'New Yorker' Editor Angell Chronicles a Writing Life Memories, and how to capture them, are a tricky proposition, says The New Yorker's Roger Angell. He talks about the art of writing, what he learned from his stepfather, E.B. White, and his new memoir, Let Me Finish.

'New Yorker' Editor Angell Chronicles a Writing Life

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5408827/5409222" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. Roger Angell would never point this out himself, but he has written for the New Yorker longer than anyone still alive. His first story for the magazine appeared in 1944.

ROGER ANGELL: These are colleagues of mine in the fiction department all eyeing me as we go by. This is all fiction up here.

BLOCK: Roger Angell is 85 now. He walked us around the sleek New Yorker offices, all blond wood and curved lines. His first stories in the magazine were fiction and then what he's best known for, many stories about baseball, stories that hum with both the wonder of a new fan and the wisdom of a long-time observer of the game.

ANGELL: This is our disappearing view.

BLOCK: Roger Angell is a fiction editor at the magazine. He still goes to the office every day on the 20th floor of the Conde Nast Building in Times Square.

ANGELL: That red building there is the old New Yorker Building, the one right there I'm pointing to.

BLOCK: That view will be gone soon. A huge new high-rise is going up next door.

ANGELL: It's a very New York thing that happens. It happens to everybody. You think, ah, now I've got a wonderful view here and in a couple of years somebody comes and builds right next to you and it's gone. It happened to me once, I was working for Holiday Magazine. I was at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, and they built a building right next to it. This came right next to my window, and it was like The Cask of Amontillado--the guy putting in bricks, laying in bricks, and finally he looks through the last brick--he says, well, good-bye and puts it in place.

BLOCK: How fitting that a Roger Angell anecdote sounds like a New Yorker cartoon. Angell has just published a memoir, essays about his childhood in New York, his time as a machine-gun instructor in World War II and mostly about his fractured family. His mother, Katherine White, was a fiction editor who worked at the New Yorker from its earliest days. She divorced Roger's father Ernest Angell to marry writer E.B. White, known as Andy, whom she met at the magazine.

So when Roger Angell joined the New Yorker himself, he says, I went to work at the family store. He has a picture in his mind of his mother at work, glasses down on her nose, cigarette in hand, manuscript in front of her.

ANGELL: The weird thing that happened was that as the years went by, I came to work at the New Yorker and then after while I moved up in status. We moved around and I actually moved into her old office, which is the weirdest thing in the world. It was a nice office on the corner with five windows and a big closet. The second or third day I opened the door in the closet and there is a big mirror there and a box of her ancient Coty face powder left over as if in a museum. I was seeing a shrink at the time and he said, the greatest act of sublimation in my experience.

BLOCK: It's interesting to think of you in that office.

ANGELL: Well if you're looking for an influence on me, the real influence I guess, although I certainly didn't think about it at the time, was that Andy White was the first writer I ever saw writing. This is the thirties, late thirties, he'd be writing the weekly comment page, the editorial page of the New Yorker. He would do this on Mondays and he'd close his study door on me and he'd be in there all morning long and the typewriter would go and then stop. There will be long silences and he would mail it off in the afternoon and he would say it isn't good enough and be very gloomy and very serious. Then when it came out he'd say, well, it's all right.

Writing is hard and his writing as much as anybody's looked effortless and simple and direct. But doing that isn't easy. The reason for that I think is that writing is thinking, basically. There's not much you can do. You get to a patch and just say, oh, I know how to do this part or even that. That doesn't come as easily as that.

BLOCK: You write a lot about your family in this book. About your mother and the divorce. A bitter divorce with your father and then her remarriage to E.B. White. And a lot of this is very personal, very revealing. Did you think about how much you were going to reveal when you decided you would take on a memoir?

ANGELL: That's a good question. These things, these stories did occur to me and in each case I had to wait until the right tone suggested itself. The matter of tone is very important. None of this writing about my family is get- even writing. I'm not anxious to settle any scores. I've worked all this stuff out myself as we all have to. But I think as we get older, all of us have scraps of memory that stay, that are very strong and come up again and again, a little scene, a little moment. You think, why am I thinking this? Why is this there? It's often not something important, but we do for some reason get these little bits, these stories we tell ourselves over and over again and often when you tell them they're in a slightly different form. It is a form of fiction really. I say these true stories, in the introduction, these are true stories but they're stories.

BLOCK: There are times in the book where I get the sense that you're getting frustrated, that memory is stopping at an anecdote. That the anecdote is a shriveled version of what you wish you could remember.

ANGELL: You have to remind the reader that anecdotes are anecdotes. I love to send signals to the reader. I always think about the reader when I'm writing and anecdotes are not a proper way to sum people up because they are too sharp. If it's a strong anecdote then you say oh yeah, that's the way this person was and books that are written entirely in anecdotes are, you should be suspicious of. Of course, I've told a lot of these little stories down the years over and over again, which makes me suspect them.

BLOCK: We've been talking about memory and what you hang onto and what you don't. I was wondering if you could read the beginning of the chapter you wrote about your stepfather, E.B. White. The chapter you call Andy.

ANGELL: Lately I've been missing my stepfather, Andy White, who keeps excusing himself while he steps out of the room to get something from his study or heads out the back kitchen door on the way barn again. He'll be right back. I can hear the sound of that gray door. The steps there lead down into the fragrant connecting woodshed as the lift latch clicks shut.

E.B. White died in 1985, 20 years ago and more. And by missing I don't mean yearning for him so much as not being able to keep hold of him for a bit of conversation or even a tone of voice. In my mind this is at his place in North Brooklyn, Maine, and he's almost still around. I see his plaid button-down shirt and tweed jacket and his good evening moccasins. One hand is holding a cigarette tentatively. He'll smoke it halfway down then stub it out. He turns in his chair to put his martini back on the Swedish side table to his right. It must be about dinnertime.

What were we talking about just now? We were close for almost 60 years and you'd think that a little back and forth, something more than a joke or part of an anecdote would survive. But no. What's impossible to write down soon after is a conversation that comes easily.

BLOCK: I'm struck by what you say in the beginning there of that feeling of not being able to hold on to someone in memory.

ANGELL: Yeah. It's all there, but the conversation is gone. The one downside to all this for me is that since I've written these pieces, these people are farther away than they used to be, because these stories don't come back anymore. Because if you write them it's as if you put them away. Every writer knows this. I've talked to writers who've written about their selves and this happens to everybody. It's as if we're saying that's the way it really was, and of course, that's not true. It's just the version that got into print.

BLOCK: That's interesting. You mean the act of capturing it in print.

ANGELL: It makes it all further away. The story is not quite the same. It's not tragedy; that's just the way things are. I'm glad I've done the book, and I'm glad the stuff is in there. I'm getting very old. If I forget everything I can still know I can read the book.

BLOCK: Roger Angell, his book is titled LET ME FINISH, and you can read an excerpt at our Web site NPR.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.