The Dan Schneider Interview 9: Charlie LeDuff (first
DS: This ninth DSI is the first with a writer younger than yours truly. Itís also the second with a journalist (the first being with Pete Hamill). Charlie LeDuff is most well known for his time as a reporter with the New York Times, although now he has struck out on his own with books that detail life in America the way most people live it, but few see it. People who want to know more about Leduff can visit his website. To start, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Aside from trying to raise discourse from the masturbatory and/or crass commercialism that most interviews have become, I have wanted to feature not only name quality writers, but writers in their ascendancy, and who will, in later years, be big Ďnames.í I think that your reportage, and especially, writing is top notch, and Iím excited to be interviewing you, especially since, had I not glanced down at a table in one of those bargain book discounters, a few years back, and seen your book, Work And Other Sins, lying about, Iíd likely have no idea of you, nor the great work you are doing. However, for those in the position I was before I glanced down, could you please give an idea of who you are, what you do, what your goals are, as a person and reporter, as well as some of your accomplishments and goals are?
CL: People say, why do you do it?, and I say so my grandchildren know how we lived, who they are, or why they are like they are; so I guess to kind of leave a record, try to leave an honest one, and so to get beyond the self promotion of it all and give normal, regular people, and the things they say, a chance; give them a platform; and if itís got to come through me then so be it.
DS: Letís start off with some queries on your background. In several online interviews you say that you are white, and grew up in Detroit, yet elsewhere it is claimed you are part Cajun and part Native American- Ojibway. And is it true you got some sort of Ďminority scholarshipí to start at the Times?
CL: My background is I am white and Iím Native American- Ojibway. Basically where the Internet works- forget what you read on the Internet because with all the critics out there, most of them just pick off what others do and twist it all up and ball it up. Iím white, my grandmother is mixed blood from Mackinac Island, Michigan. She married a white guy, they moved to Detroit, they had 6 kids, they divorced, she put them in an orphanage, and while in Detroit, she met a guy from Louisiana- a Cajun guy, named Royal. Elizabeth and Royal, gathered the kids up from the orphanage and started a new life together. My father and mother are stepbrother and stepsister, in that way, and so what you got was an unruly and kind of mixed up and angry and sad group of people, trying to work it out. So my grandfatherís a Cajun, my grandmotherís white and red and that makes me Italian.
Yeah, I did my first work at the Times; it was a minority internship; yíknow, ten week deal. Didnít really know it was that, just kind of was offered the job, and just using minority scholarship, and most of the people in it were a little bit angry Ďcause you get, you feel, an asterisk, and people pick on you, like youíre not as good, you got it just Ďcause of some beancounting. But no one ever complains about all the bad writers at the New York Times who get it through, or in any other job for that matter, who get it through connections, through their pop, or their school, or there are a lot of people who are good, that work hard and Gerald Boyd- I went to him when I was there and said, ĎHey I didnít know this was a minority internship,í and he says, ĎTake it anyway you can get it and do a good job,í and thatís what I tried to do.
DS: When and where were you born? Where did you grow up? Were you a suburbanite, for in your writings you seem to harbor some resentment toward suburbiaís ennui- the sort of anger that only a convert tends to hold against his past?
CL: I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. My father was in the Navy, my sister was born in San Diego, where my father was also stationed, so I grew up in Virginia for some time; grew up in Gary for a while; suburban Chicago; Detroit- mostly suburban Detroit, on a busy street, that was till I was 18, and since then, after I went to college, I lived in Detroit- taught school there; lived in New York; lived in Oakland; lived in Los Angeles; Alaska- in a tree house; Ireland; Denmark, Australia. I try to bounce around, like your life just isnít where you went to high school; your life is a continuum and you know from all those places. I think I spent as much time in New York as I ever did in Michigan, actually. Yeah, but I know suburbia- thatís where I went to school, thatís where most of my family is living, and yeah thereís an anger there- the ennui. You just kind of feel like life kind of failed you; like is this all there is? Whereís the purpose of it? Whereís the center? Whereís the community? Whereís the dream? But people feel that in the countryside, too, and they feel it in the cities, so I donít know. Just an angry guy, donít know where it comes from exactly, you know; growing up as a latchkey kid. My momís been married three times; she divorced my dad when I was about 3 or so, maybe 4, and married a second guy who was more my father, taught me to like books, but it was pretty tough and I donít have to give every blow by blow to prove Iíve got some chops, that I know what life is, that I know what coming apart is. I donít have to prove that to anybody, and if you want to know about it, itís in my books. And then she married another guy when I was in high school, a third guy- still married to him. Heís a good man, but I sort of dropped out of the family at that point becauseÖ.It was hard to take as sort of a young man and we all grow up andÖ.
DS: Your parents divorced when you were what age? Although this fact is mentioned in several outlets, you seem to not be one of those mamby-pamby wimps whose life was destroyed by the divorce. Do you feel thereís a bit of the drama queen in people who tend to let their lives be dictated by Ďtraumasí past or present in their lives?
CL: I canít judge. I have to decide case by case. People handle things differently, but yeah- pick yourself up man, letís go get on with life. Thatís what I really do feel about things, but you got some issues. Itís not for me to judge but you know, letís get on and move on. Thatís how I was taught.
DS: Who were you mother and father, and were they careerists? Were they encouraging of your writing? Or did they want you to Ďget a real jobí? And just when did you decide to go into journalism?
CL: My mother had a struggling flower shop for most of my life; worked long, long days, like my dad. I canít tell you really much about him. My stepdad; canít tell you much about him, quite honestly. I mean she worked hard and I donít know where he was much of that time, and thatís probably why the marriage fell apart. So yeah, my mom was a careerist in the sense that she went to work to feed her children, her five children, you know, and she feels guilty about it; feels guilty about it, but she shouldnít because thatís what a real woman is: someone who loves her family to the point of self-abnegation. I respect her a lot. Yeah, they were encouraging of me with my writing. I grew up with books, I grew up with magazines and music, and we went to the museums and theyíre proud of me. Once, after 9/11, I had to get out of New York for a while and I went home and took my mom to a music show and we had a couple drinks and a young couple walked in the bar and she turned to them and said, ĎDo you know who this is? This is my son, he won the Pulitzer Prize.í And it makes me proud. I remember it; so my mom used to always encourage me to follow not your dream but follow your self- be the master of your own life, and thatís what I tried to do. And when I decided to get into journalism it was the early 90s. Iíd come out of Europe, I was in New York, at a party with a bunch of guys I went to college with; it was the height of a pretty big recession and we were all underemployed and drinking a beer and a friend of mine says, ĎIím thinking about going to journalism school,í and I said, ĎJournalism school?í Didnít even know there was such a thing as journalism school. I wasnít that sophisticated, but I had just gone around the planet by myself so I figured I was smart enough, and that sounded good, and so I made a point to go to journalism school but it was maybe two years later that I went to Alaska and worked up there. Like I said, I taught middle school, I was a counselor- a gang counselor; that whole thing in Detroit, and eventually I made it to journalism school.
DS: Do you have
siblings? If so, what are their career pursuits?
CL: Yes, I have siblings. My sister died, lived a pretty tough life, died on the West Side of Detroit. She lived a black and blue life and it ended that way, but she was a wild cat. I had a stepbrother, an older stepbrother- he died; he shot himself to death with a needle; an older stepsister, and three younger brothers living in the Detroit Metropolitan Area who are underemployed, struggling; one is a salesman- he was in mortgages and you know what happened with that. One worked at Ford, got laid off, and then went back on the G.I. Bill and studied photography at art school, and heís trying to make that career happen; and my other brother is studying cooking now. Theyíre all their mid-thirties, and wondering what happened?, looking at life and looking at America now and whatís there for us, whatís there for people our age?
DS: What were
your childhood and teen years like, in the 1970s and 1980s? Was it typical
drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll? What sort of high school did you go to? I went to
one of the largest inner city high schools in New York, which was like a prison.
There were race riots, gang fights, and after the Atlanta Child murders
occurred, things got even worse- with mandatory metal detectors, and police
escorts for school buses.
CL: Yeah, it was alot of drugs, alot of rock-n-roll, alot of tight jeans, and in my book I talk about the fight club, we have- my stepbrother, and like 16, and theyíre all snorting crystal T, which is powdered PCP, which is embalming dust, basically, and there was no one home We were just out of control, but, again, father figure was sketchy and my mom was working, trying to feed everybody. It was rough. Weíd bounce to house to an apartment when they got divorced; like six of us in a two bedroom apartment in kind of a crappy suburb in Detroit, and I went to school in the suburbs- which is a good school, mostly white. There were some Arabs and a few blacks- no Latins, that wasnít going on at that point, so we just kind of, yíknowÖ I donít know what to say about this, itís hard to talk about yourself like this. Maybe one day Iíll write the memoir, but we were that divorced and drunk generation, you know; not everybody grew up and trying to make it work, trying to reassemble it- the family and the self and the purpose because we were the kids that came after the 60s, where all the mythology was blown up. You know; the man sucks, your father sucks, the family sucks, the President sucks, and that generation didnít replace it with anything, so itís just nihilism out there, and so what you see now is middle-aged men trying to figure out how to be a man and what it means- and a woman for that matter.
DS: In my social
circles, I grew up on the fringes of a black and Hispanic neighborhood in the
late 1960s and early 1970s, and then a more working class white neighborhood in
the 1970s. Thus I was exposed to and grew up loving the Motown sound and Funk,
as well as classic hard rock- from Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple to Black Sabbath
and Ted Nugent. Not only did we hate disco, but while Zep was the cool band,
KISS was considered Ďgay.í I recall many a Sabbath song really hitting home,
and the lyrics to such songs probably stirred an early love for poetry. Was this
the sort of the milieu you grew up in?
CL: I love Motown, funk, Deep Purple- love it; Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent- Motor City Mad Man. We hated disco, but I like it now. Yeah, it was- in fact, my younger brother Frank- they were all like that Danzig and Zeppelin and Sabbath and kind of that brooding, almost Columbine, feeling to the thing. A couple of his buddies offed themselves. In fact, another buddy of one of my other brothers just offed himself and I donít know, thereís a lot of pain trying to work through all that, you know what I mean? Especially what a generation that is: thatís the family of the broken home, thatís the family, the family of drugs, thatís what got handed to us in a pile of debt, you know, trying to work our way out of that. But thereís no one to blame, you just got to get on with life and do it, but you know, this stuff needs to be documented, I suppose.
DS: As an early
Generation Xer (that ridiculous term made up by novelist Douglas Coupland), what
were some of the things that led you to journalism? Who were some of your
heroes? I note that almost every piece about you seems to reference you into the
trite Ďgonzo journalistí role- a void left by the death of Hunter S.
Thompson. Yet, to me, you are a much better writer, and I find much of the
social provocation and indignation that a James Baldwin and Studs Terkel had in
their pieces and outlook on America. In short, you are not a celebrity
bullshitter like Thompson, but write on the real important stuff ala Terkel. Do
you agree with that, and what do you think of someone like a Terkel? Also, do
you think that the constant Thompson references are a way to marginalize you
into the sort of unwitting self-parody that Thompson became simply because you
have the balls to write about things other than the vapid celebrity garbage that
most other Ďjournalistsí peddle?
CL: Thank you, man. Thank you. Itís nice that somebody feels that, and I love Studs Terkel- all I wanted to do is take Studs Terkelís ideas and his thoughts and what the truth is, not the stuff that- nothingís really happening there, but I wanted to take peopleís feelings and their struggles and their anger, but I wanted to get off the kitchen table, I didnít want to stick a tape recorder on them and talk to them about things at the kitchen table; I wanted to go do it with them, I wanted to feel it, I want to see it. You know, what people say and what they do are two different things, so I like to participate in it and Ďcause another part of that is- alot of it is autobiographical in a way, people that are struggling- now I am a middle class yuppie, guy that works the sophistry, you know, manipulating words- I wanted to know if that was ever taken away from meÖ.Suppose something happened, and I didnít get to do it, do I still have it in me to clean toilets in the factory? Could I still lay cement, could I still pound a nail, could I survive? And thatís why I like to participate with people, but I like to sit at the tables, too. The constant Thompson references? What can you do about it? [laughs]. Yeah, some of that might have come from the publishing house, trying to do some PR and you got to like put the couplets together- Kerouac meets Thompson; you know how movies go: this is like Gone With The Wind meets Terminator; you know how they pitch this stuffÖI was probably just a little package to sell something but, Iím not Thompson. I like his books, theyíre cool, but I donít see how itís the voice of a generation; hat theyíre talking about. Iís a guy getting high and making some stuff up; you know, his best book was Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail Ďcause that was pretty tight, that was real reportage, you knowÖHellís Angels was pretty good, but that was really journalistic, if you read it. But, like Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, nah, I didnít get what the hooha is, but, man, if I could have half the career the guy had Iíd be happy. People read the books; I mean, whatever he was thinking, people are into it, so you canít be sad with that. But no Iím not Thompson. I donít know, Iím more of aÖ.shit, I donít know. Historian, thatís what Iím trying to do.
DS: What were
some of your earliest books to read- was it literary books, history, or Spider-Man
comic books? Another writer whom you remind me of, stylistically, is Mickey
Spillane, in your staccato prose. Any thoughts on him? Was he an influence?
CL: Hop On Pop, To Kill a Mockingbird- loved that book. The Grapes of Wrath was one of the earlier ones I remember- loved that book. Treasure Island, you know what I mean? The basic stuff. I loved Mickey Spillane- he was an influence. Raymond Carver is an influence. Joseph Mitchell, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Ray Chandler- love Ray Chandler; yeah, Mickey Spillane: period, period, period, period. I love it: simple words, simple thoughts that say bigger things. Iím not very baroque in my style; maybe itís Ďcause Iím not smart enough, but I try to write the way that I think. I knew from the get go I couldnít write those big, intellectual sentences, so I decided not to. I decided not to fake that and to me writing is like music; itís got a rhythm to it; itís a physical exercise just like listening, Ďcause your eyes move across the page and so I hope they have a sort of rhythm to them, a sound to them in your head; and the thing with writing is, and editing, is once you strike a sour note you turn the page. Once you watch American Idol and somebodyís out of key- youíre done, or off beat- youíre done, and thatís the way with writing, no matter what youíre writing; itís got to have some rhythm to it or itís not going to get read.
DS: How about
your current life? Are you married? Iíve read you are a father. How old is
your son or daughter? Was your wife a journalist, or did you meet her on an
assignment? Where do you live?
CL: Iím married. Iím a new father. My daughter is now at the time of me blathering into this is fifteen months old today- a girl, her nameís Claudette. Iíve been married a long time. Iíve been with my wife over 15 years. Sheís not a journalist. I donít think I would ever marry a journalist- sheís a psychological counselor in the public schools in LA. I met her at a bar. I knew her brother very well, and he introduced us. And I live in Hollywood, and we have sold the house here, and we are ripping up and moving back to Detroit, where I am going to take a job at the Detroit News, writing and making films for the Internet- you know this new media thing. Iím pretty good at it and thereís a new language to be developed, and my whole career and the whole way I live my life is, man just go for it, letís take some chances, letís go where itís interesting. I covered New York- thatís about money; I covered LA- thatís about immigration; and now itís time to talk about the collapse and sell out of American manufacturing and our jobs, and the urban experiment, and Detroit is the story, and Iím going- so detnews.com, baby.
also entered the cyber age with your own website,
so let me now use this as a jumping off point regarding your political views.
Are you a Democrat, Republican, Independent, member of a Third Party? Who will
you be voting for this year, in the Presidential race? How has your view of
politics grown over the years? How has it affected your art at various stages of
CL: Look man, Iím a writer. I donít want to color it. I try to keep my political views out of it; my human views I try to put in it and I try to come for real. I donít have an agenda. You know, I studied economics at Michigan and they preached free market. I understand why- it has an effect on people, so I try to understand the whole thing and try to write the conundrum of modern life. Iím an Independent, never been registered to a party. Iíve voted Democratic in my life- Presidentially, letís say, Republican, and Third Party protest.
DS: What do you
see on the horizon in the 2008 Presidential race? Will the Democrats ever take
back Gracie Mansion? And what of Michael Bloomberg taking an independent run at
the White House?
CL: Shit, man, why you asking me that? I like John McCainís middle of the road, I like Barack Obama- Ďcause heís at least articulating the anger and the desperation out there that really doesnít get its due in the papers. Youíll get a guy occasionally going to the foothills of Appalachia, talking about how the furniture factory left, but, you know- put it this way, how many front pages in the newspapers, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, anybody, comes from these swing states? Pennsylvania? Michigan? Ohio? Hardly any. Then weíll go through the election cycle. Weíll get a ton, but will it be understood because itís last minute catch as catch can; it wonít be understood- how people are living, and you know, four years will pass by and then theyíll come back again, but in the meantime these people are forgotten. Right now I donít know who Iím voting for; whoeverís going to tell me something real, whoever is going to talk about NAFTA- how we going to slow this down. Whoís gonna talk about immigration, like it doesnít exist anymore? You know, wherever youíre at on that issue, there is an issue. Itís probably the second biggest domestic issue, besides your job and your savings and your home. Weíre screwed. Iraqís not on the table. Iím gonna get a rebate? Iím gonna get three hundred bucks? Hey, forget about it- go spend it, get an Xbox, take my $300 and get a guy some body armor in Iraq. Take my $300 and buy some kid in the inner city some real school books. Take my $300 and repair the bridges in Minnesota. What do I need $300 for? Weíre borrowing so much the moneyís not worth anything. How about someone telling us to start saving, stop being so profligate? I donít know; whose talking to me? Nobody. Such an important election, so devoid of issues, that Iím angry about it. My politics, how have they grown over the years? Theyíve grown from being under my parentsí wing to being a flipped out college kid to being a middle of the roader to just being despondent to being cynical. Skeptical is a better word, but I donít know.
What do I see on the horizon in this Presidential race? Look, man, hereís what I think-ok, I just think the electorate, people, are more libertarian than anything else in their thinking, but they wonít go libertarian because that is such a woolly-headed, in their layout. Like there is an outline that you have to meet to be a libertarian. Stay out of my bedroom, stay out of my wallet- thatís a libertarian. Now then, when you start getting into farm subsidies itís going to turn off some farmers- you canít be 100% anything. What people want in this country is a fair opportunity to make it. Regardless of your creed, your race, your background, your religion; they want equal opportunity to make it, and if they donít feel it, they get political. But most people are just middle of the road, leave me alone, just let me make a living, let me feed my kids. So will a Democrat ever take back Gracie Mansion? Sure.
DS: Letís talk
of life as a journalist. Do you prefer one sort of reporting to another? Is
there one sort of person or story you have a nose for? What is it, and where do
you think you got the gift? Also, is there some elemental Ďsense of the
streetsí that a reporter has that cannot be replaced nor learnt?
CL: Iím not a journalist, Iím a reporter. The difference between a reporter and a journalist is that a journalist can type without looking. The problem with journalism is its self-importance. Like in the New York Times, thereís style, guides; you canít call a doctor a physician, you got to call him a doctor- too high falutiní. You canít call an undertaker a mortician- too high falutiní; you got to call him an undertaker. You canít call a lawyer an attorney, you have to call him a lawyer. But somehow, since we control it, and weíre very self-important people, you can call a reporter a journalist. Think about that. A nose for? Yeah, somebody interesting, somebody thatís going to talk, somebodyís that doing something, right? Thatís what I have the nose for. Somebody interesting. If theyíre not interesting, then no one is reading. There is all kind of reporting, so letís get that straight. Reportage is like the human body man; reportage- thereís the heart, thereís the liver, thereís the kidney, thereís the intestines, thereís the tendons, thereís the kneecaps, thereís the eyeballs. Thereís so many different styles and so many different things to write about that it would cease to be if there werenít different people doing different things. Me, I kind of do the individual, the small person doing something big, some point to their life, not just some cute little feature story. I think I moved beyond that- there is a worldview that Iím trying to articulate and thatís what Iím trying to do. What I say to people is if you wanna step up, you wanna speak- donít be afraid. You want to let your grandchildren know how you lived; Iím asking you to do that, and Iím asking you to be honest. And then I spend alot of time, alot of time, because itís better to see it than to be told it. Do I have a gift? No, I donít have a gift; itís a craft. It just takes alot of work, alot of practice. No, there is no elemental sense; allís it takes is the ability to sublimate your fear. Pack your fear away and go do it, go approachíem, right? The one gift that God gave you that he is not given someone else is you. If you know what Iím saying, you just got to be yourself- thatís all you got, but you got to do the work, you got to get up, you got to climb the stairs- donít take the elevators. Jimmy Breslin said, ĎGet out there and see what people are thinking, talking about.í There was this sense that America wasnít ready to vote for a black man, again, perpetrated by the media, but now youíre starting to find out they were wrong. Why were they wrong? ĎCause normally, the political writers donít go out to ask people. They just donít. As it turns out, itís a different country than you thought it was.
DS: Do you look
to contemporaries in the business, as role models, or do you turn to older
scribes, people like a Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, or Pete Hamill for a sense of
what can be done as a reporter?
CL: Royko, Jimmy Breslin- loveíim, Pete Hamill- loveíim. I like the older writers better because I think they were allowed to have some style and some voice- they could really wind it up. Now in the age of the Internet, you can blog. I mean there is no narrative anymore; itís like narrative is gone, in the magazines, in the newspapers, thereís little snatches of this and that. Blogging is silly- thatís gonna die. Itís gonna die, just like chatrooms kind of died. Itís not the future. Neither is bad TV, which alot of newspapers are trying to go to video- itís stories, and you got to figure out how to tell the stories. The story died because it was being told in a poorer way, but I donít look at contemporaries. I read. Iím interested in what people are thinking and what theyíre finding, but, no, Iím not getting my inspiration from them.
DS: Do you feel
youíve evolved as a writer and reporter? What things have you learned in the
last few years, on the beat, that you wish you had known when you started?
CL: Iím sure there is something humorous and interesting to say, but nothing- in the sense that life is this process. I look back at my younger years and they were fun and I developed this world sense about whatís happening to us, immigrationÖ.I decided to make myself an expert on it, so I know the statistics. I know the financial aspects of it. Iíve crossed the border. Iíve done the physical and the mental part of it. And itís been a wonderful life. Itís been a wonderful life. I wish I would have known just how to just be calmer in those years; I just tended to inject my whole life into my job and the job was eating me up and I really couldnít separate them- my social life was the job, my waking thoughts were about the job: go to bed, it was the job, and I wish I would have saved some dark hairs and a little time for my family and myself, but that was getting away from me and I saw it, so I quit. I walked away and I wouldnít have done it any differently.
DS: What is the
biggest story that youíve ever been involved with? Obviously 9/11, in terms of
sheer scope- and some of your stories on its aftermath are terrific. But, have
there been investigations that you felt would have Watergate like repercussions,
but just fizzled?
CL: Yup, 9/11. No, I donít do those investigations; it was part of the Pulitzer Prize and I went into the hog factory and.ÖI was in the hog factory, and I guess that was sort of investigation but what I was really writing about was race and work, and I went and got a job at a North Carolina slaughterhouse. Capable of it: Iíve covered the governor, Iíve covered budgets, Iíve covered the police, but I donít do these long projects of a year trying to uncork Abu Ghraib or something; and if it came to me Iíd do it. Iím a different kind of writer.
DS: And, despite
the hagiography of 9/11, is the NYPD still as corrupt as it was in the Serpico
days of my youth?
CL: All I know is the movie, and no I donít think by any stretch the NYPDís corrupt like that- thereís probably some corrupt individuals, but it functions. New York is a tough town, man; you canít get away with that forever.
DS: One of the things about your work, that is unique, is that it deals with masculinity in an unapologetic manner. A few years back I wrote an essay on masculine poetry and it still is an essay I get compliments on, from men and women sick of the PC milieu of today, especially in Academia and the workforce. So, to start, what draws you to writing of masculinity, or is this just a natural extension of Charlie LeDuff?
CL: Itís just a natural extension of Charlie LeDuff. If you participate; hey Iím a guy, so I come at it from a guyís point of view. I do write about women- not as much as men. Maybe thatís one of my weaknesses, you know. I mean I try, but thereís everybody in my stories. I make no apologies, man. Iím just trying to do what I do. You know what I mean? Iím not the end all, be all; never felt I was, never said I was; just doing my little bitty bit. If you donít like it then you donít got to read it, thatís all.
DS: A generation
ago poet Robert Bly wrote a
ridiculously bad book called Iron John, in which he reduced
masculinity to a series of clichťs and rituals, very much the way Joseph
Campbell reduced art. Have you read Blyís book, and, if so, what did you think
of it? In US Guys:
The True And Twisted Mind Of The American Man, in one of your essays, Black
Rock City, Nevada, you seemingly parody that whole zeitgeist with your
depiction of the silly Burning Man Festival. Was this Blyvian bastardization of
animism and masculinity at all in the back of your mind when doing the piece?
CL: I know a little bit about Iron John. No, I havenít read Bly, first of all, no; but if thatís what Bly is doing, and thatís what he is saying, then itís silly; made up animism and made up masculinity in the consumerist culture days; in sitting in your little patch in your apartment in your little square and wherever youíre at, I mean- just go back to what your grandparents taught you, just take that one; stop trying to throw away who you are and inventing something new, because itís false. Itís good toÖ.the new tribe, thatís what theyíre calling it. Thereís no tribe, man; weíre all just manipulated and spied on and photographed and kept track of by our credit cards, and we all go to Wal-Mart, and before you get the Burning Man, everybodyís loading up at the Wal-Mart with their Dayglo sticks, and their ice packs, and, come on, man- there is a better way to find it. Itís a great party, though. And 10% of those people are like- you want to be associated with them because they are; thatís a cool culture: those that can do, those that know how to make things, those that are self-reliant- thatís really masculine and feminine. The animism part of it, I donít know- you got to reach way back to the Druids or to your clan and find it. I donít know, it is what it is; but Robert Bly, no, forget about that. I donít go to drum circles or that kind of thing. But if you do, fine- thatís cool.
DS: In another
essay, New York City, New York, you write of modeling in
Manhattan, and come up with a great term: the Alpha Pansy. What
does it mean, and to what degree has it affected modern living, from a male
CL: I think you know what an Alpha Pansy is; itís like, youíre the well-dressed guy with the coiffed hair, and youíre pulling this off like, like, you know: Iím the metrosexual, and your rough edges have to be taken off Ďcause this is gonna get you somewhere, so weíre going to really calm, calm the animal down, like Freud really; that your civilized, man, and your animal, man, and the greater the gulf in between, the more unhappy you are, and thereís a truth to that, and the more you go to the civilized, ultra-civilized. Now youíre wearing girdles and skin emollients or what not. We are- itís the wrong place. I think people gotta fight whatís going on, they gotta fight or lifeís not gonna be worth living after a while; you walk around with a chip in your hand and a nice haircut and plucked eyebrows if you want- I donít want it. Iím not talking about going to, going to the strip club and having chicken wings and cheap beer either. I donít find that particularly masculine; I donít want to be that. I want to be a guy thatís good at things; I want to be a guy whose not afraid of things; I want to be a guy that honors his responsibilities. I want to be a guy, you know what I mean? Knows how to tie a fishing line; I want to be a guy who knows how to make a rose grow. I want to be that; itís hard to be that, so you buy the easy stuff, the cheap stuff, and thatís sad.
topic that you write of, with a realism that so many others miss, is racism.
Yet, you always seem to find unique Ďinsí to the subject, such as querying
the members of a minor league Arena Football League team about the topic, in the
piece, Amarillo, Texas. What is it that makes people act so
stupidly in regards to race?
CL: Thank you brother, thank you very much for that. Donít know man, not a lot of talk about it, so weíre not allowed to talk about it, so we act stupidly.
DS: I mean, even
a Nobel Laureate like Dr.
James Watson, says shit like this about blacks, and their intelligence; that
itís Ďinherently gloomy about the prospect of Africaí because
Ďall our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is
the same as ours- whereas all the testing says not really.í Yet, Watson
is just a high brow version of the Hank Hills, Al Bundys, Archie Bunkers, and
Homer Simpsons out there. Does this depress you, or do you see hope?
CL: Poor James Watson, that dope. Well I notice by your list itís all white guys youíre talking about. Man, you donít think that brown guys are racist? Then I know by these questions that you know black guys are racist, right? Asian guys arenít racist? Have you ever hung out with them? Címon, everybodyís racist. I could put that in a more slick way but all groups of people areóthatís why people tend to live with their own kind.
But I see hope, man, right, Ďcause I know alot of guys, theyíve been a lot of places- itís cool, but peopleÖ.vive la difference. God love the difference; whatís the hope? One swirl of brown, one language? One way to dress? One way to live? I donít know- Iím having a good life and I mess up a lot. I get into a lot of trouble, I walk in a place I shouldnít, I say things I shouldnít, but Iím trying to have a good life; thatís the hope, you know what I mean? And if things are that bad here, theyíre not that bad man. This is the greatest country in the world; this is where the experiment happens. Can this be the place where the whole world comes and lives together? You know, New York is fantastic because you got like Indians and Pakistanis living next to each other, you got Turks and Greeks living next to each other, you got Serbs and Bosnians living next to each other: is this crazy? They need each other, itís unbelievable. I love this country, man. Thereís a lot of hope, itís working- partly.
DS: Here is the ending to that piece, as you leave the football team:
I said good night and walked to my rental car across the street. I looked back at the cheap faux-Monticello-style colonial columns of the apartment complex. The faÁade of the American Dream. I thought, Yes, Kert. Iíll try to explain it the right way, if I ever could.
Football. The Klan. Trophy blondes. Shrimp and liquor and methamphetamine. Texas. America.
The following Monday, Hershey got cut.
This is flat-out a great piece of prose writing, fictive or journalistic.
We start off with a typical goodbye scene, with someone turning from another,
then we get this great description, poetic in its content and alliteration. Then
we get the great description of it as not the American Dream, but its subverted
faÁade, and then a grumbled asides. The piece then riffs on Americana, and does
a complete emotional u-turn with the last sentence, when we read of the fate,
nonchalantly told by the narrator, of a character the reader has come to know.
This is great and brilliant writing. I know that much of that sort of stuff just comes to you as youíre banging away on the keyboard. But, was there any revision, and how much do you do? Also, after we spoke on the phone, you decided to tape you answers to these queries, and have us transcribe the answers, because you said you were better at speaking aloud of yourself, rather than writing about yourself. Why is that? And, do you ever have to speak aloud portions of what you write, or does it just happen on the page?
CL: Thanks, youíre a pretty good dude to me, and I thank you for that. Iím not even good at this; Iím just good at like talking to you, right? The reason I wanted to tape this is I donítÖ.talking to a guy because I see your eyes, brother, I see how you feel, I see where Iím not making sense. You can tell, like I write differently than I speak, in a sense. I kind of speak bad English, but Iím not going to sit there and write fifteen, twenty thousand words on myself, thatís kind of gross to me. Iím not into myself that much, despite what people think. A lot of stuff I write has revisions, tat, tat, tatÖ pop, pop, pop:
Football. The Klan. Trophy blondes. Shrimp and liquor and methamphetamine. Texas. America.
The following Monday, Hershey got cut.
Yeah, you know thereís alot of thought that goes into it and alot of revision and I speak aloud almost everything I write; that whole book- I read it aloud to myself, because it allows me to hear it, it allows me to catch that rhythm, and I know if I hit a sour note, if I wrote it, and if it doesnít sound right, when Iím reading aloud, I fix it because I need you to move through these things. I need just to be toilet writing, and what I mean by that is these are very hyper times, man; thereís alot of images, thereís alot of text and alot of stuff coming at people, and people donít have a whole lot of time, and Iím trying to reach the regular crowd; like the swells will read it. The swells read books, they review books. You know, youíre a swell, Iím a swell. My goal is to get just regular people that quit on books, donít have time, to get this one, pick it up, pick it up, read it- what do you think of it; letís start talking, get out there and say something- sort of to encourage them to express themselves and thatís what blogging is doing in that way; people are out there saying stuff and thatís a great thing, but I forgot where I was going with itÖ.leave it at that.
DS: I want to
turn, now, to some critics of your prose style. In my
review of US Guys, I wrote this, in response to one criticism:
Like you, LeDuff claims not to understand
women, yet he reacts hotly when he's photographed for the newspaper at a gay
rodeo in drag: "I'm straight as an arrow. Nobody bothered to ask. If the
editors needed any proof of my sexual orientation, they could have easily sent
me their unhappy wives and girlfriends and I would return them home with a
smile." It's such a classic demonstration of compensating for sexual
insecurity, I can't be sure he didn't fabricate it to make a point.
Of course, in the actual piece, LeDuff is not Ďreacting hotlyí regarding the photo of him in a newspaper identifying him as gay. Instead, heís actually amused by it, and winking and nodding to the reader of the error, and making fun of those who would actually give Ďa classic demonstration of compensating for sexual insecurity.í Tigchelaar simply cannot discern between mockery and indulgence. This is what passes for intellectualism, online and off, in public.
Perhaps you are immune to such density, but clearly the critic did not
get such a basic point in the piece. Or, am I wrong? If correct, do you find the
humor and wryness in many of your pieces goes over the heads of others?
Then thereís this Ďcritical gemí. I have long criticized the bad
writing that most university writing programs produce, but university journalism
seems little better. Here is an
article from the Columbia Journalism Review that is
unintendedly hilarious, as it attempts to rip you and your writing:
It is with great consternation that we acknowledge that our least
favorite cartoonist at the New York Times has been let back in the
building. Now, you might be wondering, given that the Times no longer has funny
pages, what in the world weíre talking about. Well, we mean Charlie LeDuff,
the Timesí resident chronicler of the quirky Everyman, who scours the country,
and comes back with over the top caricatures written in the most purple prose
possible. We thought that after his disastrously self-centered show last year,
ďOnly in America,Ē which the Times itself ó though it paid for it ó had
to pan (as did we),
that Leduffís shtick would be shelved for a while.
They claim your writing is Ďpurple prose,í although they
clearly do not even know what the term means- exaggerated and affected with
What makes the whole thing worse is LeDuffís writing style, one that is
laughably baroque. In LeDuffís world, the ďrain sizzles on the parking lot
blacktop like frying bacon,Ē a ďmustache of perspiration breaks across her
lip,Ē she ďwishes she would have thought about life instead of letting it
come at her, one dead end job at a time.Ē
While the first quote is not memorable, the second one is unique because
of the verb Ďbreaks,í and the third because of the idea of dead end jobs
rushing at one, rather than Ďlife,í in all its excitement. Then, as if to
emphasize how callow their own ideas and writing are, they end the piece this
Itís in the video for that column, on the sideshow, that LeDuff offers
this riveting bit of history as the camera watches him sitting in a carousel:
ďYou know, the carnival was invented in America. It started out with dancing
pygmies, dancing fat ladies, dancing monkeys. Then the machine came. Then the TV
came and the machine started to die away. Then came the Internet. Then the XBox.
Now the whole thing is starting to pass into history. Right there, down there,
is the last traveling sideshow in America. I always wanted to run away and be in
Well, congratulations, LeDuff, weíve got news for you. At least in the pages of the Times, you are it.
So, in response to your Ďpurple proseí they basically stick their
tongue out. Ainít reportage great? This is blog level writing and dialectic,
and this is stood behind by Columbia University? Disgraceful. Comments?
CL: Critics, man? Shit, I donít have enough time trying to get along with the people I like to worry about the people that donít like me. Critics? Let them have it, man. Alot of people are disingenuous; in my writing I get hit by the Right and the Left, so thatís gotta say something. I mean the feminist hit squad and the San Francisco magazines and the Columbia Journalism Review and Fox News and all, I donít care. What are you gonna do? All I know, read it for what it is. There was one critic, there was a pieceÖ.I went to a gay rodeo for one of these and in the book- in Oklahoma rodeoís a sport, so in the sports pages they list the times, the winners, the events for the next day; that kind of thing. And there was a gay rodeo, which was a real rodeo- I mean itís got a couple funny little events, but itís a real rodeo. But in Oklahoma the only mention of it was a picture, something like gay rodeo in town and thereís a picture of a drag queen in sequins on a steer, right? And in the book I write, whyís that all there is? ĎCause we just went though the whole gay marriage thing, the referendum in Oklahoma, and instead of taking the opportunity to write like a five thousand word profile on gay life in the Heartland, they threw up a silly picture. All gays arenít alike, nobodyís alike. All blacks arenít alike, all Italians arenít alike, all Latins arenít the same- and that queer on the steer was me, Charlie LeDuff, and Iím straight as an arrow and I wrote, Ďif you donít believe that, dear editors, send me your unhappy wife or girlfriend and Iíll send her home with a smile.í So itís a tongue and cheek defense of gay people in the sense that, man, you just made me a caricature and you donít care to know anything. The mainstream media, you donít care to know anything, and the reviewer of the book makes it seem like Iím Ďan erection in print,í is what she wrote- thank you very much, pretty clever phrase. But just dodge the whole point, disingenuous, and then, ok; Iím a little pissed off. I look up this womanís work and she makes her chops doing blowjob celebrity profiles, you know the sort of ďOrlando Bloom walks into the room and the most handsome man in Hollywood.Ē Please! So go ahead, do it. But Iím pretty sure the workís gonna live, mine is and I donít think these hacks who obviously donít like me for whatever reason- fuck it, you just got to go on, man. Thanks for the hype, if youíre gonna write like thousands of words about me, I mean you got to like it, thereís some you must be digginí or you wouldnít even be wasting your time, thanks a lot. Ok thereís that.
DS: Then there
is the fight club piece, Oakland, California. Here is that
Just before I became a teenager, my stepbrother Terry came to live with us.
Terry was five years older than me. He was short and stringy, wore his hair
shaggy and had an exotic fuzz of a beard.
When Terry spoke, he mostly spoke with his fists. My stepbrother was angry. We were all angry, but Terry was really angry. I was scared of him. He was my big brother, after all. For instance, we once got paid to scrape and paint a garage. In the end, I scraped and painted the garage and Terry got paid. When Terryís tomato rolled off the roof when we stopped for lunch, he snatched me by the hair and pitched me over the eaves trough as though the outrage of gravity had been my fault. When I brought his damaged tomato back up the ladder and presented it to him, Terryís tongue rolled up like a cannoli, his expression of rage, and he pitched me off the roof again. One of lifeís little lessons.
I wrote, of this piece: ĎGreat language, and a deceptively
effective conceit. LeDuff opens the piece with a memory of his youth, then
flash-forwards to the present, after letting us know that his brother eventually
met doom because of his own stupidity and drug use. This twist on what seems to
be the expected trope of the tale is but one of the many literary devices LeDuff
employs. But, just look at this little gem: Ďthe outrage of gravity.í
While it is easy to elide such a phrase, the fact is that lesser writers simply
are incapable of such a twist of phrase, much less recognizing it in other
writing. Yet, this is no stumbled upon thing, for such phrases pepper much of
the book. Then, look at that last sentence; ĎOne of lifeís little
lessons.í Not one of lifeís Ďhardí lessons, which would be utterly
trite, but Ďlittle,í which itself is a bit familiar- but not banal. Yet, it
transcends banality for the two very distinguished paragraphs that precede it.í
Again, this is such manifestly good writing, that it amazes me that so
few critics actually speak of your actual Ďwriting.í
CL: My man, thank you, Ďcause I work hard at writing. I work hard at writing. I want to be a good writer; good words put together that deliver a thought, something that has speed- something thatís gonna stick with you, something to hang on your ribs. I want to be that guy and Iím trying very hard and nobody- a few do, a few doÖ.I donít go looking for myself, but your brother will send you something, or a friend of yours, theyíll send you the good and the bad, so you try to ignore all of it, but I first started writing when I was four years old, when my mother sat me at the table to learn my name to go to kindergarten. Thatís my earliest recollection of writing, and I kept making the E on my name- Charlie spelled with an E- and I kept making the E backwards, and my stepfather came up and said, ĎYouíre doing it wrong, stupid. Itís the other way.í And thatís the first time I realized there were critics.
DS: Yes, some folk love your books, but because of your attitude, or they think you are Ďgonzo.í But, I simply find no critics who get your wordsmithing abilities. Was this always a talent of yours? When did you first get into writing?
CL: Look, man, I donít know what that means, man.
DS: And, to what degree is the opening and coda to the essay based in your real life? Did Terry really die young?
CL: Did Terry really die young? What do you think Iím just making crap up? Terry died young. I called my brother. What I write is true, always true. Itís always true. Terry died young from a needle. I called my brother and I told him I loved him, and if you require proof of it Iíll have my brother call you and let you know. And I could take you to Terryís grave if I knew where it was. But if you give me some of your life, Iíll give you some of mine. Thatís what I say to the people I write about, and this book was liberating in the sense that I used an I, got to use I- I never used I in my career. So it was an experiment, Iím going to experiment some more. I did a television show, I did a documentary for the BBC, I wrote a couple books, I did a drinking column, I worked in that slaughterhouse, I did a national column, I made movies for the Internet, for the New York Times. Iím willing to try anything. Just to express it, Iíll take a punch in the head, Iíll get shot out of a cannon, Iíll go to a war zone; but Iím not gonna stay in the war zone, or Iím not gonna always write about financial stuff. I want to keep mixing it up, I just want to live, who the hell doesnít? Terry died young.
thing you excel at is capturing real speech patterns. So much of todayís
fiction is atrocious, and in good part because the dialogue is simpletonian.
Here is a great exchange between two police detectives, in the piece Detroit,
ĎThere was this time over in the Sixth when an Arab made his wife get down on
her knees in the front yard,í the white detective said. He pronounced it Ay-rab.
ĎShe was cheating on him. He made her beg for her life before cutting her head
off with a machete. He tossed her naked body in a Dumpster.
She had a great set of tits,í he said matter-of-factly, almost as an
afterthought. The waitress came by and poured him more tea. He paused, wiped his
lips and smiled. She walked away. He continued, ĎThose tits were so fantastic
that every guy in the precinct stopped by to look at Ďem. You hardly even
noticed the brain stem poking out. Her head was stuffed in a sack.í
ĎThose Ay-rabs donít take no shit like that, man,í the black detective
added. ĎA cheating wife, I mean. Theyíre old-school, those Ay-rabs.í
ĎVery true. Anyhow, she had a great set of tits. You couldnít help but look
at Ďem. Nice big balloons. Iíll never forget those.í
Tits. You canít help but stare at them, whether theyíre attached to a
headless corpse or they appear in your run-of-the-mill crime scene photograph.
Tits cause more murder than money. Tits cause passion. Passion leads to sex and
sex is death. Nobody knows that more than a good homicide dick.
personal level, I knew these guys from my youth. Obviously, most crimes are
never reported, and most never even turn up in statistics. If you are not a cute
white female, the chances of you being found, if missing, decrease dramatically.
Itís the old Ďno body, no crimeí credo. It also reminds me of your great
piece, Last Days Of The Baymen, from Work
And Other Sins. How long do you typically have to spend with a
subject to be able to get Ďa readí on their psyche? Or, do you just have a
natural radar for such?
CL: Speech patterns, yeah. Itís both. I got a radar for who might be interesting, each person takes their own amount of time. You might get it in an hour- it depends what youíre doing. If youíre doing just an in and out profile, I can go to a bar and two hours later I can come out of there with a nice little story, most times. Other times you spend months, sometimes you spend weeks- it all depends on the person; but a friend paid me a compliment: he said- look man, the reason he thinks my things are fresh is because I stay until the story is done, until it happens. You know, nothing happens but thereís a beginning and an end and youíre in there so long that you see the themes, you see how you want to write it, you see how youíre gonna construct it, and you understand the person. I donít make a few phone calls and we cobble it together when Iím doing these profiles, however long it takes; and Iím gonna work with ya. Weíre gonna do things together, and eventually I just want to be that person next to you. That didnít answer it, did it? But, hey, what the hell?
DS: I mentioned
your use of race issues earlier, and the best example of that comes from your
piece on the Little Big Horn re-enactors, called Crow Agency, Montana.
You and another character connect the plight of American Indians with that of
Moslems, who will, sooner or later, be dragged into modernity, because of the
rich, white lust for material things- in the 19th Century it was land
and gold, and in the 21st Century it is oil. I take it you feel
McMartworld is fated to bastardize the rest of the world. Is this so?
CL: Yeah, I think itís so, I just think itís so. I just think the world is gonna order us and box us in and weíre going to be happy with crumbs in the next box. I think as long as we can be fat we donít care about freedom and what that means, individuality, expressing yourself, you know, even having a fire in your backyard is illegal now, can you imagine? I donít know where weíre headed. I mean, look at stem cell research- not for the ethical research of it, but how many people do you want on the planet, how warm does it have to be till we decide we lived the life, itís time to get off? Thatís what I feel, I just feel itís over. The free man is done.
DS: In Detroit,
Michigan, you even relate the tale of a drug dealer who died of a gun
wound because he wanted fast food before he went to the emergency room. Is this
a true tale?
CL: I say it once, Iíll say it again- everything I write is a true tale, as far as I know; itís told to me by the cops, I didnít see it.
DS: If so, how many other such incidents like this do you think go unreported?
CL: Thousands and thousands. Iím looking at the news now and weíre in the midst of an election and itís not considered important everyday life. These are just small absurd, obscene little things that say so much about us, so much more aboutÖ.You know, the tale of the tape is Barack Obama: flip flopper, the whole gotcha nature of it, how much did you see about the way we live? How much do you see in this coverage? Itís called the economy but whatís happening with people? You gonna give me fifteen hundred bucks? Fifteen hundred bucks? Take fifteen hundred bucks and get us healthcare. I donít know if I said this before, but fifteen hundred bucks? Get some new books for the kids to study. I donít know- whereís the real people and the real things that are going through? I just think the media misses it, that the small people donít mean anything to them because they donít know them. The media lives in a bubble; they make a decent living and theyíre self-important. Thousands and thousands of stories going unreported.
DS: Let me turn
to your first book, Work And Other Sins: Life In New York City And
Thereabouts. In my
review of that book, I wrote:
Ö.that these slight but beautiful portraits will be transmogrified at some future dates in works of mine into fully realized characters. There seems to me, at least, an inner demand to do so. Such is the power of LeDuffís prose. Yet, there are limits on it. The best of the pieces clock in at 800-1200 words. Above that threshold LeDuffís magic genericizes, and he becomes just another reporter.
Yet, below it, New York city thrums and vibrates as a creature in its own right. LeDuff has a reporterís eye, but a craftsmanís touch. His prose is clipped and spare, at its best, and free from useless and excess moralizing. One need not moralize about manifestly poor lives being lived in squalid conditions.
It seems to me, that you have grown as a writer, in moving beyond the
almost photographic portraits of the first book, and into the longer, more
cinematographic portraits of the second book, without sacrificing the power your
shorter works held. Was this a natural evolution, or did you work on being able
to tease out portraits and more fully develop characterizations for the second
book? Also, does this trend augur a turn to fictive prose- the novel form, in
the future? Late last year, novelist Norman Mailer died, and I think you have
the flair and interests that he did. Can you envision yourself ever writing a The
Naked And The Dead or The Executionerís Song?
CL: Oh yeah, you wrote that I canít write long and then you liked the long writing and I appreciate it. It wasnít that I couldnít, itís just that first book was mostly my New York Times work, itís just the newspaper stuff, itís just a study of what you can get into paper. What was great about doing a tv show- Iíll show you how I do the work; I participate. Iíll take a punch in the head. Iíll get on a trapeze. Iíll ride a horse naked if I have to, if I can get you to say something. But what was nice about the growth between Work And Other Sins and US Guys is I became older and I could spend more time with things, and I developed a world view. It wasnít just cute little profiles about sentiment and feelings and universality of the human existence. Now this one was sort of you know, whatís going on with the race? Whatís going on with our money? Whatís going on with the Christian Conservatives? It was nice to think bigger; it was nice to put people in a context outside their own solipsism and into the world in which we live. And I donít want to go back just writing cute little hey George stories. Itís a really momentous time in human history, the globalization, digitization, mass migration, I mean: itís on! This is the point in human history, this last hundred years, thereís just no going back, and we donít understand it. There is too much to understand, so you ask a writer or a journalist to make sense of it; he can only rip it off into little pieces, person by person- thatís that.
DS: Is there any
difference in the methodologies you use for book-length prose, and short essays?
If so, what about each form elicits the different methodology? My wife, Jessica,
is a sculptor for poetry and a builder for prose. In your years in the
classroom, could you ballpark a figure, percentage-wise, as to a
sculptor/builder ratio? And, what do you think that says of human creativity re:
CL: I suppose there is a difference in methodology for the length of what youíre doing. One, is you have to spend more time, you have to understand it more. If itís essay, itís your own thought, if itís a nonfiction piece and itís short, it takes a couple hours. If itís a nonfiction piece and itís long it takes days and weeks and months; it takes deeper research, it takes an understanding of the issue surrounding the person so you have to do- it sucks man, I know Iím terrible. But you have to do more work. You have to think harder, you have to think about theme, you have to think about movement, you have to think about character development, you have to think about ironing, so when youíre ripping it out long you have to find those things. Old man, regrets, the age in which he was born, the art he made, the sacrifices of his family, thatís like I just did a piece for Vanity Fair about Robert Frank. I found a quick sketch of him before and it was like I sat in a bar with him where he used to drink with De Kooning and the crew and I used to ask him a couple questions; you notice a couple things going on around him and youíre done. Then I spent a month with the guy and I learned so much and it was really cool to riff because I didnít understand where he had come from or what he was about or what it was growing up Jewish in Switzerland during the War or why he threw that away and what it cost him and none of that occurred to me, so the longer it is the deeper you get.
Now, out of fairness, I have to turn to a less pleasant matter, lest this
interview be seen as merely a puff piece. In the review of Work And Other
Sins, I opened the piece this way:
The name Charlie LeDuff was, a couple years ago, associated with another of
those scandalous incidents of a newspaper reporterís malfeasance. There had
been reporters accused of making up details to Ďliven upí their reportage,
and some even won Pulitzer Prizes for it, but LeDuff was accused of plagiarizing
some parts of a book about kayaking down the Los Angeles River for a fluff story
he was writing about the same topic, even though it was merely an uncredited
distillation of factoids. While this had nothing to do with his reporting his
name was bandied about as another example of the faux Ďliberal media biasí
because LeDuff is a decidedly pro-working class writer, much in the vein of a
Over the last decade, writerly malfeasance has become
something of an embarrassment. There were the noted historians Doris Kearns
Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, who were accused of plagiarism- and admitted to
Ďerrorsí of judgment; there were the reporter scandals of making up
Ďfactsí and plagiarism- Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer
Prize, both come to mind, among others in recent decades. Then there was the
James Frey mess, wherein the writer was pilloried for Ďlyingí in a form-
memoir, that encourages prevarication, rather than for being a manifestly bad
Let me quote from two other articles, which criticized your
reportage and credibility, and let you respond. The first
article is from The National Review, although it was written
by a person of dubious ethics herself, the infamous Right Wing blogger Michelle
Malkin, dated 12/17/03, who tackles the kayak story, and tries to link you to
Like Blair, LeDuff climbed the Times's ladder swiftly thanks to the media
diversity machine. The 36-year-old scribe went straight from journalism school
to a minority internship at the Times to full-time reporter in 1995Ö.The
New York Post's Keith
Kelly says there's no word on whether LeDuff will be punished for his
not-so-bright transgression. But the Times has been willing to overlook LeDuff's
journalistic shortcuts before. In September, author and columnist Marvin
Olasky reported that LeDuff attributed fake quotes to a naval officer in San
Diego to fit the reporter's antiwar agenda.
Then there is this
piece, from San Francisco magazine, about an incident alleging
plagiarism from a Ted Conover book on hoboes:
There are two things you should know about New
York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff, who is covering all things
California from the Los Angeles bureau in his latest high-profile writing gig.
First, he is really good,
a fearless reporter and go-for-the-gut storytellerÖ.The second thing to know
is that LeDuff, who's in his mid-30s, has been harboring an increasingly loaded
secret since his UC Berkeley days. Nine years ago, in a piece heíd freelanced
for the Emeryville-based East Bay
Monthly, he had been caught plagiarizing another journalist's
Though LeDuff's article appeared the same year the Times hired LeDuff in 1995, two weeks ago was apparently the first time the paper's higher-ups had ever heard anything about it. And it's unclear how much they know. Last week, Times national desk editor Jim Roberts said he wouldn't discuss the matter. Meanwhile, former professors of LeDuff's at UC Berkeley also told us they'd never heard of the events.
But in truth, the plagiarism has been far from a secretÖ.LeDuff's
offending feature in the Monthly
reported his experience riding the rails with hoboes and was adapted from the
film he'd produced for his master's degree on the same subject. Yet,
despite having substantial original reporting to work withĖhe'd jumped trains
with hoboes with names like Gravelcar and Montana BlackieĖwhen he composed the
story's first paragraph, he appropriated much of it (and several other passages)
directly from Ted Conover's 1984 book, Rolling
Nowhere: A Young Man's Adventures Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes.
I have to say, that the second piece links to side by side comparisons of
the two instances, and while a couple of the quotes are very close, others are
claims of plagiarism where words are separated by whole clauses or sentences.
Itís as if someone accused Mark Twain of plagiarizing his descriptions of the
Mississippi River from the countless other, now forgotten, writers who
rhapsodized on it in dime novels and articles in the decades before his books
became well known. I donít know if the quoted instances were the only ones,
but I would have to see a greater context for these to come to a firm
conclusion. Also, there seems to be some residual resentment that you were hired
as a minority, and that such Ďpreferential treatmentí contributed to both
your and Blairís problems.
Here is your opportunity to set the record straight, Charlie, unfiltered,
about both incidents. Please.
CL: To set the record straight, look here man, weíll do this quick Ďcause I donít really want to stir up old shit. Itís come, itís gone and you got to move on in life. If you make mistakes, you apologize. When I was at grad school, I was working on a documentary and I was also contracted to write a long, six thousand word piece on tramping, riding around on the rails with hoboes, and I went out for many months and I worked hard at it. I didnít do the writing. I tried to push the deadline back. I couldnít. I borrowed some thoughts from a guyís book, you know what I mean? Not incidents, none of that, sort of light stuff, like my grandpa used to ride around. I did it, I made a mistake as a student and I apologized for it. Later on, at the New York Times, it was post-Jason Blair, like playing for the Yankees, like a witch hunt. Everybody wanted to get everybody that worked there and I wasnít really accused of plagiarism, but what I did was did not attribute some facts that I distilled from a book about the Los Angeles River which I kayaked, and all this went round and round and all of a sudden I was a fraud, I was a cheat, I was a minority who didnít do his work, who got a break because of his background and it isnít true.
All Iíve ever tried to do in life is tell the truth, work hard,
document the undocumented.
Iíve crossed the border with Mexicans, man, I worked in a
slaughterhouse, I do what it takes, I donít cheat. Iíve made mistakes. My
problem with the Right Wing and the Left Wing, where you talk about Malkin and
this guy from San Francisco magazine, is they got so many facts wrong.
They just get stuff off the Internet. They didnít attribute it either, and the
journalistic sin is: you write something about somebody, you man up, and you
call them. So the facts are wrong, I mean, I made a mistake, yeah. But 1) Iím
not anti-war, right? Iím pro-action. I wasÖ. A commissioned officer in the
Navy accused me of misquoting him, I donít think I did. If I did, I apologized
about it. You write a thousand, two thousand stories, itís gonna happen. I
didnít put words in his mouth because Iím anti-war. Iím pro-action in
Iraq; my sister who was born on that base, my father set sail overseas from that
base. Iím pro- these guys, I am of these guys. And so you called me and asked
me my point of view on the action on Iraq Iím gonna tell you, but Iím not
anti-war. I did not go from graduate school straight into a full time reporter,
I paid my dues for years and years: late night rewrite, Long Island, the cops, I
took every scuff
job at the New York Times and I worked hard. I donít fake quotes, I donít
fake stories, I donít fake anything, man. I work hard. And on the same side,
on the Left, the San Francisco guy- 1) I didnít hide anything, like
what they wrote, like Charlie LeDuffís secret. I apologized to the man
whose paragraph I took. I apologized to him in print, and I apologized to him on
the phone, and I asked the guy to have a coffee, for which he ridiculed me. But
I just wanted to tell him to his face that Iím sorry. Right? I did not
appropriate any scenarios from this guyís book. I did my own work. I didnít
write four hundred stories, as this guy wrote; I wrote thousands. Look, Iím a
man. Iím a man and I make mistakes and I stand up to them and I try to correct
them and thereís nothing you can do but say youíre sorry. But to say Iím a
cheat, to say Iím a goofball; just the tenor out there; just the people
attacking each other and alot of people donít even put their names on them.
What kind of culture is that, you know what I mean? So yeah, it hurt, it hurt.
But then thatís why I went and did the tv show. Thatís how I work. Listen to
what the guy said, this is how I work. This is how I get people to talk
to me, because I donít lie about who I am, I donít hang around the edges, I
donít mischaracterize myself for the business at hand. Iím straightforward
and Iím trying to be a standup guy. All a human being can do is the best they
could do. But, no, I mean donít confuse me for what you think I am, give me a
call. Iíll tell you. So let me move on from there.
DS: I mentioned
your getting your job at the Times through a minority hiring program, but
youíve also claimed you were a white boy. Whatís the real skinny on how you
stated working there? And, here is an online
report of how you left the Times: ĎThe next day LeDuff said his
rationale for leaving was more complicated, noting that he made an appointment
with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and chairman of The Times, to
say he would be leaving because, ĎI caní write the things I want to say. I
want to talk about race, I want to talk about class. I want to talk about the
things we should be talking about.í Is this true, and does this
mean you are an idealist? I also read you were on paternity leave at the time.
CL: Thereís no real skinny, we went though this, I got a minority internship and I worked. And if people donít like that, stick it up their ass. Thatís the way it is, and I left because I just felt my time there had topped outóthere was only like so many things I was gonna get to say about race and class, you know? It still hasnít been explained to me why George Bush won that second election when nothing was going good; alot of it has got to do with race. White people vote for the people who look like them, black people vote for people who look like them; women are voting for Hillary Clinton. Canít we just say that? I mean, it takes a YouTube questioner to ask Barack Obama if heís black enough, and then only then does the media get on it? Oh, and by the way, the question isnít is he black enough, the question is he white enough? Donít you think? Wasnít he raised by a white woman? What values was he raised with? How does he shake hands with white men? How does he shake hands with black men? This stuff is so important and weíre gonna be good, proper little kids and weíre not gonna talk about it Ďcause thereís no place in the discourse for it, but thatís- in real life thatís all weíre talking about. There hasnít been an honest appraisal of illegal immigrants and what they contribute and what they take, you notice that? We donít want to touch it, and therefore we fail and, by the way, since we fail, people are turning away from the stuff weíre doing Ďcause theyíre bored. Yeah, I left to raise my baby so my wife could go pursue her career; it was a perfect storm. She was off the job, she worked hard all my years collecting prizes and having the late night drinks and being Mr. Bigshot, and I was sad and I was burned out and I had an ulcer and I said ĎOk, Iíll stay home and change the diapers and you go to work,í and now weíre moving back to Detroit, Ďcause thatís where the storyís at baby. That is the American Middle Class- jobs, work, manufacturing. Whatís gonna happen to us, the value of our money? I did New York, which is about money and not having it. I did LA, which is about the migration of people, and now Iím going to the middle, from where Iím from, which is about work. Iím excited to go to Detroit News. Do some multimedia as well, Iím gonna make little movies and Iím gonna try hard. Iím excited, Iím excited to go to that place.
DS: Letís talk
about how it only seems that pretty white females matter if they
Ďdisappear.í I saw this all the time in my youth, with homeless and runaway
kids that fell into poverty, exploitation, and crime. I think this soft sort of
racism, ala the Glass Ceiling sort, is worse in many ways, than the overt
Skinhead sort. Do you agree? And, have you ever written of White Supremacist
CL: No, maybe, but not specifically. Itís a little too way out there, man. Theyíre, you know, weíre talking about the Aryan Nation and stuff, thereís such aÖ.youíll find them in my stories, youíll find the kids but, thereís something more than that, thatís so obscure, thatís such a small, small, small; thatís like Iíve never written about The Black Nationalists either, I mean, Iíve been to the Temples of the Nation of Islam and whatnot, but Black Nationalists? White Nationalists, you know Mexican Nationalists? No- that oneís almost just off the radar and doesnít really talk about what most of us are going through, so I kind of stay away from the extreme extremes.
DS: And what do
you make of this sort of hero worship for white suburbanites like the subject of
the recent Sean Penn film, Into
The Wild? I mentioned the Burning Man nuts you wrote of, but this
spoiled rich kid, Chris McCandless, embodies everything about the vapid nature
of American life in the last few decades. Have you seen the film, or read the
Jon Krakauer book the film was based on? If not, have you ever seen the Werner
Herzog film, Grizzly
Man? That lunatic, Timothy Treadwell, was even a greater example of
stupidity and narcissism than McCandless- although Iíd love to have read your
take on him in an essay or report. Any comments?
CL: The guyís messed up, man. Thereíre some dumb dopes. But you got to appreciate what they were trying to do. Just trying to live, theyíre just trying to escape, without any training. Itís easy to laugh at them and itís pretty gnarly what happened to that Grizzly Guy, but on you for not quitting on life, trying to be something more than 9 to 5 and then having your beer at TGIFridays, trying to pick up some overweight chick, you know what I mean? And then regretting it, wondering what lifeís all about, what you did with it. Then go live it. I think I tried to live it. I canít rag on them for that; anybody trying to live, trying to be different, trying to be real; I mean, itís cool- just be honest with yourself though, you know? Again, too much self expression is a dangerous thing when thereís too much expression and too little sense of the self, so you got to know yourself before you try these wild adventures. Thatís my thought of it. You go to know what it is youíre running from, donít just run.
DS: Speaking of
narcissism; I loved your take on the difference between Ďfake gym musclesí
and Ďreal work muscles.í I believe it was in your New York City, New
York piece. To what do you attribute this increase in male vanity and
CL: I think weíre repeating ourselves, right? I mean, fake muscles is Ďcause we sit at a desk- we donít really work, we donít really accomplish much, we push papers. Whatís to replace the pursuit of Alpha? Accoutrements? Fancy clothes, good looking hair? Itís not how good a shot you are, not how much meat you could bring home, you know what I mean? How well you dance, we donít have that, so these are the cheap replacements.
DS: Your journalism has been praised far more than criticized, and you contributed a piece to the 2001 New York Times series How Race Is Lived In America, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Since this was a series of reports, by more than one reporter, did you get any money for the award, or does that go to the paper? Also, do you get to use the kudos as a ĎPulitzer Prize-winning journalistí in blurbs?
CL: Thanks for saying that, thatís true. But the tenor out there is just rip down man and you just cannibalize each other, itís kind of sad. There was money- I didnít get it. They donated it to somebody; thatís fine. It doesnít really matter to me. Do I get to call myself a Pulitzer Prize winning? I suppose. I donít do it, but people who do PR for you or do your books or hire you or want to write about you, they do it. I donít really talk about it much, but I am honored to have won that; it makes my mother very proud. And I think of all those stories, I think it stuck out, stuck out, Ďcause I tried to write it real, I did the work. I didnít ask, look man, the way I work is if Iím gonna write about you, I got to know how you feel, what you do. Iím at a pork factory, what am I gonna do, stand outside and shift changes and say, ĎExcuse me sir, is that thousands of repetitive cuts or tens of thopusands of repetitive cuts?í You waste so much time asking silly questions that if you do it, you donít have to ask it. Of course it hurts, and then you know how it hurts, you know? Then you understand the mind-numbing nature of work, of mechanized work. You donít have to like imagine what it is people are going though, youíre putting yourself in there and you know, and then the questions take on a whole Ďnother tenor about that, which isnít Ďdoes it hurt,í itís like Ďwhat are you gonna do to get out of here?í ĎCause nobody wants to work, not like that; nobody wants to work like an animal, and then. of course. the only thing worse than that is not having any work at all.
DS: Let me
return to your essaying. What writers or essayists influenced you? Growing up,
did you ever read the works of Loren
Eiseley? Earlier, I mentioned James Baldwin and Studs
Terkel as writer whose interests reminded me of your own. Did either of them
CL: It maybe sounds silly, but Ernest Hemingway- I just liked the dot, dot, dot, dot. Mark Twainís got great humor. Dorothy Parker has a great sense of rhythm and language. Flannery OíConnor understands the recesses of the human mind and the culture; she says big things in little ways- I love that. Iím reading Mike Berger. Now about New York, a guy named Mike Kaufman. When I went to the University of Michigan, I stayed a little long, you know? Iím one of them guys who hung out and did the poetry and bartending thing, and right around then it was the early 90s coffeeshop. I donít remember, just when I can back from NY, maybe like Ď92 or something and coffee shops weíre just breaking and I used to drink coffee at this place, and there was a New York Times newsbox right outside this place, and I found out that if you yanked on it hard you didnít have to pay, you could get the paper for free and I flipped through it and like, Iím smart, and University of Michigan, and you look at the headlines of the New York Times, and there was this guy in there named Mike Kaufman, who wrote a column about New York and Michael T. Kaufman, and I was reading this stuff and just seeing the small moments and the small people who make up a big city and I looked at that and went ĎWow, I want to do that!í That appealed to me, and many, many years later, when Iím a cub inside the New York Times, this guy comes over, looks like Walter Matthau- he had a hearing aide, and he said, ĎHey kid, I like your stuff; that was a good one today,í and I said ĎIím Charlie LeDuff,í He says ĎIím Mike Kaufman,í and I said, ĎMan, you donít know what you mean to me,í and heís a dear friend of mine to this day. God has blessed me in that sense. Me, I loved the New York Times. I donít want to see that thing die or shrivel- Iím kind of sad it went though all the Wen Ho Lee, and that WMD, and the Jayson Blair thing, because I donít want to be the generation that ruined it. They gave it to me and I donít want toÖ.I hope I did something to improve the place, and if I didnít, shame on me; then if I did, good for me. I love that place; it helped me get my house, you know? So I hope that answers your question.
DS: Some claim that Ďart is truthí and that Ďall art is political.í Aside from its logical absurdity; one can substitute the words Ďabout poodlesí for Ďpolitical,í and the statement is just as true, or absurd. If one does not deal with poodles in oneís story, then one is actually making a statement about the condition of poodles in the cosmos by ignoring their plight. Or so the claim goes. Yet, to me, the real provinces of truth and its seeking are science and journalism. Do you agree? If so, though, what is the truth? Is it a subjective thing? Is it the James Frey-like example of maximizing melodrama while minimizing reality? And, to what degree is reportage subjective? And, apropos of politics and art, to what degree do you think Political Correctness squashes real creativity? How is it any different from any other smothering ideologies? And, to what degree is there a Ďcreative elementí in journalism? Or is it strictly the Joe Friday discovery of facts?
Reportage is subjective. Nobody can know the truth. Nobodyís God, you can only
know a piece of the truth, you know what I mean? And so to pretend that youíre
objective is to just give credence to the truth and the lie whatever it may be.
Youíre just covering your bases. If youíre honest with the reader and say,
you know, this is where Iím coming from, then itís a lot better than
pursuing Ďthe truth.í You want to be truthful, but, for instance; man on the
street interviews. What is a nice person, who went to an Ivy League school, who
works for an important paper; who is she more likely to go ask something of? A
large leather clad black man, a nice white lady with spectacles from the
suburbs, or some gutter punk with bags under his eyes? Your comfort zone
necessitates the fact that the truth wonít be told. Youíre gonnaÖ.Thatís
why the polls are wrong. Who conducts the polls? Where do they go to conduct
these polls? These arenít random samples. You call somebody and they hang up
on you; are they included? No, the polls are wrong, the pundits are wrong,
thereís no truth to be had, thereís a proximity to the truth, plus or minus
3.5 percentage points, but the whole truth; itís impossible. Itís
impossible, and if anybody can do it, good for them, but it seems to me
thereís not even too much of a pursuit of the truth anymore; itís more
pursuit of the name or Iím blogging out there, look at me, or Iím not
writing about them- hereís what I think. All the magazines are turning into
soapboxes, the New York Times has been overtaken by the opinion page, the op-ed
page. They got the main, most publications- never mindÖ let me think this
throughÖOpinion has surpassed reality in terms of what people want to consume,
unless it happens to be Britney Spears. Itís almost like thereís no room for
the narrative anymore, or for the story. I think people do want that, in fact, I
know they do, so thereís alot of work in that way, so what the writer needs to
do is to level with the reader about his point of view: got to make it obvious
of what the point of view of this thing is. Your sailors are shipping off to
sea, itís a sad day, and God bless them because the rest of us donít have
the courage to do so. Or you know, a firemanís friends die in the World Trade
Center and theyíre calling him a hero but he doesnít really feel like that,
and, in fact, the things he sees within his own department makes his stomach
turn being called that. These
are the hard things, necessarily the full truth? No. One fireman, one day with
one feeling; it probably changes, but thatís all it is.
I started these interviews because so many interviews, online and in print, are
atrocious. They are merely vehicles designed to pimp a book or other product-
film, CD, etc. One of the things weíve tried to do with these interviews is
avoid the canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped,
indulge in, yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the
readers and the interviews so banal? Where have all the great interviewers like
a Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, or Bill Buckley gone? Only Charlie
Rose is left, and having seen you on his show, and heard you on some online
radio shows, you are a good speaker and raconteur. Have you ever thought of
doing a sit down interview series with average Americans, perhaps for a cable tv
show? This might tame some of the critics who cannot utter ĎLeDuffí without
Ďgonzoí in the same sentence, and also show that you are more Ďserious and
CL: Charlie Rose, heís a cool guy- Iíve been on his show. Thank you brother. Yeah, man- shit, Iíll do a sit down interview show if somebody wants to let me do it. You know what tvís all about? You got to eat some slop to get in there, and once you get in there, itíll kill ya, it will hurt ya. Itís really hard to do smart stuff, and if youíre your own person, executives get afraid of you- itís just how it is. Look man, Iím here for a little while and then Iím gonna die, and I wrote some books. When the whole chatter calms down, let history show if Iím serious and contemplative. You know if Iím a little bit nuts and you want to call that gonzo; Iím a little bit nuts Ďcause you know what Iím trying to do? Iím trying to live, and the great thing about journalism is it lets you make a living, lets you experience stuff, lets you live. Iím not going to sublimate my person to the uniform. I dig the job and I dig living my life and thatís what Iím gonna do, and if people donít like it, man, you sit at your desk and you go ahead and type. But do me a favor, give me the dignity and give me a call.
DS: I coined a
neologism- deliterate. Itís a term I came up with in opposition
to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful
choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor
of reading blogs. To write in emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I
claim that deliteracy is far more of a problem than illiteracy is. Do you agree?
CL: Deliterate, nice term. No, illiteracy is more of a problem. Half educated is better than not educated, do you know what Iím saying?
DS: Your website
is not a blog, though. It features videos, mostly. Will you be adding samples of
your writing as the site progresses?
CL: Yeah, I will be adding samples of my writing but I will not be blogging. I hate to tell you, but I like to get paid to write. If Iím not getting paid to write, Iím doing other stuff. I got a kid, I like working on my motors, I love to garden, you know? I like having a beer with interesting people. I like reading books. I donít have to sit there and jerk off and tell the world what I thought about some obscure guy doing some obscure thing. You know what I mean? I donít gotta stand naked in front of a mirror and do some YouTube rambling. So no, I wonít be blogging but there will be writing samples and my work from the Detroit News, so Charlieleduff.com, if I could plug that. See, what weíre trying to do out of Detroit- but that is a huge story. I pray to God that Iíll be able to do it well. So stay tuned on that.
written of all sorts of people, and have documented the ways humans are
individuated and not. So, let me ask you this query I put to all my
interviewees. I believe that artists are fundamentally different,
intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more
greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the
non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom: ĎÖ.the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the
Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keatsí Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3.í In the sciences, this dynamic I also find
applicable. When I interviewed the cognitive psychologist Steven
Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at
least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is
something I donít think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is
wholly Ďoutsideí the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with
an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the
180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or
Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ
measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to
creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense,
this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the
Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also
be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the
Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability
to see around corners, through steel, etc. What are your thoughts on this, since
your writing certainly has artistic merit? And, if you are copacetic with such a
system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
CL: Ok, I donít know about IQ and all this stuff. Sorry bro, this oneís kind of long haired. Iím gonna tell you the best- a person, a human being, a woman, the more you read, the more you live, the more you test yourself, that makes you smarter. Can I say it like that, I donít know about test takers and the functionary mind and I could have said it better, should have thought about this but I didnít. To understand art, you have to make art. It comes in craftsmanship; you have to have some facility for doing and if you canít do, then you know. Basically, when a kid walks into a museum and he sees a black canvas and the Modern section and he says, ĎWhat is that? I could do that,í people laugh at him. I had some moron. Moron, I could do that, but what theyíre articulating is there is a certain amount of craftsmanship. When they see a piece of granite thatís been carved, theyíre in awe, Ďcause they know they donít possess the capability- thatís not dumb. The best sort of person, the best sort of writer, the best sort of liver, the best sort of CEO, is one who is dumb and one who reads, so thereís experience meets the intellect meets the body, right? Physical, spiritual, mental; you balance that out, you tend- you, to be a more superior person. Iím not saying that I am, but thatís what I think, thatís what I look to people and I say ĎThatís the man I want to be.í
Earlier, you explained about the claims against you re: plagiarism. Yet, I tend
to find that 90% or more of such claims, like claims of libel, are outright
false, or so muddied, that often itís the claimant who has the problem, and is
the instigator of the ethical breach. A few years ago there were a raft of
lawsuits alleging Dan Brown had not just plagiarized, but stolen the idea for The
Da Vinci Code from others. A similar claim was made of Harry
Potter author J.K. Rowling. Since neither writer will go down in literary
history, the motives become obvious- moolah! Yet, itís not just creative
writing that suffers from this, for in many review of films or books, you read
the critic quoting something that was not so- about a plot point in a book, or
the name of a character in a film. This is a dead giveaway that the critic never
read nor saw the work, and is just cobbling together a review by quoting the
errors of others. Yet, despite the abundance of these unethical Ďsmoking
gunsí- just look how often the idea or meme of something big name critics,
like Roger Ebert or Kenneth Turan, say gets repeated ad nauseam. Why is the
Ďsystemí set up that dishonesty as this is never mentioned, yet reportage- a
collection of Ďfactsí that limits the number of ways they can be told
without overlapping, is constantly under the gun for instances of plagiarism?
CL: I donít know, isnít it the fact though? Isnít all of tv predicated on Ďplagiarismí? Isnít it? I canít tell you how many times my stuffís got knocked off, but thatís just the rules of the playground, or so I was told. Itís dumb, man, everythingís dumb. Everythingís the same. People are bored, theyíre tuning them out. I mean CNN blathering on and on, over and over, and the same on the nightly news and the front pages of everything. Itís the most important election in our lifetimes, Iím told, and itís so devoid of any substance. Anything? Right? Itís all about slip ups and flip flops and the horse race; itís dumb. Itís dumb, and so I donít even have cable. I donít get hard copy newspapers anymore and, you know, on the Internet, right, people arenít flipping through the totality of the paper; they look at one, two, three things and theyíre gone. You know why? ĎCause the stuffís not useful. Itís a hard thing to live with. I donít know, maybe my stuffís not useful, but I went, I reconfigured my brain, I found out what I wanted to accomplish and Iím gonna go do it. But if thatís how youíre gonna make the money, is writing stuff, and the only people who are gonna read it are other people who are gonna regurgitate it, itís not worth it; itís not memorable; itís not meaningful, and it wonít be around when Iím gone. So itís funny though, isnít it? Every Hollywood profile reads the same and so nobody reads them- Iím quite sure of that.
This leads into another pet peeve of mine- the writers and critics who always
speak nebulously of other writers, especially when they admit the overwhelming
amount of published material is garbage. You see it in phrases like, Ďunlike
other writersÖ..í yet no names are named. Even when a name is named, as in
bad fictionist Dale Peckís New Republic review of a few years
ago, when he wrote, ĎRick
Moody is the worst writer of his generationÖ.í he ended the piece
basically stoop-kneed and retracting that provocative claim. The same is true in
journalism. No one dares speak a word against a Bob Woodward or Edward R. Murrow.
And only someone who has fallen from the peak, like Dan Rather, is fodder for
carrion. Will you name me some living, published journalists today who are
simply bad writers, and should never have been published?
CL: Are you fuckiní kidding me, are you fuckiní kidding me? You think Iím gonna do that and youíre gonna print that? Why would I do that? When youíre a victim of it, you learn to calm down, you know, you learn to be humble. Itís wisdom to get your ass kicked when people call you a bad writer or a dishonest writer or you know, a Communist or a Right Wing zealot. When they- look man, somebodyís reading it, maybe Iím not reading it, plus Iím a better man than that. There are some- I stand around my fire pit in my back yard and we rag on them all the time but Iíd never do that, thatís not dignified, thatís not the way men should live; Iím not doing that in public. You know what kills me, you know?, is I love the defense of the Internet culture where you can say things, you can post things anonymously. What kind of culture is that? Have some balls, if youíre gonna do it, if youíre gonna put people down, if youíre gonna besmirchíem, try to tear them up, put your goddamn name on it. So those that are intellectually dishonest, but make their living at appealing to the worst tendencies in people, you know who they are- at least they put their names on it. Give them that.
As I wind down this interview, let me turn to this
engaging radio interview you gave. Here is where you mention hearing of
trailer parks only when tornadoes hit, because 99.9% of rest of time thereís a
cringe factor, correct? I found this to be a very prescient observation. Also,
the fact that while you write of race and racism, you do not forget about poor
folk outside of the minority community.
CL: You know what I say? You know why tornadoes always seem to hit trailer parks? Because there are so many of them, there are so many people living in trailers, man, and we never, ever, ever hear about someone living in a trailer unless a tornado hits it- it bothers me.
Have you done much reporting in Appalachia or other areas of white poverty?
After all, we all know of ghettoes for blacks, barrios for Latinos, and
reservations for American Indians. But poor whites are everywhere, no? Or are
trailer parks their ghettoes, barrios, and reservations?
CL: I have. I have. Well look man, it goes like this, one of the things about like why whites win the White House and stuff, because the countryís over 70% white- one of the main sticking points why white people get pissed off about Affirmative Action or minority programs is this- hey man itís alright yes, if youíre any sort of human being, any kind of American you want to help the black kid in the ghetto get out of the ghetto. Itís the promise of the America- if we can help them we will; itís the people we are. You want to help the Latin kid get out of the barrio, you do. You want to help the red kid get out the reservation you do. What about the white kid in the trailer? Thatís only a symbol of- look, all poor Indians donít live on the Rez, all poor Latinos donít live in the barrio, and all poor black people donít live in the ghetto. But itís just the symbol. Me, thatís the majority- the middle class and lower, thatís the majority. How come nobody writes about the suburbs, except for like what school or what nanny, you know, the cute stuff? I mean, nobody writes about the kids, they write about their schools but not about the kids- so much is getting missed. So, Appalachia, man, Iíve been there a bunch of times, thereís a chapter in my book about the Christian Conservatives, right? Trying to take over the country, like they tell me on the East Coast and the halls of journalism. But you need the people who donít run the superchurches, that donít have to Brylcreem these people up in Appalachia- man, they couldnít even take over their brotherís car payments. What they think is the liberals and the coastal people are trying to take over them. The tv people, the journalistic people, Ďcause where do they get it? They get DirecTV out there in the holler; whatís getting beamed into Alabama? Will And Grace? Seinfeld? Trying to take you over? Youíre trying to take my sonís soul- thatís what they think. Itís never reported. Maybe it is man, Iím not gonna say never ever like Iím the only guy doing it, but Iíd like to see more of it, because it wasnít social values that delivered George Bush- I mean moral values, it was social values, right? 90% of Bushís vote was white. Most of those people are Evangelical- they drink beer and watch football on Sunday.
You also speak of vidiots, in the book, and just now, of how Ďwhite trashí
is mocked by tv shows like Seinfeld and Will And Grace,
what some would term East Coast Liberal Elitists. Down here in the
Austin, Texas area there are tons of poor folk out in the Hill Country, whose
trailer homes are often just a stoneís throw away from gorgeous mansions that
overlook scenic rivers and lakes. Yet, these folk are truly proud in their
poverty, anti-union attitudes, and believe Wal-Mart is a great
thing for this nation. I know, because I spoke to many in researching a book of
short stories I did, set in Texas. Is there just something wrong with them, like
that book of a few years back, Thomas Frankís Whatís The Matter With
CL: Well I donít want to say Ďwhite trash.í but- ok, why do white working class people vote for Republicans, i.e. the party of the rich? You really want to know? Itís called The Southern Strategy, man. Because one, they donít believe there is a difference between either of them- put them in a bag, shake them up, Democrat, Republican: same rapacious thing crawls out- creature from the smoke-filled room. Clinton signed NAFTA, remember? They make promises that they donít deliver, so what a white person does is he votes his social values. He doesnít vote John Kerry, Ďcause John Kerry went to war-thatís great. John Kerry protested, thatís great- thatís why we go to war. But John Kerry called his brothers in arms Ďbaby killers,í called my dad a Ďbaby killer.í Never forgave that, Ďcause itís not the white value. White value also is, hey man Iím gonna lose my job, Iím not gonna lose it to Affirmative Action. At least the man whose gonna take my job, it ainít Ďcause of my skin color, right? So he goes with that party. How long should the white person pay, he wants to know? Reparations. Affirmative action. White person says, my grandfather came over in the hull of a ship from Sicily in 1922, why does he get a point? Why does this kid get a point? Why does he get an extra point? Iíd rather spend billions reconstructing Iraq than pay for the Mexican kid in the city going to school. Why always me? Iím not a bad guy- thatís what they think and the Republicans appeal to it. Divide and conquer and the Democrats donít really give them anything to hold onto. you know?
Whatís The Matter With Kansas?-itís a great book, till page 108 or something, till he says everybody in Kansas started voting for the Republicans because of abortion. It was a great explanation up to the fact where he gave the explanation. It was not abortion. Basically it goes like this: youíre gonna give meÖ. lets put it this way, for a farmer out there, the price of fuel is out of sight, right? Corporate farms are getting welfare, giving them money to buy the other farmer out, you know; the scale of production is skewed, the family farm is going out of business. Alright, Democrats, Republicans both responsible for this- itís called money. Thereís no difference up there- money, special interest. So whatís he got left to vote on, what are they offering him? Theyíre offering himÖ.abortion, like weíre gonna ban abortion or theyíre offering gay marriage. Ask the white guy, Christian values, out in the country, ĎOk, if this is all youíre getting, you gonna vote for repealing abortion or giving gay people the right to marry?í What do you think heís gonna pick? Itís his values, heís gonna pick abortion. But I spoke to a farmer out there, who owns a geographic middle of the US- look it up on my website; you can see it. He is a Pentecostal Christian. He votes Republican and he said to me, if you did something about the price of fuel, if you did something about corporate farming, if you did something to keep my boy home and take over this farm, Iíd vote Democratic. And then he says to me, ĎYou know, in terms of being a farmer, the best President a farmer ever had was FDR.í FDR, man. Socialist FDR. So if you want to win that guy, you got to know what heís going though, you donít just get your talking points, you got to know what heís going through, but nobody cares; not really.
Yet, despite that oddity, Texas is far more integrated and racially open-minded
than the segregated neighborhoods of New York or the lily-white suburbs of
Minnesota, even if the politics are saturated with Right Wing Jesus-loving
nonsense. Have you noticed this disconnect from the accepted stereotypes in
other parts of the nation, as well?
CL: You hit the nail right on the head, man. Man, the Southernerís a cracker, isnít he?, but at least he lives next to a black guy and the black guy in the South knows a white guy. Up in New York, the only white guy going to a black guyís neighborhood is a cop, right? In Detroit there is a wall standing from the 1940s that divided the black neighborhood from the white neighborhoodóthey actually built a cinder block wall.
In short, I think that your writing, aside from being excellently wrought, will
serve a great cultural purpose in the long run, and in the short run acts as an
antidote to the relentless portrayals of poor folk as reprehensible and ignorant
louts on the daytime courtroom shows, and talk shows like Maury Povich, Jerry
Springer, Oprah Winfrey, and Montel Williams. Any thoughts?
CL: Thank you, man, that means a lot. It does. Thank you for feeling that. Sometimes you do this, you donít know if anybodyís listening or if anybody cares or if they ever will. So, you know, smart people like you, interested people like you, youíre out there trying to communicate with other people who might not think like you but are curious, artistic people, thinkers, cultural people, laborers hopefully, you know? Youíre able to keep it alive, maybe this record of who we were will live. I hope it does, and if it doesnít it was a nice way to spend a life, man. But thanks for doing this and thinking of me and if itís been a terrible interview, you get an idea of what Iím like. Itís kind of hard speaking into a little tape recorder.
DS: As we near
the end, let me quote from the start of US Guys, from its preface,
and dissect some of you claims, and see how much was posturing and how much you
really believe. You wrote:
The American man has been taught that while it is better to avoid a fight; that honor cannot always be defended with reason. He should never admit fear. He should always strive to put the blade in his adversaryís chest, not his back. An American man should know how to load and fire a gun. He should know how to ride a horse, bet on a horse, bet on the stock market, and bet on the cards. A good man should know a womanís body and know how to please her. His woman, in turn, should never speak anything but well of him in public. An American man should have been raised in the church, rejected the church and eventually found virtue in the church.
The American man should be educated. He should work. He should honor his debts and live within his means. He should be able to recite poetry and have bits of true philosophy at his fingertips. He should be able to play an instrument and know how to help a rose grow. An American man should know how to dress and speak his language well. He should be handy and mechanically inclined and yet his nails must be clean. A man should have children, and at some point his children should reject him. And in the course of his life, a manís children should return and find virtue in him.
This is what an American man should be. Of course, no such man has ever existed, and no man probably ever will.
Let me use this piece as a brief segue into your religious beliefs. What
are they, and why should virtue be found in something that divorces one from
reality? And, while nails should be clean, are you a nail biter or a prissy wimp
with an emery board handy at all times?
CL: Sometimes I use an emery board and sometimes I bite my nails, bro. And I believe all those things, I would like to be all those things, and men Iíve met in this country would like to be those as well, and itís a shame when you canít, when your carís not running, you got to call a guy over and you go next door. My religious beliefs, none of your business, but Iím a Catholic and I practice, and do I actually believe the story? Look man, if youíre Jewish, do you believe the story? Do you really believe the Red Sea and Adam and Eve and all that? No, probably not. Do you consider yourself a Jew? You do. Right? Itís cultural, itís tribal. Itís your anchor, itís what you belong to. Itís the root of your being, the root of your tribe- thatís tangible. So you donít necessarily have to believe in the stories in order to believe in the virtue of the stories existing, and you should honor them. These are the stories that our people had told each other; youíre one of these people, right? People without that root are lost, and eventually theyíll create some other bullshit, right? Theyíll beat drums, man, theyíll put on animal skins and howl around in the Nevada Desert. What other kind of crazy shit did they do? They do fantasy football, and you know what I mean? You got to belong to something, and Iíd rather belong to some people who will pass stories along by a fire, and you pass those stories along yourself, and you decide for yourself what part youíre going to use and what parts youíre not. So I have no problems; Iím a conservative man. And Iím wild and I sin and I believe and I know thereís God; the totality is God- however you want to describe it or explain it, draws your family close, just my thought.
DS: Let me wind
up this interview by asking, who are some of the favorite people youíve
written of? Which are your favorite tales? Why?
CL: Itís a hard one, itís like saying whatís your favorite song, whatís your favorite book? I donít really have one but I wrote about Steve Dunleavy, the Right Wing, New York Post columnist who drinks for lunch- I love that guy. It was fun to do, itís 450 words. He was a good sport. That was cool. I wrote about a Bukharan Rabbi in Corona, Queens. Thereís more Bakharan Jews in Corona, Queens, than there are in all of Uzbekistan. I helped document the Diaspora because I know for Jewish people historyís important to them. That was an honor. That hog factory, and my friend who stood next to me, the prisoner. Iíll always remember that guy- Wade Baker, the older black guy I worked with. We really dug each other and we would go out to Wilmington and have steaks and stuff, and if by chance he happens to read this, hello. How you doing, Wade? Love ya, baby. Robert Frank, I just wrote about. Kind of close to him. Now, I really, just really kind of admire the way that heís honest about how heís living, who he is. Lalo Cervantes, heís a Mexican guy- here without papers. I call him illegal, but heís been here 20 years, man. Whenís the guy get a break? He speaks perfect English, works hard, pays taxes. He took me across the border, he showed me his life, he introduced me, he told the guys on the corner in Long Island that I worked with- a bunch of Mexican guys I worked and lived with, he told them I was alright, do this. Stand up, be counted, be remembered. Hey, Lalo. I met alot of good people. God, Iím sitting here, pacing back and forth having a beer, thinking about that, thinking about how lucky Iíve been. Itís been a really good life; wouldnít change it.
CL: Iím going to the Detroit News, Iím gonna document that place. Iím going to do web tv there, Iím gonna do my short films, keep tuned, detnews.com- check my website. Wouldnít mind doing a tv show, if the right one comes along; a couple bad ones have come along. I didnít take them Ďcause theyíre stupid. Thereís no there there. Itís kind of like, I like the guy that does dirty jobs, thatís cool, right? You gotta stick your hand up a horseís ass; itís kind of cool but whatís the point? What are we trying to say with this? We just trying to one extra beat, but I like Jackass, and I like dirty jobs, and I like Ali G. I like 60 Minutes, all this stuff can be incorporated. Iím always interested in experimenting. And sometimes you fail, and people ridicule you, but they donít do anything.
DS: Thanks for doing this interview, Charlie LeDuff, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.
CL: Dan if this isnít good enough, you let me know. I know Iíve mumbled all over the place. I hope I havenít gotten myself in trouble, Iím not trying to make waves or pick fights, Iím just trying to write good stuff. Iím trying to find people that say something about how weíre living. And you know, you get ragged to death on that, then you get ragged to death on it, but those who are ragging, just remember, youíre not really doing anything. If Iím not doing something, youíve got nothing to do. Thereís very few doers anymore, you know? And may God Bless the great country, the United States of America. Be well, Dan, and give me a call if you need some more here. Ok, bye-bye.
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