DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in today for Terry Gross.
My guest, Pete Hamill, is a veteran journalist and author who's written 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including his 1994 memoir, "A Drinking Life." He's traveled the world and covered war, politics and celebrities for many publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, the Village Voice, the New Yorker and Esquire.
But many New Yorkers remember Hamill as a columnist for the New York Post and the New York Daily News in the heyday of tabloid journalism. Hamill edited both papers in the 1990s. He's now a distinguished writer in residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
A New York tabloid struggling to survive in a digital age serves as part of the setting for his new novel, a murder mystery called "Tabloid City." I spoke with Pete Hamill earlier this week.
Well, Pete Hamill, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with a reading from the book. Your book, "Tabloid City" is in part about a New York City tabloid struggling in the digital age, and there's an editor, Sam Briscoe, and the part I wanted you to read was when he's describing one of the characters, one of the veteran characters in the newsroom, if you would, please.
Mr. PETE HAMILL (Author, "Tabloid City: A Novel"): (Reading) He turns and sees Helen Loomis three empty desks to the right of Fonseca, the youngest reporter. Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown hair. She was shy then too, and what some fools called homely, long-jawed, gray-eyed, bony.
Down at the old Post she sat each night with her back to the river, smoking and typing, taking notes from street reporters and interviewing cops on the phone, her dark pageboy bobbing in a private rhythm. She was flanked by good people, true professionals, but most of them knew that she was the best damned rewrite man any of them would ever know.
Later, the language cops tried to change the title to rewrite person, butt didn't work. The rhythm was wrong. Too many syllables. Even Helen Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man.
In her crisp, quick way, she could write anything in the newspaper, finding the music in the pile of notes from beat reporters, the clips from the morning papers, files from the Associated Press, and yellowing clips from the library.
She was the master of the second-day lede, so essential to an afternoon paper, and she often found it buried in the 13th graph of the Times story, or in the jump of the tale in the Herald-Tribune, or, more often, in her own sense of the story itself.
When her questions were not answered and the reporter had gone home, she made some calls herself, to a cop, a relative, someone in a corner bar she found in the phone company's immense old street index. Her shyness never stopped her, even when she was calling someone at 10 after three in the morning.
She was always courteous, she always apologized for the hour, but she worked for an afternoon newspaper. That is, she worked according to a clock that began ticking at midnight and finished at eight. Now, everything has changed, even the hours.
DAVIES: Pete Hamill, great to have you. When I hear that description - I mean, I worked at a tabloid in Philadelphia for 20 years - there's a woman at our newsroom that I picture.
You know, for a lot of folks in parts of the country that don't read tabloids, that grew up reading a more traditional broadsheet, they may think of tabloids as, you know, cheap, sensational, kind of disreputable. What are they missing about a tabloid?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, it depends on the tabloid. You know, you first make distinctions between supermarket tabloids, which are celebrity roundups, basically, and the old tabloids.
On the paper that I worked at, at the beginning, the New York Post, we had Murray Kempton, who wrote like an 18th-century Restoration dramatist. We had Nora Ephron, who was a brilliant writer when she was a kid, walking into the city room. We had Mary McGrory in the paper. We had William F. Buckley in the paper.
These were not people who thought the audience was stupid. They thought the audience was smart, and they wrote up to the audience instead of down. And I think that's the kind of paper that's rapidly fading, mainly because a lot of editors are afraid of offending anyone, and the result is often a bland kind of porridge.
DAVIES: One of the things I love about your description of this tabloid, which is set in the present day, when, you know, digital media threatened it, are the little details that tell you how the business has changed. Did you visit tabloids that are struggling these days, or was that all intuitive to you? What were some of the details that you saw that really told that story?
Mr. HAMILL: Well, the first thing, which I note in reading about Helen Loomis, the rewrite man, nobody smokes. You're not allowed to. In my day, people smoked all the time. There was a blue nicotine fog in most of the city rooms, and people often put out cigarettes on the floor. That is gone forever, I think.
I also see, because of the digital access, a lot of people used to come into the city room, for example photographers. Photographers know a lot about the city. And you're a fool not to draw on them as a resource if you're writing about the city.
Now they can send their photos in from the trunk of their cars. They don't have to come in and develop film and look at it and watch it develop in the developer. There's a different process going on.
City rooms also are quieter now. They used to have a hammering sound when deadline came, where people assaulting typewriters trying to make the deadline, which is four minutes away, and then they would come to the end, cut-a-buh-bak-it-tuh-baka-da-baka-da-bop(ph), and that would be it. It would go silence. It was too late for anything else.
More often than not, the sound of a city room now is - resembles an insurance company or something.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMILL: It's not that old-raucous, bawdy, yelling-over-somebody, the obscenities, the casual bad language, the urgency of people's speech.
You know, the new technology is not noisy. You don't hear the printing guys now one floor down banging away on lead type on the stone, as they used to call it, to make it fit. But I think the passion is still there. I think people work on newspapers not to get rich, God knows, but because they believe in the craft.
DAVIES: And of course, this newsroom, like so many, has lots of empty desks. You've got a situation where the editor is disappointed in the quality of the photo they have for a big story because they didn't have a photographer, and the reporter snapped a shot with his iPhone.
Mr. HAMILL: Exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: And the other thing I loved was how the editor and a lot of the old-timers in the newsroom don't even look at their own newspaper's website.
Mr. HAMILL: Yes. In the case of my editor, he doesn't even know much. He's gone on it a couple of times with instruction from a different generation and looks at it, goes hmm and then decides - and when he decides not to accept the offer to become the head of the website, when the publisher decides to fold the newspaper, he says: I can't. I'm a newspaper man.
DAVIES: There's a guy in here, Freddy Wheeler(ph), who is a guy who was fired from this tabloid and is now a celebrity blogger, works in his one-bedroom apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, you know, surrounded by his computer screens and caffeine and working with this deep intensity and passion to get even with people who wronged him. Is this somebody you know?
Mr. HAMILL: No, it's really more of a composite of a few people not that I knew particularly but who some of the younger reporters remember. A guy gets canned for - because there's no money left to pay him to write another gossip column, and he goes off into a blog and decides vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord.
There's other people like that around the Web. I mean, a lot of blogs are, on one level, therapy for certain people. A lot of them are very good and instructional from things that I've been cued into by others saying take a look at this.
But journalism itself is a special kind of craft, and it demands objectivity and clarity and the attempt to really answer questions without taking positions on every single one of them, you know, because in my years, I was a columnist.
And I was a columnist in a period of Kempton and Breslin and Mike Royko and others, Jack McKinney and people like that in Philadelphia. And we came from a tradition where we were paid to have opinions, but the opinions were based on the reporting.
We had been there and looked at it, whether it was Vietnam, or Northern Ireland, or the wrong part of town. And we had seen it and talked to people and came up with something.
Now, there's - to me, there's too many columns that are just based on reading The Washington Post that morning and not going anywhere, and they have a different texture. It doesn't mean they're not good, but they have a different sense, a different feel to them.
And I would hope that that would begin to change as this younger generation really goes into a professional Internet, and we have editing, and people get paid. It's not a hobby. And I think that day is rapidly approaching.
DAVIES: Speaking with Pete Hamill. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is veteran journalist, columnist and author Pete Hamill. His new book is called "Tabloid City."
You grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn, the oldest of seven kids, right? Both parents immigrated from Northern Ireland. And you found reading at an early age and got a scholarship to the Regis High School in Manhattan.
And then when you were a teenager, you dropped out and went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice sheet-metal worker, right?
Mr. HAMILL: That's right.
DAVIES: Yeah. What did you think you were going to do with your life then?
Mr. HAMILL: You know, I didn't know. In that neighborhood, a lot of the guys that came back from the war, they just wanted to marry the girl they left behind and go off somewhere that was not a tenement. So they took the housing benefits from the GI Bill.
My generation, the GI Bill changed everything. It was the greatest piece of social legislation ever. So you were able to dream of alternatives. I don't know what I might have been. I might have been a cartoonist or a painter or an archaeologist or a cop or a fireman.
I don't know because I didn't shape a real ambition until I did the dumbest thing of my life, which was dropping out of high school. But dropping out of high school even then, it broke my mother's heart because she knew that the only way out of certain kinds of poverty were - was through education.
But that was also, in a weird way, the thing that gave me my life because I was never satisfied. I had to keep learning every day of my life. Reading helped me to that because I grew up before television, when for entertainment you read books.
So for the rest of my life, I played catch-up ball. Being a journalist was the graduate school from which you never graduate.
But last year, finally, 59 years after dropping out, Regis High School, my high school, gave me an honorary diploma. And it was the - I got it after I had received several honorary Ph.D.s, too, by the way, because the Jesuits are slow at this stuff.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMILL: You know, they believe purgatory should be prolonged.
DAVIES: Right. Regis was a Jesuit high school, right.
Mr. HAMILL: It was a Jesuit high school.
DAVIES: So you took this interesting course. I mean, you drew, and you were interested in art and talked your way into a reporting job at the New York Post. And you got real good at it, and you became a columnist and did all kinds of things.
You were in Europe for the Saturday Evening Post, right?
Mr. HAMILL: Yep.
DAVIES: You wrote about sports, about movies, and you eventually reported from Vietnam. At some point you decided to start writing fiction. You set aside the typewriter and, at least at first, wrote in longhand.
Mr. HAMILL: No, I learned that. I had two tricks to try to get journalism out of my skull. One was the nap.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMILL: The creative uses of the nap are very much underrated. If I would lie down, think about the story I wanted to - the fictional story I wanted to write and passed out, the subconscious would help me make the choices of what I was going to write. So I had energy when I woke up, and I had forgot about the newspaper work that I had done that day.
And at the beginning, when I was writing fiction, too much of the newspaper style was getting into the prose. So I thought: Gee, I should write - maybe let me try writing longhand. Maybe I can tap something that goes back to the point before I could type, which I learned in the Navy.
So that's what I did, and that's what I do now when I'm writing fiction. I'll write five or six pages in longhand on a yellow pad and then take it to the computer and type it out, which gives me a second draft right away. And then if there's momentum from that, it gives me another four or five pages, and on I go.
I couldn't imagine writing a whole novel out in longhand and then handing it to some secretary. That wouldn't be fun.
DAVIES: We learned when you wrote your memoir, "A Drinking Life," in 1994, that you had been drinking pretty heavily and actually had quit, I guess, when you were 37, 38 years old, just decided you were going to stop.
Mr. HAMILL: Right.
DAVIES: You were, by any measure, a very productive writer during your drinking years. What do you think it took away from you?
Mr. HAMILL: It took - I was a very prolific journalist because I could always squeeze enough out of my talent to get a newspaper piece done. What it took away from me was the courage to test the extent of whatever my talent was.
The other thing that drinking did to me was attack one of the absolute necessities of a writer, and that's memory. I'd say: Jeez, I had a great time last night. What fun. I couldn't remember a minute of it. And that was obviously not a good thing for a writer.
There were other reasons, too. I had custody of my two daughters, and I didn't want to be a complete dumbbell in front of them. But from the professional and personal standpoint, a lot of it was about trying to find out what was there as a writer because my ambition was not to be better than Faulkner or Hemingway or anything like that. It was to be the best version of myself that I could conceivably be in the time I had on the planet.
DAVIES: You know, so many people know that they shouldn't drink or should drink less and struggle for years and years and go to AA meetings and fall off the wagon. You took your last drink New Year's Eve 1972, right?
Mr. HAMILL: Right.
DAVIES: Why do you think you were able to just do it?
Mr. HAMILL: I think sobriety became a habit just like anything else, which means that it probably was not something that I had to do. My father was a hard drinker, as "A Drinking Life" talks about, and a lot of my friends were, and I was in the Navy. You know, the idea of an ascetic sailor is pretty ridiculous.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMILL: But - and then I was in the newspaper business, where there was a lot of drinking leftover from Prohibition days. After the first couple of years were over, it never occurred to me again.
I go into bars, and I meet friends there, but they're used to it. It's my weirdness. You see, he has a Diet Coke or something. Well, how the hell can he do that? And of course, there's fewer and fewer saloons that I want to ever go visit anymore, either.
DAVIES: They're not smoking at the tabloids, and Hamill isn't drinking in the bars. What has the world come to?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMILL: Well, I had - and I acknowledge in the book that I had a great, good time in them and that I learned a lot, particularly from older newspaper men, in saloons. But at a certain point, it was the classic point of no return.
When I sobered up, I realized I'd heard the same joke four times that same night, as they raced around the bar. So - and meanwhile, I was much deeper into trying to find out where the writing was going to go, and that became the most important thing in my life.
DAVIES: Well, Pete Hamill, it's been great. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HAMILL: Thank you.
DAVIES: Pete Hamill's new novel is called "Tabloid City." You can read an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.