By Laurel Bruce
It’s a delight to have you teaching two sessions at this years GLVWG Write Stuff Conference. Locals remember you as a features writer for the Allentown Morning Call Newspaper.
How has your work as a features writer influenced your writing?
I’ve learned a hell about nuts, bolts and nutty lightning bolts from more than 30 years of profiling people, examining trends and connecting the topical to the timeless for newspapers, magazines and book publishers. I make sure my sources discuss weaknesses as much as strengths. I start with an arresting line and a surprising, even disarming anecdote. I get to the point quickly so I can tell a story leisurely. I paraphrase dull quotes and clean up messy ones. I find the practical in the transcendental, and the transcendental in the practical. I make words throw sparks and jump through flaming hoops.
Your first book, Down But Not Out in Hollow-Weird, is a biography featuring letters of Eric Knight, a screenwriter in the 1930s and ‘40s and the author of the novel Lassie Come-Home. How did the idea for this book come to you?
While writing for The Morning Call I got to know Eric Knight’s widow, Jere, who lived in the house they bought in 1939 in Pleasant Valley, Bucks County, where Eric wrote parts of Lassie, the book that made the collie a cash dog. In 1988 I gained her trust with a long Call story on the 50th anniversary of the short-story version of “Lassie” that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. She let me roam Eric’s letters to famous folks like Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings and Walt Disney. His missives were magnetic: entertaining, enlightening epistles that tripled as short stories and barometers of his moods. He was especially moody as a screenwriter in the 1930s and ‘40s, crafting and chasing vehicles for Spencer Tracy, Shirley Temple and Frank Capra, who produced “Why We Fight,” a propaganda series that told young American soldiers that they could defeat the Axis forces only by allying with the Allies. Knight’s letters became my map to the studio system and the military machine. They let me to show how a minor character played a major role in two very film-history trenches.
Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write your memoir, The Kingdom of The Kid: Growing Up in the Long Lost Hamptons?
It was in the Hamptons that I found my mojo for architecture, baseball, the beach, drive-in movies, rock ‘n’ roll, sex, writing, breaking class barriers—basically, all my major passions–in six short, super-packed years. I knew that I became the me I had to be from 1967 to 1972 on the South Fork; I just had to find out why. I found out by writing a crazy-assed book: a Boomer tell-all; a biography of the middle class, my clan, on the East End, which is mostly an enclave for the unbelievably wealthy; a bunch of meditations on how a place places a person. I ended up building a bridge to my long-lost childhood and creating a castle between covers for my long-lost friends and their kids.
You are working on a second memoir called Raising Mom. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
It’s all about keeping an aging parent from aging by checking off items from her Bucket List—a meal at the Russian Tea Room, white-water rafting, a brownie laced with marijuana—and her F*** It list, which are the doubts and demons you want to—need to—erase before you check in at the Pearly Gate Hotel & Spa.
How did you go about marketing your books?
I email writers, editors and agents involved in books like mine: fun, funky intellectual beach reads. I Facebook and Tweet readers who dig hybrids–autobiographical biographies that rip the envelope. I’ll do pretty much anything to make you cross my threshold: reference, associate, joke, curse, relocate the middle of nowhere as the center of everything.
I was wondering if you could give us a teaser of what you’ll be covering in “The Craft of Writing Memoir” and “Writing Features Articles.”
In the memoir session I’ll give tips about researching your past (interview your characters, even your enemies), making that past more present (thread the narrative with a pivotal event or person) and dodging land mines (spare us the numbingly boring details about your addictions to emotion-numbing substances). In the feature-writing session I’ll give tips about pitching stories to strangers (tell them what you two have in common), interviewing difficult folks (ask them about their mentors) and finding the personal in the universal (Mariano Rivera, the best relief pitcher in major-league history and a former member of the New York Yankees, the team you love to hate as a Boston Red Sox fan, is the co-owner of your old church, where your mother spied on the Mafia for a vigilante minister and where you got an autograph from Jackie Robinson, whose retired uniform number, 42, was last worn by Mariano Rivera).