During your long tenure as a Providence Journal columnist and author, you have explored many topics, won many awards and shone a light on many issues of importance to people in Rhode Island and beyond. We’ll get into this in a moment, but first, tell us about your background.
Well, I grew up in Chicago as one of five sons, which usually prompts the reaction, “Your poor mother.” It was a block of homes on the south side of Chicago, with lots of baseball played in the backyard – my dad told me I could’ve been somebody if I’d stuck with that. Although “Pop” was a city denizen, he bought a working farm three hours west near the Mississippi as a family escape, which I think is why he had sons, to put us to work summers on the hay crew. If the Providence Journal smartens up and kicks me to the curb, I’m hoping I could still get a gig stacking square bales on a flat wagon.
How did growing up in such a vibrant family influence your career goals – and you personally?
We were a newspaper family, getting two or three a day in the time when Chicago had four. My older brother Hugh even got his own subscription to have time to read it before school, and made money by charging me a nickel to read the comics. My dad went into business to pay the bills, but was an aspiring writer, a teaching assistant in college, finishing a history of Hannibal that never got published, and was always the guy behind the microphone at family events, telling stories with humor and skill. And my mom had wanted to be a journalist, being political editor of the University of Chicago Maroon and spending the summer after graduation filing newspaper stories in the morgue – or library – for the Marshall Plan in Paris surrounded by ex-newspaper guys grumpy that they couldn’t swear because a woman had been hired. So all that was in the air around me.
Was your cousin, actor Mandy Patinkin, an influence?
My brothers and most cousins went into business professions, and I did indeed feel some – what’s the word – affirmation maybe, watching Mandy succeed in theater and singing as a model of pursuing the arts. He’s still at it and we chat from time to time about how we’re among a minority of peers still working at age 70 – he’s a month older than I – because we’re lucky to have professions where it’s possible to keep going, and doing what we love. At least I usually love it, but there are days I wake up with nothing to write about and a deadline hours away and I’m, like, “Why God?” But something always comes up and despite the stress beforehand, I feel better afterward having fought my way to writing another column.
When did writing first interest you? And when did you decide to travel the journalism road? Was it while you were a student at Middlebury College?
I mentioned that writing was in the air at home, yet I can’t say that was my aspiration as a younger kid. But one day at age 15, I walked into my high school’s student newspaper office. It was called “The University of Chicago High School,” or U-High, and happened to have one of the best high school papers in the country, and the journalism teacher who ran it, Wayne Brasler, changed my life. He was a larger-than-life guy who did Diana Ross impersonations standing on desks, but he made us feel we were part of something real, putting out a weekly paper, and allowing us to stretch a bit. At one point I spent an afternoon downtown with a homeless man to write a feature, and another time visited Black Panther Party headquarters. We were all inspired by Chicago’s newspaper stars, including legendary columnist Mike Royko, and at Middlebury, I took writing classes where you had to do a daily essay akin to a column. Those were shaping semesters. Summers, I worked on community weekly papers in Chicago doing stories including ride-alongs with cops. I was sold.
Our careers at The Journal ran parallel for more than four decades, and I remember well your columns in the early 1980s – how they made me and so many other readers laugh. Where does this gift for humor come from?
Haha… good question. You know, my older brother was brilliant, reading history books while I read Mad Magazine, so I partly became the family clown for attention. I also remember the columnist hero of mine, Mike Royko, leavening his political columns with humor, and doing other funny personal pieces, like pointing out that most kids who become Cubs fans get that from their fathers, which is a form of child abuse. At the Journal, as a lowly bureau reporter covering things like the Seekonk septic truck drivers’ strike, I always tried to do first-person features, including posing in a male body building contest despite having a mediocre frame to a point where a woman in the audience, noting the tag on my assigned Speedos, yelled out, “Number 9, flex your pecs.” Unfortunately, I thought I was. But our executive editor Chuck Hauser noticed such stories and whether I deserved it or not, gave me a shot at writing a column, four times a week, and my God, there were so many times I thought I was failing, but a previous legendary Journal columnist named John Hanlon kept telling me, “If you think you wrote a dud, just make your comeback tomorrow.” That got me through and still does.
Of course, your writing was – and is — not all funny. In the 1980s, you began to travel on assignment overseas to parts of the world where conflict, famine and other harsh conditions faced residents. What were some of the places you went to and what did you find?
Those were the most memorable parts of my career, doing foreign journalistic trips, and a testament to the Providence Journal for sending me. Chuck, the editor, once asked if I had any dreams as a columnist, and I said, well, there’s now a famine in Africa, but I know columnists don’t do that. He just listened, and the next day an editor shocked me by saying, “Chuck wants you to go to Africa.” And I did, to five countries over five weeks. Later, I spent two months abroad for the Journal writing about religious violence in places like Belfast and Beirut, and in 1989, raced to Berlin as the wall began to crack open, and then traveled through East Europe chronicling the collapse of communism, including getting arrested by the secret police in Romania, then like North Korea, for trying to interview a dissident. They grilled me for two hours and expelled me from the country, but a part of me wished they’d roughed me up a little bit – God forbid not a lot – because it would’ve been an even better story. I’m telling you – journalists sometimes are nuts.
Your African coverage made you a finalist for the 1987 Pulitzer prize in International reporting. Tell us about that honor.
Well, if you want my really honest reaction, I’m still mad at the Los Angeles Times because they got the actual Pulitzer that year. My finalist nod was for the religious violence series, which I look back on as an almost too risky undertaking. That was when westerners were being kidnapped by Hezbollah in Beirut, where I went. I snuck across the “Green Line” to the Muslim side during wartime when the city was strictly divided and only a handful of westerners were over there. I’d lined up a journalist’s driver there named Mehdi, who I still believe saved me from kidnapping, once when a car stopped in front of us on a narrow street and four men got out and turned our way, and before I knew it, Mehdi slammed into reverse and sped backwards. Another time as we left a building after an interview he shoved me into his car as a number of other men began to walk quickly toward us, and Mehdi sped away again. Then the U.S. bombed Libya and all westerners there realized we’d be targets so it was time to get out. That night at our hotel, I had dinner with a British Sky News reporter named John McCarthy, same age as me, both of us engaged to be married. He said he was leaving in the morning through the airport. I told him my driver was going to sneak me by car through back roads across the Green Line to the Christian side, where I’d take a ferry to Cyprus and then a plane to Israel, and John should too, since the route to the airport went through Hezbollah neighborhoods. John told me the airport would be fine, he would be accompanied by bodyguards. He was kidnapped the next day and held for five years.
And tell us about some of your other awards and honors. Don’t be shy!
Well, I got second place in high school for a photo for arts week. And a number of other columnist and feature-writing awards over the years, which, big or small, are always a welcome affirmation. You hope you still have your fastball.
Fast forward to today. What topics and people appeal to you most?
There have been phases in my career I think I could have done better, including periods when I lost my legs and grew opinions. Many columnists are paid to do armchair commentary, and so am I to some extent, but I think a journalist’s best work often involves getting out there, doing reporting, taking people to where they haven’t been. I remember the Journal’s great sports columnist Bill Reynolds once said the best stories are in the loser’s locker room. In my opinion, one of the best columns ever was written by Jimmy Breslin after the Kennedy assassination. His focus – the otherwise anonymous working guy who was assigned to dig Kennedy’s grave. But more generally, I feel that whatever the topic, my role is to bring a voice to an article, and compelling writing. You know, instead of starting a story with, “The mayor and city council have finally agreed on a budget,” my lead would be, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I mean, hopefully not that lame, but you get the picture.
In addition to your columns, you have written several books. Give us an overview of them.
Well, I haven’t written nearly as many as the legendary force behind Ocean State Stories named G. Wayne Miller – the guy who’s asking me these questions in this Q & A. I’ll never understand how you, Wayne, continued on as one of the country’s best health and mental health writers while doing a book a year. Amazing. My first book was about my famine coverage trip – called “An African Journey.” Then I did a collaboration with Ira Magaziner where we went around the world profiling the world’s best companies, and how national policies help each compete. Then I did a pair of Rhode Island humor books with cartoonist Don Bousquet, including The Rhode Island Dictionary. That darn thing probably sold more than my national books. I also set out to do a column on a little boy who lost two legs to bacterial meningitis but went on to play ice hockey. I quickly decided that column should be a longer Sunday magazine story. Then, hmm, better to make it a 6-part series. And finally a book.
Dante is an inspiration to me, a beautiful storyteller who did a wonderful job on this. We had parallel projects because I was also writing a book – just finished – on my cancer journey. Dante was drawn to the subject from a newspaper series I did, and brought to the film a similar focus, interviewing the doctors involved, as well as my kids. Now that was eye-opening. It showed me you often don’t know what your own family is thinking. When I read the transcripts of Dante’s interviews, it was the first time I realized what my own kids truly went through during my cancer challenge. They’d tried to put on a strong front for me, but were more devastated than I realized, in part because at the time I was the only present parent in their lives. And Dante’s interviews with them showed me that more than what they had told me.
Where can people watch it?
The movie will have a screening on Tuesday, June 20th at 7 p.m. at the La Salle Academy Arts Center. After that, as I’m learning, documentaries are only shown on occasion, at events like film festivals, as the filmmaker tries to find folks or TV channels interested in buying and distributing it.
What advice do you have for beginning – and established — writers?
Well, I think that up to a point, like singing or painting, the best writers have a natural talent for it, though that’s not enough. So for beginning writers, I’d say it’s akin to, oh, playing the piano or tennis – the more you practice the better. And it’s best to practice not just in your personal journal, but for publications so you know you have to meet standards, and serve readers, and today, there are countless venues for that online, so seek them out. For established writers, I think I could learn far more from them than they from me. But one rule that helps me is knowing readers are looking to stop reading at every paragraph, so our job is not to assume they’ll hang with us, but to keep reeling them along. And as mentioned early, I do feel the best writing has a voice, or style – and I’ve long thought that the most compelling style is narrative. I mean, I hope I never actually begin something with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it’s good to bring a subject alive through anecdote and scenes rather than just general description. In that vein, I’ve always thought there’s a single best question to ask, maybe more than once, when doing interviews: “Tell me about it.” I guess that’s what I just did here, and it as honor being part of this pioneering Ocean State Stories journalistic venture.