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s true. I remember interviewing a guy for a story about drug smuggling down in the Keys, about law enforcement officers who had been paid off to take their marine patrol boats on one side of the island at night so the dope could be safely brought in on the other. About two years later, he gets arrested on a bribery charge for doing exactly the same thing!

Pete: Well, I always remember your skeptical attitude about things like this because you had come back from a trip to the Cayman Islands doing some reporting for the Herald. And when you got back, you said, “Well, it’s the kind of place where they point out the honest people.” With astonishment.

Carl: You do get jaded, but it is nice to get the release to say “I’m going to write my own story. With my own characters.” And in the end, there might be some good people standing.

Pete: Well, go do it, as I will attempt to do soon after.

Carl: You can’t stop and you can’t stop writing. There’s no retirement in this business. Mike Lupica and I always joke, they’re going to find us face down on our computer keyboards. Our fingers will still be moving, but the heart and the brain will have shut down completely.

Pete: If we’re lucky.

Carl: Yes, if we’re lucky.

Can’t get enough Pete Hamill? Listen to his appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air.

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.