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


John Burnham Schwartz
Friday 07 September 2012 21:16

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)

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