Dec 16, 2009 Herm Card Uncategorized
Pete Hamill received his first byline as a reporter for the New York Post in 1960. The story was about a Brooklyn man whose family had been evicted after he lost his job.
“I went there with a photographer and interviewed him. I could see the humiliation in the eyes of his kids. I wrote the story and got a byline, but what was important was that the readers did what had to be done. They offered him jobs, places to live, clothes for his kids, food for his family. It proved that words are magic.”
And so he has believed throughout his almost 50 year career as a professional journalist and through his nearly lifelong love of libraries that words are indeed magical.
“I think the idea that words are magic might have come from Captain Marvel — where a guy like Billy Batson (ironically, a news reporter) could change into a superhero by saying ‘shazam,'” Hamill said.
The Friends of the Central Library couldn’t have made a better choice for their Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series speaker on Dec. 9 than Hamill, a true friend to libraries.
Calling Andrew Carnegie “my favorite millionaire because he built 1600 libraries,” Hamill devoted much of his hour-long talk to the influence libraries have had on his career as a writer.
Introduced by Sean Kirst, an award-winning columnist of no small stature himself, Hamill avoided references to his own achievements, concentrating on the influences in his life that brought that success about.
Life began in Brooklyn
Hamill, born in 1935, is the oldest of seven children of parents who emigrated to Brooklyn from Belfast, Northern Ireland. “My mother first took me to a library. My first favorite stories were about Babar. Imagine, an elephant in a green suit,” he said.
“The key to my life was libraries. They are temples of human wisdom; they hold the story of human folly with all its endless variations; they tell of kindness, they tell of human cruelty — there are many more sinners than saints — I couldn’t get enough of it.”
“My father was not a reader — my mother was. To help him become an American citizen, she read the constitution to him over and over as if it were a prayer. She would read it and he would repeat it. He didn’t really become an American until he got baseball and he became a reader when he discovered that newspapers wrote about the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
Hamill became fascinated with the power of words around 1943 when a teacher had Hamill’s class copy war maps from the newspaper and then read about what was happening in the places on the maps. “We read the stories and made pictures in our head. We listened to the radio and did the same thing. Words made me see these places and the men who were there.”
A drop out”I dropped out of school at 16, which was the dumbest and the smartest thing I ever did. I went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a fellow worker who knew my father told me to get out of there and join the service — and I did. I got my GED in the Navy. I dreamed of being sent to exotic places all over the world.”
The Navy sent him to Pensacola, Florida. In Pensacola, a town “with 1000 churches and two bookstores,” he rediscovered the library. “Whoever put together the base library was a genius. Books were life changing for me — they showed me the possibilities of life.”
He used the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which he calls “the greatest piece of social legislation in history,” to attend Mexico City College in 1956-1957, where he studied painting and writing. “The G.I. bill said to people — you can have it, go and get it. And I did.”
His writing life
Indeed he did. According to his biography, he has been a columnist for the New York Post, the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine and Esquire. He has served as editor-in-chief of both the Post and the Daily News.
He has covered wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland, and has lived for extended periods in Mexico City, Dublin, Barcelona, San Juan and Rome. He has covered murders, fires, World Series, championship fights and the social upheaval of the 1960s.
He has written movie and television scripts, published nine novels and two collections of short stories. He published two collections of his journalism (Irrational Ravings and Piecework), an extended essay on journalism called News Is A Verb, a book about the relationship of tools to art, a biographical essay called Why Sinatra Matters, dealing with the music of the late singer and the social forces that made his work unique. His 1997 novel, Snow in August, was on the New York Times best-seller list for four months. His memoir, A Drinking Life, was on the Times list for 13 weeks. He has received countless awards for his work, and is currently working on another novel. He is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University and is writing a new novel. He is married to Japanese journalist, Fukiko Aoki.
“I’m 74. I’ve been reading a lot of the books I ‘thought’ I read when I was younger. I realize now that I read a totally different book. The life in between readings has given me a whole new outlook. Now, I think Don Quixote was the smart one. I say that if he thinks those windmills are giants, then they are. I read Dante’s Inferno and picture John Gotti sitting behind Dante giving him advice on who he should be putting in Hell.”
His take on today’s journalism and the importance of reading
Hamill spent the last 10 minutes of his talk discussing his profession and the state of journalism today.
“Journalism is like a graduate school that you can’t graduate from. There is too much to learn. It can’t be a hobby; it can’t be therapy,” he said.
He noted that despite its popularity, the Internet can’t adequately replace the newspaper unless it becomes professional in nature, rather than a freestyle blog centered operation.
And, instead of bemoaning the state of newspapers today, he analyzed the situation realistically.
“Foreign news is vanishing from most of our newspapers. The (worsening) economy is partly to blame. We will have to see what happens. If it’s prolonged, a lot of newspapers will disappear. If we recover, newspapers will recover. Reading is necessary to learn about the human condition. If we don’t read about things like that, we are going to be a dumbed-down nation. People that read will rule the people that don’t.
“We need books. Passion for reading is important because reading is active — making pictures from words exercises the brain. — it creates realities — the laughter and tears that make you feel more human — that is the magic.”
On a personal note: Herm Card works with Hamill’s magic
About 15 years ago, Hamill spoke at the New York State English Council Conference. In speaking of his coverage of the conflict in Nicaragua, talking about how nothing much happened during daylight hours, he used the phrase “There’s a lot of down time in a revolution.”
I’ve been trying to write a poem using that line ever since, and have failed on a regular basis. This may validate his statement that words are magic — I’ve written a lot of poems because I sat down and tried to weave those words of his into something poetic — maybe words are magic AND a catalyst, too.
The next writer in the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series is Richard Russo on Tuesday, March 16, 2010.