portrait Dan Wakefield

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 83 ~ April, 2004

Dan Wakefield, who is currently Writer in Residence at Florida International University in Miami, is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter, whose best-selling novels Going All The Way, and Starting Over were produced into feature films.

Wakefield is also the author of the non-fiction book New York in the 50s, a memoir on which a documentary film has been produced. Wakefield also created the NBC prime time TV series, “James at 15.”

Wakefield’s first published book was Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem, followed by the non-fiction books, The Addict: An Anthology, All Her Children: The Making of a Soap Opera, and Supernation at Peace and War, which first appeared as the entire issue of the March, 1968 Atlantic Monthly.

A recipient of a Neiman Fellowship in Journalism, Wakefield has also been awarded the Bernard DeVoto Fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Rockefeller Grant for Creative Writing, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

His non-fiction books on spirituality include Returning: A Spiritual Journey, Creating from the Spirit, The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Expect a Miracle, How Do You Know When It’s God?: A Spiritual Memoir, and Spiritually Incorrect: Finding God in All the Wrong Places.

A graduate of Columbia College in 1955, Wakefield has been a staff writer for The Nation magazine, a Contributing Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a Contributing Writer for GQ, and on the advisory board of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.

He has taught in the writing programs at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Emerson College, and The Iowa Writers Workshop. His website is www.danwakefield.com

Derek Alger: Whether you realize it or not, you’re part of living history. Your book New York in the 50s is a wonderful chronicle of that period.

Dan Wakefield: The book began when I wrote a memoir of James Baldwin for GQ. It was the idea of Art Cooper the editor, who suggested I do something about literary mentors. I’d been wanting to write about Baldwin since his death a few years before, and probably never would have if Art hadn’t given me an assignment — a deadline! When the piece was published, I got a letter from Sam Lawrence, who had published my novels. He said the Baldwin piece was the best thing I’d written, and why not do a book on NY in the 50s? I thought — what a great idea. How come I never thought of it? So it was really two other people — an editor and a publisher– who gave me the idea and the backing to write the book.

DA: New York seemed more like a small town community back in the 50s, at least among writers? Do you see major changes in the world of publishing today?

DW: Publishing today is wildly different. It’s the same in the sense of inefficiency and, as Jason Epstein says in “The Book Business”, it’s still operated like a 17th century business. The difference is now they publish fewer books, there are fewer publishers, and they are all looking for the Home Run book. No trying to “nurture” or “develop” writers. Final decisions are made by marketing people. An editor I knew took early retirement, explaining “It’s not an editor’s game anymore.”

DA: Do you think writers today approach their craft differently?

DW: The attitude of writers is different. In the `50s, you were embarrassed to say you’d got a big advance (though few did anyway), or made a lot of money. You feared “Selling Out.” Now that’s the point! Status is measured by size of advance. It sounds like sex: “I’ve got a bigger one than you do!”

DA: You certainly were surrounded by a talented group of writers when you were in your twenties. We all know the big names, such as Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Jack Kerouac, but who do you think were some of the greatest writers neglected over the course of time?

DW: In any time, many fine writers of the fifties era were overlooked or forgotten. There was a time when Saul Bellow, Herbert Gold, and Harvey Swados were all considered up and coming writers of the same rank! — then Bellow pulled ahead in the horse race, as the Bright Jewish writer of the time (It was a time in which Jewish writers were first being recognized in the formerly WASP-run literary party.) Herbert Gold still publishes good work. Harvey Swados died at age 50, but some of his books are coming back into print.

My Columbia classmates Sam Astrachan and Ivan Gold were and are fine writers. Sam has lived in France for thirty years, now publishes in French, can’t get published here any more. Ivan had some books come back into print a few years ago. Sam’s “An End to Dying” and Ivan’s “Nickel Miseries” are classics.

DA: Many people learn the hard way that writers write in spite of their drinking, not because of it. What are your thoughts on not drinking wisely but oh too well.

DW: In the 50s we were told that to be a good writer you had to be a good drinker. It did a lot of people in. We thought Dylan Thomas dying at 39 was glamorous and romantic. Hemingway promoted a lot of this b.s. You can drink and write in your twenties, but then it starts to take its toll. Fitzgerald didn’t live to finish what Edmund Wilson thought was his “most mature” novel “The Last Tycoon”, and he wrote it after he finally sobered up, with the help of Sheila Graham.

DA: The hard drinking writer is a pretty enduring myth.

DW: You still only hear the glamour part of drinking and mythology (lies). Like Eugene O’Neill was a drunk, wrote all those great plays. In fact, he stopped drinking at 38 and except for a few relapses kept sober — “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Iceman Cometh,” etc. I could go on about this forever. I wrote about the alcohol mythology in my book Releasing the Creative Spirit. Ivan Gold wrote a terrific novel about the writing/drinking stuff called “Sam’s in a Dry Season.”

DA: What about your own experience?

DW: I think writing my first two novels saved my life. because while actually in the writing I wasn’t drinking the way I usually did in those times. I worked all day, into the night, maybe had a pizza and beer and went to bed. I got into big boozing when the novels were finished, and I wasn’t really writing anything. Those long stints of sobriety probably preserved me. Then I had the big life change in 1980 and got into diet and exercise and health for the first time.

DA: What do you think was responsible for this transformation in lifestyle?

DW: When I got sober I had an impulse to go back to church. I got very involved with Kings Chapel in Boston. The minister was a very bright and creative guy, Carl Scovel.I took a course he did in “Religious Autobiography” and the piece I wrote became “Returning to Church” which was published in New York Times Magazine, then became the book Returning: A Spiritual Journey.”

DA: Quite a change from being a wild and crazy young writer in New York City.

DW: Some people think the Dan Wakefield who wrote the novels is a different guy than the one who writes books involving spirituality. It’s the same guy. People who know Going All the Way have said that at the end of the book, the character Sonny is a guy who might well end up going back to church.

DA: Many seem to interchange spirituality with religion, what’s your take?

DW: I believe all books are “spiritual” if they tell the truth. Religious books aren’t “religious” because they’re about religion. They’re “religious” if they tell the truth, the deep truth as the writer knows it, angst as well as joy. In that sense I think Going All The Way is a spiritual book, as much as Returning.

My latest book is Spiritually Incorrect: Finding God in All the Wrong Places. If someone asked me to give a young atheist writer some guidance, I’d tell him to read Doestoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov. That’s a spiritual book. That might lead the reader to the Gospels, to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Or, maybe not.

DA: A lot of people are turned off by the word spiritual. If you say spiritual, many immediately think of holy rollers.

DW: I hate “recruitment” or proselytizing about religion. I’ve never tried to tell anyone they should follow my path. All I want to do is tell as honestly as I can what happened to me, what is my own experience. Not tell others what they should believe.

My favorite Christian writer is Reynolds Price. He has a deep belief and writes about it flat out. It’s not obviously a subject in many of his novels, but in his memoir A Whole New Life about his healing from cancer. I also love the way he writes about The Gospels. He has a terrific book called Three Gospels, two of which are translations of Mark and John, the other is his own retelling of the Jesus story. Man, you wouldn’t recognize it in Mel Gibson’s movie! Price’s work might make thinking people interested in Christianity. Mel Gibson must surely scare off anyone but a pure, blood-soaked masochist. And Gibson’s flick IS anti-semitic no matter what spin is put on it. Here’s the big puzzle to me: why does anyone think showing torture and cruelty is “religious” and will lead people to any kind of religious path? I would think any sane person would run the other way.

DA: I guess I qualify, I haven’t seen the movie. Obviously you’ve been influenced by some truly genuine people.

DW: I was lucky to have a great minister like Carl Scovel. In East Harlem when I wrote my first book Island in the City I met Reverend Norman Eddy who is a friend to this day. He started the first neighborhood committee to help narcotics addicts. He is a visionary. I’ve been lucky to have great teachers all my life. Last fall I went back to Indianapolis for the 100th birthday of my high school journalism teacher, Jean Grubb. Corky Lamm and Bob Collins of the Indianapolis Star were my bosses, heroes and mentors in high school and a summer in college when I worked on the sports desk of the Star. In college it was Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, and C. Wright Mills. After college it was remarkable-writer-editor-guru Robert Phelps. He loved literature with a passion, and with humor and insight and excitement. I wish he were here. Some people exert great influence just by being who they are. Robert was like that.

DA: Robert Phelps was a very gentle, encouraging man with a great knowledge of literature.

DW: Robert turned me on to James Salter’s work, who he said was the best lyrical writer/novelist since Fitzgerald. I agree. Light years, A Sport and a Pastime, are great novels. Salter isn’t much known widely, yet I think he’s our best. I’m amazed that Salter isn’t much known and John Irving’s work is considered! I don’t know either man, I am talking about their work.

Back to the Fifties: Gay Talese is a great artist, made journalism an art. He is one of those true friends who is with you and supports you through all the ups and downs. I told him once he made me want to be an Italian. Not the Sopranos or the Sinatras — Talese. By the way a great underrated journalist and wrier of the time is Brock Brower, who wrote great stuff for Esquire in the Fifties, classic profiles of Alger Hiss, Mary McCarthy, et al. His book Other Loyalties should be back in print.

Kurt Vonnegutt is a lifelong mentor and friend — the most generous man in the world. He went to my high school ten years ahead of me, I used to read his stories in the Saturday Evening Post as a teenager. I can’t read most recent fiction. I have returned to the 19th century — Galsworthy, Trollope, and now The Brontes. The most inspiring book of the year for me was Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Mind, by Lyndall Gordon, a terrific English woman writer/biographer. I’m in love with Charlotte and admire her sisters — Emily and the underrated ANN who did one of the first novels about an alcoholic, The Tenant of Eildfell Hall. What guts these girls had! (Forgive me for being politically incorrect, ala the `50s.) And what style! What stories! Long live the Brontes!