A Conversation with Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter: Part I

This week, we celebrate the publication of Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City (Little, Brown and Company). Tabloid City is a thriller about a crime, the demise of a newspaper and extremist behavior, all set in a night and a day and a night in New York City. We kick off the week with Part I of a conversation between Hamill and fellow former journalist and novelist Pete Dexter.

Mulholland Books: The plot of Tabloid City involves the demise of the newspaper, specifically, the last night of a newspaper’s existence. You’ve both worked for newspapers, and written about reporters in the past. Where the inspiration for those books came from? What you see the difference being between writing about newspapers, and what it was like working for one yourself?

Dexter: I’d say I’ve written about newspapers, but never in as informed a way as Tabloid City. One of the reasons being, no one’s ever going to trust me to run a newspaper; I wasn’t that kind of a columnist. And I can’t think of anyone except Pete [Hamill] who would be trusted with that. I mean, there are obviously editors, and editors who write a weekly column once in awhile, and some of them of them are okay—most of them aren’t very good—but there’s nobody else who’s written at the very top. Pete Hamill is different than Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin and everybody else, but he’s in that league. Because his voice, among all those voices, is somehow the one you want to hear—it’s the calmest element, and most reasonable.

So he knows it from that end, which is essentially a reporter’s end, and he also knows it from having to be responsible for all these peoples’ lives and jobs.

Hamill: Thanks, Pete.

Dexter: So I think that’s why when he wrote that scene in Tabloid City with the publisher and the editor—this very civilized conversation, at the very end of which, you get a spark of that anger, when he’s saying, “I want my people to read about this on the…whatever you call that shit you put on the computer…”

Hamill: The website. [Chuckles.]

Dexter: …that was very powerful stuff. And I know I couldn’t have written about it, ‘cause I didn’t know about it. And I don’t think there’s anybody else that could’ve either.

Hamill: Thanks very much Pete. But I think if you had sat down to write a novel about newspapers today, it would be equally full of a certain regret for what is going on. I mean it’s sad, because when I first became a newspaperman—June 1st, 1960���it was the beginning of my real life—it really was. When I first got a presscard with my name on it I wore it to bed like dogtags for a month. It said, “Hey, okay, do it. Leave your game on the floor,” you know? And I think there were a whole bunch of us like that, including you, Pete. So we’re going to lose things now. Just the transition from newspapers into websites means that journalism will stay alive, but not the feeling that came with going into a city room, and having guys bounce ideas, and wisecracks, and rotten jokes, and everything else off you before you ever got to write the first sentence of your piece. I mean, that sense of serendipity that comes from being among people who know things you don’t know, and who help educate you every night or every day that you show up, I think that’s going to get lost if you just park in front of a computer somewhere.

But with all that, I don’t have any regrets about it. I feel sad, and melancholy from time to time, but I never think, Gee, I wish I’d gone to work for Goldman Sachs instead.

Dexter: There’s something there that you said that’s really true. A lot of the best things you write come out of, somebody will say something, and it’ll make you think of something else, and bang, people are calling you smart, and…

Hamill: When it’s all about chance.

Dexter: [laughs] You have the chance. And I’m sad about it, and I regret that there’s nobody—you’re not passing along to people now. There’s nobody who’s going to wake up tomorrow and put a press card around his neck, I mean—that just doesn’t happen anymore. And to me, I don’t know any other kind of job I could’ve done.

Hamill: The same with me—that I could have done and be happy at the same time. I mean I could’ve done other jobs I guess—you know, lifting orange crates into trucks or something—but to be happy, to feel like I couldn’t wait to wake up the next day and do it again, that feeling—I don’t think a lot of people have that anymore, including young people going into the business to become journalists.

Dexter: I was going to ask you something…did your celebrity ever get in the way or you being able to report… did it get to where you couldn’t go into a grocery store without people going up to you and wanting to thank you and stuff, or whatever it is?

Hamill: No—well, you know when it would happen, Pete, if I’d done some television show, and people would stop me in the subway and say, “I seen you in that show last night—where’d you get that tie?”  It was never about what I said or anything…it was always like a fashion review. Which I certainly deserved, given my sartorial splendor…Christ.

But it didn’t get in the way in the sense that these super television guys. For example—Walter Cronkite couldn’t cover some of the things you covered or I covered. He couldn’t. He couldn’t walk into a pool hall without everybody turning and asking him questions. He became the guy that’s being looked at, instead of the guy that’s looking. You know? I think it was very difficult for some of those guys. They became so famous that it prevented conversation, rather than encouraging it.

It didn’t hurt me except sporadically, when I’d been on some show or something. Then it would only last for a week or something, then nobody bothered. But I think the television reports and particularly the anchormen had a real hard time. Cronkite had been a good reporter. Brinkley had been a good reporter. Peter Jennings had been a good reporter when he was young. Then I think the fame got in the way of the reporting.

typewriterBut in my kind of reporting, your kind of reporting, just as Breslin, and Murray Kempton, Mary McGrory, other people…we had opinions, we were payed to have them, but they were based on the reporting. And what I see now is the decline of that kind of reporting. There’s a column here or there, but most of the time guys read the Washington Post and tell you what they think. And that’s sad, too. A lot more fun the other way.

Dexter: Well, yeah. And you’re trying to keep people stay interested in newspapers as opposed to getting on the computer. I mean, that’s the thing that you don’t get on computers. Nobody takes the time to go out there and do that.

Hamill: And look for the little things, too. The trouble with television is that things move too fast, and so nobody notices the detail—the sweaty upper lip, or something—that reveals character. The way a good fiction writer writes, notices that stuff that both expresses the emotion of the character but also expresses character itself. And you can’t—I don’t see any of that kind of writing much anymore in newspaper, unfortunately.

Mulholland Books: I wonder if you think that fiction writing is going to be affected by this as well—because one thing people say about the demise of newspapers is that sort of long, in-depth reporting that goes over the course of weeks and months is completely gone, because everything now is so fast and has to be reported this very second. And I feel like writing a novel is kind of like that kind of long-form journalism that’s going away.

Hamill: You know, that’s a very good question, don’t you think, Pete? I mean, the trouble right now is that people—particularly the young audience for what we’re talking about—it’s not that they’re impatient, it’s just that they think most stories are about a hundred and forty characters long. I don’t know where Dickens would fit in to that, or even Hemingway or Samuel Beckett who wrote short when they needed to. It’s something to keep an eye on. Because sometimes you need the patience—you get the deepest feeling from a book by allowing it to enter you the same way you enter a book. I always think of a book like a house. The cover is the front door, and you walk in, and in two pages you can be on your way to Treasure Island or about to about to visit the Count of Monte Cristo, you know?

And you do it alone—there’s no audience in the room. You’re sitting there and entering another world and I think that’s something that might start vanishing. Which would mean human life itself would be less rich.

Dexter: I think you’re right. You have to go in the house. I mean, I always think about it as meeting the book halfway, but we’re talking about the same thing exactly. You’ve got to be willing to commit yourself to not sitting back and having it happen to you. Reading’s not just a passive act. You gotta bring something to it.

Hamill: You’re right, Pete. It’s active. And that’s why I think readers are different than people who sit and watch television, because television doesn’t trust the viewer—it puts soundtracks to tell them what to feel, it puts laugh tracks to tell them when to laugh.

Dexter: I could use something like that in my life, telling me when to laugh…

Hamill: But I do think that television is essentially a passive medium, and reading is active. And the good reader, the young reader, the kid who finishes his first book—he’s understood the joy of being someone else for a long time. To enter another life. That the people he passes on the street are not all a different race—they’re humans like him. And I think that’s what’s so wonderful about the act of reading.

Dexter: Pete, I’ve been meaning to call you up and ask you about this for over a year now—I was gonna ask you to write a history of American newspapers—I can’t think of anybody else that could do it like you.

Hamill: I can think of other people [laughs]. On account of I’m seventy-five, and the days dwindle down to a precious few, as the song says.

Dexter: You’re seventy-five?

Hamill: Yeah. Don’t ask me how that happened. Yesterday I was fourteen, playing stickball in the street. But I know what you mean. I think there has to be a real history of the newspapers. More than just what the publishers said or did or how much money was made—but one that really explains it culturally.

I’ll give you one example of what I mean. My father’s an immigrant from Ireland, as was my mother. He didn’t become an American by reading The Federalist Papers, or De Tocqueville or anything like that—he became an American when he got baseball. And he finally got baseball from the sports pages of the Brooklyn Eagle and The Daily News. That’s how he got it. He understood then finally the language of baseball, and what that language was describing. And what that emotion was when you went to a ballpark and thirty-five thousand people stood up at the same time and yelled—he got it. From reading papers.

I think that’s one of the reasons they were so wonderful—they brought together people of all classes, all ethnic backgrounds, from everywhere, sharing the same body of knowledge from reading. Not by waiting for the shorthand version. That’s one of the things I’m afraid we lose.

Come back tomorrow for Part II of this conversation.

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.

Pete Dexter began his working life with a U.S. Post office in New Orleans, Louisiana. He wasn’t very good at mail and quit, then caught on as a newspaper reporter in Florida, which he was not very good at, got married, and was not very good at that. In Philadelphia he became a newspaper columnist, which he was pretty good at, and got divorced, which you would have to say he was good at because it only cost $300.

Dexter remarried, won the National Book Award and built a house in the desert so remote that there is no postal service. He’s out there six months a year, pecking away at the typewriter, living proof of the adage What goes around comes around–that is, you quit the post office, pal, and the post office quits you.