Five-minute Memoir: John Burnham Schwartz on the writer who showed him the ropes

 

When I first met the great journalist David Halberstam, on Nantucket Island in the summer of 1973, he was very tall and had a very cool Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner of his living room. He was 39 and I was eight. My father was his lawyer, and because we didn't have a TV, David invited our family to his house to watch the New York Giants play an exhibition game. He'd already won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Vietnam for the New York Times, and he'd published The Best and the Brightest to extraordinary acclaim. Being eight years old, I wasn't very impressed with his Pulitzer, but the jukebox was another matter.

Fourteen years later, following my graduation from college, I returned to Nantucket, to a cottage owned by my aunt, to try to finish my first novel. Afternoons I hitchhiked into town to work at Mitchell's Book Corner at the top of Main Street. Mornings were supposed to be for writing. But the first part of that summer I had a lot of visitors, a lot of booze-fuelled late nights, and too often the morning seemed like just a short, foggy interlude between breakfast and lunch.

It was late June when I got the first call. It was 8.30am, or perhaps 9am, and I stumbled bleary-eyed out of bed for the phone. The deep, God-like voice on the other end of the line was – and always will be – immediately familiar to me.

"I've been writing for an hour," David Halberstam growled. "What have you been doing?"

I received one of those calls every morning for weeks, until David was certain I had at least some basic notion of what I was attempting to do.

And then a few summers after that – after the unexpectedly successful publication of my first novel and an arduous struggle to write a second book – I received another call from David, asking me to meet him for lunch in town. He'd read the manuscript I'd sent him, he said gravely, and wanted to talk to me about it.

David's voice that day was caring but firm. He told me that the novel didn't work. The subject-matter – a tangled, intense story concerning a boy's troubled relationship with his strong-willed father – while interesting, was too close to me, and consequently I hadn't given it the teeth it required; it had no bite. David suggested I had failed to do what any good novelist must, which was to make sense of experience by imaginatively transforming it and thus making, and shaping, something new.

Our table was outside, under an umbrella. My glass of iced tea was sweating and I hadn't touched my lunch. David said that he knew that this was hard to hear but that the best thing for me to do now was to put this book behind me and start another one.

Iwent home and quietly collapsed for a few days. David kept calling to make sure I was all right. But he didn't alter by one word his judgement on my book or try to assuage the experience. It was a lesson in mental toughness and self-respect, delivered with love, and I'll always be grateful for it.

By the end of that week I'd put the manuscript away for good. And by autumn I'd put down the first sentences of what, six years later, would be published as Reservation Road, a novel which, this time, would inhabit the hearts and minds of fathers, rather than sons.

During David's last summer, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with him. Our eight-month-old baby was making our cottage a bit too noisy for writing, so David offered me work space in his and Jean's living room. Every morning, I showed up with my laptop, and, after having coffee together and talking through the sports pages and the latest grim news from Iraq, we'd settle down to work in our respective rooms. He was finishing his history of the Korean War, The Coldest Winter; he was proud of it and every day I could feel the contentment coming off him like a warm glow. He'd come in to check on me every so often, or we'd meet for a coffee in the kitchen.

One day, I found him scribbling something on a note card and laughing mischievously to himself – and I had to laugh, too, when he presented me with a signed 'bill' for my summer writing residency: $225.37 for "use of extremely literary living room as office"; $52 for rental of their dog Sasha for "protection against meandering deer"; $50 for "tea, water, and other amenities"; and $250 for "dinner, with spouse, including wine – no tipping – beautiful little boys under nine months admitted free".

Yeah, David thought that was pretty funny. And so we had ourselves another story to tell.

'Northwest Corner', the new novel by John Burnham Schwartz, is out now in paperback (Constable & Robinson)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border