tv Terry Mc Donell Discusses The Accidental Life CSPAN February 18, 2017 11:20am-12:20pm EST
and right in the middle of his crying, cathartic moment, one of the other guys walks up to him and says, oh, awesome breakthrough, high-five, dude. and he's right in the middle of this cry. and the guy's like, oh, high-five be, dude. [laughter] i feel like sometimes vets coming back from war, they're in that zien, you know? -- zone, you know? and sometimes someone comes up to you it's like, high-five, dude. you really don't know what's going on inside me, and you don't realize what you're thanking me for. especially when you first come back, you're in that zone, and it can feel just like, oh, high-five, dude. >> yeah, yeah, yeah. >> you can watch this and other programs online at booktv.org. >> and booktv's live coverage of the saw van that book festival now continues. up next, author terry mcdonnell talking about his life as an editor. "the accidental life" is the name of the book. this is live coverage on booktv.
[inaudible conversations] >> good morning. we have a few coming in the back. there we go. my name is linda, and we are delighted to have you participate in the tenth annual savannah be book festival presented by georgia power and the sheehan family foundation. we are blessed to host such celebrated authors in the trinity united methodist church today which has been made possible by the generous -- generosity of kurt and linda anderson. we'd like to extend a special thanks to our literatety members
and individual donors who have made and continue to make saturday's free festival events possible. before we get started, there's always housekeeping. immediately following the presentation, terry mcdonnell will be signing festival-purchased copies of his book in the square. we have a new policy this year. if you're planning to stay for the next author presentation, please move forward into the venue so that the ushers can count the number of seats available for people coming in for it. please, please take a moment to turn off your cell phones, and we also ask that you do not use flash photography. and for the question-and-answer portion of today's session, it's a little bit different than it's been in years past. please raise your hands, and an usher will bring a microphone to
you. terry mcdonnell is with us today courtesy of robert and diane levy and bill and nina wheel. terry mcdonnell has won numerous awards for his editorial work at various magazines and web sites. he also is a novelist and poet and has written and produced for film and television. in 2012 he was inducted into the american society of magazine editors' hall of fame. he is president of the board of the paris review foundation and serves on the board of overseers of the columbia journalism review are. dwight barner, of "the new york times," says that he quote: writes winningly about his regrets and evokes the magazine world's heyday of lavish offices, drink carts in the evening and expense accounts he donism.
mcdonnell's "the accidental life" is a savvy fact from a dean of the old school. also he won an amazon best book award in 2016. please give a warm savannah, old school welcome to terry mcdonnell. [applause] [laughter] >> thank you. this is my first book festival, so -- [laughter] but i can't imagine a better place to be right now in this beautiful, beautiful church in this fine, fine city. my book is about writers and their work and working with them. it's an editor's notes on writing and writers, as it says in the subhead. but when i'm honest about this
book, i say that out of a kind of vanity, i wanted to show myself as a writer. and i thought the best way to do that would be to write about the great writers that i edited and what i learned editing them. not just about writing, but about the writing life. things like how jim salter never talked about being a fighter pilot, but he loved to play touch football, and he kept meticulous records of these meaningless football games, these meaningless pick-up games which made the games a lot more fun, of course. and and and how he and peter matheson would dive into the freezing surf on the first day of november every year and have ice martinis on the beach with their wives. [laughter] i have about how jim harrison used to hang up on me when we
were working on the phone over editing moves i'd made, hang up relentlessly on me. [laughter] but how mostly we talked about what he was going to make for dinner, or he would brag about the last 12-course meal he'd had with mario batali who was a great admirer of his. i read about working with p.j. o'rourke which was like going over anthropology field notes, his reporting was so intry candidate and -- intry candidate. and richard price would riff like lenny bruce when he was pitching movies or tv shows like we sometimes did together. but in the end, it was all practice for his novels. tom aguayne used to call it having a long reach which in his case meant being nominated for a national book award in fiction
the same year he won the team roping at the small rodeo in gardner, montana. so the book is full of stories like that, but there are also interstitial chapters that are about the tricks of editing. editing is about ideas, of course, but it's mechanical as well, and you have to get under the hood, so to speak, if you're making magazines as we used to say or web sites or swim suit issues as i did for ten years. and the things that you learn this those exercises -- in those exercises, like if you can rewrite headlines on deadline, if you can get good at that, it's a kick like those loony tune characters who produce a stick of dynamite from behind their back. there's nothing more fun than that. one tool that i used in the book is i left at the top of each
chapter, i left a word count so you know how many words are in that chapter. [laughter] i did this because when i was an editor, i always wanted to know how much i was going to read. this was, this allowed me to judge the pacing of the piece or the lack of pacing, and it helped me evaluate, you know, how the piece moved. i'm told by people who have read the book that they like it that i put those there for their own reasons, but i would add right now that in the spirit of transparency, i'm going to speak for probably another 22 minutes. [laughter] all right. but back to the writers. they found out that i edited this way, it spooked them a little. because they were all very attuned to length, even if they weren't being paid by the word which some of them, of course, were. at all the magazines that i
edited -- there were 13 of them -- rolling stone,'s squire, sports ill streeted, outside "newsweek," feature stories were assigned at a very specific length, usually 4,000 words. and almost every writer would come in over 5,000 words and say they were at four. [laughter] a few others would come in under three and say the same thing. [laughter] it was always mysterious to me why being direct about the number of words they were filing was so difficult. but in the end, i'm sure it had more to do with alchemy than with a lack of discipline. you'll remember that before microsoft word, stopping to count your words if you were a writer could be very refreshing. it was like stopping to make a cup of tea or perhaps smoke a cigarette. now doing a word count can have,
like, a slot machine kick to it if you have the discipline not to do that every time you hit save. s this is meaningless to me now because i work in google docs, but i think you all know what i'm talking about there. the point though is that none of this matters if the piece is good. and that's determined by voice is and narrative. never by length. going long is always more ambitious and usually more fun. this was true of lengthy pieces before they became creative nonfiction or narrative journalism, and it is true now that we finally debunked the simple-minded web notion that no one will screen read thinking longer than a news capsule. but nobody wanted to go short anyway, and neither do i. but i also know that the best pieces seem to find their own lengths, and that's thal can
keymy -- the alchemy. and i wrote about that alchemy from many, many different angles in this book. for example, writing for money, heart. now offers a class in journalism which is brilliant. anyway, that is the timeline, the arc of my career and the arc of the book too. but at its heart, this book is really about writers who became
friends. some of the dead, so it is about that too. i am speaking about matheson and harrison and david carr and most especially hunter thompson and george plimpton who shared an unlikely but indelible friendship when i was editing. to edit them well, it has to be as interesting to them as they were to me. that is how hunter and george both work whether it is with the hell's angels or detroit lions or politicians or circus midgets and whoever they are writing about which hunter on the other
hand wrote hilarious letters to the biggest substances, mohammed ali, it is very obvious and paying hunter more money, interesting to him. george having to do with a good audience. it was dusk and jordan driver driving a ranch road in new mexico, they were on the track of the elusive burrowing owl. they went about this in a deeply civilized way, and the after dinner expedition, it was always a little water. we had seen no burrowing owls but george pointeded out a bath
or two when he set his drink on the ground, pulled his wife's t-shirt over his head, flung it in the air. he shouted, explaining the name of the bats as the shirt, peaking 20 feet through half a dozen or 20 bats and they tracked it to the ground like dive bombers that they are squeaking their little bat squeaks and the second throw doubled the number of bats and so on until i lost count and my life was almost gone. the trick, george explained with his t-shirt over his head, was to give these bats something floating on their sonar's food, like a gargantuan mark, he said,
it was predictable of george to pool something like that expertise out of nowhere because it wasn't out of nowhere at all. when george was 14 he had spent his summer hunting bats in california, sierra nevada and donating the specimen skins to museums. this was a kind of summer job that you had if you were george plimpton. listening to his stories of life as a teenage that hunter was like listening to the adventures of a young prince but it wasn't his privilege that struck you. it was his curiosity. his questions were like trampolines, technology he admired, by the way. they bounced you hire to the next question. this was particularly true when he was talking about writers and
writing. did you know the great camus played golf for the football club which he passed near 77th street where he lived. i said i was unaware. was never moved to write about it. imagine the existential goalkeeper. glass. he gave me a look. to be or not to be was never a question for george. what to do next was the question although existential imaginings were at the heart of all his magazines. he would develop an idea or ideas. how to put himself into the action. i asked if he would consider becoming a holy.
he had but have already written about guarding the hockey net for the boston bruins. so, i said, are you going to write a memoir? i was bating him a little. i knew several publishers were interested. i don't want to write about my life, he said, but that is what you do now, i said. well, shouldn't that be enough? that memoir came up all the time. people were asking when he was going to write it and just thinking about it darkened. it smacked of vanity and if he did it for money, so be it, not yet. the lure the was the george knew everybody. any list would be incomplete. sinatra, late-night drinking, hugh hefner, offered george the
editorship of playboy numerous times, jacqueline kennedy, brothers that george had dated, warren beatty would call. scream into the phone is this a man who has never tasted an olive. warren, is that you? a small inside joke, no one ever knew what it was about. no matter who you were, if you were with george or at the same party, his manners pulled you in and made you feel comfortable, maybe even in on some of the secrets and he had a way of bowing his head slightly when he shook hands when he met you which was subtle but very flattering. this happened all the time because george met so many people but the only problem is
george couldn't remember names, especially men's names but that didn't matter. there is the great man, he would say to someone he could not remember. there is the great man is also how george once greeted a kid delivering pizza. we went out a lot. we went to book parties and sporting events, all the security guys new george, macaroni and cheese, relentlessly and there were the parties at his house too. this was the 80s and 90s. the parties were crowded with good-looking, accomplished people, kids working downstairs would be looking and unbeknownst to george, the young women were
having a contest to see the skirt to see if they could get george's attention. george was looking for expeditions, in christmas of 98, marine hunting elephants with ian douglas hamilton. except we would use tranquilizers, hunter thompson will come too and have a great hunt and i'll celebrate new year's, we planned and planned this but never made the trip. there were others involving hunter, who shared this unlikely indelible friendship with george, related to how they both felt more and more trapped by the personas they created for
themselves that they made into the architecture, their success. the way those things connected, they recognized each other as allies almost immediately although they did not agree on what happened when they first met except it was on the flight from frankfurt to zaire the so-called rumble in the jungle in 1974, they were seatmates. george remembered hunter was worried about not getting paid for a lecture he delivered at duke. hunter said he and george compared boxing notes like the
professionals they were. george remembered hunter was talking about secret weapons, huge torpedoes being constructed by revolutionaries in the congo to disrupt the fight. hunter remembered george being greeted by don king as a prince of the realm when they landed and george would remember, a week of serious reporting, hunter smoked hash and wound up missing the fight. now, what i remember is the that ali was extremely interested in both of them. back in the states they talk about each other as if they were old friends which was easy because they had so which in the common. their career establishing books and the hells angels, published within months of each other over
96-97, both praise for immersive reporting. i am quoting here the wild power of language and purity of madness that governs it and makes it music and george shrugging, played the piano with short breaks. they were the same height, 6 foot 4. and they loved drinking but never wine, and women and sports and they were evenly matched. george was a better athlete, hunter was strong. they were very competitive. at that point, in 1989, george and i decided to visit hunter after he took a photograph of himself at the golf club in
aspen. across the imaged, on the back there is a message. he says come out here and play golf with me sometime and a big plus, bring george, another big plus, and money, i will beat both of you like mules. i had visited before and told george there would be distractions but we arrived hopeful of our connected missions. my plan was to get hunter to write for the first issue of the magazine i was starting called smart. george was there to interview hunter of what he plans to be the first interview in the art of journalism series. fine, said hunter. first we have to play golf. acid golf, to be more specific. we read a little bit here. we played the first evening in the dying light of the municipal
aspen golf club which is close. hunter just waved to a guy in the pro shop and hunter had a 12gauge shotgun in his bag and heinekens, a fifth, lines for george and extra cooler of ice. here, hunter said, holding out tabs of paper with an unfamiliar symbol on them. and stuck his tongue out at us, i took my tab and did the same. when george said he wanted to constant rate hunter licked that tab and said the last of the batch. just as an aside i will tell you george will try everything but he is also very serious about his work and this interview is important.
he is working here. following their lead we years a driving range of sorts to warm up. hunter's swing with explosive if not smooth and his third drive was solid. george had a fluid swing, broke each of his balls further. i had never played. hunter accused me of sandbagging. i said it was time to get serious about the gambling, wrote to his favorite bowl, the 14th. this was a short par 3 straight shot over a large par. the aspen course is a certified audubon sanctuary and the pond was full of geese. george -- he likes george's bad trick. no bats, hunter said.
we are gambling. each of us will hit five balls in a row off of the tea and proceed to the pot. only our best ball would count and we are all in for 1000. george put all five of his balls on the green, three close enough, hunter put three in the water and two on. when we got to the green, george put two balls in the 30s and hunter missed and one ball left to tie if he could think of the 30 foot putt like the one he had been celebrating the photo he had sent and walked back and forth between the ball and the whole several times. i was on the other side with the flag. it was dark now, as dark as it gets in aspen on some nights and the sky, still had that glow,
could barely see hunter's ball. the ice tinkled in the glass, silence, hunter shouted, i know your tricks. hunter took two minutes lining up and struck it quickly and missed the part by a foot. and charging after it let out a howl and swung into the pond, the keith started honking. hunter turned back, pulled the 12gauge, fired over the geese and they lifted off of the pond like a sparkling crowd of gray and white feathers. it occurred to me as i watch the glitter blend into the fading sky that having a story to tell about acid golf was probably good for my career but i am still not sure about that. in any case we got to the
interview the next afternoon and it went through the night finally ending with george, hunter, writing under the influence of booze noting that every writer he ever interviewed over all those years said they could not do that, they lie. that is how hunter began his answer which ended the do with who do you think wrote the book of revelations? a bunch of stone sober clerics? when we were leaving the next afternoon hunter took me aside and said we need to get george drunk. it was a great interview. when it was about to appear in the paris review george sent hunter an advanced copy. we didn't hear anything. hunter sent back a page of the bible, revelations, with a big black spot on it.
this is just like the page long john silver sent to billy bones in treasure island to pronounce him guilty of stealing captain flint's treasure from the rest of the pirates. my problem was with less than $200,000 depended not just on the new desktop technology i was using but also convincing writers to work for shares in the magazine. more or less for free. their names were the only collateral i had to raise more money but everyone i asked, starting with george, hunter loved the idea of having shares of stock less than he hated the idea of working for free but he eventually agreed after george told him it was a solid investment, hunter agreed to
write a column called the year of the walls, but no copy was worth having. i complained, george advised patients. when i lost smart magazine to a japanese investor, the year of the wolf column idea came with me but was still plagued with deadline misunderstandings. he would often call in the middle of the night promising a draft of a secret novel instead called polo is my life. he said it had grown out of the piece that i had assigned him in rolling stone which is in another chapter of the book but he looked at the assignment. i complained. still, george advised patients,
more encouragement, one stash, until as if by some stroke of sympathetic magic, right when i had decided to give up on the year of the wolf, polo is my life arrived at esquire. it was not a manuscript. what it was, in a huge crate packed in bubblewrap, was a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood with cross polo mallets with ammunition around, machine-gun rounds and polo is my life across the top and all of the board, every surface of it covered with photos, press cards, napkins, x rays, notes, lipstick, quotes, court records, it was all
covered. this was a wonderful thing, the conference room where it hung is a major attraction until i left the magazine. writers would come and look at it. this was hunter's burden of guilt like the black spot. george said he had never seen a writer put so much effort into not writing. i puzzled over this. hunter had once told george that if you were rich, a relative term for him, he would wander around like king farouk when he was a boy. that he was going to write something for him and probably not do it. george would shrug and agree that writing is hard but they
both loved writing for that reason because it is hard and they were good at it. hunter always said he taught himself to write as a young man by reading the great gatsby aloud as he types manuscript. his son's middle name is fitzgerald. hunter's own middle name was stockton. he never explained why, only that his father had been born in the last century in a place called horse cave, kentucky, great spookiness. george's middle name is from his great-grandfather, a civil war hero. he never met a boy general when he was 6, george would say as he looked into the eyes of a man who fit his charge, imagine what he saw, this was a story that george told often. he liked talking about his family and as always hunter wanted more. he was especially interested in this boy general.
he was very severe and i was afraid, george said. we were in the garden of his house and he picked up a twig and snapped it in half and said life ends like that. hunter loved that. the most important magazines for george were the paris review and sports illustrated. which he had been writing for since 1956 which was three years after it began in the paris review to deliver quarterly that he found with several other friends. it was a hot startup before anybody used such a term and much has been written about the good times in paris. i do not write about that. but i write about the questions george had, him always among his
friends, why he spent so much time on the review. his oldest friends from the review, especially matheson, great friends all, even a little arrogant. why wasn't george tormenting himself with the ambition to write important looks like they were. whenever this came up george would get mad. i remember we talked about this one time. to mouth catch grapes dropped from the top of trump tower, something about the seriousness we were applying to something so profoundly silly made george even matter. this is because the review became a spiritual white out for
50 years, paid nothing so he decided to make his way as a journalist till he settled on what his mysterious work may be and he would write about sports and have some fun at the same time. our story in the book about the early days of journalism like the first time out, he was pitching to major league all-stars, when the public address announcer bungled his name calling him george proof luck. and ironing out lost on george as he was in a fiction auto of sorts and lived in elliott's room in college at harvard. george didn't write that part of the story but used it in his storytelling all the time with a reference to a famous line in j
elford prufrock, my arm was like a reverent -- rapid claw. when that story was expanded into george's first bestseller called out of my league ernest hemingway wired george at the mayo clinic where he was treated for depression adding it was quotable he excerpt that is observed with the chilling quality of a true nightmare, the dark side of the moon of walter mitty. it was a gift from hemingway intended as a marketing blurb and the walter mitty analogy had a certain truth to it but also looked over the obvious and that is the difference that in mideast daydreams he always
succeeded. it has to do with every man more than walter mitty which was always obscured by george's self depreciating prose. george plimpton was not a wimp. above his desk on 77th street the photograph of hemingway walking a country road, you have seen this picture high over his head. in my office a photo of george wrestling the gun moments after he shot bobby kennedy in los angeles. he was never once in mind. not sports illustrated or anywhere else. never going to a man's office,
george was too busy, counter to his reputation for never missing a party, and under that picture of hemingway in the parish review. he was very hard about it like it was hard about a lot of things and also the work of other editors. george could be irascible on both sides, a tough edit both ways. he loved editing most of all and we grew closer. george closed the 50th anniversary of the parish review and spoke that afternoon about how he might contribute to the 50th anniversary of sports illustrated and george, took me to dinner last night at the
brook club which that it along communal table with other members, spent many evenings there, never lost any member of his celebrity team. peter matheson mentioned to me when george thought he was unobserved he would let his face go almost blank, his jaw would drop. it looks very sad or fighting something very dark, peter said it make him sad to see george that way but i had never seen it until that night and when we were leaving he told me he had recently committed to 7 $50,000 contract and he died the next night. a few days later his wife sarah was searching his computer and came across notes and obligations was the last entry
was written on september 25th, the morning he died in his sleep. george often returned home from late dinners and sat typing the entire night. the memo, ideas, future drafts of letters for the new memoir that he was determined never to write. that last morning george finished with a poem by emily dickinson. fame is a b and has a song it as a sting and the wing. george was 76. hunter never expected to live to be 50, which was no consolation to anyone when he killed himself at 67 a year after george passed. i thought about hunter's last moments. i wondered about his final plan. the secret one he kept, the
snapping twig. when they were alive i was always surprised by how many people felt obsessed with their friendships. i wanted about my own. i never told anyone, certainly neither of them but through some radical thinking i thought of them almost as, through her of my relationship with george, and dangerous cousin. i was always aware of the gift george had to make people feel comfortable as if they are great friends when they were not close at all. and he felt like it and this
happened often. more often than the reputation suggests and something very kind. it is situational or transactional and very sentimental about that. he sent me an expensive pocket knife about the long hunt engraved on the blade. george's bats in new mexico, flashes of memory, everyone who knew them has similar moments when remembering something one of them did or said illuminates them somehow and every place i worked george wrote for me at least once. johnny depp has polo of my life. and an extraordinary piece and
another piece with hunter, like mouth catching grapes was working with george and was like that all the time. everything he did had to have a joke. not ha ha joke but hilarious like the black spot and then i remember the treasure island is a simple book, very simple clear plot. adventurous boy kidnapped by pirates joins pirates. [applause] answer any questions?
>> we won't talk about that horror right now. talk about screenwriting, the head of savanna screenwriters and a lot of screenwriting when editing. screenwriting miami vice and things like that, did it come from your background, tell me about your screenwriting. >> i never set out to be a screenwriter, there was a story about a horrible story that surfaced, 20th anniversary of
the fall of saigon, back then people smuggled heroin out of vietnam in body bags. the guy who was running fox at the time, you know who could use this is michael man who has this new idea for a show called miami vice about these two cops. he had breakfast tomorrow. why didn't you write this? it is like a puzzle. they are not using regular screenwriters, to write these things. and having them in magazines a little bit.
>> two quick questions. george plimpton not being walter mitty but james -- talk about that for a moment. and accidental life, often, you apologize, i wonder if any person particularly something like rick riley, to apologize about the column when he left sports illustrated and apologize her admitted errors, when accidental life came out. >> everything against spike, spike lee. rick and i are friends again, we enjoyed each other, rick riley
-- sports illustrated for years. when i walked into sports illustrated, within six weeks of his contract being up. and to meet me for the first time, got publicity photo from his book and framed it and put it behind on the wall behind where i sat and he came in and said should we sit at the coffee table, he said no, i will sit here and put his feet up on my desk and it took him 30 seconds. are you that smart. i match the money but sports illustrated lost which when you say that, 20 years ago --
inside camaraderie it felt like to be in a huddle or in the conference on the mound is more important to him. i don't know if that is helpful. >> great, powerful writers, how do you -- wonderful, great writers. >> the thing about that is the best ones, you give them the right idea. it is finding the idea to start with, there are two ways. most were so meticulous they would be angry about the insertion of punctuation, spot something like that.
jim harrison thought something from the beginning. and that is exactly how they planned it. you were not a writer. and needed and editor. and false leads at a time. they would be funny and good, and not get through the job as an editor to have these false leads. and the real thing is the idea works it won't be a problem. >> how do you edit and editor.
>> i was very vain about my writing, i wanted to show these guys. it was the gauge meant with them much more than suggesting the adjective hanging like something extra and clever. [inaudible question] >> still writing really long pieces. peter matheson once made me write 20,000 words. he just kept saying that is not
wise, we should look at this the way it is. [inaudible question] >> i was duped. i was at newsweek and he called and said i have got something going on. i will send a reporter, he said you should take a very careful look at this and read the sub head very carefully. i didn't get it. so take the first letter of his word, it says april fools. it was about this guy who could throw 190 mile fastball and got the mets to go along with the joke. he was raised by mumps in himalayas and he could throw a strawberry through a locomotive and all the press bought this, take pictures. i talked him into bringing said
back each people would ask him you heard from sid, he would say no. i called and there is never any answer but just today i called and the line was busy. [inaudible conversations] >> there was a guy -- i -- when i was very young i went to the middle east with a bunch of cameras and was going to be a war correspondent. it became black september in lebanon, i was lucky to bounce around and in la with a guy named bob cheryl, at esquire.
and talk about story ideas and he told me i should think about being an editor because it is more fun. i credit him as i do in the book. >> how is it different? if not, how come? >> reviewers have been less unkind. i didn't get to. there were a few in the book. it never presented itself. i edit men's magazines. the saddest part is they are run by women. as i write about it, as far as
differences i can't imagine what they would be. i don't know. didn't get to do it. [applause] >> upon exiting the venue our wonderful volunteers enthusiastically accept your donation on the book festival, because of your generosity we are able to keep the festival free. thank you for coming. [applause]
[inaudible conversations] >> we are watching booktv on c-span2, live coverage of the savanna book festival. that was other terry mcdonell talking about his book "the accidenta life". former editor of rolling stone, sports illustrated and several other magazines. several more authors and call in opportunities. in the cia and iran in 1979 the militant storms the us embassy there. he will be talking about that experience and talk with him as well. he will be doing a call in program and gerri willis, rich
is not a four letter word with foxbusiness news talking about her new book and then another chance for you to talk to her. we have another call in. the united methodist church in downtown savannah built on a square. if you have never been to savannah there are several squares, live oaks and spanish loss and beautiful city, often we go to the book fairs and show the inside of the venue, and the outside of the book fair in itself, the producer down there, kate hughes, we want to show you that so you can see what the outside of the festival is like. >> good morning, facebook followers,