Journalist Pete Hamill Reflects on His Life, Craft, and the Digital Age
Writer’s papers housed at Gotlieb| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson
“What I tell the kids is, the technology is wonderful,” says Pete Hamill, Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU. “But the piano didn’t write the music; Mozart did. It’s what’s in your brain, your knowledge, your ability to look at the world.” Photo by Brian Hamill
In a city that once kept time by the rumble of the presses, Pete Hamill, journalist, novelist, essayist, editor, screenwriter, is the New York embodiment of the post–World War II explosion in print journalism now succumbing to the digital blitz. Hamill reflected on his life and career recently at BU, hosted by the Friends of the Libraries at Boston University.
An omnivorous generalist and champion of the “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” school of reporting, Hamill is a former columnist and editor of both the New York Post, which he joined in 1960, and New York’s Daily News, with a byline that surfaces from The New Yorker to Playboy to Rolling Stone. His books range from blustery, Runyon-esque novels (the latest is Tabloid City) to evocative, lyrical works such as the autobiographical novella The Gift and the best-selling A Drinking Life and Downtown: My Manhattan, as well as meditations on Frank Sinatra and Diego Rivera.
Hamill, whose papers reside at BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, is the winner of numerous awards, including the 2005 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, where he likes to remind students that in spite of finding themselves in the new age of online journalism and Google, “the piano doesn’t write the music.”
Hamill spoke with Bostonia recently about the state of his craft, memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers and smoke-veiled city rooms, and why reports of the death of journalism are exaggerated.
Bostonia: What’s happening to journalism?
Hamill: I’m a Distinguished Writer in Residence at NYU—my old tabloid friends laugh at the Distinguished—and I go from class to class and talk about the importance of craft, and I’m very impressed with the students. It’s a cliché, but they teach the professors as much as the professors teach them. Because of them and the passion they have, and the way they want to be good at this craft, I’m relieved of the feeling I got after watching The Social Network movie that this is the most despicable group of young people in the history of the United States—it’s all me me me and my money. I see none of that; they want to do something meaningful in their lives.
I’m encouraged too because I’ve learned more about the new media, and the internet form of journalism is professionalizing. There’s Global Post, where they have editors and they pay; this can’t be a hobby. We’re not there yet, but the rapidity of it means we’ll be there fairly soon. At least there will be work. It won’t be the kind of work I did when when I got started in 1960, chasing murders at two in the morning, but I do think the hyper-local concept is going to attract another kind of an audience. So if it stays at the pace it is now, which is pretty fast—the New York Times gets more hits on its website than it sells papers—I think they’ll coexist the way stick shift cars and automatic transmissions did for a long time.
Will online journalism eventually be able to separate reliable reporting from all the crap?
It has to. If the standards are high, and if there are editors, which means someone is saying, where did you get this? The point is not to be first, but to be right. What I tell the kids is, the technology is wonderful, it’s unbelievable; I’m go over pieces I wrote in Vietnam, and remember how sometimes I had to take a feature out to an airport, find someone to fly it to San Francisco and then mail it. But the piano didn’t write the music; Mozart did. It’s what’s in your brain, your knowledge, your ability to look at the world.
Are you among the last of the great generalists?
I don’t know about the great part. I think that if a smart editor running some of the new sites understands the value of generalists—that someone covering politics can learn something by covering Dizzy Gillespie or covering sports from time to time and getting a better sense of what the country and the world are all about—then the generalist is the best kind of hire to make.
There are a lot of specialist sites—Politico, TMZ. If you want to cover celebrities, God help you, you lose all faith in the human race. I urge my students to be generalists. It may be that the first job they get is because they know about baseball or moviemaking, but it’s important to keep widening it. When you enter journalism you’re talking about a 50-year commitment. It’s possible that you could be a good novelist at the same time or write screenplays at the same time without surrendering the journalism—that both could feed each other.
How is writing fiction different for you than reporting and other nonfiction?
I love writing fiction. I’m halfway through a novel right now. But I live in the real world. I never wanted to retreat into a Proustian palace and seal off the world. That’s not for me, which is not to say it isn’t for other writers. In journalism, an editor at the New York Post said to me when I was very young, “If you want it to be true, it probably isn’t.” In fiction you can write the stories that you hear and can’t use. For example, if I went to cover a murder and everything stalled for a while, the cops were inside looking at the body and wondering why the socks don’t match, I’d always wander into a bar and ask around, “Did you know these guys?” then someone would say, “I heard this and that.” Well you can’t use that just because the guy heard something. But in fiction you can. “What if” are the two most important words. I read a few biographies of Hitler, and there’s a missing eight months in his life. I thought, hmm, maybe he came to New York…fell in love with a Jewish girl who jilted him…but I thought, I can’t do this, I can’t live with Hitler for a few years.
What living writers do you like to read?
Dexter Filkins, Carl Hiaasen, his novels. I like Clyde Haberman, Jim Dwyer, I always read my brother Denis in the New York Daily News. There are people around who are amazingly good; I love Gail Collins’ columns. I always read Sy Hersh. I read David Remnick because he’s a very good reporter in addition to being a very good editor. But I can’t spend the day trolling. I’ve got to write.
What do you feel nostalgic for?
Well I live in the capital of nostalgia, New York. There are two reasons: the rapidity of change, and the fact that so many immigrants made this their home. There was always an ache in some of them; even though they were driven out by bigotry, unemployment, and lack of freedom, home is the place where they were five years old running in the grass. I wish I could go to Brooklyn and walk into Ebbets Field. I wish I could meet a girl in a polo coat waiting to go out with me at Penn Station. I wish I could go back to streets where not a single cell phone is plugged into the ear of anybody…or walk in to the city room, roll some paper into a typewriter, light up a cigarette, and start to write. I think city rooms in particular in this craft were so important because you learned from everybody else. Do I miss that? Sure. Is it coming back? Never.
How do you feel about the racial and class divides in America today? Is the picture improving?
In spite of what’s going on because of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, I think things have gotten much better. I lived in the worst times. I remember when Jackie Robinson came to Ebbets Field, and in Brooklyn the grownups were the ones who said, hey, if he can hit the ball, let him play—anything to beat the Yankees.
And then slowly, gradually, there was the knowledge of what was happening in the rest of the country and in the South; particularly when I went in the Navy, I was able to see it. I was stationed in Pensacola, not far from the border with Alabama, where the Klan was an active part of political, social, and racial life then. I think it’s gotten infinitely better. The South has hundreds of black mayors, black officials, integrated police forces. The Martin thing in Sanford is proof it will come up, but it’s also obscuring some of the real problem, which is that 96 percent of black kids killed in New York City are killed by other blacks—what is that about? What happens?
What about the state of politics?
The politics are so nasty and divisive, it makes me uneasy to say the least. There’s the rise of cable television, where people don’t have to read a newspaper to think they’re informed. If what you see on TV is all you know about a subject, you’re in trouble.
I come from a reasonably optimistic generation. I was 10 when World War II ended, and there was an amazing upsurge in optimism. Also, due to the G.I. Bill, the son of a Jewish cab driver or an Irish factory worker could go to the university too, and they changed this country.
I hope this negative sneering, in some cases, vulgar stupidity, is not what we are. I think common sense is what will prevail.
Your brothers are writers, Denis a novelist and Daily News columnist and John a former newspaperman. What was it about your family that produced three successful writers?
I think the larger question is, what is it in the Irish that produces writers? Part of it was the weather; you couldn’t go out and kick a football so you read books. I grew up before television, so I read for entertainment—dumb stuff, comic books, Bomba the Jungle Boy and the Giant Cataract, the first book I ever read through—but also Robert Louis Stevenson and The Count of Monte Cristo. We lived four blocks from the library, put there by my favorite rich guy, Andrew Carnegie, and my mother got me a card when I was six.
My father didn’t finish high school and was a typical Belfast male. Seamus Heaney wrote about the attitude: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” He was not particularly articulate. He did read, but he was mostly too tired; he worked in a factory making fluorescent lights, which I’ve hated ever since, because we got them for free and they turned all of us blue when we were eating dinner. But he put food on the table. My mother was a reader and she had finished high school in Ireland, an amazing accomplishment because most women were thrown into the linen mills at 14. She lived to be 87. We put a privately printed book out about her last year, which would’ve been her 100th birthday. She arrived at Ellis Island, with perfect Irish timing, the same day the stock market crashed. She got a job at Wannamaker’s department store, which she had to leave in ’32, and then she became a domestic, taking care of a baby for a well-to do Brooklyn family who never forgot her. When I was 10 a Christmas gift came from that family, the collected works of Mark Twain, and we all read it. I was the first one to read it, and it came down to each of my brothers—there were seven of us. I was the oldest, and each one left unbelievably awful marks on these poor books, but they were used. It was an age when books meant something, and I hope that books will remain something. The principles of writing something well are not different now than they were for Flaubert. It’s still a craft that can be learned, and may be turned into art.