Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: John Marsh


John Marsh teaches English at Pennsylvania State University and has a keen interest in labor and American poetry.  His books include Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Bus Boys: Poverty. Labor, and the Making of Modern American Poetry and the award-winning You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941. His latest, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself, offers a fresh and provocative view of Walt Whitman and his present-day relevance. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Marsh confesses his love for the legendary poet, and by the end of this insightful homage, readers are likely to feel the same.”

RWR: Why does Whitman matter?

Marsh: Whitman matters because the same things that bother us—death, money, sex, and politics—bothered him, and instead of just bemoaning them, as I am inclined to do, he worked out solutions to them. We may not agree with every solution he found, but in a culture that does not often encourage us to think seriously about these subjects, Whitman does.


 RWR: What can we learn from him?

Marsh: To put it very briefly, we can learn why death should not scare us, why sex should not shame us, why money should not compel us, and why politics should not disgust us.

RWR: How did working in army hospitals during the Civil War save him? How is that an example for us?

Marsh: On the eve of the Civil War, Whitman had begun to lose faith in the experiment of American democracy, largely because it dithered morally and politically on the question of slavery, which looked like it would destroy the union he valued so much. By extension, he began to lose faith in the American people who watched its destruction. He grew cynical. During the war, Whitman devoted his afternoons and evenings to visiting and comforting sick and wounded soldiers in the army hospitals. He came to know the soldiers well, and he was impressed by their fundamental decency. He reasoned that with young men like these, American democracy could never suffer too badly and eventually might realize its promise.


RWR: What was his vision for the future of democracy?

Marsh: Whitman had an intensely personal vision of democracy. He thought that it should emerge from and as much as possible reproduce the loving, comradely relationship between two friends. He wrote that he wanted to establish “the institution of the dear love of comrades.” In short, he wanted us to care for each other, and he thought care should be the bedrock of democracy. It is easy to scoff at such a vision, or reduce it to Whitman’s homosexuality, but he thought that democracy that did not aspire to and ultimately achieve this comradeliness did not deserve the name.

RWR: What would Whitman make of our present Gilded Age?

Marsh: It would repulse him. He thought that poverty undermined democracy, specifically, the capacity and willingness of the poor to participate in democracy. In this respect, at least, he was right, and we have not made much progress since. But wealth offended him more than poverty. Whitman believed that the pursuit of wealth insulted the very fundamentals of creation. He did not think anyone could truly own anything, so he thought of money and property as at best a necessary fiction and at worst a delusion. “What is it that you made money?” he asks in one poem, “what is it that you got what you wanted?” He doesn’t even bother to answer the question. I fear how many of us would answer it today.


RWR: Why did your researches take you to a strip club?

Marsh: Today, when we learn of someone surrendering to his or her lust, we usually either laugh at them or shame them, or sometimes both. For example, I live in a college town, and early on Saturday and Sunday mornings you can see young women in clothes from the night before making their way back home after having slept somewhere else. This is called, with some indulgent humor but altogether too much judgment, a “walk of shame.” All this would have saddened Whitman. He thought that, unlike money, lust put us in harmony with the fundamentals of creation, and he wanted to celebrate it, not laugh at or shame those who followed it. I thought a visit to a strip club would test my own attitude toward lust. Could I not just refrain from judging others or myself for feeling it, but celebrate it, as Whitman did? I found out that it is easier said than done.

RWR: What’s the problem with Whitman’s tomb?

Marsh: It flouts the best parts of his poetry. For someone who celebrated the fact that when he died his body would dissolve back into the atomic structure of the universe, and for someone who placed so little stock in material possessions, the tomb seems wrong. It shields his corpse from the grass he loved, and it cost a fortune and looks like it.


RWR: What surprised you most in writing the book?

Marsh: It will seem silly, but the poetry surprised me the most. I mean how good it was. I went to Whitman looking for wisdom, and I found it, but the things that stick with me, months after writing the book, are the turns of phrases and arresting images that embody the wisdom. Here is one example. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “I know I am deathless,” and that is more or less the wisdom that we came for. But he then follows that assertion with two concrete images that show it: “I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,/ I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.” Two beautiful images for boundless and eternal life. It is the interaction between insight and illustration that makes Whitman such a powerful poet.

–Joseph Barbato



Interview: Anthony Giardina

Anthony Giardina, a novelist and playwright, was born in 1950 in Waltham, MA, and educated at Fordham University. He is the author of five novels, the latest of which, Norumbega Park, is just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Giardina’s fiction often explores social class, family, and sexuality. His new novel tells the story of Richie Palumbo, a first-generation Italian American, who one night in 1969 loses his way while driving with his family in the Boston suburbs and chances upon a WASPy town called Norumbega. There, Richie, recently promoted in his job at a defense plant, discovers and later buys a stately three-story house. It is “the house they are consciously looking for, the great upward move that has come upon them with the force of a demand.” Richie is convinced the idyllic old house will confirm his newfound middle-class status and open a door to the American dream. Norumbega Park chronicles the next four decades in the lives of Richie, his wife Stella, and their children as they struggle to find their way. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a graceful novel of an American family struggling to find identity and spiritual meaning in an age resistant—and even hostile—to their fumbling attempts.”  NPR’s reviewer said it is “one of the bravest, most memorable American novels in years.”

RWR:You once told an interviewer that the “singular moment” in your life came at age 14, when you watched your father “attempt to move us up a class.”  Talk about that.

Giardina: We were an Italian American working class family. My parents were both immigrants from Sicily (Filicudi, actually), and we lived in a small house in a neighborhood composed of people much like us. But my father was secretly ambitious–both my parents were, actually, socially ambitious. It came as a great surprise when they announced that they had bought a plot of land in the woods of Waltham and we were building a house there. It was very much as it happens in the opening of my novel Recent History, where the father takes his son into the woods and maps out a house, and with it a new life, for him. There was something magical about it, because a small group of men like my father were doing the same thing, and soon they’d built a neighborhood in those woods that made them all, at least in their own view, distinctly different from what they’d been before: suddenly they were landowners, immensely proud of themselves, and expecting their wives and children to take this in and behave differently. That’s the central myth I’ve tried to work through Norumbega Park: move to a new place, ascend to a higher social level, and everything changes. Of course it doesn’t, not really, but observing the effort of my father and his cronies to transcend themselves was, for me, like observing a great American story, one that I inevitably keep returning to in my novels.

RWR:Your title reminds us of John Cheever’s Bullet Park.  What is it that you admire in Cheever’s work?

Giardina: I don’t actually admire all of Cheever’s work, but Bullet Park is the novel of his I keep returning to. And again, referring to the concerns I voiced in my answer to the first question, it’s because in this novel Cheever was able to write a story that embodied a myth. The suburban stuff in the first half of Bullet Park- the father/son relationship, the father’s partly absurd but always genuine love for his suburban landscape- it’s all very real, yet you never feel like you’re enclosed within the limits of a realistic novel. It’s the Book of Job we’re reading; Eliot Nailles is being set up for a great fall. The novel also hints at the expulsion from Paradise, Abraham and Isaac, and the Orpheus myth. I don’t think Cheever necessarily had any one of these in mind, but he manages to go farther here than he does elsewhere. At the end of his story “The Country Husband” (which I love), his protagonist recovers from his bout with suburban madness by taking up woodwork. In Bullet Park, Nailles literally has to save his son from the clutches of the Devil. There’s an astonishing riskiness to what Cheever is doing there; it takes my breath away every time I read it. That novel was the model I wanted to hover over the writing of Norumbega Park , and my title is a very deliberate homage.


RWR: You’ve cited Richard Yates as an influence, and even have Stella reading one of his novels.  In reading Norumbega Park, I sensed Yates’ melancholy and his constant Flaubert-like attention to finding the right word. Are these the aspects of Yates that are important to you?

Giardina: It’s hard for me to isolate Yates as an influence, though I’m pretty clear about what it is about him that I admire. As great as Revolutionary Road is, it’s his second novel, A Special Providence I keep going back to, and his story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired”. He was able to see so precisely the cracks and fissures in the life a certain “artistic” class of people were trying to build in the 30’s in New York, and then after the Second World War, the pretensions and the weaknesses behind the artistic pose in a world whose values were shifting. There’s a ruthlessness to his seeing that lifts his prose, and the portrait of the sculptress-mother who keeps appearing is stunning in its precision and in its complexity. But I think of myself as being kinder to my characters than he was. Richard Yates’ very special and distinct stringency: that was him. Who could ever really imitate it?


RWR: “Norumbega” is a fictitious suburban town.  But I note that “Norumbega Park” was a real place—an idyllic, immensely popular amusement park in Newton, MA, on the Charles River. Its Totem Pole Ballroom was considered the most elegant in New England. Did you also have that kind of dream place in mind in titling your novel?

Giardina: Norumbega Park was a place I used to go to as a kid. This was after the days of the legendary Totem Pole Ballroom, though there was still a big totem pole marking the entrance. And you get it right when you use the word “idyllic”. That’s what I remember. It was the antithesis of the big corporate amusement parks they build now, which could mostly be plunked down anywhere, in any landscape, and it wasn’t tacky like the beachfront parks- Nantasket, Revere Beach.  It had been built, if I remember correctly (and I’m no doubt idealizing it a little), with respect for the landscape. There were paddle boats out on the Charles River, and there was a scary ride called “Davy Crockett’s Nightmare” that went out over the water. I carry a heightened sense of the suburban landscape of my childhood (it seemed to me a landscape set up to encourage dreaminess), and yes, the park is what my title alludes to. The strangeness of the word “Norumbega”, and the sense of the world as still being undiscovered. That’s what Richie feels when he stumbles upon the town of Norumbega: that some part of the world remains for him untouched, pristine, rife with possibilities.

RWR: In your recent New York Times interview, the interviewer said your novel tackles “class ascendancy through real estate.” Isn’t that another expression for the American dream?  “They would come here, and all would be wonderful, wonderful, wonderful,” thinks Richie Palumbo. Does that kind of quest always end badly?

Giardina: No, I’m sure it doesn’t always end badly. That would be a horrible generalization. But I’m interested in class dynamics and how they work in families. It’s one thing for a married couple to want a bigger, better house and to go after it, and to go after the social ascension they sometimes believe accompanies such a move. But if that quest has too much meaning (as it maybe did for my parents, and as it certainly does for Richie in Norumbega Park), the kids are going to have a reaction. They’re going to see that something is being expected of them. And how is that going to play out? What if Jay Gatsby had had a son from an early liaison, and that son lived with him in the mansion in West Egg? That’s the kind of thought that intrigues me. Sons and daughters see through their parents so easily, and they make choices about who they’re going to be accordingly. You can move into any house you want if you can afford it, and you can move yourself up a class if that’s absolutely essential to you, but don’t expect your kids to grease the wheels of that forced ascension.


RWR: How difficult was it to write about a family and the sexuality of its members? What was the biggest challenge?

Giardina: I’m probably leaving myself wide open here, but sex is the easiest thing in the world for me to write about. So no, writing about the sexuality of the family members in Norumbega Park was not unusually challenging. In fact, the only time I’ve felt a strong challenge in writing about sexuality was in Recent History, where the narrator has a gay father, and where, as a result of a complicated chain of sexual events in his own life, the son has to question his own orientation. What was challenging was to write about someone who didn’t know what he was. It was difficult for me to place him- to know exactly how he felt- in his homosexual encounters, not because I can’t imagine myself into those encounters but because the central challenge of that book was to write about someone who was not emotionally present in his own life. In Norumbega Park, everyone is emotionally present to themselves: they may not like what they see, but they know what it is. And that gives the writer- this writer- freedom to follow them wherever they go sexually.


RWR: You render many different worlds vividly—from the cloistered lives of nuns to the partying of young law students living near Columbia University in Manhattan.  How do you manage to do that?

Giardina: I don’t know. I guess that’s just being a writer. “Porous boundaries” is how one writer friend described it. My own life would be far too boring to write  about because it would require no imagination, but when I go and stay in a monastery and observe the nuns and monks at prayer, my desire to penetrate their lives activates something in me. You just watch differently, I think. And you mention the lives of law students at Columbia. My answer is: what’s hard about imagining what that’s like? If you’ve been around certain worlds for even a short time, and you’ve observed carefully enough, you’ve picked up enough details to create an imaginary version of that world. You do your research, but the great thing is to lift off from the research and allow yourself to invent.


RWR: Whence your great affection for your characters?

Giardina: I write about people I’m drawn to. A friend of mine asked me, with very good intentions, why I don’t write more about people like myself, and the hyper-intelligent, hyper-aware people who are my friends, and the answer is that though I love these people as friends, I don’t necessarily love them as characters. I tend to gravitate toward characters who maybe have a certain emotional simplicity, or directness, or naivete, who then find themselves in situations where they’re in over their heads. And I admire the way they try to climb out of those situations, even when they’re like Timmy, the narrator of White Guys, who finds himself helping a friend who’s possibly a murderer. He does it because he’s helplessly besotted with the romance- the romantic aspect- of his friend, with all the things the friend embodies that transcend, for Timmy, conventional morality. That’s the kind of situation where I can summon immense sympathy for a character, so its maybe the drama I place my characters in that allows me that sympathy.

RWR: Your parents were Italian American immigrants.  Were there many books at home? How did you become a bookish kid?

Giardina: There were books at home- the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and books like “How to Build Your Own House for $1400” (this was the 50’s, remember). Books became special to me because the real thing- real books- were such a rarity. It was almost as though the preciousness of the physical object- the physical book- preceded what was actually inside it. The first books I remember reading were ones I ordered through something called “Junior Deluxe Editions”- I think Doubleday published them. There was something wonderful about their arrival in the mailbox, and then cracking them open- Treasure Island, Hans Brinker, King Arthur and His Knights. Owning them set me apart from the rest of the family. I can still remember reading the Ben Gunn scene in Treasure Island on the family couch, and feeling like something extraordinary was being opened up to me.


RWR: Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of Italian American writers?  In the ethnic sense of “Italian American studies,” which has grown in popularity on many campuses in recent decades?  And if not, how do you see yourself?

Giardina: I am inescapably an Italian-American writer, and it’s never something I’ve tried, or wanted, to deny. All of my major characters- except the narrator of White Guys and some of the protagonists of my stories- are Italian-American. But the “tradition” is not something I think about much, partly because I don’t yet fully understand it. I’ve read a little John Fante, but I’ve never read Pietro di Donato. I’m really flattered when a novel like Recent History shows up in college syllabi for Italian American literature courses, but when I read essays linking the themes in my novels- shame and sexuality, for instance- to the larger body of Italian American literature, I’m always, embarrassingly, a little surprised. I always thought those issues were mine alone. And maybe, in an odd way, I prefer to think of those themes as personal rather than cultural.


RWR: What’s next?

Giardina: What’s next is a Civil War novel. I feel like I’ve said as much as I want to say right now about the themes of the last three books- class and sex among Italian Americans in the “gilded suburbs”, as one critic put it. I need a departure. My brother in law asked me how I was going to work Italian Americans into the Civil War, and I said “I’ll find a way.” I was joking, of course. It’s time to do something radically different, and I’ve come upon a story- a found story from history- that I really want to tell.

-Joseph Barbato

Interview: Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis, a crime novelist, was born in 1954 in Philadelphia and studied film and philosophy at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.  After an early career as a writer, producer, and director in film, television, and advertising (his work included an award-winning documentary for National Geographic; television ads for political candidates; and a ghostwriting stint on the final draft of Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 4), he turned to fiction writing. He is the author of five novels, including a series about flawed but righteous LAPD Robbery/Homicide detective Lena Gamble, who is smart, morally complex, attractive, and more than a little human. In her first outing, City of Fire (2007), Gamble, a newcomer to robbery/homicide, is assigned a seemingly dead-end case by higher-ups looking to get rid of her. In The Lost Witness (2009), she investigates the gruesome Cock-a-doodle-do homicide, in which money buys a cover-up.  Now, in Ellis’ latest novel, Murder Season, which one bookseller called “a kick-ass police procedural,” Lena takes on a complicated case in which nothing is quite what it seems. In each book in the series, Ellis’s writing is evocative, fast-paced, and drenched in Los Angeles.


RWR: You used to skip school and sit through murder trials.  What was the appeal even then of crime and the law?

Ellis: The neighborhood outside Philadelphia where I grew up was still to some extent undeveloped. There were houses, but there were fields and forests and lonely country roads as well. One day a man was collecting pine cones with his dog about a mile from our house. When he stepped into a small grove of pine trees, his dog picked up the scent of something in the ground and started digging. What they uncovered was a young woman’s body in a shallow grave. I was a young boy at the time, and was deeply shaken by the discovery. The trees were right along the side of the road. I passed them almost every day. It took me a year to get the courage to climb off my bicycle, walk into the grove, and look at the grave. Even now as I think it over, my imagination takes off and I can see the young woman’s hair rising out of the soil. So, yes, my interest in crime began early in my life! By the time I began skipping school to sit through murder trials at City Hall, I was seventeen. I was already into film and crime fiction, especially Hitchcock movies and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and turned what I learned in the courtroom into a series of short stories. When I handed them into my English teacher, she figured out what I had been doing and a certain degree of mayhem ensued.

RWR: Did your earlier work in film and television involve crime dramas?  What kinds of material did you work on?

Ellis: Most of my work in film and television had been in advertising. I won an award at the New York Film Festival for a film I made with a friend for National Geographic, and I received a regional Emmy for work done with CBS News. But a few years after that I wrote a screenplay called Between Two Borders. At the time, I was producing a tribute to the Challenger disaster with another friend of mine. The footage we’d collected from NASA’s archives was just terrific. The film was to be broadcast on “The Today Show” on the first anniversary of the explosion, and we were negotiating with David Bowie for the use of his song “Space Oddity.” When David Bowie found out that I had studied screenwriting with Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, he asked to read my screenplay. One week later I was told that he loved it and wanted to become involved. I moved to Los Angeles, was signed by the William Morris Agency, and the screenplay made the rounds. I can remember spending a remarkable afternoon with Sandra Bullock in her kitchen drinking coffee and listening to her tell me how much she wanted to make this movie as well. A lot of people wanted to make this movie. But after all the meetings ended, Borders was still on the shelf and I ghostwrote the final draft of Nightmare on Elm Street 4 instead.

RWR: Your writing is unusually tight and fast-paced. How did you learn to write like that? Did studying with Walter Tevis have anything to do with it?

Ellis: Thanks for saying that. I studied with Walter Tevis, but I met John Truby in Los Angeles, and worked with him as well. John is a screenwriter, a script doctor, and the author of Anatomy of a Story. I’m more than grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from both, and very much believe that studying films has made a great deal of difference in my work. But if there’s a secret to the way my novels move, I think it comes down to giving your characters so much depth that they seem like they’re alive, and then throwing them off with as much conflict as you can possibly imagine. Joseph Campbell was right. Your hero is on a journey. But if you really want to throw gasoline on the fire, your hero has to be caught up in the worst day of their life! In Murder Season, LAPD Detective Lena Gamble is under extreme pressure to solve a horrific double murder as quickly as she possible can. Her personal fate, the fate of the LAPD, even the fate of Los Angeles, is at stake. I think the speed comes from the fact that the reader knows that the opposition is so overwhelming, there’s a good chance she won’t win and may not even survive.

RWR: Does your work as a media consultant to politicians inform your fiction?  I suspect it would have exposed you to a side of politicians few of us see.  Another of my favorite crime/thriller writers, Ross Thomas, drew on a similar background in his fiction.  Do you know his work?

Ellis: That’s a great question, and I’m going check out Ross Thomas as soon as I can. There seems to be some connection between politics and crime fiction, some draw to the arts by people with a social conscience who have become disillusioned by the system. What’s so amazing is that it starts at the very beginning of the genre. John Buchan was a Member of Parliament and wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle and all those wonderful books featuring Richard Hannay that inspired Alfred Hitchcock. Dashiell Hammett was a political activist before he wrote masterpieces with such strong themes like The Maltese Falcon. John Grisham served in the Mississippi State House of Representatives for six years, before kicking it off with A Time to Kill. I grew up during the Vietnam War. Social criticism, a sense of right and wrong, was alive in all of the arts and fueled our culture. My role in politics was as a filmmaker. For the most part I made television ads. But every once in a while I was assigned the task of recording surveillance footage of some pretty frightening people. Everything I did seemed to involve documenting corruption on either the political, criminal, or corporate level. For me, a crime novel worth writing or even reading, has to be about more than the murder itself. What gives a crime novel real juice is the world your detective is living in, and discovering who and why the opponent decided murder was their only way out. My background seemed like basic training for writing thrillers. When I started writing crime novels, it felt like I had been set free.


RWR: What prompted you to create the character Lena Gamble? What do you admire—or dislike—about her? Are you still learning things about her? Does she ever surprise you?

Ellis: My second novel The Dead Room was the story of Teddy Mack, a young civil attorney just out of law school who is forced by his boss to represent a man who has just been arrested for the rape and murder of a young woman. Over the course of his investigation, Teddy begins to suspect that his client murdered other young women. The novel came out as an original paperback and was an underground hit in the summer of 2002. At the largest independent bookstore on the east coast, it’s still one of the bestselling works of crime fiction on record. 950 copies were sold out of that single store before the book went out of print and was republished as an eBook. After this sensational response, I thought that Teddy Mack was series bound. But even more, if he was ever to meet a woman, that woman would have to have experienced an ordeal as horrific and grueling as his had been. The Dead Room was set in Philadelphia, but I was living in Los Angeles and wanted to move my stories west. I wrote City of Fire with LAPD Detective Lena Gamble working her first murder case, and when it made the rounds, things just took off. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, they still are. Translations of the first two books featuring Lena Gamble (City of Fire and The Lost Witness) are off the charts and have been for the past nine months. So I guess the answer is that Lena Gamble is a remarkable character who came to life by accident. And yes, she shocks me at every turn.

RWR: How do the LAPD detectives that you consult with feel about Lena? Are they keen on the series, and why?

Ellis: I think they love the series. They pass my novels around, they show up at book signings. They’re wonderful people. I work with two Homicide Special detectives in the Cold Case Unit, and a DNA specialist from the Scientific Investigation Division. All three understand that my books are fiction and that they aren’t on the line for any technical mistake I might make in the story. I love researching my novels. I’m extremely grateful for the help they’ve given me. In most cases everything you’re reading is factual, so the novels come off real. But I also think that they really like the idea of Lena Gamble, not just the series. I receive as many emails from guys as I do from women. Guys usually ask for Lena’s phone number. Women usually tell me that they are either living her life, or want to come back and be her next time around. The detectives I work with have told me the same thing.


RWR: Whence your affection for Los Angeles?  Lena seems very much at home there.  In what ways is she of the city?

Ellis: I love Los Angeles. Maybe because I was born and raised on the east coast, the moment I arrived in L.A., I could feel it. The city has a pulse. Like New York, Los Angeles is a city where people come to chase their dreams. And that’s why Lena Gamble is of the City of Angels. She and her brother were runaways. They grew up the hard way, but survived in spite of their past. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Lena doesn’t see the world in black and white, but in gray. She’s morally complex. She’s not always right, yet willing to own up to her mistakes. But even more, she understands that what she’s seeing probably isn’t the way things really are. L.A. is a city where you are confronted by one mirage after the next. Anyone who has read one of my novels knows that they work like a roller coaster ride. At some point everything that the reader thinks might happen gets turned upside down.

RWR: What’s the challenge of writing about a female protagonist?

Ellis: I think one reason why guys like this series as much as women could be that Lena comes off so real. She’s not written as a cartoon or as a man with a woman’s name. For me that’s the challenge, and maybe even the challenge for any author who writes thrillers. The goal is to create a character who is smart enough and strong enough to beat overwhelming opposition, yet remain vulnerable and ultra human. I can remember her first appearance in City of Fire. It took three weeks of writing and tossing pages out before I finally discovered her voice.


RWR: You’ve said that the crime novel is “defining the modern American myth.”  Please explain.

Ellis: This gets back to what I learned about life before I became an author. We live in a world that is primarily unjust and overwrought with corruption. We are human beings, not machines, and when most of us make a mistake, we’d rather hide it than own up to it. That’s why I think crime stories are so wonderful. Whether they come out as a novel or appear on the screen as a film, crime stories are actively exploring this world and how we act and react to it. Crime stories help us cope and understand, and in some cases, show us the proper way to live and survive in this world.


RWR: What inspired your latest novel, Murder Season?

Ellis: What inspired me to write Murder Season was extremely powerful. I was living in Los Angeles during the OJ Simpson trial and had watched almost every minute of it. I had always wanted to address that trial is some way. Not the details of the trial, but the magnitude of its impact on the city. Years later after finishing The Lost Witness and in search of a new story, I came upon a murder case where a teenage boy stood accused of murdering a girl he had a crush on. What inspired me to write Murder Season was the prosecutor’s closing argument. He had taken the audio that the police recorded during the boy’s interview and cut it to sound like he was making a confession. The boy was talking about masturbating while watching the girl through her bedroom window. But the jury heard him admitting to murder. Large photos of the girl’s corpse were on display as the edited tape was played. Not only did the prosecutor lie to the jury, the judge backed him up. The realization that attorneys manufacture truth in a murder trial the same way we see people manufacturing truth in politics blew my mind. At that point, I had to write Murder Season.


RWR: What’s next?

Ellis: One of the themes in Murder Season gets back to our discussion about someone making a catastrophic mistake that has huge implications and trying to cover it up in order to save their own skin. To me this is almost the definition of living in America. What I’d like to do is explore this theme from another perspective and amp up the stakes. With any luck, the novel should end in an entirely new place.

-Joseph Barbato

Interview: Dan Fante

“Los Angeles, give me some of you!”  No one but John Fante (1909-1983), the American novelist and screenwriter, could have written those words.  At the time, the 1930s, he was hungry and poor, living in a downtown L.A. flophouse, struggling to win recognition as a writer.

           Dan Fante

Encouraged by the critic H.L. Mencken, he continued to write fiction sporadically throughout his life, often taking time out to make money writing for Hollywood.  His novels, including Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, and Wait Until Spring, Bandini, went virtually unnoticed until the late 1970s, when poet and novelist Charles Bukowski convinced Black Sparrow Press to reissue them.  Thus began a tremendous resurgence in popularity for John Fante, now widely recognized as one of the best authors ever produced by Los Angeles and a major Italian American novelist.  Now, his son Dan Fante, 67, a poet and novelist, gives us Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving. The absorbing, pull-no-punches memoir describes a difficult father-son relationship and offers an inside view of the celebrated John Fante’s turmoil as a serious literary novelist who could not resist the lure of Hollywood. It also recounts Dan Fante’s turbulent life as an alcoholic, his recovery, and the experiences that have inspired Chump Change, 86’d, and his other novels about the seedy underbelly of the American dream.

                                                                      John Fante

RWR: You refer to your father’s “searing bad luck” as a novelist.  How important is luck in a writing career?

Fante: “Luck” is the difference between a book that sells 3,000 copies and one that sells 50,000. Ask the Dust sold 2,000 copies in 1939 and was forgotten. Had John Fante’s publisher spent the money to publicize the book it might’ve sold the several hundred thousand it did on re-issue in 1980.

RWR: Your father returned to screenwriting again and again for 45 years, driven by “poverty and love of the good life.”  And that, of course, took him away from his fiction writing.  Isn’t it ironic that his mentor, H.L. Mencken, who encouraged him in his serious writing, was the one who told him to “Take the money” when John Fante was first offered a screen writing job?

Fante: Mencken had utter contempt for screen writing but he understood that my father needed to make money. What’s ironic is that John Fante kept going back to a poisoned well and kept drinking from it.

RWR: Why did the Hollywood Ten blackball your father?

Fante: My father was at a meeting of The Writer’s Guild (before it was recognized as a union) One of the (later-known) Hollywood Ten, Lester Cole, reversed himself on a vote he had put before the group. When Cole asked for a re-vote and John Fante refused to change his ballot he was called a “fucking fascist” by Mr. Cole. Suddenly my father stopped getting screen writing work in Hollywood. A coincidence? Hardly. Mr. Cole had a low regard for dissenters.


RWR: You write that you felt “fear and awe” of your father. Why was your relationship so difficult?

Fante: John Fante was a volatile man, full of passion and rage alternately. As a boy when I would come home from school and open our front door I was never sure which of those personalities would spot me on the way to my room.


RWR: In reading your book, I was reminded of the father-son relationship described by Andre Dubus III in his memoir Townie.  His father was distant too, over the years, but in the end the son came to love the father.  Have you read that book, and do the younger Dubus’ experiences resonate for you?

Fante: I admire Dubus’ memoir and there seem to be many similarities. I might add that there has to be something odd about men who spend most of their waking hours alone in a room tapping on a keyboard. Having an artistic temperament apparently comes with the territory.


RWR: You write that you knew in your teens that you “had to be a writer” after seeing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”  How did O’Neill’s play affect you?

Fante: In watching that play I saw the explosive power of the spoken word for the first time. It changed my life. It was an earthquake in my heart and in my mind. I was never the same after that day. Watching a great play being performed can be magical–transformative.


RWR: Your father felt tremendous self-hate over being “a stinking sell-out artist,” and your own “ruminative, self-talking, obsessive mind” seemed to spring from a lack of self-esteem. Growing up, you felt like “the family dunce,” and became “snarling, angry, and uncommunicative,” like your father. Whence the shared rage?

Fante: I’m not sure. Boys—children–are like sponges. It’s fairly easy to understand. I took on or emulated the personality of my dominant parent.


RWR: Most of us think of Charles Bukowski as having sparked the renewed interest in John Fante’s work that continues to this day.  But a number of Hollywood figures, notably Ben Pleasants, as well as Alvah Bessie and Budd Shulberg, played roles.  Tell me about that.

Fante: Bukowski’s mention of John Fante of course was a great boost to my father’s career. But the road to that mention was paved a stone at a time by Ben Pleasants, over a period of years. Pleasants, a good friend of Bukowski’s, had been pestering Bukowski for years about giving a boost to my father. Pleasants can be a relentless man.


RWR: You have been sober for 25 years.  In discussing AA and other factors that have been a vital part of your recovery, you recall a moment of epiphany at a retreat run by a man named Bob Anderson, who said the way to recover from alcoholism was to heal your mind.  What happened, why was it important to you?

Fante: Alcoholism is a disease of thinking. It is a kind of mind set acquired over years. Drunks share very similar personality traits. Bob Anderson was the first man to tell me that my thinking was my problem, that I had the mind of an alcoholic–in recovery. It was like a punch in the nose. I knew that I had to learn to change my thinking. It can take years but it is possible.


RWR: Your novels are not feel-good reads.  They draw on your own life of alcoholism, drug use, poverty, and suicide attempts.  Who do you think your typical reader is?

Fante: I’m not really interested in winning popularity contests with my books. My mail tells me that the people who read my work see themselves in it. Those are the people I write for, the ones interested in going beyond what’s pretty or clever–into the realm of the human condition.

RWR: The scenes in your memoir are extraordinarily vivid.  Are you sure you didn’t make up that blinking neon sign on a cross (“Sin Will Find You Out”) outside the window of your New York rooming house in the 1960s? How did you learn to write like that?

Fante: I don’t know. I write from my heart and not my head. I don’t know any other way. But I do wish I had made that goddamn sign up.

RWR: If someone was reading your fiction for the first time, which novel would you point him to?

Fante: I’d tell them to start at the beginning with Chump Change, then Mooch, then Spitting Off Tall Buildings, then my short stories, Short Dog, and then my last Bruno Dante book, 86′d.

RWR: You were first published in France, in 1996.  What is it with the French?  They seem very receptive to darker American writers.

Fante: The French have a long history of going beyond the superficial in their reading preferences. God bless the French.

RWR: Harper has since brought out many of your books here, including this one.  Do you have a champion at Harper?

Fante: My editor at Harper Perennial is a woman named Amy Baker. For my money she is the best editor in America. She’s encouraging when that’s needed. Then she’s a critic who sees beneath the lines with unusual perception. Then she’s a taskmaster. Finally, she’s a judge and jury. But mostly Amy Baker is a brilliant and remarkable woman. I count myself very fortunate to know the likes of Amy Baker.


RWR: Years ago, when John Fante was unknown, being his son would have meant nothing. Now, one suspects, it can mean everything.  Or does it?

Fante: I’m not so sure. Maybe someone with my name might get one book into print. But that’d be about all if the book wasn’t any good. Ultimately a writer must stand by his collected words. That’s the real test. The reader is the one who makes or breaks the writer. No one else can do it.

RWR: Like your father, you say writing is “an extraordinary and precious calling.”  What do you mean by that?

Fante: Writing is not drudgery for me. I don’t face my keyboard in angst or some dark night of the soul. That’s piffle. I love what I do. It provides passion and strength and purpose to a life that once had none of those things, only blackness. I feel like a kid when I sit down to write every morning. And when I get up (most days) I feel like the luckiest man in the world.

-Joseph Barbato











Interview: Earl Swift

Earl Swift

Earl Swift, 52, an award-winning author and journalist, has written for a living since his teens. His articles have appeared in Parade, The Washington Post, and other publications. His books include Journey on the James, The Tangierman’s Lament, and Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, a 2003 finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award.  Now he has published Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. His bright, fact-filled narrative brings to life the little-known career technocrats behind the 47,000-mile highway system, the challenges they faced, and the tremendous impact of their work on the development of modern America. Swift lives in Norfolk, Va., with his 17-year-old daughter, Saylor, and is engaged to Amy Walton of Virginia Beach.

RWR: In many ways, the interstates seem to have shaped modern America.  What are the major changes they brought?

Swift: Certainly, they afford us a faster, safer way to travel by car. But their effects go far beyond mere movement, to touch virtually every aspect of American life: That you can buy asparagus year-round at the supermarket, or an Angus steak in Manhattan, is testament to the efficiency and speed they’ve lent to interstate commerce. They enable us to live in the quiet and roominess of the suburbs, miles from our jobs, and give companies the means to build factories where land is cheap and labor, abundant. Of course, they’ve ushered a lot of unforeseen problems, too. Those comfortable suburbs are inefficient, and though urban sprawl wasn’t created by the interstates, it certainly was accelerated by them. Thousands of small towns saw their commercial districts wither in favor of the nearest interchange. The highways displaced homes, churches, schools and parks in the cities, split neighborhoods, erased a lot of history. And they’ve encouraged the rise of chain restaurants and motels, while killing off small local businesses. They’ve also changed our perception of time and distance, and our mental maps of the country and its cities.

Interstates extend for 47,000 miles

RWR: There are myths about the interstate highway system: that Dwight D. Eisenhower was the “father” of the highways, and that they were intended mainly for the rapid movement of troops. How did those stories come about?

Swift: For one thing, Ike promoted the myth himself. As a young officer he rode along on a 1919 army truck convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, a journey that took 62 days and saw all sorts of drama and difficulty. At one point, in the desert of western Utah, the trucks bogged down in the salt flats and had to be hauled out by soldiers roped into teams. A quarter-century later, he oversaw the Allied advance on Berlin, and was amazed by the speed that Hitler’s autobahns afforded him. These two experiences, Ike wrote later, opened his eyes to the value of high-speed expressways. He did have these experiences, and no doubt they affected him. But the interstates were a done deal in every particular but their financing by the time Ike reached the White House—and his administration’s proposal for financing was clubbed to death by Congress with great gusto. The troop-movement business was an outgrowth of the system’s name—in the fifties it was known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. That was a canny bit of labeling aimed at winning congressional support for the roads, which were meant to connect military installations and manufacturing centers, but not to move troops.

Faster traveling–and unexpected problems

RWR: Ike comes across as being clueless about highways when he came into office.  How was that possible in 1953?

Swift: Simple: While a bunch of technocrats armed with slide rules were completing the early work on the interstates, Ike was overseas, and a little busy. He said himself that he had no idea the system had been mapped and designed and, in fact, approved by Congress, years before he took office.


RWR: Who were the real “fathers” of the system? They were responsible for the largest public works project in history—how do you account for the fact that most people know nothing about them?

Swift: I think that in general, we know little about the government careerists who make most of the decisions, shoulder most of the work, and take most of the risk in our big public projects. In the case of the interstates, the greatest credit goes to two men: Thomas H. MacDonald, the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads for 34 years, beginning in 1919; and his ideological right hand, Herbert S. Fairbank. They conceived of the system in the late thirties and refined the idea during World War II.

RWR: How did Americans travel long distances before the interstates?

Swift: They went by train for the first half of the century, at which point air travel began to gain an ever-larger piece of the action. Very few people made long trips by car.


RWR: Why was the establishment of the American Association of State Highway Officials in 1914 so important?

Swift: One reason: Because while the feds foot much of the bill for the nation’s important highways, the states actually own and maintain them—an arrangement that AASHO helped create in the teens and twenties. The group (now AASHTO, having added “and Transportation” to its name) also established the design standards for the interstates, with a big technical assist from Washington.

Interstates take you there

RWR: How does the critic Lewis Mumford enter into the story?

Swift: Mumford’s an interesting guy: In the early thirties he beat the drum for “townless highways,” an early conception of the limited-access superhighway; then, over the next quarter-century, he morphed into one of the automobile’s harshest critics, and a leading opponent of urban highways. He was influential in both roles.


RWR: Why was there strong opposition to these highways in the 1960s and 70s?  Have opponents made their peace with the interstates in recent years?

Swift: Most of the opposition was from people who found themselves in the way. Drill a six- or eight- or ten-lane expressway through a densely settled city, and you’re going to meet many such folks. You’ll also meet those who don’t care to trade parks, waterfronts, churches, schools and historic ambiance for a freeway, no matter how useful it might be. The residents of some cities have probably never made peace with their urban interstates; they continue to lament what fell to make way for them. But in a few places—San Francisco, Baltimore and New Orleans come to mind—the freeway threat united chunks of population that hadn’t had much contact, and the fights they waged together are still a source of community pride.

Eastern main street

RWR: The interstate system offers familiar chain restaurants and motels and little of the local flavor of the disparate American communities it runs through. Why did the system turn out this way? Was there ever a chance of a different outcome?

Swift: Well, bear in mind that Howard Johnson’s restaurants were wildly popular along the Eastern Seaboard’s turnpikes years before the first interstates appeared;  Stuckey’s “pecan shoppes” were likewise muscling aside local competition in the South. The interstates didn’t create the chains; travelers have had a longstanding yen for the familiar, the sure thing. But the interstates, thanks to their limited-access character, certainly became attractive to chains: Property values at exits skyrocketed, which discouraged merchants lacking deep pockets. Travelers grew more time-conscious, and thus inclined to patronize places that were fast, and whose menus they already knew. Mom-and-pop outfits didn’t stand a chance.

Superhighways changed the nation’s face

RWR: We hear constantly that there’s little money around to maintain our nation’s infrastructure. What’s the state of the interstates?

Swift: They’re in need of attention. From the start, the system’s builders stressed that it would require obsessive maintenance: Tough as it seems, concrete breaks down over time, especially when you put a quarter of the country’s traffic on 1.2 percent of its highway, as we do with the interstates. We’ve been nowhere near obsessive. How far we’ve fallen short is a state-by-state question; the financial health of the states varies, and the money available for highway maintenance with it. In some, the interstates are in decent shape—not great, but decent; in others, they’re just plain awful. Alongside the maintenance dilemma is the age of the system’s bridges. There are 55,000 of them. Most of them are approaching, or already exceed, their expected service lives. And many carry a lot of traffic.

-Joseph Barbato



Interview: Bruce Watson

Bruce Watson

In the summer of 1964, several hundred white college students—nearly half from Ivy and other top schools—risked their lives by joining with young blacks on a civil rights crusade in Mississippi. Led by Bob Moses, 25, the soft-spoken black field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), they registered black voters and opened schools. “I’ve waited eighty years for you to come,” the gray-haired son of a slave told one volunteer. Bruce Watson recreates the story of that historic summer–including the search for missing volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, whose bodies were later found buried under a dam–in Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, just out in paperback. A 1976 graduate of UC Berkeley, Watson earned a master’s degree in American history at the University of Massachusetts.  He has worked as a factory hand, a journalist, a bartender, an office temp, a Peace Corps volunteer, and an elementary school teacher.  His books include Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, one of the New York Public Library’s “25 Books to Remember in 2005”; and Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and The Judgment of Mankind, which was nominated for an Edgar Award.  Watson writes frequently for Smithsonian and other publications.

RWR: Why is this story important?

Watson: The story of Freedom Summer is vital to understanding the grassroots orientation of the civil rights movement.  Too often, that movement is encapsulated in the heroism of two people — Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.  Not to take anything away from them, but the Movement was so much deeper and broader.  The sit-ins and Freedom Rides, the Birmingham movement, the Selma march in ’65 are often the next level of understanding many arrive at, but Freedom Summer shows us yet another side of the Movement.  It teaches us about SNCC and its incredibly heroic organizers who sought out the toughest territories, who worked not to claim the spotlight but to shine it on ordinary people, and who, at least until 1966, welcomed whites into the movement.  Freedom Summer suggests that we do not need to wait for another MLK or Rosa Parks in order to work for change.

700 students volunteered.

RWR: Who dreamed up Freedom Summer?

Watson: No one is sure who dreamed up the idea but it probably stemmed from [liberal activist] Al Lowenstein’s observations of parallel elections in South Africa.  He returned from that divided country with the idea of bringing Northern students to Mississippi to help with a parallel election SNCC called the Freedom Vote.  That was in the fall of ’63 and opens my book.  From there, the idea grew to bring hundreds of students south the next summer.  Bob Moses threw his support behind the plan and, over strong opposition, SNCC went ahead with it.


RWR: What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?  The biggest surprise?

Watson: The biggest challenge and the biggest surprise both came from the amount of violence in Mississippi that summer.  I had not known of the daily beatings and attacks, and when I read them in the long list carefully compiled by COFO (The Council of Federated Organizations) I was numbed.  It was like reading a police blotter.  Man beaten with bicycle chain.  Volunteer slugged.  Church burned.  Day after day.  The challenge was to present the violence without soft-pedaling it, but at the same time not have the book numb readers.  I managed to group the violence into portions of each chapter while keeping a focus on the hope and courage of the volunteers who were persisting in spite of the danger.


RWR: Where did the money for Freedom Summer come from? Were foundations involved?

Watson: Contributions came from large and small donors.  But although SNCC was skilled at fund-raising, donating to that “radical” group wasn’t something major foundations were likely to do.  The National Council of Churches bankrolled the training in Ohio and took a lot of flak for it.  Harry Belafonte gave fund-raising dinners.  SNCC had a group called the Freedom Singers who toured the country in a beat-up station wagon giving benefit concerts.  SNCC put ads in The New York Times and elsewhere and donations from $1 up came in from all over the country.


RWR: You dedicate the book to the volunteers of that summer. What makes such volunteers special?  What were your impressions of those you interviewed who have now grown old? Are they still idealists?

Watson: Actually, the book is dedicated not just to Freedom Summer teachers and volunteers but to “all the teachers and the volunteers giving of their time, compassion, and spirit.”  My mother was a teacher for 27 years, I taught for 10, and I know how vital and difficult the work is.  Volunteers in general are special because they go beyond our market-driven economy to give of themselves.  Freedom Summer volunteers were still more special because they made that commitment in the face of violence and murder.  I interviewed 50 for the book, including Bob Moses and other SNCC veterans.  All remain idealists, but embattled and wizened idealists, and nearly all are still engaged in some kind of work for social change, whether it’s law, teaching, politics, or writing.


RWR: What is Bob Moses doing now?

Watson: Moses continues to direct The Algebra Project, an inner-city based higher math enrichment program he founded in the 1980s.  It has since spread to a dozen or so cities.  For a long time, Moses went with it, demonstrating his “hands on” curriculum that makes algebra more understandable, and above all, modeling the idea that math matters.  In the 1980s and ’90s, he spent a lot of time back in Mississippi, working with teachers and students.  Now, at 75, he is a professor emeritus at Florida International University in Miami.  But he still goes to many conferences, both on education and on civil rights.

Bob Moses

RWR: How did you first make contact with that summer’s volunteers?  Were all the people involved in the story (law enforcement, etc.) willing to talk?

Watson: Making contact was pretty easy.  I put out a message on the SNCC Listserve, then consulted lists of volunteers on the Civil Rights Veterans website (  I never had anyone say they didn’t want to talk to me, including an 82-year-old sheriff from the 1960s with whom I spoke in Cleveland, MS.


RWR: The stories of four particular volunteers serve as a thread for your book.  Why?  Did you plan from the start to do that?

Watson: When you have a story that has hundreds of characters, it can become baffling and impersonal.  So I decided to focus intermittently on four (at first I was going to do six).  I was very lucky to find the four I did, not just because of their diverse backgrounds and experiences in Mississippi but because all were very patient and cooperative, and three of the four turned out to have letters and journals from that summer.


RWR: Congressman Barney Frank, who was a volunteer that summer, told you: “I am prouder of being there than of anything else in my life.”  How common is that feeling among volunteers when they look back on their lives?

Watson: I think almost all volunteers, especially as they get older, are enormously proud of having stood up for justice against incredible odds.  They may have come away that summer feeling they accomplished little, but they have come to see the long arc of justice that MLK talked about, and take much pride in having been so brave and socially conscious at such a young age.


RWR: The volunteers did not register as many voters as they had hoped. Nor did they unseat Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  So was Freedom Summer a success?

Watson: I think it was a success, as much for the notoriety it brought Mississippi as for any concrete accomplishments.  Because of the three murders that happened on the first day of summer, the media spotlight lit up Mississippi throughout the summer and beyond.  Prior to Freedom Summer, only the most drastic crimes, such as the gunning down of Medgar Evers in ’63, made national news.  I know because I looked on newspaper databases for the murder of Herbert Lee, the murder of Louis Allen, and the starvation tactics against blacks in the Delta, and they were far from front page news.  After Freedom Summer, Mississippi’s violent resistance to civil rights was never again ignored.  It even came out in movies such as “In the Heat of the Night,” and in stereotypes that the state is, alas, still trying to live down long after they no longer apply.

They disappeared the first day.

RWR: You call the summer’s legacy “embattled.”  How so?

Watson: Not everyone in SNCC favored bringing students down, fearing the grassroots aspects of their work there would be swept away by white students taking charge.  To some extent, they were right, and some who opposed the summer still think it would have been better to have “gone the other way,” as one told me.


RWR: You’ve been widely praised for telling this story in a vivid, evenhanded way.  Yet one major reviewer said you make a hero of Bob Moses.  How do you respond to that?

Watson: Guilty, as charged.  First of all, I have no problem with making heroes out of those who deserve it.  We need heroes and history is a better place to find them than sports or Hollywood.  And historical heroes need not be found solely on battlefields or in politics.  Secondly, although many a hero has turned out to have feet of clay, I have never heard the slightest suggestion that Bob Moses has ever been anything less than a genuine American hero.  His soft-spoken, self-effacing style prevents him from being better known, but all Americans should learn of what he and SNCC did.


RWR: Your last three books have been about critical moments for the American left—the 1912 textile strike, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and now Freedom Summer 1964.  Whence your interest in such subjects?  Each story has been told in other books: what do you bring to them as a writer and historian?

Watson: I take exception to the idea that my books are about ”progressive” or “leftist” moments.  I think the moments I have focused on are quintessential American stories.  That they have been neglected by all but the left or progressives says much about who tells history in our society.  I am drawn to them because I’m one of those old-fashioned Americans who took what they taught us about the nation’s ideals quite seriously.  In the 1980s, I spent three and a half years as an expatriate, quite angry at America and what it had become.  I was in the Peace Corps for the latter 2 1/2 of those years and as I prepared to return, I decided to dive into American history to find “a usable past.”   My dive led me to times when our nation’s values have been held up against the prevailing wind by courageous Americans who thought liberty and justice should be, as the saying goes, for all.  These people provided more than just heroism, however.  They made for great stories.

-Joseph Barbato

Interview: Michael M. Greenburg

For 16 years, the “Mad Bomber” terrorized New York City, planting pipe bombs in phone booths, movie houses, train stations, and other public places.  No one knew his identity. He made 33 bombs.  Twenty-two exploded, injuring 15 people.  With his arrest in 1957, tabloid readers learned that the mysterious bomber was a fastidious, middle-aged man with a grudge and a goofy grin.  His name was George Metesky.  He blamed Con Edison, the city’s power company, for a job injury that he believed had led to his developing tuberculosis.  Now, Boston attorney Michael M. Greenburg offers The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City. His book chronicles a massive police investigation that involved the first use of a psychiatrist to construct a criminal profile. Greenburg is a graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law.  He is also the author of Peaches & Daddy, a nonfiction book about a romance between a flamboyant 51-year-old millionaire and a 15-year-old girl that captivated 1920s America.

RWR: How did you first get interested in the Mad Bomber’s story?

Greenburg: The truth is I don’t exactly remember how I found the topic. I’m pretty sure that I stumbled upon the story in a newspaper archive while doing research for my first book, Peaches & Daddy, but there was no moment when I knew that “this is it.” I was intrigued enough that the topic stayed in my mind. Later, I took a closer look.


The first thing I noticed was that the Mad Bomber story was big when it happened. By the mid 1950s the bombings had steadily risen to a crescendo and grabbed headlines in New York and across the country.  It was a precarious time in history with the ever-present reality of nuclear warfare, and this rising homegrown threat further frayed already heightened nerves.  The second thing that struck me was how few people know about the Mad Bomber story today. Most people who lived in New York during that time recall the climate of fear that gripped the city, but by and large, after the passage of time, the story has been largely forgotten. These two elements, combined with the obvious legal ramifications of the story, convinced me that this was a good book idea.


RWR: What was your biggest surprise in writing the book?

Greenburg: That I never received an angry rap at the door with the order, “FBI–open up!!” One of the problems in writing a bomb-related book is the need to acquire at least a modicum of understanding as to the technical nature of the subject matter. I found myself trolling a variety of sinister websites describing bombs and bomb-making. All of a sudden it hit me that maybe this was a good way to get into trouble.  So I decided that it would be a good idea to preempt that FBI visit with a call of my own. I contacted my local police department as well as the Boston office of the FBI just to inform them that I was doing research for a book and to make sure that I wouldn’t be placed on a terrorist “watch list.”  I have to tell you, those were strange phone calls. The long and short of it was that, in each case, I was informed, “Sir you have a first amendment right to view any legal website that you wish.” I really wasn’t particularly comforted by that response, but I never got the rap at the door, so I guess they were okay with what I was doing.


RWR: What was the greatest challenge?  The most fun?

Greenburg: The challenge was to take this mountain of documents and turn it into compelling history. By far the most fun I had in writing the book was speaking to several individuals with firsthand knowledge of the case. I was delighted by how many people were still alive and willing to assist. One afternoon an old New York City bomb squad detective telephoned me and said, “My name is William Schmitt, and you want to talk with me.  I was on the team that arrested the Mad Bomber.” It was like having a treasure dropped into my lap.  It showed that if you poke around a topic long enough, people begin to take notice. I had been in contact with the Detectives Endowment Association and they apparently put out the word among their membership that I was writing this book. Needless to say Detective Schmitt, who was a wonderful and entertaining gentleman – and a genuine New York City hero – provided a great deal of fascinating insight into the Mad Bomber and the methods used to track him.


RWR: How do you explain the fact that Metesky never went “postal”–never went into Con Ed with a gun blazing–but instead planted his explosives in places where innocent people might be hurt?

Greenburg: I would call 16 years of bomb planting as pretty close to “postal” but I get your point.  Metesky never had the objective of indiscriminate injury. His philosophy was simply to draw attention to his cause against Con-Ed. If people were hurt in the pursuit of that objective, he accepted that.  But he later insisted that he worried greatly about hurting innocent people. He purposefully constructed his devices to be small in size though he was capable of creating much larger destructive bombs. He once said that “a man with a hammer can wreck a sixteen-inch naval gun, just by hitting it until it shatters. It takes a while. It’s the same way with bombs. Individually, they couldn’t knock a telephone off the wall. Collectively, they had an effect.”

Michael M. Greenburg

RWR: How did Metesky keep his sisters from finding out what he was up to?  After all, he was making his pipe bombs in the garage of their home.

Greenburg: The garage was not attached to the house and was locked at all times. His sisters worked full time and they just thought he was busy working and inventing things in his little shop. There wasn’t a lot of communication going on in the house. Metesky slept most of the time when his sisters were home and he always kept to himself. They never suspected their brother for a second.


RWR: Malcolm Gladwell has characterized Dr. James A. Brussel’s profiling of Metesky as a “party trick.”  Is it your sense that Brussel’s role was critical to the apprehension of Metesky?

Greenburg: In some respects Gladwell is right. I was careful in the book to include the criticism of Dr. Brussel as well as the acolades. Many of his methods, such as his emphasis on Freudian principles and ethnic preferences, have been abandoned by modern profilers, and Brussel himself noted that much of his approach was based on intuition and hope. The technique of criminal profiling continues to be a controversial subject even today. Brussel’s profile of the Mad Bomber played little if any role in the capture of Metesky. His contribution to the field of profiling and criminology, however, cannot be ignored. Whether by skill or sheer luck Brussel’s Mad Bomber profile was widely accepted as accurate and, accordingly, had the effect of shining the light of awareness on this new crime-fighting tool. Other profilers followed Dr. Brussel, and eventually the technique evolved into what it is today. Brussel is credited by some as the “father of modern criminal profiling.”


RWR: Metesky signed his notes FP, which we later learn meant Fair Play.  Even given his illness, does his use of the mysterious initials strike you as odd?

Greenburg: Not given what we know about Metesky. Along with the characteristic delusions of persecution associated with his paranoia, Metesky also developed an air of narcissistic and intellectual arrogance. He believed himself to be smarter and wittier than the police investigators, and he often snickered at what he viewed as foolish and futile police tactics. And the length of time that he went undetected only served to fuel his feelings of superiority.  I believe that Metesky’s use of “FP” was his way of taunting the authorities. It was exactly what you would expect given his personality disorder.


RWR: What are your own thoughts on Metesky’s competency to stand trial?

Greenburg: The inquiry into Metesky’s competency to stand trial was really quite extraordinary. His crimes occurred in the two separate counties of New York and Kings, and each conducted its own proceedings into competency. Amazingly, the New York County judge concluded that Metesky was competent and ordered him to stand trial, but the Kings County judge ruled otherwise, and because of a reversal in Metesky’s health at the time, the Kings County ruling prevailed. Competency to stand trial is a different psychological and legal threshold than a plea of insanity at trial. To be found competent to stand trial Metesky needed to prove only his ability to understand the nature of the charges against him and to assist his counsel in his defense. I think Kings County got it right. For years to come, Metesky sought to prove his competency–not to gain a trial to prove his innocence, but to obtain a forum to focus the world’s attention on the evils of his nemesis Consolidated Edison Company.


RWR: How did George Metesky and his story affect the 1960s counterculture?

Greenburg: With the advent of groups such as Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies and the Diggers of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, a cultural divide between young and old, left and right, split the country as never before. As these groups searched for identity the idea of George Metesky–one man against the corporate Goliath–filled a curious social affiliation. Metesky’s story began to take on legendary status among some within these groups and many adopted Metesky as the symbolic champion of their cause. “He epitomizes the futility of joining or fighting the system,” observed one member of the Diggers. “We’re all Meteskys. We’re a generation of schizophrenic mutants.” On several occasions members of the group, upon being confronted by authorities, gave their names as “George Metesky.” Abbie Hoffman even authored a book under the pen name “George Metesky.” Hoffman reached out to the institutionalized Metesky in the 1960s, but the socially and politically conservative Mad Bomber had no interest in any such meeting. Metesky’s only cause was his quest to bring Con Ed to justice.


RWR: What, if any, interaction did you have with present-day Con Ed in writing the book?

Greenburg: Early on I attempted to make contact with Con Ed. They refused to provide any assistance. Perhaps they are still embarrassed by the whole affair.  Anyway, some, if not all, of Metesky’s Con Ed employment records are included in the district attorney’s files, which I had access to in writing the book.


RWR: What are you working on now?

Greenburg:  I’ve begun initial research on a very different topic. In 1779 Paul Revere faced a court-martial as a result of his role in the “Penobscot Expedition,” which was a failed attempt by Massachusetts to dislodge the British from the Penobscot peninsula of Maine.  He requested the proceedings to clear his name, and was ultimately acquitted. It’s an intriguing yet forgotten moment in the life of an American icon and needs to be written about.

-Joseph Barbato


Interview: Paul Dickson

Since the 1970s, Paul Dickson has written more than 55 nonfiction books on topics from baseball to slang to Sputnik.  His latest is Baseball Is…, a delightful compendium offering definitions of the game from Edward Abbey, George Carlin, Larry King, and many others.  (My own favorite comes from George Will: “It is said that baseball is only a game.  Yes, and the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”) A Wesleyan graduate, Dickson grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., served in the U.S. Navy, and worked as a reporter at Mc-Graw-Hill Publications.  He has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, Esquire, and Town & Country.  He lives in Garrett Park, Maryland.


RWR You’ve written books on baseball, slang, American history, and other topics.  How do you see yourself?

Dickson As a person who has had a full time career as an independent writer and am still, at 71, making a living at it.  I have done it on my own terms and last received a regular paycheck 40-odd years ago.  I also see myself as someone who loves tour d’ force in that I want to try as many things as I can at least once. I have just finished my first biography and will soon start work on my first children’s book. Also I love to pull off stunts for my own amusement such as seeing how many books I could write with one word titles—Words, Names, Toasts, Slang, Jokes, Chow etc—and conversely how many words I could get into a title which would be accepted by a publisher. The Mature Person’s Guide to Kites, Frisbees, Yo-Yos and Other Childlike Diversions, a book aimed at adults who refuse to put away childish things, is my longest.


RWR How do you juggle working on books on so many different subjects?

Dickson I think this comes with the territory but I have delighted in the determined diversity of what I have chosen to write about. I loved the fact that when a review of my book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the reviewer was taken aback and somewhat appalled that I had written this solid historic narrative but had also written a joke book.


RWR Your latest book is Baseball Is How did that come about?  Which definition do you like best?  Which surprised you?  How would you define the game?

Dickson The idea was simple enough—I have always wanted to do a series of “is” books which define things variously. I am now working on Golf Is … as a follow up. But there is no end to the drill—Love is …, Hell is … “Fishing Is…” which would of course be published on waterproof paper. My favorite was uttered by the immortal Dagwood Bumstead who said to Elmo, “Baseball, my son, is the cornerstone of civilization.” The most surprising came from serious actors of the 20th century like Clarence Darrow (“Baseball is the only perfect pleasure we ever knew”) and Thomas Edison (“Baseball is the greatest of American games. Some say football, but it is my firm belief, and it shall always be, that baseball has no superior… I have not attended very many big games, but I don’t believe you can find a more ardent follower of baseball than myself, as a day seldom passes when I do not read the sporting pages of the newspaper. In this way I keep a close tab on the two major leagues and there was one time when I could name the players of every club in both leagues.”) How would I define the game? It would be a personal one: “Baseball is a great meal ticket.”

RWR Whence your interest in baseball?  Have you played, and were you any good? In its latest edition The Dickson Baseball Dictionary has more than doubled in size.  How do you manage to research a book like that?

Dickson Never could play worth a darn—played a little softball in the Navy but I was truly lousy. But I love the game and have written ten bat and ball books—nine on baseball and one on softball. The 3rd edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary came 25 years after I began work on it and has 10,000 definitions vs. 5,000 in the first. I had hundreds of helpers who worked on the book with me, led by Skip McAfee who edited the book as we worked on it. Skip and I recruited specialists on baseball statistics, baseball origins and other topics. I could have never done it alone. The Wall Street Journal termed it one of the five best baseball books of all time in 2010 which was, above all, testimony to the team Skip and I had assembled. We are now at work on the fourth which may in fact end up in the hands of my sons and grandchildren.

RWR You must have set a record with all the synonyms you gathered in the book Drunk.

Dickson Actually, I did the drunk collection to get into the Guiness Book of World Records. For a time that was a minor obsession, but I did not want to eat a bicycle or push a peanut across Iowa with my nose just for Guiness bragging rights.  So I looked at language. When I saw that the word set—s-e-t—had something like 127 meanings as a noun and verb, I decided to create the largest list of synonyms. I looked at all sorts of things including body parts, but drunk won hands down. I got into the record book with 2,231 terms. More synonyms kept turning up, and there are now just under 3,000 terms in Drunk. The point of the book is not to celebrate a social ill but to underscore the flexibility of the English language.


RWR How do you account for Americans having so many words for the state of intoxication?

Dickson Compared to the British we are pikers. After all, the practice of drunk euphemism goes back to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Also you can be sued in the UK for calling someone drunk so there is a lot of stand-in terminology. If you read in one of the British tabloids that the Bishop left early because he was “tired and exhausted” it means he was drunk. Then there is Cockney rhyming slang. To say someone is Brahams & Lizst is to say they are “really pissed.”


RWR Which books are your personal favorites, and why?

Dickson The immodestly titled Dickson Baseball Dictionary is probably my greatest accomplishment and it will, I hope, still be alive and well long after I’m gone. But my real favorites are the big narratives—The Bonus Army which I co-authored with Thomas B. Allen and Sputnik—and the investigative ones—Think Tanks and the Electronic Battlefield—because they were actually important books that made a contribution to our understanding what was going on. But it is hard to make a living with these books. The Electronic Battlefield was a “snake bite book”—more people were bitten by poisonous snakes in the U.S. the year it came out than bought the book. Not complaining—just explaining.

RWR You’re working now on a biography of baseball legend Bill Veeck. Why him?  What are you finding out?

Dickson The first draft of The Life and Good Times of Bill Veeck—The Man Who Changed Baseball went to my editor a few weeks ago. There were a number of reasons why I picked Bill Veeck, not the least of which was that his was a singular American life begging to be covered in a full-fledged biography. His story allowed me to get into World War II, the struggle for racial equality which he was very much a part of, and the transformation of baseball from mom-and-pop to corporate ownership. I spent close to three years researching this book.  I conducted about 200 interviews and looked at much primary source material, including Veeck’s FBI files. I think there’ll be some fascinating surprises in the book, which will be published in the spring of 2012. Veeck changed the game in many ways ranging from the trivial–he was the first to put players names on the back of their uniforms, he rebuilt Wrigley Field for Phil Wrigley, a job which included planting the ivy–to much bigger things, including the way teams are financed and changes in free agency. His impact on promotion and showmanship affects the game to this day.


RWR What’s coming up?

Dickson A lot of things. The third edition of my War Slang is on the way with a special section on Iraq by Ben Lando, a brave and enterprising reporter who is also a friend. Then the paperback edition of the Dickson Baseball Dictionary comes out in June, in time for Father’s Day. In November my monster book of Official Rules comes out from Dover Publications. This is based on eight earlier collections of aphorisms, maxims, etc. collected by my own personal think tank, The Murphy Center for the Codification of Human and Organizational Law, founded in 1976.  I am also just finishing a book entitled Journalese: A Dictionary for Deciphering the News which I am writing with Bob Skole, an old friend and former boss from the time I was working for a living as a magazine writer. The next big narrative will be about the interstate highway system. It will begin with the march of Coxey’s army on Washington which was a demand for interstate highways before automobiles were a practical reality. It will also focus on President Eisenhower’s belief that a major public works project was the best way to get the country out of its wartime economy.

-Joseph Barbato